Singer Rusty Draper was one of the biggest crossover stars of the early '50s, selling over a million records to pop and country audiences before the rise of rock & roll derailed his career.
Born Farrell Draper in Kirksville, MO, on January 25, 1920, he received his first guitar at age ten, and within two years made his radio debut on Tulsa station WTUL's Cy Perkins Show. From there, Draper hosted his own show on Des Moines outlet WWHO, occasionally substituting for sports announcer Ronald "Dutch" Reagan. He also cut a demo for RCA Bluebird, but the label declined to offer a contract. In 1938 the Drapers relocated to San Bernardino, CA. When he proved unable to resume his fledgling music career, Rusty worked as a Western Union messenger boy before pawning his guitar to fund a trip to San Francisco in search of a performing gig. He finally landed a residency at the Bay Area nightclub the Barn, after a year accepting a proposed two-week stay at the nearby Rumpus Room; two weeks ultimately turned into eight years, and during his tenure at the Rumpus Room, Draper met his wife Macia Willsey, who soon took over management of his career. Willsey landed him appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts as well as his own local San Francisco television showcase, and in mid-1952 the singer signed to Mercury and issued his debut single, "How Could You (Blue Eyes)."
Draper's early Mercury efforts, including "Devil of a Woman" and "Sing Baby Sing," generated little interest at radio, and even "Release Me," a 1952 duet with Patti Page, failed to jump-start his career. In early 1953 he nevertheless mounted a national club tour, and the publicity gave a much-needed push to his sixth Mercury release, a cover of the Carlisles' country hit "No Help Wanted." In June, Draper released "Gambler's Guitar," and everything clicked -- the record sold over a million copies and not only reached the country Top Ten, but also cracked the pop charts. The follow-up, "Bummin' Around," failed to match its predecessor's success, however, but Draper quickly rebounded with "Lighthouse" and "Native Dancer," both of which reached the number 23 slot. He struggled in 1954 with a series of little-noticed releases including "I Love to Jump," "The Workshop of the Lord," and "Shame on You," but hit paydirt again in 1955 with the Top 20 pop hit "Seventeen," peaking at number three with the follow-up, "The Shifting, Whispering Sands," and closing out the year with "Are You Satisfied?," which flirted with the Top Ten. During 1956, Draper remained a radio fixture with "Held for Questioning" and "House of Cards," and returned to the Top 20 with "In the Middle of the House." (Vaughn Monroe's competing version hit number 11.)
Draper entered 1957 weakly, scoring only minor chart success with "Let's Go Calypso" and "Tiger Lily," but a cover of Chas McDevitt's U.K. skiffle smash "Freight Train" returned him to the Top Ten by year's end. From there Draper's brand of middle-of-the-road country-pop again fell out of favor, and singles like "June, July and August," "With This Ring," and "Can You Depend on Me?" sold poorly. His 1960 reading of "Muleskinner Blues" proved a surprise British Top 40 hit, while its flip side, a cover of Hank Locklin's classic "Please Help Me, I'm Falling," reached the number 54 spot on the U.S. pop charts. With 1961's rendition of Cowboy Copas' "Signed, Sealed and Delivered," Draper scored his final hit for Mercury, and after issuing "Beggar to a King" the following summer, he left the label to sign with Monument, reaching number 57 on the pop charts in the fall of 1953 with Willie Nelson's "Night Life." A comeback was not in the cards, however, and subsequent Monument efforts "It Should Be Easier" and "I'm Worried About Me" went nowhere. The label terminated his contract following 1966's "Mystery Train," although he hung around the lower rungs of the country charts for the remainder of the decade via minor hits like "My Elusive Dreams," "California Sunshine," and "Buffalo Nickel." Draper remained a steady concert draw in years to follow, and also appeared in stage musicals and on television; in 1980, he squeaked into the country charts one final time with "Harbor Lights." Draper died of pneumonia in Bellevue, WA, on March 29, 2003. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi