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Red Tops crooner dies at 87

Published 10:58 am Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rufus Lee McKay, the vocalist for Vicksburg’s iconic Red Tops died Monday at River Region Medical Center. He was 87.

Between 1953 and 1974, the Red Tops entertained audiences with their distinctive mix of blues, jazz, and pop.

McKay’s death leaves 80-year-old Andy Hardwick as the only living original member of the original group.

“Rufus was the key attraction,” Hardwick said Tuesday.

McKay, is perhaps best remembered for his rendition of “Danny Boy,” which became a crowd favorite.

“When he would sing that song, people would stop dancing and come sit in front of the band stand, some crying, some sitting in awesome wonder,” Hardwick said. “Nobody sung “Danny Boy” like Rufus.”

The first time McKay performed his signature song, he told The Vicksburg Post in 2011, was during a dance at an Ole Miss sorority house.

“It just popped in my mind,” he said.

McKay noticed a woman standing nearby who was crying, and later learned later that her son Danny had been killed in war.

“That’s one reason I started closing my eyes when I sang,” McKay said.

In an era of segregation, the Red Tops helped cross the color barrier by performing from audiences of all races.

“I would say 98 percent of performances were for white folks,” Hardwick said.

They never encountered any racial violence while on tour. However, the potential was there one night at the Wagon Wheel in Jackson for a highly volatile situation.

The Wagon Wheel had a low bandstand, and while McKay sang a woman climbed onto stage and took him by the hand and held it.

“I could see the black help — the cooks and waiters — looking,” McKay said in 2011. “They didn’t know what was going to happen. There was a white lady holding a black man’s hand in an all-white club with a black band. We just kept playing.”

There were plenty of humorous times, too. During a Red Tops performance in Bastrop, La., McKay put on a ratty old hat and got into character for a song titled “Drunk.” A constable jumped up on stage and pulled McKay off the bandstand.

“He thought Rufus was really drunk. They were going to take him to jail. That tickled us to death,” Hardwick said. “He found it hilarious.”

Before the Red Tops, McKay and Hardwick performed in the Rebops. Hardwick was just 13, and McKay and other members of the band were mentors.

“They kept me from the evils of the road,” Hardwick said.

McKay and Hardwick later broke out on their own and formed The Corvettes.

“We played a lot of new stuff,” Hardwick said. “We never went back to the Red Tops. That was it.”

The Corvettes didn’t have the same following as the Red Tops, and broke up after not being able to land secure work Afterward, McKay moved to Las Vegas before eventually settling in Vicksburg.

“I’ll miss him. We went our separate ways when he got back here,” Hardwick said.

Funeral services for McKay are pending with Dillon-Chisley Funeral Home.