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.