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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
— Richard J. Skelly
Street New Brunswick, 732-246-3111. Friday, December 15, 10 p.m.
Belmar, 732-681-1416. Saturday, December 16, 9 p.m.
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