Born Clyde Russell Isabell, circa 1940, Phoenix, Arizona

Those who have followed my SAO contributions over the years will know that I'm a great fan of piano rock 'n'roll. An interesting but rather obscure representative of this genre is Rusty Isabell, whose staccato attack on the 88 keys combines intensity with a rare precision. The only pianist known to me with a somewhat comparable style is the former Bruce Springsteen accompanist Roy Bittan in his wilder moments (for instance on Bob Seger's "The Fire Inside", one of my favourite records from the 1980s).

Not much is known about Isabell. His Christian name is probably Russell, though I've also seen a reference to Clyde "Rusty" Isabell in the booklet accompanying Bear Family's "Rockin' and Boppin' in the Desert" (page 12).

The first time I encountered the name Rusty Isabell was in October 1959, in an advertisement by Delahaye Records (the company that represented Top Rank in the Netherlands in its early stages) in Muziek Parade, a Dutch music monthly that I subscribed to at the time. Twenty new releases on Top Rank - a label that had started its European operations just a few months earlier - were mentioned, among them "Firewater" by Rusty Isabell on Top Rank HTR 524. However, I cannot remember hearing the record on the radio back then. During the fifties, Dutch radio was even more conservative than the BBC in its programming of popular music. The disc was not released in the UK, which precluded its being played on Radio Luxembourg. (At least in the evening hours, during the English- language broadcasts. There was also a Dutch-language morning program on Luxembourg, but the music there was hardly ever interesting.) I think I first heard an Isabell record in 1965, in a weekly Monday night rock & roll programme on Radio Veronica, a Dutch pirate station, operating from the North Sea. For this particular instalment, Henk van Raay, then vice-president of the Dutch Jerry Lee Lewis Fan Club, had been invited to spin some of his favourite platters. He had brought along the Top Rank single by Isabell. However, it was not the A-side, "Firewater", that got its first (?) Dutch airplay, but the other side, "The Blast". The title says it all. This pounding piano instrumental made a deep impression on me, though my attempts to find a copy of the disc remained fruitless for several decades. I found someone who had the single, though, and he was willing to tape both sides for me. "Firewater" proved to be quite something as well, but "The Blast" was THE side for me and I still consider it to be one of the best R&R instrumentals ever.

But this was not Isabell's first record. He first recorded for Frank Porter's Porter label out of Phoenix, Arizona, under the name of Red "Hot" Russell, a name given to him by his friend Don Cole. "Stop"/"Pedro Joe" (both vocal sides) was released on Porter 5012 in March 1958. The romping A-side was written by Don Cole, whose original wild version of "Stop" is available on the "Phoenix Panorama, The Viv Labels" Bear Family box set. Cole and Isabell also recorded as the Rio Rockers, together with an unknown drummer. "Mexicali Baby" (written and sung by Isabell, with a thumping piano solo) / "Mexican Rock and Roll" (written by Cole, a restrained piano/guitar instrumental) was recorded for Frank Porter, but leased to Capitol (3884).

Porter had four unissued sides in the can by Rusty Isabell and these were released forty years later, in 1998, on the Bear Family CD "The Porter Records Story" (BCD 16272), with a picture of red-haired Rusty on the cover. Two were instrumentals : "Slinky" (sensational !) and "Jaybi", the other two vocals : "Little Miss Butte" (done Jerry Lee Lewis style) and "Yi Yi". This CD (which I can recommend) also includes the four tracks from Porter 5012 and Capitol 3884, mentioned above.

Isabell then went on to record for Bobby Shad's Brent label in New York City. "Firewater"/"The Blast" (Brent 7001, which received a positive review in Billboard) was followed by "Manhunt"/"I Give Up" (both sides only average) on Brent 7006, both from 1959. "Firewater" (probably with Don Cole on guitar) was a regional hit in Arizona.

By the late 60s Rusty was playing at The Showboat in Las Vegas, where he recorded a live album of honky tonk piano favourites. (At least, this is what John P. Dixon tells us in the Bear Family booklet ; I've never seen this LP mentioned anywhere else, let alone seen the actual record.) "The Blast" was finally issued on CD in 2002, on the CD "More Rockin' on Broadway" (Ace CDCHD 853). I have to agree with Jim Raper who wrote in his NDT review (Now Dig This 233, August 2002) : "The Blast is a wild piano instrumental but sounds a bit tinny next to my original Brent 45." (In my case, make that my Dutch Top Rank 45.) This CD also includes the instrumental "I Give Up". Its predecessor, "Rockin' On Broadway" (Ace 758), includes "Firewater", which is also on "Rockin' and Boppin' in the Desert : Arizona Rockabilly, Vol. 1" (Bear Family BCD 16230 AR). There is also a mysterious track called "Rusty's Boogie" on the Collector CD "Hot Rockin' Instrumentals". If there are any further Rusty Isabell releases, please let me know.

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