By Erin Norton, Membership Assistant
To celebrate Black Music Month, we are excited to be bringing back our Vault of Soul series by spotlighting a soul artist every Thursday of June. Step inside the vault to discover the life and legacy of some of the world's greatest soul artists, both past and present. Continue reading to learn about Carla Thomas' music career and lasting influence.
CARLA THOMAS’ LIFE AND LIFELONG CONNECTION TO MUSIC
Carla Thomas, known to many as the “Queen of Memphis Soul,” is an American icon who has contributed to the world of music not just through her style, but also through the space she carved out in the music industry for generations of artists to come.
Thomas was born on December 21st, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee. Her extensive relationship with music began at a young age. Growing up, she lived near the Palace Theater on Beale Street where her father, Rufus Thomas, was the Master of Ceremonies. This was one of the places in which she was first introduced to the world of music and performance.
Another time she was given the opportunity to practice her musical talents was through the Teen Town Singers. This was a group of musically talented high school students sponsored by WDIA, the local African-American centered radio station. While Thomas was only ten at the time, she was able to join the group as an exception since her father also worked as an on-air personality for WDIA. She continued participating as a part of the Teen Town Singers through her senior year of high school.
Over the years, her talent only grew stronger. Naturally, success came along with that. Her first recorded song, “Cause I Love You” was a duet with her father. While this song was recorded under Stax Records, it also attracted the attention of Atlantic Records who signed her on while she was still in high school.
While working for Stax records, Thomas went on to release some of her most well known songs such as “Gee Wiz (Look at His Eyes),” “B-A-B-Y,” and “Tramp.” Each of these songs achieved massive successes in both the R&B and pop charts.
LATER LIFE AND CONNECTING WITH THE COMMUNITY
Thomas’ last Stax Records recording was in 1971 for her album Love Means.
Afterwards, she went on to add her touch to many other projects. She has released recordings of live performances, including a long lost recording from 1967 at the Bohemian Caverns. And in the 1980s, she went on tour and became involved with a program called “Artists in the Schools.” The Memphis-based project provides schoolchildren the ability to talk to successful artists.
In 1993, Thomas was awarded the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation along with her peers such as James Brown and Solomon Burke.
She continues to reside in Memphis today.
WHO INFLUENCED CARLA THOMAS
Thomas was always heavily influenced by her father, Rufus Thomas. He believed in her talent and her ability to sing from the very beginning of her musical journey. The two worked together on many projects and she expressed that she always felt supported by him. Her other biggest musical inspirations were Jackie Wilson and Brenda Lee.
WHO CARLA THOMAS INFLUENCED
It’s evident that Carla Thomas influenced many people. In her later career she took a large chunk of time to talk with younger people and educate them in what it means to be successful in the arts and particularly in music. Not only that, but as the only woman signed to Stax Records at the time (becoming one of five in the near future), she inspired many women to find a place in the music industry and be confident enough to stand their ground if they were ever challenged.
HONORS AND AWARDS
- Received Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation (1993)
- Received Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association (2021)
- Nominated for Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance (Grammys, 1967)
- Nominated for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance (Grammys, 1967)
“B-A-B-Y” is one of Thomas’ most well known songs. Many people may recognize “B-A-B-Y” from the film Baby Driver. Afterall, that’s when I first became completely aware of her music and I couldn’t be more grateful for that introduction. Not only is this song memorable, but it’s also on an album with many other iconic classics, particularly “Let Me Be Good to You.” This song and the others that accompany it on her self titled album, Carla, are a great introduction to Carla Thomas.
The live version of “Evenin,’” specifically, is an absolute hidden gem. This version can be found on her album Live at The Bohemian Caverns which contains many live versions of fan favorites. This song in particular, though, perfectly highlights the beauty in her voice. The way that she sings and her capabilities truly transcend the decades, making her out to be incredibly memorable and a timeless talent. This song, which is unfortunately easily overlooked by many people, is the perfect proof of her musical magnitude.
“KNOCK ON WOOD” (1967)
This song is on the same album as the extremely well known song “Tramp,” just one of the duets that Otis Redding and Carla Thomas did together. Luckily for us, there is a whole album of duets between these two icons and “Knock on Wood” is one of them. This is a cover of this classic song originally by Eddie Floyd. In this version, Redding’s and Thomas’ voices mix so perfectly that it became a staple song for many in the ‘60s.
You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown,
Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and more.
Interested in exploring the Soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Let host D Danubian wind you up and simmer you down with a blend of R&B, Soul, and Slow Jams.
Also, be sure to check out ERS+, our new HD radio experience. Take a deep dive into R&B and Hip Hop with the legendary voices of Soul alongside new and pioneering MCs. Find ERS+: Boston's Black Experience online at WERSPlus.Org