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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the December

13, 2000 edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Sonny Rhodes’ Urban Turban

They call him "the disciple of the blues,"

"the urban turban" and "the ayatollah of rock ‘n’


Call him what you want, but don’t call singer, songwriter, and


Sonny Rhodes unoriginal.

Rhodes, one of contemporary blues’ greatest songwriters, points out

the trademark turban he wears on stage — along with the


suit and shoes — "is non-religious and non-political,"

prompted by nothing more than his own premature balding.

Now 59 (and old enough to be bald), Rhodes makes stops in New


and Belmar, Friday and Saturday, December 15 and 16, in support of

his latest U.S. release on the Kingsnake label, "Born To Be


Rhodes also has quite a following in Canada, to the point that it

is a second home for him. Canada’s Stony Plain Records released


Diamond" last year, but it’s only available at his gigs or at

record stores with a healthy blues section.

Although Rhodes has been performing since the mid-1950s, now, at last,

his fiery laptop steel guitar playing and fresh, original lyrics are

being recognized by the right people. In 1998 he was nominated for

his fourth W.C. Handy Blues Award in Memphis for "Born To Be


The late producer, rock ‘n’ roll historian, and critic Robert Palmer,

writing for the New York Times, observed that "he plays in an

appealing original manner, producing gliding, whooping lead lines

and tremolo effects. Mr. Rhodes is something special."

Based these days near Lake Worth, Florida, after nearly a decade


in Camden County, New Jersey, Rhodes was born Clarence Edward Smith,

and raised in Smithville, Texas, just east of Austin. He formed his

first band while still in high school and called it Clarence Smith

and the Daylighters. In 1960, Smith and his Daylighters recorded


singles for Domino Records, Austin’s first and oldest independent

record company, still owned by pioneering Austin-area women


now in their 70s.

The son of sharecroppers, Rhodes got his first guitar from the


of the farm on which they lived in Smithville. "I got my first

guitar in 1948, but it was some time before I decided in what


I wanted to go," Rhodes says. "It wasn’t until I heard the

guitar from an electric standpoint that my ambition to play the


began to grow."

After deciding in 1960 that central Texas was too confining for him,

Rhodes joined the Navy and was moved to San Diego. After six years

in the Navy, Rhodes returned to Austin and began playing bass and

singing behind such legendary Texas bluesmen as Freddie King and


Collins. He moved back to California, this time to Oakland and San

Francisco Bay, in the late 1960s. There, he recorded another single,

"I Don’t Love You No More" and "All Night Long I Play

The Blues" in 1966.

"There were other people around in the mid-1960s playing blues,

but they weren’t really in Oakland. You couldn’t play the blues in

a big club, the musicians were all playing top 40," he says.


had this idea in my head that I was going to make that city go for

blues. So I started playing all the little nightclubs where nobody

else would play. I’d set my band up when everyone else was closing,

after hours. You could do that legally in some spots in California

in those days.

"So people ended up coming from the other clubs to hear the blues,

and we got more clubs opening up to the music, creating more places

for blues people to play. I was very persistent in trying to make

the blues work in Oakland and San Francisco," he says.

Indeed, by the late 1960s, a crop of Texas musicians had moved to

the San Francisco Bay area, all of whom were already playing or


in starting blues bands — Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs, and Janis

Joplin to name a few.

Besides being a blues musician, among the many hats Rhodes wore while

out in the Bay area were Naval station postman, nightclub owner —

"Sonny Rhodes’ House of Blue Lights" from 1974 to ’76 —

and advertising salesman for the Oakland Tribune newspaper. The latter

job allowed Rhodes to combine his creative skills with his sales


Talk to Rhodes after one of his shows, and you’ll discover that the

man is a natural-born salesman.

"That job gave me a chance to talk to people in a much higher

station in life," Rhodes recalls. "Store directors and chain

managers would ask me for my ideas. I would listen to their rhetoric

and figure out how I could best come up with ads to satisfy them."

That’s not unlike what Rhodes has been doing with his songwriting,

since his career got a boost in the late 1980s when he relocated to

New Jersey and began recording again in earnest.

On "Born To Be Blue" Rhodes combines his gift for humor with

his deep seated religious convictions to create songs that are


in their approach, both thematically and lyrically. Songs like


That Wine," "I’d Rather Be Hot Than Cool," "Five-Day

Rain," and "Satan," all tell engaging stories within the

framework of a five minute electric blues song.

Since 1990, Rhodes has recorded a slew of albums:


of the Blues" (1991) and "Livin’ Too Close To The Edge"

(1992) and more recently, "Out of Control," and "The Blues

Is My Best Friend."

While living in the Bay area, Rhodes befriended Percy Mayfield, a.k.a.

"The Poet Laureate of the Blues," whose records he had been

listening to for years. Rhodes freely admits that Mayfield was a huge

influence: not only did Mayfield teach him about songwriting, but

also about all the aspects — pleasant and unpleasant — of

the life of a traveling blues musician. Mayfield is best known as

the author of `Please Send Me Someone To Love’ a classic bit of blues

poetry that is not — as is commonly thought — a song about

a woman, but rather, a prayer for peace.

"I drank with the man, I understood the man," says Rhodes,

"and I figured if I never get to be on the level of a Percy


which I don’t think I’ll ever achieve, then just to be around him

and to have known him has been an honor."

Of his own decision in the late 1970s to pursue the blues full-time,

Rhodes says he has no regrets. Though it’s often a tough life on the

road — with vans breaking down and setting themselves on fire,

as happened to him last fall on his way to a House of Blues club gig

in Massachusetts — he has had the chance to travel all over the

U. S., Canada, and most of Europe.

"You know there’s no sense working at something you ain’t happy

with," he says today, philosophically. "Once I got off my

eight-to-five job, I didn’t have any high blood pressure, no


no other aches and pains."

Now the larger blues community is growing more aware of Rhodes’


as a guitarist, lapsteel guitarist, and singer-songwriter. He’s


one of the gutsiest performers you’ll have a chance to see live, one

who never gives an audience less than 100 percent of what he’s got.

Despite all he’s been through — with bad record deals and touring

plans gone awry — Rhodes still has the teachings of the good book

in his mind and in his heart.

"I don’t worry about nothing, man, and I’m free to go out and

play my blues, and that’s what I want to do," he says. "If

I can do that and do it with abundance, then whatever I have comin’

I will get. If I have nothin’ comin’ to me then I will reap my rewards

in heaven."

— Richard J. Skelly

Sonny Rhodes Blues Band, Old Bay Restaurant, 61-63 Church

Street New Brunswick, 732-246-3111. Friday, December 15, 10 p.m.

Sonny Rhodes Blues Band, Jason’s, 1604 Main Street, South

Belmar, 732-681-1416. Saturday, December 16, 9 p.m.

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