I met Hawkshaw Hawkins … after a show he did at Casey Clark’s barn dance. He told me, “You keep plugging, Don, and you’ll be as big a star as me.” – Don Rader 
Don Rader sang country and rock ’n’ roll for more than forty years. He grew up in Hazel Park, Michigan, a suburb at the northern border of Detroit, at a time when the city was settled by hundreds of families from the South. In 1958 Rader cut his first record, “Rock And Roll Grandpap.” Fifty years later, Rader personified the title of his song as he sang country and vintage rock ’n’ roll with a rock band in Southeast Michigan nightclubs.
Born December 15, 1937, in Royal Oak Township, Rader grew up in a household dedicated to country music.
There was a place called the Wayside Garage over on [West] Coy [Avenue] and John R [Road] in Hazel Park — and it’s still there, it’s a church now. I had a paper route. One day I walked in there to collect for the paper, and here’s this old May Bell guitar sittin’ in the corner — and I didn’t even know what it was! I looked at it and I just fell in love with that thing when I saw it. I said, “What is that?” And he said, “It’s a guitar. Haven’t you ever seen Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and these guys?” I said, “I want that!” He said, “Well, you get eight dollars and come back, and I’ll sell it to you.” And that’s where it all started. Eight bucks! You’d pay more’n that for a set of strings, now.
After acquiring the guitar, Rader took music lessons from Edward Wygle, who held classes in rooms above the Hazel Park Post Office. At twelve years old, Rader soon made friends with other local boys learning guitar, including David Rohilier, and Jack Scott.
Rader listened to WEXL Royal Oak radio, and disk jockey Jack Ihrie’s “Sagebrush Melodies” program. Every afternoon Ihrie played records and interviews with local and visiting musicians. In early 1952 Ihrie announced the “Big Barn Frolic,” a new barn dance in Detroit, and Rader attended the Saturday night show every week. Casey Clark and his Lazy Ranch Boys hosted the dance during its first six months. During that time, Rader and his family made friends with Clark and members of the band.
Rader recalled many jam sessions with local pickers during his formative years. Banjoist Ford Nix “used to come over to the house all the time,” said Rader. “There was a guy, Orville Mason, I never will forget. He was a good lead guitar player. We was over to Sil Brown’s house on New Year’s Eve … I said, ‘Orville, how in the name of God can you do all them songs?’ He done over three hundred songs. ‘Don,’ he said, ‘if you keep rehearsing and playing, when you’ll get my age (he was maybe twenty-five, thirty years old), then you’ll understand.’”
By age seventeen, Rader was closer to understanding Mason’s answer to his question. Casey Clark had booked his Lazy Ranch Boys for a regular Friday night barn dance at the Pontiac Armory. Kitty Wells with Johnnie and Jack headlined the premier show. A more lucrative offer to play on the Boblo Island boats led Clark to recruit Rader to fill his remaining Pontiac dates. Rader hired steel guitarist Danny Weaver and bassist Rockey VanGieson. “We played a set of country, and country rock, then round dances, and finally a square dance,” he said. “Lonnie Barron used to sit in with me, … and I would sit in with him at his dance hall on Saturdays.” After the gig ended, Rader continued sitting in with bands and booking dances.
I had a 1941 Plymouth, and Mickey [Kreutzer, guitarist] and Buddy, … and there was a guy named Derwood – he sang like Elvis Presley – he looked like him, … long sideburns and everything, … we went down to Ford Auditorium. They was havin’ a big [talent] contest there. So we went down there and all of us won a silver dollar. That was a big thing back then, because gas was only twenty-three or twenty-four cents a gallon. We filled that old Plymouth up with gas and headed downriver somewhere to a barn dance, and sat in and played down there. That was some good days.
Around 1958, Rader played rhythm guitar with pianist Roy Hall and his band. Hall had been in and out of Detroit for several years since 1949, when his group recorded some of the best-selling hillbilly disks Fortune Records issued. “I remember my mom driving me to the (Fortune) studio on Third Street so I could sit in on a recording session,” said Rader. “At that time the band was Roy Hall on piano, Glen Ball on guitar, Buddy Heller on bass, and a girl on the cocktail drum by the name of Christine. All I know we cut for sure was ‘She Sure Can Rock Me.’” The ditty was released on Fortune’s “The Original Skeets McDonald’s Tattooed Lady And Others” album in 1961, as well as a 45-rpm single on subsidiary label Strate-8.  “Roy was wild,” said Rader, who joined the band at Dutch’s Log Cabin in Port Huron for a couple of weeks. “He used to line up several shots of whiskey on top of the piano, and knock ’em all back before the set was over. Then we’d all drink beer and go swimming in Lake Huron in the middle of the night,” he said.
In 1956 Rader wrote “Rock And Roll Grandpap,” about his own grandpap, who used two canes to walk. In December 1958, Rader cut “Grandpap” and “A Day At The Pines” at the Fortune studio. The recording featured Bill English, guitar; Ted Wilson, drums; Billy Cooper, steel guitar; and Freddie Bach, piano. The band represented some of the best country musicians who worked in local dance bands, and the record rocked with a western swing.
Rader’s parents paid for the manufacture of a couple hundred 45-rpm platters (Fortune 206). As with most Fortune custom orders, Rader distributed the records himself. He visited disk jockeys, jamborees, and nightclubs for a few months, before hitting the road to Chicago, Illinois.
Windy City rock
“Somebody told me that there were a lot of gigs in Chicago,” said Rader, “and sure enough, we weren’t five miles outside of town when we stopped at a club and were hired on the spot to play that night.” Rader played country and rock ’n’ roll in Chicago for a couple of years. He joined the band of Hank Mizell and Jim Bobo of “Jungle Rock” fame. “For a while, I played drums with them. Those guys were like brothers – they either got along with each other, or they were at each other’s throats.” Rader didn’t play on Mizell and Bobo’s 1958 recording of “Jungle Rock” for the Ekko label (reissued by King Records in 1959). In 1976 a European pressing of “Jungle Rock” reached number 3 in the U.K. Singles Chart, and number 1 in the Netherlands.
Around 1959-60 Rader made another record, this time with Detroit guitarist Al Allen and members of his band, the Sounds. Fortune owner Jack Brown issued Rader’s “Rockin’ The Blues” backed with “I Was A Fool” on Strate-8 (1501). Rader returned to Chicago with copies of his new single. When he met a disk jockey at a top rock ’n’ roll radio station, “The guy told me he’d make the record number one, if I paid him a thousand bucks,” said Rader. “Heck, I just turned around and walked out.”
Roller rinks and records
In 1962 Rader moved to Hanes City, Florida, where he entertained television viewers on WHAN. Then Rader joined his niece, Terry Hinkle, at WLOF-TV Orlando, for about a year. Rader played Florida nightclubs, drive-ins, and roller rinks until 1966 when he returned to Detroit.
In 1967 Rader cut “Goodbye, I Hate To See You Go” in Nashville, Tennessee, with former Lazy Ranch Boy and member of Mel Tillis’ Statesiders band Jim Baker on steel guitar. Released as another Strate-8 (1509) single, Rader said the record reached the top of Michigan country radio charts in 1968. He played Midwest festivals and jamborees, appearing on bills with Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Martin, Kitty Wells, and Johnnie Wright. Nightclub work in Detroit during the 1970s included gigs with former Sun Records recording artist Jack Earls.
In 1975, local record shop owner Gary Thompson tracked down Jack Earls, who Thompson recognized from European compilations of Sun Records rockabilly. Through his friendship with Earls, Thompson recorded Rader singing two songs: “My Baby’s Still Rocking” and “Rockin’ Blues,” issued on Thompson’s Olympic label. The band’s performances pushed Rader into a garage/punk style, and he pulled it off.  By then, Rader could sing country, pop, and rock equally well.
Return of the rocker
Rader issued more country records on Strate-8 and his own labels through the 1970s. At Rader’s request, Fortune reissued “A Day At The Pines” b/w “Rock And Roll Grandpap” on Strate-8 (1507, with an alternate take of “Grandpap”). In 1994 the Rock-A-Billy Record Company of Denver, Colorado, issued a 45-rpm single (R-502) of a new Rader cut of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” backed with his 1967 “Goodbye, I Hate To See You Go.” As a result of the Rock-A-Billy single, Rader received invitations to appear at European rockabilly festivals, but never traveled due to health concerns.
Around 1997, Detroit rock musician Scott Campbell began booking gigs with Rader in Southeast Michigan. The collaboration re-introduced Rader to the Detroit nightclub scene, and Rader received accolades from local musicians and music writers young enough to be his grandchildren. He died of heart disease on July 4, 2004. Campbell produced a concert at the State Theater (now the Fillmore) downtown in Rader’s honor, and the Detroit Music Awards recognized him with a posthumous citation.
- Don Rader interviewed by Craig Maki in 1993 and 2000.
- The label on Strate-8 1508 (“She Sure Can Rock Me” b/w “Rockin’ The Blues” issued during the 1970s) listed Roy Hall on “Rockin’ The Blues.” Rader said Hall didn’t play on the “Rockin’ The Blues” session.
- Jack Earls recorded for Gary Thompson’s Olympic label at the same session.