The Legend Begins
Rufus McKay was first ushered into my life around 1954, when I was entering the seventh grade at Bailey Junior High in Jackson, Mississippi. My classmates and I were learning to dance the Foxtrot, the Waltz, and the Bop at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio on North State Street. An invitation arrived in the mail addressed to me enclosed with a card naming the young lady I was to escort to the dance. The night of the dance, I wore a white sport coat and a red boutonniere and my mother drove me to pick up my date. The girls seemed to take to dance more easily than the boys but somehow we all made it through these awkward moments.
I vividly recall going to the King Edward Hotel’s second floor ballroom and seeing Rufus McKay. There he was on center stage singing with his mellow tenor voice accompanied by ten or eleven black musicians adorned with red coats and black formal pants with satin stripes down the sides. The played songs of those days – “I’m in the Mood for Love”, “Stardust” and some of the more up-tempo songs like “Brazil”. The girls wore semi-formal dresses with multiple starched petticoats and beautiful corsages. Many memories were formed as I entered this transition of life.
My junior and senior high school years were filled with magnificent Red Tops dances. It was then that I most fondly recall the stellar performances not only of the orchestra but especially the magic moment when Rufus McKay would sing his signature song – “Danny Boy”. Most couples would stop dancing and the guy would embrace his girl, wrap his arms around her, and together they would stand in awe and eager expectation. The mellow notes flowed from Rufus’ mouth as he sang “And come ye back when summer’s in the meadow, or when the valley is hushed and white with snow, ‘tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow, oh Danny Boy oh Danny Boy I love you so”. He moved smoothly through the lyrics and ascended to the crescendo in three falsetto steps. If tears had not already filled our eyes, it would happen then. To my knowledge, no one has ever performed a more beautiful rendition of this immortal song than the beloved Rufus McKay.
After high school I entered college at Ole Miss, and my classmates likewise entered fine universities throughout the south and the nation. Occasionally we would have the opportunity to hear this exceptional orchestra and Rufus again, but somewhere the genre of music began to change. With the invasion of the British and rock sounds this great music began to be replaced by new songs which could not equal the quality of the lyrics or the beauty of sound of the music we had experienced just a few years before.
In the late 1960s Rufus just disappeared from our lives. We didn’t know where he had gone. We just knew that he was no longer part of our experiences, and lived only in our memories. I recall asking friends in the 70s and 80s if they knew where Rufus was living. Some told me that they thought he was singing with the Ink Spots in Las Vegas. Then someone else would say that they heard him overseas in some faraway place like Jakarta Indonesia. My heart yearned to hear him again.
On November 7, 1998 there was a celebration held in Vicksburg at the Southern Cultural Heritage Complex’s Auditorium honoring several of the surviving members of the original Red Tops orchestra including Louis Spencer, Jr. saxophone player, Willard Tyler trumpet player, Walter Osborne, the band manager and drummer and Jesse Hayes guitar player and most of all, our hero, Rufus. It was a grand evening that I was blessed to experience. It was an exhilarating moment when he came out to sing. He was wearing a white suit and his voice was still magnificent as he regaled us with his songs, especially when he sang “Danny Boy”. Just like more than forty years before, people stopped out of reverence for this man and his music. The men wrapped their arms around their dates and listened as he took us back to those precious days.
The Friendship Begins
We were nearing the millennial year and Rufus was living in Carson City, Nevada. My 40th Murrah High School class reunion was approaching and I explored the idea of getting Rufus back to Jackson to perform. Most of the original Red Tops had gone to their heavenly destination so I enlisted Ben Shaw and his band from Vicksburg to provide the music while Rufus did the vocals. It occurred to me that this would be a good opportunity to do a studio recording of Rufus singing “Danny Boy” since a professional recording of his signature song did not exist. After assembling a group of professional musicians to lay down the tracks we utilized an arrangement that we thought was Rufus singing “Danny Boy”. After listening to the rendition, Rufus said that this recording was not made by him or the Red Tops. He was not sure who had sung that version of “Danny Boy”. It was slower than his normal rendition, and as we began to record the song at Malaco Studios I knew something was not right. It did not showcase the best of what he had to offer. He could hit the high notes with ease, but he could not achieve the lower notes with the smoothness and beauty that was typical of his performance of the song. We did our utmost to get it in the best shape possible but it was not done totally to our satisfaction.
About this time I began encouraging Rufus to consider moving back to Mississippi. He had been away for many years but it was apparent to me that he had very few strong connections in Nevada. I began to tell him how much people in Mississippi loved him and yearned to see him again. He had no idea how much people cared for him. His sister Elizabeth Harper lived in Vicksburg as did his daughter Carol Williams. Ultimately he decided to come home. I don’t know if it was due to my encouragement or his instinctive understanding that it was time or both.
On a stormy, snowy night he left Nevada with all of his possessions. It took him seven days to reach Mississippi. He almost died along the way due to complications with his diabetes and the cold, wintery weather. When he finally reached Vicksburg he went directly to the hospital and was there for nearly a week. I knew that he had left Carson City and was on his way to Vicksburg so I called Elizabeth to check on his travels. It may have been Christmas Eve when I called her. She told me he was in the hospital, and I asked if I could call him. She gave me the number and I called. When I heard his weakened voice I sang to him as I had so many times before – “Hello, Is That You? Well Baby This is You Know Who”. This is a song that he and the Red Tops recorded on the flip side of Swanee River Rock which became a national hit. These songs were recorded through Sky Records in Greenville, Mississippi. He chuckled and said how happy he was to hear from me and that he was home. Rufus recovered and we stayed in close touch in the following years with me always greeting him with “Hello, Is That You?”
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Bill Morris’ upcoming memoir about his time spent with some of Mississippi’s best musicians. This article will continue Thursday with Part II.