Uncovering the Story of Knoxville Jazz Great Fayte Rutherford

In Inside the Vault by Eric Dawsonleave a COMMENT

When talking to veteran local jazz musicians like Jack Haynes and Lance Owens, Fayte Rutherford’s name kept popping up. Rutherford was a highly regarded pianist, but details about his life were sparse, just a few anecdotes and comments about his playing. We couldn’t even find a photo of him. The only hit for a Google search led to a French website devoted to blues and Southern rock. (It’s surely one of the few websites that display the French, American, and Confederate flags on its home page.)  A lengthy interview with drummer Stevie Hawkins includes a mention of Rutherford among a long list of musicians who mentored or influenced Hawkins in his hometown of Knoxville. Now based in Atlanta, Hawkins has played with an impressive number of blues and rock legends, including Gregg Allman, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Albert King, and Rufus Thomas.

The son of local big band singer Peggy Hawkins and stepson of jazz pianist Doug Rupe, Stevie Hawkins, like practically every kid who saw their Ed Sullivan appearance, fell under the spell of the Beatles at an early age. But he was also exposed to a lot of jazz, including rehearsals of the University of Tennessee’s Giants of Jazz big band, in which his father played piano. This proximity to some of Knoxville’s great jazz artists, as well as DJs at WKGN and WNOX, allowed him to study jazz while feeding his voracious appetite for music with the diverse sounds of ’60s radio and pop, rock, and soul albums.

I sent Hawkins an email asking about Rutherford, and he replied with a detailed reminiscence about the pianist, along with photos, newspaper articles, a program from the 1980 Knoxville Entertainment Awards, and even a video clip from a performance at Deane Hill Country Club. He went on to post an expanded tribute to Rutherford on his Facebook page and has since taken to posting about other East Tennessee musicians he thinks should be remembered. For a glimpse of Knoxville’s jazz scene of the 1960s and 1970s and insight into the more technical aspects of Rutherford’s style, the post is worth a read, but a few highlights are recounted below.

Rutherford apparently first learned to play piano in the 1940s by slowing Art Tatum 78s down to 33 rpm, a not-uncommon practice for burgeoning musicians at the time. During the big band era, Rutherford toured with Tommy Dorsey, Vaughn Monroe, Artie Shaw, and Harry James, and in Knoxville he seemed to play with just about every jazz musician in just about every club. Performing solo was his most frequent gig, though, including a stint playing piano in the Sunsphere during the 1982 World’s Fair. His style combined bop and swing, and he had a great love for American pop standards. He wrote and self-published a songbook of his favorite jazz and pop standards, for sale from him directly and at music stores such as Rush’s Music on Alcoa Highway and the Hewgley’s Music Shop on Gay Street. Rutherford was also quite a hand with a pool cue, often holding court at the table in the Eagles Club atop the hill on Walnut Street.

Hawkins says any local jazz player would tell you that Rutherford was “the only pianist in Knoxville during the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s that could play on the level of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.” Such was the respect of his peers that he was named Best Single Performer and Instrumentalist of the Year during the Knoxville Musical Entertainment Awards in 1980.

After receiving Hawkins’ email, I found a profile on Rutherford in a 1976 issue of the Knoxville Journal that filled in a little more of his background. He was the son of musicians Lafayette and Bessie Rutherford. His father ran a minstrel show in which he played violin and sang, and his mother provided piano accompaniment to films screening at the Queen Theater, which was across the street from the Riviera. After serving in the Air Force during World War II, including a stint in England, Rutherford moved to New York City to study piano with 1920s hot-jazz veteran Mable Horsey. He subbed for Tommy Dorsey’s ailing pianist at a 1953 Deane Hill engagement, then accompanied the band on the road for a while. Billed as Dean Fayte, he made his living as a touring musician for many years before settling in Knoxville in the mid-’70s.

Rutherford died on Aug. 2, 1996, at the age of 76.

Hawkins has spent a good deal of time in Knoxville of late, visiting with his mother. He says they’ve been talking about Knoxville’s old jazz days, jogging each other’s memories. Peggy Hawkins remembers Fayte Rutherford fondly. She suspects he had a bit of a crush on her, and recalls that her husband, Doug Rupe, was Rutherford’s favorite piano player, something he would frequently voice to many musicians in town. Her son is working on an overview of her life and career, which he’ll be posting online soon.


Inside the Vault features discoveries from the Knox County Public Library’s Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, a collection of film, video, music, and other media from around East Tennessee.

Eric Dawson is Audio-Visual Archivist with the Knox County Public Library's Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, and with Inside the Vault combs the archive for nuggets of lost Knoxville music and film history to share with us. He's also a longtime local music journalist, former A&E editor of the Knoxville Voice and a board member of the nonprofit performance venue Pilot Light.

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