Rusty York R.I.P. January 26, 2014



Charles Edward York was born in the rugged hills of Harlan County, Ky., on May 24, 1935. The elder York worked in the coal mines and moved around to various coal camps as he had trouble holding a job because of his erratic habits. However, he did buy his boy a guitar and taught him the one chord he knew; but for the most part young York was self-taught. He listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights and to the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round and Cas Walker programs from Knoxville radio. Eventually, the York family moved to Perry County and the youth started high school in Viper. Rusty recalls singing songs on the school bus such as "Hillbilly Fever" and "I Couldn't Believe It Was True." When the Yorks moved to Breathitt County, the school in Jackson actually had a string band. Also about 1951, both Homer Harris, and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs played shows locally. Charles York was especially taken by Earl and his blue grass banjo styling. He soon got a tenor banjo and remade it into a five-string. A little later, he obtained a conventional five-string banjo and began to learn the Scruggs style.

On Rusty's 17th birthday May 24, 1952, his family left Kentucky for Cincinnati. They moved into the "Over-the-Rhine" area which had some time earlier shed its original German image and become an Appalachian ghetto. Within a few weeks, the elder York passed away and the boy had to go to work, initially finding a job in the kitchen at Walt's Restaurant (later Frisch's). As a result, he never finished high school, but did move up the economic ladder by becoming an office boy in a stockbroker's firm. Meanwhile, be began to take in the local club scene during the evenings.

At a place called Larry's cafe, York encountered some country musicians and began to sit in with them. As he recalls, some time elapsed before he learned that the others were getting paid. Meanwhile he met a fine banjo picker named Wilson Spivey who played on WZIP radio in Covington, Ky., and WPFB at Middletown on Saturdays and took a few lessons from him. Soon he met a guitar picker-vocalist named Willard Hale who had migrated from Somerset, Ky. The two soon went on their own and were making five dollars each night in the clubs plus tips. Charles' sister had bought him a good used guitar that had the name "Rusty" on it. Club patrons began calling him "Rusty" and he found it easier to keep the new nickname than change it. Thus, did Charles York become Rusty York.

Willard and Rusty worked quite some time in clubs like the Old Hickory as a guitar-bango duet and sometimes playing two guitars. Then rock-and-roll began to make an impact, or as Rusty related to Neil Rosenberg "even country boys started liking Elvis." Willard and Rusty didn't much care for the new styling. Rusty recalls club patrons would say "Do you know 'Hound Dog'" and he would respond with "how about 'Little Cabin Home On The Hill.'" One he did "Mystery Train" more as a joke and the fans loved it. Soon they were doing mostly rock-and-roll songs, but would still perform about 15 minutes of bluegrass nightly.

Meanwhile, Rusty and Willard made the acquaintance of Jimmie Skinner when he played at a nearby park. Having become a Skinner fan before he left Kentucky, Rusty hit it off well and they soon became more or less regulars on his live shows and did some radio work with him as well. Eventually, Rusty left the stockbroker's office and helped Skinner in a variety of ways. Jimmie did a live broadcast from the Jimmie Skinner Music Center on weekday mornings that Rusty would help engineer, cue up discs, and play some music. Then he hight help package records for the mail order business for the remainder of the day. By evenings, he would work in the clubs, sometimes going out with Jimmie Skinner, and doing at least one tour with Hylo Brown in his early days with Capitol records.

At the Opry, 1957: Rusty on banjo, Jimmie Skinner, Lightning Chance on bass.
Marvin Hughes and Don Warden in the background.

Despite his earlier immersion in bluegrass, Rusty did his first recordings in the rockabilly field at Carl Burkhardt's studio. The latter did covers of major hits and sold them at budget prices as released on Gateway and other labels (early Sonny Osborne recordings on this label were similar covers of Monroe and Flatt-Scruggs favorites). Rusty's first sides were covers of "The Girl Can't Help It" and "Sweet Love." Later he got a bigger break when Syd Nathan wanted a quick cover recording of Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue," which landed York in the King Records studio on November 29, 1957. He backed the release with "Shake 'Em Up baby," a Little Richard song. Some weeks later, Rusty did his first bluegrass session for Mercury cutting his original banjo tune "Dixie Strut" which appeared in February 1958 as the flip side of Connie Hall's "I'm The Girl In The U.S.A." Rusty played lead guitar on the Hall side which was an answer to Jimmie Skinner's "I Found My Girl In The U.S.A. In fact, Rusty played lead guitar on many of Jimmie's Mercury sessions from late 1957 and thereafter. He played resonator guitar on his album of Jimmie Rodgers songs, and often backed him on banjo during part of his stage shows.

Rusty with George Jones, Ray Price and the Everly Brothers.

1957: Rusty, Brenda Lee, Connie Hall and Jimmie Skinner.

In 1959, Rusty and Willard Hale cut three bluegrass masters released on Starday, "Don't Do It," "Banjo Breakdown," and "The Lock On Your Heart," the first two of which appeared on Starday's "Banjo In The Hills" (SLP 104) album and the last title only on a single. As on the "Dixie Strut" session, Billy Thomas on fiddle and Herman Kress on bass provided instrumental support. Later in 1960 and 1961 this same twosome augmented by Curly Tuttle on mandolin and Bill Lanham on guitar would provide the personnel for Rusty York and the Kentucky Mountain Boys, a studio group that recorded four extended play albums of six songs each for sale through the Jimmie Skinner Music Center (the fourth release appeared only on Rusty's Jewel label).

Duane Eddy holds the paper as Dean, Freddy Cannon, Bobby Rydell, Jan, Rusty and Santo look on.

York also continued to cut rock-and-roll material in 1958 and 1959. On January 9, 1958, Syd Nathan paired Rusty with the Midwestern Hayride's favorite songstress Bonnie Lou to do a cover recording of the Billy and Lillie hit "La Dee Dah" and a Henry Glover original titled "Let The School Bell Ring, Ding A Ling." In 1959, he did a single for Fraternity called "Cajun Blues" and "Just Another Lie," the former title of which provided his rock-and-roll trio with a name: the Cajuns. A few weeks later a friend named Pat Nelson rented the king studio for an independent session intended for his PJ label. One side consisted of an up-tempo version of "Comin' Round The Mountain" retitled "Red Rooster." They filled out the other side with a Marty Robbins number titled "Sugaree." The other two sides featured Rusty and Cajuns backing an aspiring teenager named Jackie De Shannon who would later have two major pop hits including a certified million seller. Surprisingly, "Sugaree" caught on. Nelson leased the master to Note and then to Chess, an R&B label that had turned out a string of hits for Chuck Berry and many others. Soon Rusty York Found himself on tour with Dick Clark of American Bandstand fame. That tour included a sellout appearance at the Hollywood Bowl. Others on the package show included Frankie Avalon, Duane Eddy, and teen sweetheart Annette Funicello, who Rusty recalls as being really as sweet and beautiful as she looked, and closely chaperoned by her mother. As Rusty and the Cajuns opened the show, they had the honor of being the first rock act to play the Hollywood Bowl. "Sugaree" made both the Billboard (#77) and Cash Box (#69 on pop and #29 on R&B) charts, but as York had no follow-up hit, he soon found himself back in the clubs of his adopted Queen City.

Rusty continued to record. In addition to his aforementioned bluegrass material he cut a pair of duets with Casey Clark's daughter Harlene for the folk market. He also did another session for King. This time Syd Nathan tried to mix country with R&B, putting Rusty's vocal sound with Hank Ballard's Midnighters. The highlight of the may 24, 1961 studio date was a new version of "Goodnight Cincinnati, Good Morning Tennessee," an old original of Louis Innis that the composer made for the country market a decade earlier. Sometime in this period Rusty signed to do an extensive foreign tour with Esco Hankins. They took pictures but for some now forgotten reason the tour was canceled.

In the summer of 1964, Rusty went on the road again, this time as a frontman and bandleader for Bobby Bare who was ascending the ladder of country success. He stayed with Bobby off and on for about five years working quite a bit in Las Vegas where he met numerous musical celebrities including Liberace. The famed pianist found the finger work of bluegrass banjo pickers truly amazing, recalls Rusty. During the Bare era, York recorded some country material including a pair of Harlan Howard songs "That's What I Need"/"Just Like You" that were picked by Capitol. They never went anywhere, but Rusty was glad to be on a major label, if only briefly. Most of the material appeared on either the New Star label, or Jewel which was York's own company, started in a garage-type studio near his home in suburban Mt. Healthy, Ohio.

Although Rusty York continued to work for Cincinnati clubs throughout the '60s and into the '70s he spent less time there and devoted more efforts to Jewel Records. One of his first major customers was bluegrass gospel stalwart J.D. Jarvis. Not only did Jarvis do several custom albums released on Jewel but Uncle Jim O'Neal paid Rusty to produce those released on Rural rhythm. Rusty played on some of these releases in addition to producing and engineering them. One side of the second album featured his vocal work while Fred Spencer and Jarvis played rhythm guitars; Harley Gabbard played resonator guitar and Jackie Sanderson bass. Rusty says that the Jarvis albums were of key significance in helping to get Jewel Records off the ground in those early days.

In addition to material released on the Jewel label, other companies including Vetco made use of his studio. Over the years several bluegrass luminaries have made recordings there. Rusty is especially proud of two albums that Mac Wiseman made there with the help of the Shenandoah Cutups, plus Buddy Griffin, and Jeff Terflinger. Katie Laur, Hylo Brown, Jimmie Skinner, the Boys from Indiana, Joe Isaacs, the Russell Brothers, Larry Sparks, and Ralph Stanley have all used the Jewel Studio for sessions. Several lesser known but quality gospel artists have cut there, including George Brock (with Neil Rosenburg on banjo), and the VanWinkle Brothers. Esco Hankins did his "Working God's Fields" and other albums as well for Rusty. Brother Claude Ely did some of his last recordings for Jewel. Jean Shepard cut a country album there when she was between contracts. The Grateful Dead and Lonnie Mack have made use of the facilities. A great deal of black gospel, soul, and rap music has also been recorded there in the studio on Kinney Avenue.

In 1968, Rusty went back to Nevada and worked for a few months but became increasingly disgusted. Before going he cut a straight country album titled "Rusty York Sings Like Crazy" which included not only that particular Willie Nelson song but other standards like "Wolverton Mountain" and "Saginaw Michigan." Not long after his return from Nevada was when he made the decision to work harder on making Jewel studios a success.

At the time, York recalled he was making about $50 per week in the clubs. His first week in the studio yielded about the same amount. At one point he borrowed some cash from Jimmie Skinner and even did a little painting with J.D. Jarvis' paint contracting business to get extra money, but eventually got enough ahead to move out of his garage studio into a rented building that he eventually purchased. Putting his profits back into the business for a time enabled him to eventually develop a quality studio. Rusty views himself as something of a survivor on the Queen City's recording studio scene. He proudly points out that when he started King was not only still in business but also Rite, K and S, and Carl Burkhardt. And while he never had a studio, Harry Carlson's Fraternity records made a significant impact on the musical scene as well. At one time or another, Rusty recorded for all of them, but today only Jewel is still in business.

LEFT: Rusty, Bill Helm in Montana, August, 1994.
RIGHT: Lonnie Mack, Lonnie's fathers, Rusty, Dickie Betts.

Rusty's last venture into bluegrass as a recording artist came in 1973 when he did a bluegrass banjo album with Lonnie Mack on guitar. Designed to make the most of the current banjo fad associated with the popular film Deliverance, it was titled "Dueling Banjos" and contained 16 tunes. In addition to himself and Lonnie, Junior Bennett played fiddle and on numbers that used twin banjos, Vernon McIntyre played the second one. Although the album was cut in the Jewel studio, it was released on QCA. Rusty plays relatively little anymore although he did do a tour of Europe in 1991 performing his rockabilly numbers and also appeared at a rock-and-roll oldies concert in Cincinnati. A German label Gee Dee has released a compact disc "The Cincinnati Fireball" containing many of his rockabilly sides and the Mercury anthology "Best Of Bluegrass," contains his banjo tune "Dixie Strut." Otherwise his bluegrass recordings are all out of print, although he is considering releasing a compact disc of them on Jewel. Several of the numbers on which he backed Jimmie Skinner appear on the 1988 Bear Family LP "Another Saturday Night" (BFX 15266). The "Jimmie Skinner Sings Jimmie Rodgers" classic that features Rusty's great resonator guitar work is also available in Europe.

LEFT: 1982 - Rusty York, Jerry Springer, Bobby Borchers, Jr. Bennett.
RIGHT:Rusty at Jewel Recording Studios, 1967, Cinncinati, OH

A visit to Rusty York and Jewel Studios is a nostalgic trip through 45 years of Cincinnati music history. Side junkets into other aspects of Queen City music and excursions into the national bluegrass and country scene adorn his conversations. His stories about an all-night recording session with Don Reno and Red Smiley when they all eventually sacked out on the floor, or the backseat jam session with himself on resonator guitar and Merle Haggard singing Jimmie Rodgers tunes all the way across Arizona are well worth hearing. The folks who plan the "Bluegrass Stories" segment at the IBMA convention are missing the boat if they don't work Rusty in soon. (For a sidelight, he can also throw in a few experiences with Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, and Dick Clark.) His adventures in bluegrass and other forms of music are not only fascinating, they are significant in their own right.

1956: Gene Riley, Rusty and Willard Hale

Cincinnati Rockabilly: In the Beginning

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