Rufus Thomas, Father of R&B, Dead at 84

Rufus Thomas | Yoko Observes John’s Anniversary  | Lord of The Rings | New Rock Hall Inductees | Vanilla Sky    

Fox 411: Rufus Thomas, Father of R&B, Dead at 84 

It is with tremendous sadness that I report the death this morning of the great Rufus Thomas. The father of soul music, a.k.a. rhythm and blues, who influenced so many stars, was 84. He lived in his hometown of Memphis.

With his daughter, Carla, Rufus had the first and really most important hits on the famed Stax record label—"Cause I Love You So" and "Nighttime is the Right Time." He also had a huge hit of his own in 1963, "Walking the Dog," which set the tone for a lot of modern soul and funk to come in the Sixties and Seventies. Everyone from Isaac Hayes to Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Ike and Tina Turner were in way or another inspired or taught by Rufus Thomas.  The Rolling Stones even recorded "Walking the Dog" on their first album, proving that Rufus's reputation was known around the world. In Memphis there's a street named for him, a city historical plaque tells his story, and a statue of his likeness is on Beale Street.

Rufus was also a keen wit and a comic, billing himself as the "World's Oldest Teenager" as he commanded the airwaves in Memphis on WDIA Radio. His radio show, which he had done most recently with Jay Michael Davis, became a cult program for anyone interested in blues and laughter. He is credited with playing Elvis Presley's records on black radio before anyone.

I had the good fortune to meet Rufus and get to know him and Carla two summers ago for a feature documentary called Only the Strong Survive. He was still doing the weekly radio show, had just released a new album on the High Stacks label out of Memphis, and was gigging whenever possible. That weekend he and Carla performed at a benefit for Luther Ingram, the singer of "If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don't Want to Be Right)." Rufus was greeted by every single performer over the 12 hour concert with respect as Soul Man Eminence Grise, the King of Soul. Whether it was the late Johnny Taylor or a flock of gospel singers, they all wanted to meet him and shake his hand. He met each one with style and grace, accepting the honors they bestowed.

To us—and to all the people of Memphis—Rufus was one of a kind and the last real senior statesmen of soul. I don't think he had any regrets but he did tell me the one thing he hadn't done in his spectacular life was play the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. It's possible he'll turn up there on film next year, which wouldn't be so bad. But the documentary—directed by Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker (, The War Room)—was not his first film. Rufus appeared in one movie by Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train) and one by Robert Altman (Cookie's Fortune). He's one of the main players in the 1973 film about Stax Records called Wattstax and appeared in a highly underrated film called A Family Thing starring James Earl Jones in 1996.

Rufus leaves two children besides Carla—Marvell, his talented musician son, and Vaneese, an actress who lives in New York. His family was with him when he died.


Yoko Observes John's Anniversary in Disco 

I guess Yoko Ono has really taken my pal Jill Brooke's book, Don't Let Death Ruin Your Life, a little too seriously.

Brooke offers somber advice to those who've lost loved ones and need to move on with their lives. She advises survivors not to dwell on the actual death, but to remember their loved ones in various ways.

Yoko must not have understood the book. I am told that on Saturday night, Dec. 8, at around 1 a.m. she appeared at the Roxy nightclub and disco on West 18th St. with a large posse of followers.

This would have been exactly — to the minute — 21 years after she stood in the entry of the Dakota apartment house and watched her husband, John Lennon, get shot to death by Mark David Chapman.

Was she lighting candles at home? No, Ono came to the Roxy to meet the Grammy-winning in-house deejay Peter Rauhofer. She wanted Rauhofer to remix tracks from her new CD, Blueprint for a Sunrise — his specialty. She brought along the CD, went into the deejay booth, and, according to the club manager on duty, had Rauhofer put the CD on.

Then she asked for an open mike. We were in shock. She was introduced, and started making these Yoko Ono-like noises over the microphone. It sounded like wailing and chanting, these orgasmic sounds and ecstatic moaning. People were flipping out.

The Roxy's owner told me Ono's singing was "like whaling mating calls."

But in the end Ono got what she wanted. Rauhofer is now busy remixing her tracks. He will have some job. One listen to the samples available at makes for a harrowing experience at best.

 Lord of the Rings Brings Stars to NYC 

There was a lot of woman power at the Ziegfield Theatre last night as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings finally got its U.S. premiere.

Liv Tyler, who plays Arwen in all three installments of the movie, brought her mom, rocker and author Bebe Buell (Rebel Heart), cousin Annie, and grandmother Dorothea. They made for three generations of strong, beautiful women.

The women were not alone though. Also on hand from this exciting film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy adventure were Sir Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Elijah Wood, and John Rhys-Davies. Jackson, who more or less resembles a Hobbit, was also present to receive accolades from stars Harrison Ford and Glenn Close, each of whom brought a child.

I also ran into controversial author Salman Rushdie with his girlfriend actress/cookbook author Padma Lakshmi. Rushdie told me: "I've loved these books since I was 15." Have they influenced his own writing, I wondered? "There are no Hobbits in my novels," he said, "but there is a lot of fantasy."

Ironically, Rhys-Davies — who plays Gimli in the movie — never did cross paths with Ford, with whom he acted in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

"Is Harrison here?" asked Rhys-Davies at the theatre before the screening. "I didn't even know that." Ford had slipped into the premiere with his young son right before the movie began, thus avoiding any mingling with the cast.

Meanwhile, Sean Astin — who plays Frodo's sidekick and pal Samwise 'Sam' Gamgee —told me he'd campaigned to get his part strenuously. "I sent Peter Jackson all kinds of tapes of me at different weights when I heard it was between me and one other actor. I knew I had to have the part."

Astin told me, by the way, that he loves seeing clips from his movie Rudy being used at sporting events to whip crowds into a frenzy. "It's all come full circle since in the old days. They'd play the theme music from The Addams Family, which starred my dad John Astin as Gomez."

He also said that his mom, Patty Duke, is feeling fine now after having a health scare. "She had an angioplasty, but she's okay," he said.

Jackson meanwhile told me that Lord of the Rings Parts 2 and 3 are still in his editing machine. "It took most of last year to edit part one, and it will take most of this year coming to edit part two," he said. Was he sorry to see actors from part one leave at the end of shooting? "I was unhappy that Sean Bean, who plays Boromir, bought the farm. It was a great cast and everyone got along very well."

Lord of the Rings opens Wednesday, Dec. 19, to what will undoubtedly be a cacophony of cash registers and credit card transactions.

New Rock Hall Inductees All Problematic 

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has named its newest members, and as I told you earlier this week both The Ramones and the Talking Heads got in. Each recorded for Sire Records, which was started by Seymour Stein, who now heads up the annual event with Jann Wenner and the highly paid ($300,000/year) Suzan Evans Hochberg.

Also in are Isaac Hayes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Brenda Lee, Gene Pitney, Chet Atkins, and Stax Records founder Jim Stewart.

This should be quite a night. Joey Ramone, who started his group, is dead. David Byrne, leader of the Talking Heads, doesn't speak with the group's other members. Isaac Hayes, popular now as Chef on South Park, was forced into bankruptcy in 1977 and lost the rights to most of his famous songs. Stewart founded Stax with his sister, Estelle Axton, to whom he no longer speaks and who I guess is not being recognized by the Hall of Fame. It's also unclear whether or not Stewart and Hayes speak.

And oh yeah, Chet Atkins died last summer.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it? Maybe Tom Petty and Gene Pitney will team up for "Town without Pity."

Left out this year: Jackson Browne, Patti Smith, The Dells, The Sex Pistols, Black Sabbath, plus heavenly nominees Lynyrd Skynyrd and Gram Parsons. Better luck next time, folks!

Vanilla Sky Gets Raves from two Publications 

It's not a coincidence that Vanilla Sky has gotten raves from just two major publications, Rolling Stone and Us Magazine. Each of them is owned by Jann Wenner, the former employer of director Cameron Crowe and still close friend of star Tom Cruise.

Rolling Stone's Peter Travers writes: "Crowe's tantalizing film sticks with you." Huh? I saw Vanilla Sky, and I guess I agree. The movie sticks with you like old chewed gum in the crevice of your running shoe.

Indeed, Vanilla Sky is incoherent, one of the most heartbreaking failures of recent years. The performances are just as mesmerizing as the plot confusions. Penelope Cruz, writes Stephen Holden in today's New York Times, "is seriously weakened by barely competent English-language line readings that are just one step above phonetic pronunciation."

Now that's a quote I'd like to see in an ad.

Meanwhile, over at Us, Wenner features Cruise on the cover with a long profile by Todd Gold.

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