“America’s Only Male Torch Singer”

Guest Writer: Bishop Hartsel Clifton Shirley

A torch song is a sentimental love song, typically one in which the singer laments an unrequited or lost love–either where one party is oblivious to the existence of the other, where one party has moved on, or where a romantic affair has affected the relationship.  The term derives from the saying “to carry a torch for someone.”

Torch-singing is more of a niche than a genre and can stray from the traditional jazz-influenced style of singing.  Customarily, the American tradition of the torch song relies upon the melodic structure of the blues.  One writer described it saying, “It’s more about a sensibility evoked by a combination of the singer, her voice, the melody, the story, her performance, and the lyric, that especially touches the listener.”

Typically, especially in the early 20th century, torch singing has been dominated by women.  All of this makes Mr. Rudy Richardson more of an enigma during his time.

Rudolph Richardson Riles was born on September 30, 1923, in Memphis, Tennessee to Cyrus Lockett and Martha Marie Waidlington.  It‘s assumed that Rudy’s surname was a result of his mother’s affair or earlier marriage to a man with the last name of Riles.

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When he was three, the family moved to Chicago.  Shortly after Rudy graduated from DuSable High School, he began singing as Rudolphe Richardson,  “America’s Only Male Torch Singer.”

In 1944, the vocalist worked frequently at Rudy’s Chicken Shack, El Casino, Rupneck’s, Kennedy’s Honey Dripper Lounge, and The Hurricane – all located in the Windy City’s famous Bronzeville area–known as a covert gay area of the city for Blacks.  Popular musicians such as Tony Jackson, Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon, George Hannah, and Sippie Wallace–who were quite open about their sexuality–  had made their mark in that section of Chicago.

Most often accompanying himself on piano, Rudy joined the ranks of these Bronzeville legends as an openly effeminate man.  In the 1940s, Rudy appeared at the Flamingo Lounge, known as “one of 63rd Street’s gay spots;”  this was quite a while before the terms  “gay” or “homosexual” were ever used in everyday speech.   The singer also was known to perform regularly at the annual Finnie’s Fancy Dress Ball.

This event, the most famous of the Chicago drag balls, first occurred in 1935.  Organized by Black gay street hustler and gambler Alfred Finnie, the ball was held in the basement of a tavern on the corner of 38th street and Michigan Avenue.

Rudy began his career in 1946, recording in New Jersey on a minor record label called Manor.  The songs included  “They Raided the Joint,” “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water,” and “Walkie Talkie.”   Not long after, in August of 1946, he signed with Chicago’s Miracle Records, who threw a release party.

On Miracle Records, Rudy had his biggest hit: “Chauffeur.”  This song included a spoken monologue:  “Chauffeur take me home, I’m really gone, don’t think I’m wiggin’ man, I’m just gone, you understand.”   The performer was known for being scandalous or sleazy in a casual or alluring way, or “louche.”

In 1949, Rudy recorded more songs for a smaller Windy City label, Rim Records, which released songs such as “If You Get It” and “You Made My Heart Cry Out.”  Steady work at the nightclubs kept Rudy busy, including a residency at the Kitty Kat Club; and by 1953, he was spelling “Rudy” as “Rudi.”  Then, in 1956, he scored a great opportunity: the chance to open McKie’s Disc Jockey Lounge on Cottage Grove, the location of numerous legendary jazz performances.

By 1957, Rudi had signed with the renowned Sun Records, the home of Johnny  Cash.   On May 11, 1957, just a few weeks before the release of one of his Sun recordings, the singer was in Chicago to attend the funeral of his father.  However, the next mention of Rudi was of his death.

An article in a Nashville, Tennessee newspaper reported that after performing on a Sunday at 3 in the morning, Rudi had passed away;  the cause of death seemed to be caused by narcotics and alcohol poisoning. The liquor he’d consumed was denatured, thought to be “a drink of last resort for an alcoholic or a means of committing suicide.” The coroner surmised that Rudi had died eight hours before he was found in a rooming house very close to Fisk University.

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He was only 34 years old.

For whatever reason, Rudi’s Sun Records recording of “Fool’s Hall of Fame” was never released.  However,  Johnny Cash, Huelyn Duvall, and Roy Orbison recorded versions of the song; Roy’s was recorded in the 1950s but not released until 1973.

In a time and musical niche dominated by women–Rudi Richardson, though he did not receive the accolades his talent warranted while he was alive–is proof that…

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Bishop Hartsel Clifton Shirley is an author, writer, singer/songwriter, and bishop from Waterloo, Iowa. He received his master’s degree in business from the International Business Management Institute based in Berlin, Germany.

Currently residing in Atlanta, Mr. Shirley is a bishop of National and International Social Action, part of New Direction Overcomers’ International Fellowship (based in Richmond, Virginia).

A multi-faceted talent, Hartsel is a writer, author, and singer/songwriter.  A bronze prize winner of the International Society of Poets, he has penned editorials for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier. His best-selling novel is entitled Three Words, Four Letters, published by Ishai Books.  Additionally, Hartsel has charted at #1 several times on the ReverbNation pop music charts.  

Inspired by Langston Hughes, Bishop Shirley states, “I write what moves me.  There is nothing I can’t write. I just have to care about it so I can write truthfully.”

According to Hartsel, his current book, The Night Eddie Sallis Died, is based on factual information he uncovered in 2002 about a 1966 jail cell “suicide” in Waterloo, Iowa (his place of birth).  This revealing and riveting book pulls back the curtain on racism and police brutality. The author emphasizes, “These truths make Iowa a state not to be taken lightly–nor forget.”