Carla Thomas may be the daughter of Memphis soul legend Rufus Thomas, but the fact is that her breakthrough hit came a couple of years before his. The Queen of Memphis Soul was born in one of the city’s housing projects, not far from Beale Street, in 1942. The legendary Palace Theater was a fixture on Beale, and Rufus emceed the amateur shows there. That’s where Carla first heard the music that inspired her to reach the pinnacle of success in one of the world’s great music cities. By the time she was ten years old, she was active with the Teen Town Singers, a rotating group of local singers that was sponsored by radio station WDIA.
The rules said that you had to be in high school to be in the Teen Town Singers, but Rufus was a DJ at WDIA, and he managed to get Carla in at an early age. She stayed with the group all through high school, going to two rehearsals and a Saturday performance at the radio station each week.
Carla’s recording debut was a duet with her father called “Cause I Love You,” which was released by Satellite Records (later to become Stax) in 1960. The record made some noise locally, but more importantly it came to the attention of Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. Wexler made a distribution deal with Satellite owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, and that was the beginning of a legendary relationship between the two labels.
Carla had written an aching teen ballad when she was just 15 years-old. It was recorded at home, and her father took it to Vee-Jay Records in Chicago. Vee-Jay was interested, but for some reason never followed up on the record, and no deal with made. Rufus came back to Memphis, and the song was released by Satellite in October, 1960. There was very little reaction at first, but by February, 1961, Atlantic had exercised their distribution option, and “Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes)” became a huge success. The record can truly be said to have launched Stax Records, turning it into a soul music powerhouse.
Carla had a number of hits for Stax during the ’60s, including “B-A-B-Y” which charted #14 Pop, #3 R&B in 1966. The following year she released the landmark soul album King & Queen with Otis Redding. The album reached #35 on the Pop chart, and #5 on the R&B chart, and spawned the hit singles “Tramp” (#26 Pop, #2 R&B), and Lovey-Dovey (#60 Pop, #21 R&B).
In 1968, Stax and Atlantic went through their infamous and agonizing breakup, and it was the beginning of the end for the soul label. After a few years of mismanagement, and out and out criminal behavior, the label declared bankruptcy in 1972. Carla Thomas released her last Stax recording, “Love Means,” the previous year.
Although she has not been as visible since that time, Carla has been busy with various projects including several reissues and live recordings of her music. She also became active in the “Artists in the Schools” program in Memphis. In 1993, the Rhythm & Blues Foundation gave Carla their Pioneer Award, and she was featured in the 2003 documentary Only the Strong Survive, which featured a number of Stax artists.