Fine and mellow
Like the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses”, the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” and Shirley Ellis’s “The Name Game” and “The Clapping Song”, Rufus Thomas’s “Walking the Dog” was one of a bunch of early-’60s hits that made reference to playground songs. It was also a great R&B record, one of those that all British groups of the time had to learn.
Its other attribute, when first released on Stax in the US and London American in Britain, was a great and unexpected B-side. Rufus’s reputation was that of a showman, a specialist in slightly daft dance-craze songs, but his version of Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow” showed another side of his personality. Already 46 years old when the record came out in 1963, he had started his career more than 20 years earlier as a DJ on Memphis’s influential WDIA radio station, and he was steeped in earlier modes of blues-inflected popular music.
Holiday had first recorded “Fine and Mellow” in 1939 for the Commodore label. The extended version she sang during the TV special The Sound of Jazz in 1957 is even more celebrated, her pensive vocal choruses interspersed with marvellous solos by the three great pre-bop tenor giants: Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and her soul-mate, Lester Young.
Not surprisingly, Rufus Thomas’s reading can’t match the emotional depth of the composer’s versions, and it doesn’t even try. But Thomas is respectful to the lyric and the melody, laid out over altered-blues structure, and only his occasional dark chuckle interrupts the alternating pleas and threats he is addressing to his lover. It’s also great to hear the Stax house band tackling a blues just as they would have done countless times in the clubs along Beale Street: razor-sharp guitar commentary from Steve Cropper, tinkling barrelhouse piano from (probably) Booker T. Jones, and a fine horn section.
Interestingly, on my London American 45 the song is credited to “McKay”. The label on Holiday’s original Commodore version clearly named her as the composer. In 1957, two years before her death, she married Louis McKay, a man with gangland connections. Maybe, at some point, he had the publishing rights signed over to himself.
You can hear Rufus’s recording on More From the Other Side of the Trax, a new collection of Stax B-sides from the early blue-label era, compiled by Tony Rounce for Ace Records. In addition to Rufus and his daughter Carla, there are gems from 1961-66 by the Mar-Keys, Eddie Floyd, Sir Mack Rice and William Bell, as well as lesser known Stax artists such as Barbara Stephens, the Premiers and the Triumphs, a Chips Moman band whose “Raw Dough” was the B-side “Burnt Biscuits”, the first release on Stax’s Volt subsidiary.
In those days artists seldom recorded songs specifically for B-side use, with the result that both decks tended to be the product of full creative effort. “Fine and Mellow” was one of those flip-sides that added a dimension to the listener’s appreciation of the artist in question: a real bonus. And it still sounds great.