In the context of soul music history, Carla Thomas' "Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes)" was much more than just a massive hit record in the early months of 1961. Not only did it launch the singer's career but it literally started a journey for a fledgling small independent Memphis-based record label that would ultimately make an indelible mark on the world of contemporary music. For, what started out as â€˜a little poem' written about the natural feelings of a love-lorn teen, ended up giving Stax Records a launching pad to the nation's airwaves, a full-blown deal with Atlantic Records and a reputation as the home for a bevy of classic recordings that would definitively influence and shape R&B.
Of course, a 17-year old Carla Thomas had no idea when she stepped into a Nashville recording studio in 1960 with producer Chips Moman that she what she was doing would have such a profound impact. Born December 21, 1942, the daughter of the late Rufus Thomas was surrounded by music and the business itself from an early age. A larger-than-life personality, father Rufus had had his own share of success in the â€˜50s as a recording artist for Chess and Sun and had even enjoyed a stint as one-half of the comedy team Rufus & Bones before emerging as a well-known radio personality on local Memphis station WDIA. Encouraged by her parents, Carla's own interest in music became evident early on: according to the original liner notes for the "Gee Whiz" album, "At the age of eight, she was already a â€˜professional' musician and indeed, Carla was singing with a local group known as The Teen Towners who - no surprise - could be heard on the airwaves thanks to WDIA.
As she recalled in a 1994 interview for "The Best of Carla Thomas" (Rhino), "My dad probably discovered I could sing before I did." Reflecting his belief in his daughter's skills, Rufus had brought Carla along to sing on his first session for Satellite Records the forerunner for what would become Stax Records. Then a student at Hamilton High in Memphis, Carla duetted with her dad on the song "Cause I Love You" with various future musical giants in attendance at the 1960 recording date, most notably Steve Cropper and Booker T. Jones, along with Carla's brother Marvell. Released by Satellite, the single began to make some noise in the South and bringing it to the attention of Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records. Wexler signed a deal with Satellite owners, brother-and-sister Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton for distribution of "Cause I Love You" and thus began a relationship that would be solidified but a few months later with "Gee Whiz."
According to Peter Guralnick's "Sweet Soul Music" (1986, Harper & Row), "There was another song that Carla had been playing around with on the piano at the first session, and everyone was convinced that it could really be a hit." Father Rufus certainly thought so: he had made a little home recording of it (according to Guralnick) and taken it to Vee-Jay Records in Chicago during a vacation. The label liked "Gee Whiz" (which Carla had written in 1958) but did nothing with it so Rufus brought the demo tape back and in the summer of 1960, Carla cut the song and one other tune she'd written entitled "For You" (which was issued as the flipside of the single).
Satellite promptly released "Gee Whiz" as the year came to a close and it generated such interest that Atlantic (which had only committed, at that point, to issuing duets by Rufus & Carla) insisted on distributing all future Satellite (soon-to-be Stax) product, moving Carla to the main Atlantic Records for the ensuing four years. By the winter of 1961, "Gee Whiz" had taken off nationally, reaching the pop Top 10 and the R&B Top 5 and giving the small Memphis company its first bona fide national hit record. Carla, by then attending Tennessee A & I University (now Tennessee State), was stunned: "The record was young-sounding, romantic and it expressed what a lot of people wanted to say at that age, but still, I was surprised at how well it did."
In the wake of its success, an album was inevitable. To accommodate Carla's college studies, a first session was done on March 25, 1961 in Nashville. Four songs were completed: two songs penned by Carla, "It Ain't Me" and "A Love Of My Own" ; one Rufus Thomas composition, "Your Love" and a Chips Moman tune, "Promises." A previously unissued alternate version of that song with a double-tracked vocal is included on this CD as a bonus cut. "A Love Of My Own" was issued as a follow-up single to "Gee Whiz" in May of 1961 and it reached the R&B Top 20 without making as strong an impression on the pop listings. For Carla, the song reflected more maturity in her creative approach: "My writing style had begun to change," she said in 1994. "I was a little more grown up."
Carla returned to Memphis to finish the album on May 5, 1961. The emphasis was on covers of popular tunes: the six-song session included the standards "The Masquerade Is Over" and "A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening;" two â€˜50s hits by The Drifters, "Dance With Me" and "Fools Fall In Love" and a 1957 Five Satins' R&B Top 5 single, "To The Aisle"; and "The Love We Shared," co-written by renowned producer Ralph Bass. Unlike Carla's subsequent albums and most of the music that would come out of Memphis in the â€˜60s, the music did not emphasize the more gritty, horn-driven sound which would become synonymous with the name "Stax." Rather, with the inclusion of the famed Anita Kerr Singers, the four Nashville cuts (produced by Chips Moman) certainly have a country flavor; and even the Memphis-cut tunes (supervised by Jim Stewart) are heavy on the strings and (with the exception of "For You") light on rhythm.
While it did not appear on the album charts, the success of the title cut did demand that Carla begin touring. As the original liner notes state, she appeared on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" and she is quoted as saying her greatest and most enjoyable experience was "being on the same bill at the Brooklyn Paramount with Jackie Wilson and Johnny Mathis." On summer breaks and during holidays, "I joined different shows that were touring: I was on shows with Sam Cooke...there was a lot happening and it was happening pretty fast," she recalled in 1994.
Indeed, the release of her first LP was just the beginning: by the time she left Stax Records in 1972, Carla Thomas had six subsequent albums (including the memorable "King And Queen" duet LP with the late Otis Redding) and had racked up another nineteen charted singles, the biggest of which was 1966's "B-A-B-Y." Without any question, her reign as the soulful queen of Stax Records started with a little poem known as "Gee Whiz" and an album that was a glimmer of what was to come from one of soul music's most treasured song stylists.
Contributed by David Nathan