Rhythm and Blues singer Carla Thomas is known as the one and only “Queen of Memphis Soul.” Born in Memphis in 1942, Thomas grew up within walking distance of Beale Street where her father Rufus was the Master of Ceremonies for the Palace Theatre’s blues showcases. At the age of ten, Thomas began charming audiences on Memphis’s WDIA Teen Town Singers. In 1960, Carla and Rufus cut the single, “Cause I Love You,” at what would become one of the most influential record labels in the world, Stax Records. This first hit record would launch Stax and the soul music known as “The Memphis Sound” to the forefront of American culture, solidifying its place in the bedrock of American popular music. Catching the attention of Atlantic producers, Carla wrote and recorded her first solo hit, “Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes),” at the age of sixteen. This signature song garnered Thomas international fame, reaching Top 10 on the pop chart, Top 5 on the R&B chart, and landing her a performance on American Bandstand.
Thomas helped put Stax Records and its unique brand of Southern Soul on the map. Thomas is the only female artist on the Stax label to release full-length albums, and her songs hit the national charts more than twenty times. She was known for timeless hits such as “B-A-B-Y” and “Let Me Be Good To You,” as well as her unforgettable duets with Otis Redding. Thomas has been a mainstay in soul music globally, and her appeal to international audiences has been long recognized since she embarked on the famous European tour of the Stax/Volt Revue in 1967. As the most consistently successful female recording artist at Stax, Thomas was an essential part of the sound that the label and its cadre of musicians, songwriters, and producers are known for worldwide.
In 1967, Thomas received two GRAMMY Nominations for Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance and Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance. She has created twelve studio albums, including a lauded collaboration album with Otis Redding. In 1993, Thomas was awarded the prestigious Pioneer Award, along with musical icons James Brown and Solomon Burke, from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in honor of her career achievements. She was also featured in the 2003 documentary, Only the Strong Survive, which was featured at the Cannes Film Festival. Most recently in 2021, she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association.
Thomas stayed with Stax until the label closed in 1975 and toured intermittently throughout the 1980s. Over the past several years, Thomas has continued to live in Memphis and invest in her community. She became involved with Artists in the Schools Residencies, a series of workshops designed to encourage individual creativity for K-12 grade students. Thomas’s contribution to Memphis music has helped to solidify the city and the State of Tennessee as the place where soul music originated. As an internationally appreciated musical pioneer, she helped pave the way for the success of not only the Stax artists who came after her, but also other major artists like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight. Today, Thomas “remains one of the most critically acclaimed icons of soul music” (Stax Records). Much beloved by her community and a lifelong Tennessean, the Memphis music story would not be the same without Thomas, and music history will be forever changed by her significant and lasting impact.