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Mon, 12.21.1942

Carla Thomas, Singer born

Carla Thomas

*Carla Thomas was born on this date in 1942. She is a Black singer.

Carla Venita Thomas was born and raised in the Foote Homes Projects in Memphis, Tennessee, United States. Along with her siblings, Marvell and Vaneese, she was one of three musical children of Rufus and Lorene Thomas. Her family lived near the Palace Theater on Beale Street; her father was the theater's Master of Ceremonies (MC) for their amateur shows. This access gave Thomas her first taste of the music world.

In Memphis, WDIA radio station sponsored a rotating musical group of high school students called the Teen Town Singers; notable alumni include Anita Louis and Isaac Hayes. Although the requirements to join the Teen Town Singers stated that the person should be of high school age, Thomas became a member at 10. She could sneak into their ranks because her father, Rufus, was an on-air personality for the radio station. As a 10-year-old student, Thomas was responsible for attending classes and completing her schoolwork. Still, she also had to attend rehearsals on Wednesdays and Fridays after school and perform at the station on Saturdays. She said, “It was a lot of fun, it was.” She remained with the Teen Town Singers until the end of her senior year.

Thomas is best known for the work she completed for Atlantic Records and Stax Records in the 1960s. Her first record, "'Cause I Love You" (1960), was a duet with her father, with brother Marvell on keyboards, that was released by Satellite Records, which eventually became Stax Records. Recorded when Thomas was still attending Hamilton High School in Memphis, the record drew enough local attention to catch the interest of Atlantic Records.  A deal with the owners of Satellite Records was signed to distribute "Cause I Love You."

This paved the way for her famous single, "Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)." Initially recorded at the Thomas family home, Rufus shopped the song to Vee-Jay Records. Vee-Jay never followed through or actively pursued securing the distribution rights. Because he believed in the song's potential, Rufus returned to Memphis, and in the summer of 1960, Thomas cut the teen love song she wrote when she was only 15 years old. Rufus and Carla released the song in October 1960 to not much fanfare. However, by February 1961, thanks to a distribution deal between Satellite and Atlantic Records, the song was being distributed nationally through Atlantic just as Thomas was in her first year at Tennessee A&I University in Nashville.

The single's success also propelled Thomas into the spotlight, as she performed on American Bandstand. According to Thomas, “The record was young-sounding, romantic, and it expressed what many people wanted to say at that age, but still, I was surprised at how well it did.” Not only did this song provide a launching pad for Thomas' first album, but it also gave Stax Records national exposure and label recognition. While she continued to succeed on the R&B charts throughout the 1960s, her only other solo top 40 pop hit was "B-A-B-Y" in 1966. Her duet, "Tramp," with Otis Redding, reached number 26 on the pop chart the following year. And her album of duets with Otis Redding, King & Queen, was a number 18 hit on the UK Albums Chart.

After her last Stax recording in 1971, Thomas slipped into relative obscurity compared to her 1960s musical heyday. In 1991, she appeared with her father at the Porretta Terme Soul Festival. In 1993, Thomas was awarded the prestigious Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. She was also featured in the 2003 documentary Only the Strong Survive. She was featured in a 1994 compilation of her greatest hits, a 2002 live recording of a Memphis performance, and the 2007 release Live at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C., a long-lost live recording of Thomas in 1967.

She would also occasionally tour during the 1980s and became heavily involved in the “Artists in the Schools” program that gave Memphis schoolchildren access to successful artists. These workshops were organized to talk to teenagers about music, performing arts, and drug abuse. Her biggest influence was her father. Musically, Jackie Wilson and Brenda Lee inspired Thomas.

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