January 23, 2017 – Marvell Thomas was born in Memphis Tennessee on August 22, 1941. The Thomas family is rooted in music and especially Memphis Soul. Legendary rock and roll pioneer Rufus (Walking the Dog) was his dad. His sisters Carla and Vaneese were much noted, especially Carla (the Queen of Memphis Soul) reached superstardom.
The eldest child of Rufus and Lorene Thomas, Marvell was born in 1941 and grew up in the shadow of Beale Street, where his father performed. “You could call it a second home,” Thomas said in 2011. “It was just three blocks from our house. I was a little kid, 5 years old, running up and down Beale Street all the time, much to my parents’ chagrin when they found out. Of course, I was there a lot legitimately too, when my father was hosting the talent show every Thursday night at the Palace Theatre.”
Marvell: “I started taking piano lessons, when I was about nine, I think, and I played my very first professional gig at a club here called Tropicana, when I was sixteen. I was doing a lot of clubs around Memphis. There were two or three bandleaders here in town, who had house bands in clubs. One was a guy named Gene “Bowlegs” Miller. I worked with him a lot at the Flamingo Room and the Rosewood Club. I worked with Ben Branch at Curry’s Club and with Willie Mitchell in a few other places.”
In summer 1960, Rufus Thomas — who had been shopping a demo tape of daughter Carla that he’d recorded at home — was tipped by local musician and family friend Robert Talley about Satellite Records, a fledgling label run by country fiddler and banker Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton.
Satellite had been cutting country and pop songs unsuccessfully for almost three years. With his money and prospects dwindling, Stewart welcomed a chance to record a Rufus-and-Carla duet of an R&B number called ‘Cause I Love You — the first session cut in the newly renovated movie theater-cum-studio at 926 E. McLemore that would become the label’s headquarters and creative hub. “‘Cause I Love you was a family thing,” recalled Marvell. “They were the artists; I was playing piano on the session. All three of us are right there from day one.”
Within a few months of its release, ‘Cause I Love You became a regional hit, selling several thousand copies in Memphis, Nashville and Atlanta. Its success piqued the interest of Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler, beginning a distribution relationship that would eventually catapult the label to national prominence. Carla would soon break things wide open as a solo act with her self-penned Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes) — which sold a half-million copies — while Rufus charted with Walkin’ the Dog. Stax, as it was renamed in 1961, was off and running.
Stax Records and the Soulsville community would become a cradle for the Thomas family: Rufus was an iconic presence at the company, and his sister Carla was the label’s first big hit maker. Meanwhile, Marvell would become a key behind-the-scenes figure as a session player and producer, working with Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and Johnnie Taylor, among others.
Following a two-year stint in the Army between 1965 and 1967, Thomas’ career at Stax would resume and continue until the company was forced into bankruptcy in the mid-‘70s. In the 60s Marvell worked mainly as a session musician – he also organized a band in the mid-60s that toured military bases in Europe – but later he became to known also as a writer and producer. “With each one of those you have to bring different assets to the table. They’re different projects, and I like doing all of them.”
He would also do session work at Muscle Shoals, and later served as music director for Peabo Bryson and toured with the Temptations. Thomas appeared in the films WattStax and Mystery Train and contributed to the soundtrack of Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow.
In the early 70s he was deeply involved in the career development of 19 year old talent Shirley Brown, who scored huge with the hit “Woman to Woman” just a couple of years later.
“Shirley Brown is very talented and she has an extraordinaire voice. I remember when she was brought in by Albert King. We had a group of musicians there at Stax. There are a lot of people, who have written that Booker T & the MG’s was the rhythm section for all of the Stax recording sessions, which was not anywhere close to be true. I mean, all of these guys were wonderful, and they played on a lot of stuff, but there were plenty of other people, who played on a lot of stuff, too – one of which was me.”
Over the years, Marvell would become a staunch advocate for his father’s and family’s legacy. In 1995 he successfully lobbied to have a street off Beale named after Rufus. And in recent years both Rufus and Carla were inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
He continued to write and perform up until his final months.
Marvell Thomas passed away on January 23, 2017. He was 75.