Mississippi’s most popular dance band during an era when couples and hopeful singles donned their finest clothes for evenings out on the town, Vicksburg’s Red Tops played pop songs, blues, and jazz between the 1950s and 1970s. The Red Tops, whose members were African American, first performed at the Sequoia Hill Club in Bovina, east of Vicksburg, on 20 June 1953, but most of the ten original members had played with an earlier Vicksburg band, the Rebops, that had started performing during World War II. The Rebops frequently played on Morrissey’s Showboat, a barge moored on DeSoto Island on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River, where alcohol laws were less strict than in Mississippi.
Under the direction of drummer and manager Walter Osborne, the Red Tops developed a devoted fan base. Most of the group’s performances were on weekends, as all of the members had full-time day jobs. Unlike most bands, the Red Tops operated very strictly as a business, with detailed ledgers, annual audits, and bookings often scheduled a year in advance. Their matching red uniforms were tailor-made, members were subject to regular inspections and rules of conduct, and rehearsals were held every Monday evening at the YMCA on Vicksburg’s Jackson Street. The group was named after the hit song “Red Top,” recorded by Gene Ammons (1947) and King Pleasure (1953). In 1957 the Red Tops released their only studio recording, the single “Swanee River Rock”/“Hello, Is That You?,” on Greenville’s Sky label. Both songs were written by Leland tunesmith Floyd Huddleston, who also wrote music for Hollywood films, and were recorded at Sam Phillips’s Memphis Recording Service.
The Red Tops performed primarily for white audiences at venues including country clubs, restaurants, ballrooms, high schools, and colleges across Mississippi as well as in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. They were particularly known for lead singer Rufus McKay’s rendition of “Danny Boy” as well as for humorously acting out the themes of songs such as “Baseball Game” and “Drunk.” McKay was so convincing in acting out the latter that he was nearly arrested at one show.
Other African American groups in Mississippi that played largely for white dances during this era included the Greenville group led by Winchester “Little Win” Davis, Clarksdale’s Top Hatters, Columbus’s Rhythm Kings, and the Tupelo group led by George “Bally” Smith.
The Red Tops also performed regularly for African American audiences at the Blue Room in Vicksburg, Stevens Rose Room in Jackson, Ruby’s Night Spot in Leland, the Harlem Inn in Winstonville, the Plaza Hotel in Greenwood, and various Elks lodges. They were joined on occasion by blues harmonica great Sonny Boy Williamson II or the Knights, a doo-wop group that included future blues recording artist Terry Evans. Saxophonist and bassist Anderson “Andy” Hardwick, the youngest of the Red Tops, spent many summers touring with various national artists, including Lowell Fulson, B. B. King, Otis Redding, Fats Domino, and James Brown. In the early 1960s Hardwick and McKay left the Red Tops and formed the Fabulous Corvettes. McKay also recorded a solo single for Jackson’s Ace Records.
The Red Tops stopped performing regularly in the mid-1970s but reunited on a number of special occasions. Hardwick continues to perform as a jazz pianist, while McKay moved to Las Vegas and sang with Stanley Morgan’s Ink Spots and other groups before returning to Vicksburg in 2000. He died in July 2014.
- Blues Archive, University of Mississippi Libraries, website, http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/general_library/archives/blues/
- Sherry Lucas, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (21 July 2014); Mississippi Blues Trail website, msbluestrail.org