Rufus Thomas, 84, a singer whose "Bear Cat" helped Sun Records get its start before Elvis Presley signed with the company, died Saturday at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., where he had been confined with an undisclosed illness since Thanksgiving. Born in Cayce, Miss., and reared in Memphis, Thomas began tap dancing on the streets there for tips and performed in amateur shows in high school. In the 1940s, he ran his own Beale Street amateur show, which attracted B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland and other performers who went on to become famous.
In 1953, Thomas recorded "Bear Cat," an answer to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," and it became Sun Records' first hit.
Best known for novelty dance recordings such as "Walking the Dog," "Do the Funky Chicken" and "Push and Pull," Thomas became one of the founding performers for Stax Records in the 1960s.