In 1960, after three years of trying, Satellite Records finally launched a release that hit the charts, the single “Cause I Love You.“ Everyone was giddy with success. The world’s oldest teenager, Rufus Thomas, was back on the charts again, wailing the smash tune as a duet with his daughter Carla. Satellite owner Jim Stewart’s wild idea of running a recording studio and starting a record label seemed to be paying off. Jim’s sister, Estelle Axton, was happy because there was cash to make those second-mortgage payments for the loan she took out to put her bank-teller brother in business. So, the obvious question was “Do you have anything else?” Mr. Thomas, who was never the sort to be caught unprepared, just happened to have a tape.
Rufus would make a trip up to Chicago once a year to visit friends and make the rounds of the windy city labels such as Chess and Vee Jay. He had recently retrieved a home-recorded demo of one of Carla’s compositions that was a no-show up on Record Row, but just might soar on McLemore.
You’ve heard of stars who lament that their parents just didn’t understand, appreciate, and nurture their progeny’s youthful talents. That was not the case in the Thomas household. Along with her talented siblings Marvell and Vaneese, Carla was encouraged to pursue her artistic desires. From the time she was 10, Carla Thomas was a member of the prestigious “Teen Town Singers.” She received vocal training in gospel and classical opera in the course of her studies in the musical department at Hamilton High. She was bound for Tennessee State in the fall, courtesy of an earned scholarship. So it was a nearly grown-up 17-year-old Carla who might have rolled her eyes a bit when her daddy Rufus volunteered the song she wrote as a 16-year-old kid, the one called “Gee Whiz.”
Carla usually expressed her feelings through poems or short stories. Marvell had taught her a few chords on the piano, and the lyrics made a natural fit with the romantic melody in her head. Keep in mind that late summer 1960 was the perfect time to approach Jim Stewart with a dreamy female teenage love ballad. On his trip from the bank to the studio every afternoon, probably Jim couldn’t help but notice on the radio that the number one record was 15-year-old Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry.”
Stewart knew he had something special on his hands, and was initially afraid that his brand-new studio installation wasn’t up to the task of capturing this complicated production, so he booked time at the Hi Records studio on South Lauderdale. Jim learned two things from the resulting session. Number one, he didn’t like the results; the song was too fast, the sound wasn’t quite right. Number two, he learned he could have done it himself. So a new date was set to re-cut the song at the Satellite studio.
Murphy’s law was the rule of the day for this recording. Stewart’s hired arranger overslept following a late-night gig, and didn’t have the arrangement ready for the union-scale string section, who sat idle with the clock running. In desperation, and heading into time-and-a-half territory, Jim broke out his own fiddle and devised a head-arrangement with the section leader, Memphis symphony first violinist Noel Gilbert. The balance was struck on the string trio, the rhythm section, and, sharing one mike, The Veltones and Carla on vocals. Just as Stewart saw visions of looming red-ink and bankruptcy, the tape finally rolled. As it turned out, only one take was needed.
Carla headed off to college, and Jim Stewart worked the record. Atlantic records came calling to inform Stewart that they had exclusive distribution rights, based on the agreement signed for the first single, “Cause I Love You.” Turns out they were right, so the single was released on the Atlantic label.
Carla had finished her first semester, and was into her second before “Gee Whiz” hit the Billboard charts. But when it did hit, she found herself a college freshman with the number 10 hit in the whole country. The success inspired Stewart to put together a whole Carla Thomas album, which necessitated booking studio time in Nashville to work in sessions around Carla’s class schedule. The attention paid to Carla’s project almost led to Stewart to miss out on Satellite’s next hit record, but sister Estelle would make sure that didn’t happen.