Born Charles Edward York, 24 May 1935, Gray's Knob, Harlan County, Kentucky. Died 26 January 2014, Redington Shores, Florida.
Rusty York's brief moment in the spotlight revolved around his # 77 hit "Sugaree" in 1959. These days he drives a Rolls Royce, but not from his royalties as a singer.
Rusty grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round from Knoxville. His earliest idols were bluegrass artists : Jimmie Skinner and Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs. After the York family moved from rural Kentucky to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1952, Rusty started a bluegrass duo with Willard Hale, playing the local clubs. Just as his bluegrass career was taking off, Elvis burst onto the scene. Rusty worked "Mystery Train" into his act and the crowd went wild. "I liked it", he said, "but I thought it would be a flash-in-the-pan and I'd go back to country". Then Rusty and Willard got to know Jimmie Skinner, who was not about to rock or roll. York gave up his day job at the stockbroker's office to work at Jimmie Skinner's Music Center.
Rusty's first recordings ("Sweet Love" and a rockabilly version of "The Girl Can't Help It") were made at the Rite Studio, in early 1957. Rite Records was a small Cincinnati label, run by Carl Burkhardt. Rusty paid for his session at Rite. He tried to sell the masters, but no one was interested. The next stop, in the autumn of 1957, was the biggest game in town : King Records. They were looking for a Buddy Holly soundalike and half-jokingly Rusty said that he could do the job. The King people had him cover "Peggy Sue", with a remake of Roy Brown's "Shake' Em Up Baby" on the flip (King 5103). This was soon followed by a cover of Billy & Lillie's "La Dee Dah", on which Rusty duetted with Bonnie Lou (King 5110).
By 1958, York had assembled a band, the Cajuns, which consisted of himself on vocals and guitar, Bill Lanham on bass, a blind saxophone player called Jimmy Risch, John Bower on piano and Rick Lundy on drums. This group backed 14-year old Jackie Shannon (as Jackie De Shannon then called herself) on "Just Another Lie", which was licensed to Fraternity (836), Dot (15928) and Sage (290)! There's a note in Fraternity's files which reads "Drop the bitch. She's sending her masters all over the place." The B-side was a searing instru- mental by the Cajuns, called "Cajun Blues". At this point, the chronology of Rusty's recordings is a bit fuzzy : the great rocker "Sadie Mae" was probably recorded in late 1958 (Sage 266, with the Cajuns) and a bluegrass session with Willard Hale for Starday probably in early 1959.
In March or April 1959, York was back at King for what he thought would be another instrumental session. He had reworked "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain" into the Duane Eddy-like "Red Rooster". After recording this guitar instrumental, a B-side was needed. Rusty's manager Pat Nelson suggested "Sugaree", a Marty Robbins composition that the Jordanaires had recorded in November 1956 (Capitol 3610). York remembered about 50% of the lyrics and invented the rest on the spot. "We finished it in two takes, and everybody liked it better than the instrumental. We took it to RCA, we took it to Mercury, we took it to everybody, and nobody was interested". Then he formed PJ Records with Pat Nelson and put "Sugaree" out on their own label. It sold so well that King Records covered it with one of their own artists, Hank Ballard (using the York version of the lyrics). Soon it became clear that "Sugaree" was too big for PJ Records. First it was sold to Note Records in Indianapolis, whose owner (Mel Herman) in his turn sold the master to Chess. Its peak position of # 77 (pop) in Billboard may not be impressive, but the record kept on selling for quite some time, building up a total of over 500,000 copies. York quit his day job at Skinner's record shop and appeared on American Bandstand and at the Hollywood Bowl, among other venues.
Considering the sales of "Sugaree", it's surprising that there was no follow-up on Chess. "Sweet Talk", intended as such, remained unissued for 19 years. "One, One, One, Wonderful" (1960) was another instrumental for Sage and a good one at that. A May 1961 session for King yielded two fine singles ("Love Struck"/"Goodnight Cincinnati, Good Morning Tennessee" and "Tore Up Over You"/"Tremblin'"), but York never had another hit. He was never more than a reluctant rock n roller, so it is no surprise that he went back to his roots : bluegrass and country. Starting in the summer of 1964, Rusty began working as a frontman and sideman for Bobby Bare, and in 1965 he fronted Bare's band during a three-month European tour.
Around this time, York started building up his studio business. When Bare told him in 1966 that the party was over, he all but gave up the performing side of the business and concentrated on his recording studio (in Mount Healthy, a suburb of Cincinnati) and his own record label, Jewel, for which he rerecorded "Sugaree" in 1966, with a "Pretty Woman"-styled beat. In 1968 he released a straight country album on Jewel, "Rusty York Sings Like Crazy" (reissued as "Sings Country Like Crazy" on CD in 2004). The Jewel label recorded mostly bluegrass and country. Lonnie Mack recorded some of his Elektra sessions at York's studio and together they did a banjo-guitar album called "Duelin' Banjos" for QCA Records (1973). After some 45 years of operating his Jewel Recording Studios, York retired recently. As a singer, he was making $ 50 a night and barely surviving, but he knew there was "a safe end of the music business", as he describes it. He found it and it made him a wealthy man, with very few regrets for the singing career that might have been.
- More info: http://www.rockabillyhall.com/RustyYork1.html
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