The singer is Big Maybelle; the man in the sparkly suit, Rufus Thomas. The place: a jook joint somewhere around Memphis. The photographer: Ernest C. Withers. Big Maybelle had a hit with “Gabbin Blues” in 1953, around when this picture was made. Thomas was a DJ on the all-black WDIA radio station in Memphis and was cutting “Bear Cat” over at Sun Records with Sam Phillips. He’d go on to do “The Funky Chicken” at Stax.
Withers was (and still is) a commercial photographer on Beale Street who covered segregated Memphis. He took pictures of all the r&b stars from a young Aretha Franklin cozying up to Sam Cooke to Muddy Water congratulating a local Little League team to Marvin Gaye hiding behind security.
Withers’ music photographs have just come out in a new book: The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photographs. Selected, identified, and with an introduction by Daniel Wolff.
“I am a photographer, and when you’re a photographer, you make a shining light of an image.” Ernest C. Withers