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Archives of African American Music And Culture

Last modified: Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Grammy grant to IU archive aims to preserve historic interviews with R&B pioneers

Oct. 8, 2008

Editors: In addition to the links to recordings following this release, other recordings from the Pioneers of Rhythm and Blues project are available from George Vlahakis at 812-855-0846 or; or Ronda Sewald, 812-855-9960 or

"If you don't know how to do it, I'll show you how to walk the dog," "Walking the Dog," (From "Walking the Dog," by Memphis R&B singer Rufus Thomas (1917-2001), also known for his song, "Do the Funky Chicken.")

Rufus Thomas

This photo of Rufus Thomas dueting on "Do the Funky Chicken" with a chicken on stage is part of the archive's holdings.

Print-Quality Photo

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- On an energetic night at Danceland, a club in Millington, Tenn., a town just north of Memphis, R&B legend Rufus Thomas and his band were moved by a woman dancing in front of the bandstand.

"She was slimmed down, with a leather dress on. She had a long waistline. Her hips were low-slung," Thomas told an interviewer. "We had a little riff going on 'Ooh Poo Pah Doo,' and this girl got in front of the bandstand and started doing the Dog. I just started jiving at her -- 'Do the Dog, Baby' -- and she was really getting down.

"I just started singing, because what we were playing (was) what we call 12-bar blues changes, and I set the pattern…It fitted right in, and I couldn't think of but three dogs, and I just started singing, 'Do the Dog,'" Thomas continued. "If you ever listen to that song, you will find that there's nothing suggestive in that song at all…That's the way it came out, and it hit."

Thomas died nearly seven years ago, but his 1984 interview about the origin of his hit song, "Walking the Dog," with Portia Maultsby, director of Indiana University's Archives of African American Music and Culture, will forever be part of a project to digitally preserve and make accessible nearly 300 hours of interviews with rhythm and blues pioneers.

The project, named Pioneers of Rhythm and Blues, has received a $39,230 grant from the Grammy Foundation, which is funded by The Recording Academy. It will utilize the best practices and preservation methods established by the IU Archives of Traditional Music during its NEH-funded Sound Directions project.

The project provides an aural documentation of the history and development of R&B music through the personal narratives of prominent musicians such as Ray Charles, Ruth Brown and Bobby Byrd of James Brown's Famous Flames. It also includes interviews with composers, producers and record company executives from the Atlantic, Stax, Motown and Philadelphia International labels -- many of whom, including Jerry Wexler, are now deceased.

"Over the last five years, several of the pioneers and popularizers of various African American popular musical styles have died. It's so important that we capture this legacy using words of artists as much as possible," said Maultsby, also a co-author of the seminal text African American Music: An Introduction.

"The study of black popular music has become commonplace among scholars of many disciplines in the arts and the humanities," she added. "Primarily fueled by the mainstream popularity and controversy of hip hop, the number of courses on the black popular musical tradition has proliferated in the academy over the last 15 years. Fortunately, a few scholars and journalists were diligent about interviewing and researching when this topic was not in vogue. Otherwise, we would not have oral histories, testimonies and the perspectives of these artists to enrich our interpretation of their lives and music."

There generally is little primary source material in libraries and music archives about the history of black popular music. By digitizing the original recordings and preparing access copies, the AAAMC seeks to preserve its unique interviews with seminal figures in the music industry, while promoting research into the rich legacy of African American musical traditions and, more generally, the black experience in America.

Pioneers of Rhythm and Blues will support the preservation of two of the AAAMC's collections. Maultsby's collection includes in-depth interviews she conducted from 1981 to 1986. Her interviews trace the emergence of black music divisions and the promotion of black artists by major record labels -- topics that have not yet been adequately explored. She recorded interviews with 100 record company executives, producers, promoters, composers, musicians and deejays involved with recording, marketing and performing R&B music.

In addition to the Thomas interview, other highlights of Maultsby's collection include conversations with Byrd, Carla Thomas, Albert "Diz" Russell of the Orioles, as well as interviews with record company personnel at Stax, Motown and Philadelphia International. Maultsby also recorded a number of interviews with African American female record company executives, offering an alternative behind-the-scenes perspective on the heavily male-dominated record industry.

The other collection being preserved consists of interviews by Michael Lydon, a veteran music journalist and Rolling Stone's co-founder, during his research for his 1998 book, Ray Charles: Man and Music. The interviews shed light on Charles' business practices, from the unprecedented control of his master tapes to the founding of his music publishing company and record label.

In addition to taped interviews with Charles, the collection contains conversations with a multitude of musicians and record company personnel whose careers spanned the decades from 1940-1980. They include band leader Hank Crawford, saxophonists David "Fathead" Newman and Leroy "Hog" Cooper, and vocalists Ruth Brown and Little Jimmy Scott. Lydon also interviewed Ahmet Ertegun, Sid Feller and Jerry Wexler, three of the most significant figures in the popular music industry.

"The Lydon Collection is invaluable to our understanding the legacy of Ray Charles," Maultsby said, "but also in our understanding the era that Ray Charles created. Not only do we learn about Ray Charles, but we also learn about other people, musicians who also made contributions during that era."

Lydon is a member of AAAMC's national advisory board and has lectured at IU.

Without the preservation of the primary sources through the Grammy-funded project, Maultsby said future scholars would find themselves depending more on popular culture and its sometimes unsupported perspectives.

"For example, in the Rufus Thomas interview I conducted, he corrects the misinterpretation about the meaning of his song, 'Walking the Dog.' Some critics and radio station managers said it was too suggestive for radio play," she said. "There are lots of interesting stories about songs, how they were created and the contributing circumstances. Otherwise, we would have to guess, which could result in inaccurate representation of the facts."

The Archives of African American Music and Culture, founded in 1991, houses an extensive collection of audiovisual recordings, private papers and other research materials related to African American musical cultural expressions from the post-World War II era. It also has extensive materials related to the documentation of Black radio and hosts the music review Web site Black Grooves --

For more information on the IU Archives of African American Music and Culture, including its history, mission statement, collections and staff, go to

Links to recordings from AAAMC collection: