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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the May 5, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Feelin’ His Age, Singin’ His Blues
At his live shows, he is often introduced as "The Disciple of the Blues, the Urban Turban, the Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Roll." Funny, charming, still devoutly religious and a veteran blues guitarist and singer, Clarence Edward Smith, better known to the world as Sonny Rhodes, is one of the most refreshing songwriters in contemporary blues.
"I’ll be 65 soon," says Rhodes last week from a tour stop in Calgary, Alberta, part of a tour that will reach Triumph Brew Pub on Nassau Street on Thursday, May 6. "I don’t have that much time to waste anymore. It’s become clear that the mountain is not going to come to me, so I’ve got to go to the mountain."
Although Rhodes may be feeling his age, if you see him perform live, you’d swear he isn’t much more than a day or two over 50. Rhodes, born in Smithville, Texas, just east of Austin, has to be one of the most under-appreciated musicians in contemporary blues music. He began playing guitar and singing Texas blues standards when he was in high school in Smithville.
"I started playing on the corners and in the park in Smithville. In the back of the park was a beer joint, a place you could go and dance to some live music," he recalls.
"I started out with a guy named Bubba Jackson, who played drums, and a guy from Austin, Clarence Sales, who played bass," he says, "we were all teenagers at the time."
In 1958 Rhodes recorded his first single, "When Something Is Wrong," as Clarence Smith and the Daylighters, for Domino Records, a label run by three women who were way ahead of their time, and Austin’s first independent record label. [Since then, the city has become famous for its music club scene, hosting the annual South by Southwest Music Conference. Austin is now home to dozens of independent record labels.] Domino Records, led by Lora Jane Richardson and two other Austin women, was also home to Joyce Harris, a white woman blues singer who began recording in 1960 and was years ahead of Janis Joplin.
"It was one of the greatest days of my life when an 18-year-old Sonny Rhodes signed a recording contract," he recalls, "and in retrospect, those ladies were very kind and very fair to me, compared to some of the other record label deals I’ve had since then. And at that point, I was a young, handsome black man," he adds, laughing.
Rhodes has a lengthy discography for a variety of labels, most of them small, some of them no longer in business. His most notable recordings in the 1980s and ’90s have been for the Kingsnake and Stony Plain labels. Stony Plain is based in Edmonton, Alberta, while Kingsnake Records was based for many years in Florida.
Rhodes’ current release is a live recording, "Texas Fender Bender" for Greater Planet Records, based in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. From the mid-1980s, Rhodes lived in Clementon, New Jersey, until early in 2000, when he moved to Lake Worth, Florida. He still travels almost exclusively by van, unless there’s a special festival appearance and the promoters can afford to fly his band to their festival city.
Prior to his move to New Jersey, he was based in Oakland, California for nearly two decades. Rhodes has performed numerous times at the San Francisco Blues Festival. He’s also performed at the Chicago Blues Festival, the Monterey Blues Festival, the North Sea Jazz Festival, the Sacramento Blues Festival, the Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Festival, and the Clearwater Festival at Sandy Hook, now held in Asbury Park.
These days, in addition to touring, Rhodes is writing new songs for a forthcoming album. As a songwriter, Rhodes writes from his own experiences on the road and at home in Florida in a simple, direct manner. He often mixes humor, irony and political and social commentary into his songs. Selections like "Hide That Wine" "Honey Do Woman" "Livin’ Too Close To The Edge" "Ten Pounds of Love [In a Five-Pound Sack] and "She’s Excited" all demonstrate Rhodes’ unique gift for throwing humor into his songwriting mix.
"To be a songwriter, you have to have a real compassion for people and be sensitive to your environment, wherever you may be, at all times," he argues. Underlying everything Rhodes does – as a performer and a songwriter – is a deep and abiding faith in God.
"I get song ideas from people I meet on the road as well as from people I read about in the newspaper. Lately, I’m reading a lot about human bombs, people blowin’ themselves up to kill other people. You can call it what you want to, but that’s the blues, man."
At Triumph Brew Pub on Thursday, Rhodes will sing and play lap steel and electric guitars. He will be accompanied by Bill Baltera of Flemington on guitar, Randall Dubis on guitar, Anthony Mitchell on bass, and Theo Brown on drums. The latter four are part of his latest touring band, which changes periodically as the rigors of the road get to be too much for some musicians.
Prior to 9-11, Rhodes was often introduced as "the urban turban." But in recent years, he has abandoned his longtime practice of wearing a turban on stage.
"I had to quit wearing the turban about two months after 9-11 because I had my life threatened," he says, "and I am certainly no terrorist! I don’t even shoot firecrackers off on the 4th of July! So, I’ve gone back to the Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughan look, and now I just wear various cowboy hats on stage. I now have enough to keep myself in matching hats and suits, in all my sartorial splendor," he adds, laughing.
As of this writing, Rhodes has been nominated for yet another W.C. Handy Award – presented in Memphis by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation – for his fiery lap steel playing, unique songwriting, and powerful stage presence. For the 11th consecutive year, Rhodes has been nominated in the "Best Instrumentalist/Other" category for his talents on lap steel. By the time Rhodes and his band make it to Triumph Brew Pub in their van, we should know whether Rhodes has won a W.C. Handy Award.
"It’s always good to be recognized by your peers," Rhodes says, but then adds, "I’ve been nominated 11 times now, but never won. But I’m not bitter about it."
– Richard J. Skelly
Sonny Rhodes at Triumph Brew Pub, 138 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-924-7855. Admission $5. Thursday, May 6, 10:30 p.m.
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