One Track Mind: Rufus Thomas, "Do The Funky Chicken" (1969; 2011 reissue)

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Rufus Thomas, R&B scamp and known ass-shaker about town, was the ripe old age of 53 when this single was released. He hadn’t lost one bit of arm-flapping gusto.

Yet, “Do The Funky Chicken” still came out of nowhere. Thomas’s label, Memphis-based Stax, had recently severed ties with Atlantic Records, a move that came in the wake of a devastating plane crash that took the life of Otis Redding, by far Stax’s biggest star. Atlantic left with its national distribution network, and hitmakers Sam and Dave. For Thomas and the others who remained, the road to getting wider notice for their songs became rockier indeed. In fact, Thomas put out two great, greasy R&B numbers in late 1968 — “Funky Mississippi” (featuring Stax house band Booker T. and the MGs) and “Funky Way” (which the ever-quotable Thomas once said “was funkier than 19 yards of chitlins”) — but neither had sold.

After a failed attempt at constructing an album around these tunes, Thomas didn’t record again until November of 1969. When he returned, however, it was with a new backing band (featuring members of the second edition of the Bar-Kays, as well as Thomas’ son Marvell) and a new producer — Tom Nixon, formerly of rival Motown. He also had this song.

Many of Thomas’ best-known sides revolved around the popular dance-floor moves of the day — notably the New Orleans-inflected “Walking the Dog,” a Billboard No. 10 hit in 1963 — and this one was no different. He’d seen a group of university students doing this move during a concert in Tennessee, and felt inspired to create a tune around it. “Do the Funky Chicken” would shoot to No. 28 on the Billboard pop charts, and to No. 5 R&B, while becoming a signature part of Thomas’ shows until his passing a decade ago.

The best part? When Thomas breaks it down for a hilarious spoken-word interlude, as the groove really gets going: “This is the kind of stuff that makes you feel like you wanna do something nasty!” Thomas crows. “Like waste some chicken gravy on your white shirt, right down the front!”

Still does.

Rufus Thomas’ Do The Funky Chicken, reissued earlier this month by Concord Records, includes this familiar hit single, as well as “Sixty Minute Man” and “The Preacher and the Bear,” both of which went to No. 42 on the R&B charts in 1970; and “Boogie Ain’t Nuttin’ (But Gettin’ Around; Part 1), a No. 63 R&B side from 1974. The package includes 24-bit remastering, rare bonus tracks, and new liner notes from Stax historian Rob Bowman. Guest performers include the Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love) and Isaac Hayes; MGs’ guitarist Steve Cropper also produced four songs.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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