5 Things You May Not Have Known About Carla Thomas
Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the most legendary female R&B singers of the 20th century: Carla Thomas, who came by her talent honestly – her dad was Rufus Thomas – and then kicked it up a notch further. To commemorate the occasion, here’s a list of five things about Ms. Thomas that you may not be aware of.
- She started her music career as a member of group called the Teen Towns before she was even in her teens.
When Thomas decided at age 10 that she wanted to join the Teen Towns, she wasn’t kidding around, but her request initially amused her father. In an interview with David Freeland for his book Ladies of Soul, Thomas laughed as she recalled his response: “How can you join that group? You have to be in high school!” But as it turned out, A.C. Williams, the man in charge of the group, was willing to bend the rules for Carla, and the rest is history.
- As a member of the Teen Towns, she was a big fan of Miss Brenda Lee.
“I used to do Brenda Lee’s stuff with the Teen Towns,” Thomas told Freeland, citing “I’m Sorry” in particular. “I even used to do some audition tapes for [Lee] to listen to. I remember for some reason they [the staff at radio station WDIA] knew I liked country, so they’d come get me when I was at school and I’d go down there and sing some audition tapes. I never knew who they’d send them to. A lot of times I know they’d send them to Brenda, ‘cause that’s all I cared about. Send them to Brenda. At the time that’s all I really knew. As a young girl my age, she was kind of like a role model.”
- She was the first woman to chart a Top 10 song in the Billboard Hot 100 with a song she wrote herself.
The song in question was the legendary “Gee Whiz,” and it’s actually stretching things to say that she was the first woman to accomplish that feat, since she was only 15 years old at the time. The single might never have been released if her father, Rufus, hadn’t been so convinced of the song’s potential that he continued to shop it around despite being turned down. “The record was young-sounding, romantic and it expressed what a lot of people wanted to say at that age,” Carla once said. “But still, I was surprised at how well it did.”
- She had it bad for Paul McCartney.
One evening while the Beatles were in the midst of recording SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, they took a break and went to see Carla perform at a club called the Bag O’ Nails. Backed by Booker T. and the MG’s, Thomas roared through a set that included a cover of “Yesterday,” and when the show was over, Paul McCartney came backstage. In detailing the encounter in his book Dreams to Remember, Mark Ribowsky wrote that Thomas “trailed after [McCartney] like a lovesick schoolgirl, trying to prolong the meeting.”
- Even 50 years after his death, she still enjoys teasing Otis Redding.
In an appearance on the NPR news quiz show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me a few years ago, Thomas was asked about her work with Redding, and she immediately said, “One of the major things I would like to say about Otis Redding is when he first came and decided to sign with Stax, he sounded so much like Little Richard.”
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