Sunday, December 6, 2009

Rusty McDonald on Chesterfield 354

Rusty McDonald at KRLD in Dallas, early 1940s. Courtesy Kevin Coffey collection.

Rusty McDonald (with) Maxwell Davis and his Band - Dirty Pool / Easy Big Mama (Chesterfield 354)

"Dirty Pool"

"Easy Big Mama"

In his book San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills, author Charles Townsend asserts that after Tommy Duncan's departure from the Texas Playboys 1948, Wills "never found a vocalist who even came close to suiting his music the way Duncan had." This is highly debatable. Myrl "Rusty" McDonald (1921-1979), who sang with the band briefly in 1950, was, if anything, a better, more versatile singer than Duncan. It was his vocal that helped make "Faded Love" such a huge hit for Wills, and it's easy to imagine him as a permanent replacement for Tommy. Yet by the time the Texas Playboys recorded again in 1951, McDonald was gone for good from the band; "Faded Love" remains the only record most people know him by.

It is one of the peculiarities of the record business that those with little or no singing ability tend to have the most ambition, and end up making dozens of records, while singers possessed of outstanding ability sometimes wind up in a dead end street, with perhaps a few inconsequential singles on odd labels. Such is the case with Rusty McDonald. Originally from Lawton, Oklahoma, McDonald was one of the many whose fame never traveled far outside of Texas. "Faded Love" was a hit, but the rest, on labels like Ayo, Intro, and Coast went nowhere.

Ambition, or rather the lack of one, may have played a role here. "Rusty was good," remembered his friend, guitarist Spud Goodall, "A good guitar player, and one of the best singers. But he was a beer joint player -- that's what he wanted to play. I brought him on with us I was with Tex Ritter (c.1948). He called me and said, 'Hey, I need some work bad.' I said OK. Tex liked him, too. He'd come and stay about two weeks, and then he'd say, 'I'm going back to Oklahoma.' Rusty, Charlie Harris, Troy Passmore -- they were beer joint players. They were more comfortable in the joints." Perhaps this helps explain his quick departure from the Texas Playboys, as well.

Billboard announced on November 27, 1954, that the Chesterfield label had been formed in Hollywood and McDonald had been signed. Whose idea it was to cut a rock and roll record with the Maxwell Davis Orchestra isn't known. Most country/western swing vocalists would have been out of place singing with a black R&B band, but Rusty demonstrates his versatility (this is about as far away from "Faded Love" as you can get) by acing these two songs completely. There is none of the contrivance that you usually get from country singers who jumped on the rock and roll bandwagon during this period.

Rusty was actually living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, during most of 1955, where he had a TV and radio gig. Based on ads that ran in the local newspaper, like the one below, "Easy Big Mama" did not represent any change of direction musically, and the paper made no mention of the new record.

Albuquerque Journal, February 26, 1955. 

Thanks to Al Turner and Kevin Coffey.

Updated March 22, 2018. 

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Blogger Kevin said...

As a teenager, into my twenties, I used to hang out at a music store in Fort Worth owned by a great character and storyteller named Billy Luttrell, who was a western swing guitarist who knew Rusty from the 1940s onward and worked with him as early as 1948. It was often hard to get all his stories straight, in terms of chronology and things like that, and he tended to jump from subject to subject like a pinball. I do remember a few things he told me. He said that Wills had a lot of disdain for McDonald after Rusty left the band. I guess Bob had high hopes; he referred to McDonald thereafter as "the lounge singer." I think was as much a stylistic jab as it was a reference to Rusty's preference for clubs. A couple of stories Billy told me I won't repeat here, but he did mention that he recalled Rusty joined Wills after a tour with an otherwise all-black band and only had the shirt on his back -- a shiny silk shirt in some pastel colour. Wills was ashast and sent him out to get cowboy boots and uniform. But that may be out of chronology, because I think Rusty was working with Richard Prine on the Gulf Coast when Wills heard him. Maybe not. There are great tapes of Rusty's band in Lawton at the Southern Club in 1960. Great band included Ivan Greathouse on steel, Bob Wommack on trumpet, Bobby Davis on guitar and a black drummer, Melvin Foley. Rusty worked a lot in Lawton over the years. Isn't there a later album with Rusty playing with a drum machine or something? I know that's what he was doing when he died -- working in central Texas in a clubby himself (temple or Belton maybe?). I think Rusty anticipated the Chesterfield sides with stuff like his Intro cover of Floyd Dixon's "Call Operator 210." Even his "Ouch" with Cliff Bruner showed an affinity for Jordan-like R & B. I guess the Intros were the closest Rusty came to possible stardom outside of Texas and Southern Oklahoma. He must have been in California off an on quite a bit from '51-54. His penultimate Intro session featured Eddie Kirk's all-star band of guys from Texas and Oklahoma -- Johnny Manson, Jimmy Belkin, Fred Burkhalter, Bill Carson, Lucky Word,Jack Loyd, etc. Nice stuff. I have a few things cut at someone's home (probably Rusty's longtime friend Buddy Wallis') in the years before Rusty died, on which he sings stuff like "Old Dogs, Children And Watermelon Wine" and, tellingly, "My Way." He makes them sound far better than they should.

December 6, 2009 at 5:10 PM  
Blogger Mellow said...

Very interesting! Thanks very much, I always enjoy your posts.


December 7, 2009 at 9:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting McDonald. I had previously heard only one side of it.

For whatever reason, nearly all of your earlier mp3s had played with VERY VERY low fi on my end, but these Chesterfield sides play fine.

Wondering if the previous poor fidelity inexplicably applied to my PC only or if you have done something on your end? I have no issues playing mp3s at other locations.

December 7, 2009 at 3:52 PM  
Blogger AB said...

I'm not aware of any audio problems...if anybody else has similar problems, please send me an email and I will try to repair them.

December 7, 2009 at 11:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Just an update to my comments about sound yesterday.

20 minutes ago, Fred Crawford "Lucky In Cards", plays fine, no issues, full volume.

15 minutes ago, Danny Ross "You're The One" plays very very low volume, as if Ross was 25 feet off mike.

Could be on your end or on my end. Oddity is that nowhere else do I get this behavior, including Westex, which I would guess is on same server?

Regardless, keep on--you are doin' a peach of a job.

December 8, 2009 at 1:25 PM  
Blogger AB said...

Both songs were converted to MP3s directly from vinyl, using the same levels. Playback for both is equal on my system.

December 8, 2009 at 9:44 PM  
Anonymous Harold Thomas said...

I would like for bear records or someone else to make a cd of all of Rusty Mcdonald songs. I lived in Lawton Okla and new Rusty very well. I remember his songs (black angel heart and (postage due) very good songs. Dark shadows creeping aound me in dreams both night and day here where you left me you'll find me and your black angel heart will pay. I got your letters this morning they made the tear drops start goodbye to you and our romance goodbye your black angel heart. these are some the words from black angel heart. Harold Thomas

June 27, 2010 at 12:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post about Rusty. He was my uncle, my mom's brother, and we are very proud of him and in awe of his musical talents and big heart. He was one of a kind.

August 2, 2010 at 1:25 PM  
Anonymous Mike McDonald said...

Rusty McDonald was my dad, and he was "one of a kind". I'm trying to bring his music to more people with a web page - I only have one song there now and some pictures but soon hope to put up several more, including the album he recorded live in Killeen, Texas around 1970. I'm not selling anything, just getting his music out there to those who might remember him and maybe some new people who like what they hear.
Mike McDonald

November 10, 2010 at 9:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting and enjoyable. Thank you for posting. I'm very interested in recordings with clear evidence of black-white musical interchange.

January 22, 2011 at 10:45 PM  
Blogger CJM said...

I worked at B&D Music for a few years in the 70's and knew Rusty and Buddy Wallis and a lot of the other old western swing guys. Not only was Rusty a great vocalist
but when he was hanging out in the store one day he picked up a fiddle and played the heck out of it. A lot of the western swing guys would drop by the store Jesse Ashlock, Johnny Harvey, Charlie Carpenter, the great Tommy Camfield and too many others to mention here. Billy Luttrell was responsible for Johnny Gimble starting to use a Polytone amp. There's a great story I'll try to post about Gimble an other time that shows what a great guy he is.

May 16, 2013 at 8:16 PM  
Blogger CJM said...

I et your dad while I was working at B&D Music in Fort Worth. Rusty was one of the nicest people I ever met. He was about to record a song I wrote but unfortunately he passed away before we could get to the studio. Rusty could have been as big or bigger that Sinatra or Bennet if he had wanted to, he was that great.

May 16, 2013 at 8:21 PM  
Blogger Colin McDonald said...

CJM, I am Rusty's Grandson, I was wondering if we could maybe talk a little bit. I'm very interested in hearing more about him, I unfortunately never had the chance to meet him, I was born a few years too late.

September 12, 2013 at 11:49 PM  
Blogger Brian Jordan, Copywriter said...

Buddy Wallis was my great uncle. I'd love to have the recordings that Kevin mentioned above.

October 22, 2013 at 3:36 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm your great niece.Grandma is Darla J. Warwick. Maiden name McDonald. :)

August 3, 2015 at 3:42 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Mike, I love your dad's song "I Didn't Realize". Does he have other songs that he wrote?

November 4, 2016 at 8:30 PM  

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