CARLA THOMAS GETS AMERICANA CROWN
Ms. Carla Thomas, the Memphis soul singer whose hits helped Stax Records become a major presence in popular music, was awarded a lifetime achievement award and performed one of her classics at the Americana Music Awards at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Sept. 23.
“When she was a girl, she told her mama (that) one day she dreamed of singing on the Grand Ole Opry,” Memphis-based singer-songwriter Valerie June as she presented the award to Ms. Thomas.
Then she handed the roots-music association’s second lifetime achievement award for inspiration to “the Queen of Southern Soul—Carla Thomas, everybody!”
Ms. Thomas became R&B royalty through her 1960s R&B and pop smashes such as “Gee Whiz” and “B-A-B-Y.” (See videos below.)
After recording duets with her father, Memphis singer and DJ Rufus Thomas, who’d first recorded on Sun Records, Ms. Thomas’ singing helped Stax Records become a major force.
“When Carla was 15, y’all, she wrote ‘Gee Whiz,’ which was a hit” in 1960, June said. The smash was one of the records that encouraged Atlantic Records to consider consider a distribution deal with Satellite Records, which would soon become Stax, spreading soul music far and wide and leading to classic Stax recordings by Sam and Dave, Otis Redding and many others.
“The rest is music history,” June said.
But Ms. Thomas has always liked all kinds of music, June said.
“Not just soul. She liked country, too,” she said from the Ryman stage. “Eddy Arnold and Peggy Lee and Ace Cannon and Jackie Wilson and of course her father’s own R&B music.”
In fact, Ms. Thomas recorded covers of country classics such as Hank Williams' “I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Patsy Cline's “I Fall to Pieces” alongside her 1960s soul hits.
One of her greatest achievements was her album of duets with the great Otis Redding in 1967, The King and Queen.
As I recalled in my earlier essay on the Black influence and white appropriation in country music, on Thomas’ and Reddings’ version of “Tramp,” the duo raps over Al Jackson Jr.’s incredible drumbeat.
“You know what, Otis? You're country,” Ms. Thomas says.
“That's alright,” Redding responds.
“You straight from the Georgia woods,” Ms. Thomas fires back.
“That’s good!” Redding replies, like he’s in an everyday conversation—before ripping into a signature vocal riff.
Her career continued into the 1970s. Ms. Thomas had dozens of R&B chart hits in all.
At the Americana Awards, Valerie June noted that Ms. Thomas eventually became active and passionate in her support of Memphis youths over the years, mentoring many young people.
The queen alone
Now 78 years old, the queen herself appeared on stage during the awards program. As a student at Tennessee State University in Nashville, she’d appeared at the Ryman then at a tribute show to pioneering white DJ John Richbourg, known to WLAC radio listeners as John R., who introduced great soul music to white radio audiences.
Richbourg would introduce artists such as Ms. Thomas father, James Brown and many others to broader audiences, Ms. Thomas said.
“I’m so grateful and I thank you Americana and I thank you, Valerie June,” Ms. Thomas said.
Then the queen herself brought the house down, singing “B-A-B-Y” with her younger sister Vanesse Thomas on backing vocals and the great house band led by guitarist Buddy Miller. He and bandmate-for-the-evening Don Was could be seen in the background, Miller with a ear-reaching grin on his face.
“Tonight is a dream,” June said. “It has been my dream to bring her to this stage and to this audience.”
Here are a few select numbers from Ms. Thomas substantial Stax Records catalogue: