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Obituary: Butch McDade

IN THE Seventies, the rootsy sound and humorous songwriting of the Amazing Rhythm Aces earned them unlikely hits with "Third Rate Romance", "Amazing Grace (Used to Be Her Favorite Song)" and "The End is Not in Sight (The Cowboy Tune)", the latter a 1977 Grammy-winner for best country vocal performance by a duo or group.

"Butch" McDade, the group's drummer and second vocalist, was born in 1946 and was educated at the Marion Military Institute and the University of Tennessee. He decided to become a drummer after hearing a James Brown record, and made his debut while in the second grade, with a rhythm band.

By 1972, he had met the bass-player Jeff "Stick" Davis and Russell Smith, a vocalist and guitarist. They got a gig backing the singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester, who took a liking to two of Smith's compositions, "Third Rate Romance" and "The End is Not in Sight" and decided to include them on his album Learn to Love It (1974).

Winchester, in order to dodge his US draft, settled in Canada, and so touring opportunities were limited. McDade and Davis soon moved back to Nashville and hooked up again with Russell Smith who brought along a keyboard player, Billy Earheart III. With Barry Burton (guitar, mandolin) and James Hooker (keyboards), they became the Amazing Rhythm Aces.

Their fine musicianship and mix of country, rock, gospel and rhythm 'n' blues soon attracted record company interest and they signed to ABC Records. In 1975, they released their debut album, Stacked Deck. The smooth single "Third Rate Romance" attracted massive airplay and rose up the country charts before crossing over to the pop market and becoming a Top Fifteen hit.

The sextet never again equalled that success, although their second single, "Amazing Grace (Used to Be Her Favorite Song)", reached the country Top Ten. After five further albums (Toucan Do It Too, Burning the Ballroom Down, The Amazing Rhythm Aces and How the Hell Do You Spell Rhythum?), the group - often described as too rock for country and too country for rock - broke up in 1980.

"Back then, you couldn't make an album on your own, because of the technology. You had to have a big, hungry machine behind it because it was so expensive. Then you'd go out on the road and work yourself to death, and every dime you made went to pay back the machine. That's the main reason we split up: we were killing ourselves out there and not even earning a living," recalls Russell Smith.

Butch McDade kept busy, touring or recording with the likes of Leon Russell, Lonnie Mack, Roy Clark and Tanya Tucker, and also running a restaurant and working as a sports writer for his local paper.

By the mid-Nineties, fans were clamouring to get Amazing Rhythm Aces favourites on compact disc. Since their back catalogue was tied up in legal wranglings, the band decided to cut new versions of "Third Rate Romance", "King of the Cowboys" and McDade's poignant composition "Last Letter Home". The resulting collection, issued in 1994 on their own Breaker label and entitled Ride Again, sold so well in the US, Australia and New Zealand that the group began touring again.

Last year, they recorded Out of the Blue, an album of new material, including two excellent songs by McDade, "Oh, Lucky Me" and "Get Down", on which he sang lead. By the time the band took to the road earlier this year, McDade had been diagnosed with bladder cancer and did not join them on their first European trip. They received rave reviews for concerts in Switzerland, Ireland and Britain (at the Borderline, in London). Russell Smith said: "There was never a thought of naming a full-time replacement. People have always said there's something other than the musical nuts and bolts that makes the Aces special, and a whole lot of that was due to him. Every time he hit a drum, it sounded like he meant it."

David Hugh ("Butch") McDade, drummer, singer, songwriter: born Clarksdale, Missouri 24 February 1946; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Maryville, Tennessee 29 November 1998.