Between 1953 and 1974 the Vicksburg-based Red Tops entertained legions of dancers with their distinctive mix of blues, jazz, and pop. Under the strict direction of drummer and manager Walter Osborne, the group developed a devoted fan base across Mississippi and neighboring states. Most of the ten original members had played with an earlier Vicksburg band, the Rebops. Vocalist Rufus McKay’s rendition of “Danny Boy” was a crowd favorite.
The Red Tops were the most popular band in Mississippi during an era when nightlife centered on the dance floor and couples and hopeful singles donned their finest clothes for evenings out on the town. The group, part of a long line of dance bands in Vicksburg, started during World War II as the Rebops. On weekends the Rebops 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 leadership of drummer Walter Osborne, the Rebops reorganized as the Red Tops. Their first performance was at the Sequoia Hills Club in Bovina, just east of Vicksburg, on June 20, 1953. The majority of the Red Tops’ performances over the course of their history were for white audiences at venues including country clubs, restaurants, ballrooms, high schools, and colleges across Mississippi as well as in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. In Vicksburg these included the Vicksburg Auditorium, site of an annual New Year’s Eve dance; the Hotel Vicksburg; and the “BB Club,” housed at this location in the elaborate quarters of the B’nai B’rith Literary Association.
The group also performed regularly for African American audiences at clubs including 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 local doo-wop group that included future blues recording artist Terry Evans. Saxophonist/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 ‘60s Hardwick and vocalist Rufus McKay left the Red Tops and formed the Fabulous Corvettes, a band whose repertoire was more blues and R&B-oriented than the Red Tops’.
Most Red Tops 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 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 Jackson Street. The Red Tops stopped performing regularly in the mid-‘70s but reunited on a number of special occasions. Multi-instrumentalist Andy Hardwick continued performing regularly as a jazz pianist, while Rufus McKay moved to Las Vegas and sang with Stanley Morgan’s Ink Spots and other vocal groups before returning to Vicksburg in 2000.
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