Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of William “Bill” Morris’ article, “Rufus McKay: The Singer, The Person, My Friend”. Please continue reading after this article for a first-hand account of Mr. McKay’s funeral written by Bill Harvey. rufus mckay2At Home in Mississippi As with most singers, Rufus seemed to do better when he was performing for a live audience than when he was recording in a studio.  The Millsaps Arts and Lecture series wanted to present Rufus McKay in a live performance on February 10, 2005 at the Ford Academic Complex Recital Hall and they asked me to introduce him.  This was good opportunity to record him one last time.  We obtained a live recording of Rufus, accompanied by the Ben Shaw Band, singing many of his favorite songs as well as getting a wonderful rendition of “Danny Boy”.  The next morning a doctor who had been in the audience called me and said that he wanted to write Rufus a check for $1,000 and asked my assistance with delivering it to him.  Rufus was elated. Rufus had diabetes but it appeared that he also had something else going on medically.  He told me that he was going to the VA hospital to get checked out.  I was very concerned and wondered if it was something serious.  I wrote an e-mail to many friends, including my dear friend Robert Johnson who has a music blog with hundreds of followers.  His frequent messages are always accompanied by a song recording from the 50s or 60s.  Upon receiving my e-mail, Robert forwarded it to his readers.  My message essentially said that I thought that Rufus was perhaps approaching a dire health situation and I encouraged anyone who wanted to send a check or note of appreciation to Rufus to send them to me and I would see that he received them.  I thought that we might raise a few hundred dollars, but by the time we were through we raised over $6,000 as well as over 50 letters and cards.  On a cold, rainy day my daughter Kathryn and I drove to Vicksburg to give Rufus a large envelope containing the many cards, letters and various monetary gifts people had so generously given.  Fortunately, Rufus had been checked out and given a bit of a medical reprieve.  After receiving all of this love and affirmation Rufus called me with tears in his eyes and his voice cracking as he said “Bill, I just didn’t know how much everybody cared about me.  I had no idea. ” I replied “I’ve been trying to tell you Rufus.” Our friendship grew deeper.  He would start missing me and would call me at home or at my office just to talk.  When he would reach my office and I was not available my compassionate and caring assistant Sarah Morgan would take the time and interest to talk with him.  It was important that he had someone to call, and he knew that he would  always get a warm response from our office. Rufus was very close to his sister Elizabeth with whom he was living at that time.  She was several years older than Rufus and her health was failing.  About three years ago she left this earthly existence.  Rufus was now alone with the exception of his daughter Carol who greatly loved him.  It was at that time that I got to know Carol as she recognized the friendship that Rufus and I maintained.  From time to time she would call me to let me know of his situation which was getting worse, emotionally and physically.  In August 2013, my dear friend and fellow principal at our firm, Chris Walters and I went to Vicksburg and spent three hours with Rufus doing a video recording/documentary of his life.  He led us through his memorabilia albums starting with the formation of the Red Tops and going through his worldly travels with Morgan Stanley’s Ink Spots.  He was pretty alert that day and could recall quite clearly many of the experiences he had had over the years.  It was the last time that I found him to have that level of mental clarity. We were all pretty exhausted when we finished.  But one humorous thing he told us related to the following: I asked Rufus if the band had ever experienced any racial problems.  It was during the time the Red Tops were so popular that Mississippi was becoming unsettled as far as race relations were concerned.  He said “No, Bill, the only thing I remember is that one time there were two carloads of us going up to perform at a dance in Greenwood and we were pulled over by the highway patrol.”  He said he wasn’t sure why they were pulled over, but when the highway patrol understood that they were the Red Tops and were late to the dance, the officer said “Come on, follow me!” The patrolman turned on his siren and the flashing lights and led them all the way into Greenwood getting them to their venue on time.  They were held in high esteem by the people of this state.   The Red Tops all appeared to be gentle in spirit; their countenances shone with the confidence that they were doing something very special and unique, blessing people at each performance.  The magnitude of their music in our lives birthed an indelible and permanent place in our hearts. Recently on a Friday night at the Mayflower Café in downtown Jackson, Dr. Noel Toler came up to me and said “Thank you for what you did with Rufus McKay, I read about it in the paper.  I have a story I’ll tell you about sometime.”  I said “No, tell me about it now.”  He said “I remember when I went to a Red Tops dance at the Country Club of Jackson on Clinton Boulevard, there was a girl named Grace who was dancing with another guy (at that time we could tap the guy on the shoulder to ‘cut in’ and start dancing with the girl) and I broke in, and Rufus began singing “Danny Boy”.  That was the beginning of the marriage between Noel and Grace Toler.”  That story could probably be told many times over by hundreds of other like experiences of romance involving Rufus McKay and the Red Tops. In the waning days of his life, in 2014, Carol would call me and let me know how he was doing.  He was now in a nursing home for no one could adequately care for him at his home.  I knew something was going awry when a few months before we received a desperate call at the office.  I could hear my assistant Sarah saying “Oh, no, oh no, let me go tell Bill right now.”  A couple of months prior to this we had bought Rufus a television and subscribed to cable for him.  Watching TV was really all he could do; his eyesight was not good so reading was not an easy option.  Rufus was supposed to send me the cable bills as they came in but he did not do so and they stacked up at his table at home.  Before long, as he was watching one of his favorite programs, the cable people showed up at his home with orders to disconnect his service.  Alarmed, he called us.  We were able to call the company and reconcile the situation. Now that he was in a nursing home his mind became more and more inadequate.  When we would talk he would fade into the distance.  The last call that I received from him was on Father’s Day, June 15, 2014.  I was taking an afternoon nap when my wife Camille woke me and said that Carol, Rufus’ daughter was on the line.  I feared that she was calling with bad news.  To my relief she said “Mr. Morris, I have Dad here and he wants you to sing that song to him.”  So with a groggy voice I belted out “Hello, is That You?  Baby This is You Know Who!”  He chuckled a bit but didn’t respond as I tried to engage him in conversation.  It was apparent to me that his time was very near.  I knew that from this point forward all I would have would be the memories of a very dear friendship. On Monday, July 21, 2014 Carol called and said “Daddy’s gone”.  As we talked she told me that he died peacefully in the early morning hours.  We prayed and gave thanks to God that he was no longer limited to this earthly body.  He joined countless singers that I loved, whom I will someday join in the heavenly choir.  It was an honor to be his friend and to be asked to sit with his family at the funeral in Vicksburg the following Saturday.   I shared a few words hoping to bless the ears and hearts of those attending.  And, as I promised him I would do at his funeral, I sang “Hello, Is That You?  This is Baby You Know Who.”

funeral imageI really didn’t know what to expect. I had been to black churches, black weddings and when at the University of Mississippi, administered a predominately black placement program.  But I went to Mt. Heroden Baptist Church  in Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 26, 2014 to be a privileged part of the final services for Rufus McKay, lead singer of the never to be forgotten Red Tops Band. Rufus and his contingent of early 1950’s musicians, provided for us growing up a measuring stick for our sojourn  into adulthood. We were a bunch of white kids from an affluent school in Jackson who would sneak away on weekends to the Wagon Wheel in Jackson or the Ark, Pinehurst Club and Beechwood  Lounge in Vicksburg to hear the finest unsanitized  rock and roll of the genre.                                  We followed the Red Tops wherever they went, to the Mississippi Delta where they played sorority and fraternity dances, to Greenwood for private parties or even to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast if we could get away from home that long. All of us knew the Wagon Wheel had two names. It was also called “The Library”, as in “Mama, I’m going to the library tonight to study.” The Red Tops were icons and we were still children listening to a style of music long past but forever young. How many contemporary bands that play Johnny B Good  today know that it was written and recorded nearly 60 years ago? The Red Tops were doubtlessly inspired by some of the black bandleaders and blues makers of the forties. Louie Jordan, Buddy Johnson, Lucky Millender and Erskine Hawkins come to mind. Their music translated into the hits of the Midnighters, Amos Milburn, Joe Liggins and the original Drifters.  We would enter one of the aforementioned clubs, order an illegal drink for a quarter and dance with our dates till the late hours and all the while oblivious to the world around us neither so innocent nor privileged as we. Those days passed into adulthood, marriage and family. We developed different priorities, the music changed; Elvis, the Beatles and Stones came along to replace the old Red Tops and the band’s rhythm and horn sections of once upon a time –  except for one magic  evening in November 1998,  presented by the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation at the Civic Center in Vicksburg. What a night! There was a later performance in February 2005 as part of the Millsaps Arts and Lecture Series introduced by Jackson insurance executive Bill Morris, Rufus’ friend, benefactor and soon to be biographer. I was not at this event but was at the one in Vicksburg. It was an unforgettable experience. The 1998 evening began with the Ben Shaw Band, a slightly scrubbed down soul group which presented the music of the Red Tops era. It was entertaining and authentic, but during their break something wonderful happened.  Rufus and surviving members of his original Red Top Band that was composed of Joe Custard, Curtis Dunning, Napoleon Fleming, Anderson Hardwick, Jesse Hayes, Walter Osborne, Sr., Doc Raymond, Louis Spencer and Willard Tyler were seated at a VIP table near the stage. I don’t know whether it was impromptu or by design but the group suddenly got up, joined the Shaw Band and began to sing. They sang Work With Me Annie, One Scotch One Bourbon One Beer, One Mint Julep and a couple of other old r&b hallmarks of the 50’s. The crowd came alive and for those few precious moments we danced once again to those songs our parents didn’t want us to hear.  Then there was a murmur of anticipation amid the patrons because in their hearts and memories they knew what was coming.                     From the first bars a hush fell. Hands were joined, heads nodded and a few tears coursed down the faces of middle-age couples throughout the room. Rufus sang to us his paean to our time, clear and pure and mixed with love for the tradition of the ballad. And we knew for we had a hundred times awaited the last beautiful tenor note to come, “Oh Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love you so.”  ♫ ♫ The final service lasted about an hour. The little church was full. Several family members sang solo and Bill Morris delivered a thoughtful and emotional remembrance of his friend. Several in the congregation gave acknowledgments and expressions of their feelings and memories of Rufus, and once again we heard Danny Boy courtesy of a recording owned by Bill. The Rev. Dr. L.A. Hall, Sr., pastor of New Heroden delivered the eulogy and it was over and in Bill Morris’ words, “Rufus had gone to join the heavenly choir.” But it will never be over for those of us who were there some half century ago. It will be forever a part of our rite of passage to a world now so different and so tenuous. Gone are the days of our youth and the foolish, wondrous innocence of our country and its post-war generation.  I would give nothing in the days left to me for the occasion of my first black funeral. And I would give all of my yesterdays to hear Rufus McKay sing Danny Boy one more time.   Bill Harvey August 2014

4 thoughts on “Rufus McKay: The Singer, The Person, My Friend (part 2) by William “Bill” Morris, Jr

  1. Mona Sides Smith

    Thank you for honoring Rufus and out Southern style musical heritage. I am going to the piano right now to sing some Rufus-style blues.

  2. Gipson Wells

    What was Bill Morris’ class at Murrah? I’m having trouble placing him. (That’s not unusual–I’m having trouble placing lots of things these days.)

  3. mac gordon

    Bill, this is great stuff. I admire you for what you have done for the Red Tops and others. Please know,that we are developing an. Arts and Entertainment District in Mccomb to honor Bo Diddley, Jerry Clower, Prentiss Barnes and many other SW Mississippi greats. Come help us! Mac Gordon

    1. Bill Morris

      Mac,

      Aside from his oldest brother, I was probably Prentiss Barnes’ closest friend especially in his last years. I travelled with him when he was inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and I sang with him and his group at several venues. We were extremely close.

      I’m not sure how I can help at this time, but I’m excited to hear about what you’re doing.

      Bill

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