The Memphis Sound
Tue March 6, 2012
Tom Dowd Lets The Dogs Out
Have you ever had a song running through your head and it just wouldn’t go away? Rufus Thomas had that problem, exacerbated by the fact that the song was one he needed to record, and the studio at Stax, where he recorded, was out of order. When he finally did get around to moving the song out of his mind and over to a record, the resulting single would be his biggest, but would also send his career to the dogs.
Atlantic Records had a distribution deal with Stax, and more than a passing interest in keeping the product pipeline flowing. In the summer of 1963, it was Jerry Wexler from the big label who kept calling to see when to expect a new Carla Thomas single, or some other new material from Memphis. And, Like Rufus Thomas, Wexler kept getting the story that the studio was in need of repair. Unlike his laid-back Memphis associates, Wexler took action. Jerry immediately put engineer Tom Dowd on a plane to assess the situation and get things back up and running.
Major portions of the soundtrack of our lives were given birth when Tom Dowd pushed the record button. From Ray Charles to Bobby Darin, and for decades to come, when Tom Dowd’s hands were on the knobs, his finger was on the pulse of modern music history.
According to the story as related by Rob Bowman’s book Soulsville USA, Dowd took a step backward in time when he crossed the threshold of the Stax studio. While Tom was already doing advanced multitrack recording in New York, Jim Stewart was still using the original single track Ampex 350 mono tape recorder his sister Estelle mortgaged her house to buy, back when she helped put him in business in 1958 out in Brunswick. Especially back in the days of tube equipment, parts needed replacement on a fairly regular basis, as heat would affect component values and, in turn, color the sound reproduction. Add to that, normal wear and tear dictated regular realignment of the mechanical parts that determined where and how the tape crossed the record and playback heads. Whereas the New York engineers employed a regular maintenance program, the system at Stax was more along the lines of “What‘s maintenance?”
Flying in on Saturday, Dowd diagnosed the needs, and had parts on the way down from New York on the next flight. By Sunday morning, tape was ready to roll, and as Rufus Thomas cruised past the Stax studios, the full parking lot indicated this might be a good time to drop in and record a song. The tune which would be the litmus test for Dowd’s repairs was “Walking The Dog.”
The animal theme wound its way through the career of Mr. Thomas from the beginning. Rufus learned he could work magic with an audience from the time, at age six, that he played the part of a frog in a school play. As a young man, Thomas toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in the 30’s. As we recall, Rufus was there in the early days of Sun records, with his 1953 comedic answer to “Hound Dog” called “Bear Cat.”
The new song would be the second in a series of Rufus Thomas records exploiting the teen dance craze called “The Dog.“ The first one, “The Dog,“ came out a few months earlier. “Walking The Dog” hit the charts in October ‘63, peaking at number 10, and would be certified gold by the end of its run. Still to follow would be “Can Your Monkey Do The Dog,” and “Somebody Stole My Dog.” Chickens and penguins would be added to the Thomas menagerie, but not until the 70’s.
They finally did get Carla in for her long awaited single, in this case “I’ll Bring It On Home To You,” charting on the heels of her father’s successful smash. Carla had hit number 10 with her first solo single, “Gee Whiz,“ and Rufus hit number 10 with “Walking The Dog,” so Rufus became the first father to debut in the Billboard top 10 after his daughter debuted there. That is a record that still stands, or shall we say, that dog still hunts.