Sonny Rhodes: Gentleman of the Blues

Over the years the West Kootenay has seen some first-rate blues acts, especially in the mid-2000s when Nelson’s Royal Hotel was styling itself a blues pub. It was there I got to see living legends like John Mayall and Leon Russell in a venue that could barely cram in 100 people. It was a glorious taste of what it must have been like to be in Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Club in 1983 when the Stones played with Muddy Waters. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, it used to be you had to travel to Calgary or Vancouver to see a big act. But in recent decades that has changed for the better. In large part this was due to Nelson’s sudden international fame when Steve Martin filmed Roxanne there in 1986. A wave of urban migrants soon followed, attracted by the slower, saner pace of life and the sheer beauty of the mountain landscape. The Kootenays now attracts artists from all over the world, thanks in part to the many music festivals that have thrived here over the past 20 years or so: Starbelly Jam, Kaslo Jazz Etc., Tiny Lights, and Unity Festival. At Kaslo’s Jazzfest during the past decade, we’ve seen Richie Havens, Ruthie Foster, The Blind Boys of Alabama, the late great Jeff Healey, and so many others. Trail’s Charles Bailey Theatre attracted the late great Johnny Winter on one of his final tours and continues to bring in top blues, rock, folk and pop acts.

Sonny Rhodes @ Finlay's lo-res copy

Sonny Rhodes: blues legend and snazzy dresser.

I was privileged to be able to interview Sonny Rhodes, one of the last of the great blues originals, at Finley’s Bar and Grill in Nelson, BC, on July 21. I am indebted to the recently formed Kootenay Blues Society and in particular to Jon Burden, a fine guitarist, great friend and blues enthusiast. Sonny at 78 years old still performs 200 shows a year, slowing down only slightly despite his increasing frailty. He arrived at Finley’s the best-dressed man in the house, wearing a custom tailored pink suit, black shirt and hat, and what looked like Italian-made shoes. On his career retrospective disk The Essential Sonny Rhodes, he talks about how he once wore a turban onstage until confronted after one show by three thugs with guns. But he never stopped being a snappy dresser. (The album weaves Sonny’s storytelling about his long career between his signature songs—only 20 out of the over 200 he has recorded since 1958.)

Sonny Rhodes was born Clarence Smith on November 3, 1940 in Smithville, Texas. The son of Emma Mauldin, Rhodes was orphaned as a baby and adopted by Leroy and Julia Smith, black sharecroppers barely eking out a living. He received his first guitar at the age of eight as a Christmas present, but it had only one string. When a family friend told his foster parents how good he was becoming on guitar, he said: “Wait ‘til I get the other five strings!” He became serious about playing the blues at age 12 and while still in his teens began performing around Smithville and nearby Austin in the late 1950s. It was not an easy time for a young black musician. Migrating from Texas to California in the early ’60s, he met producer Saul Zaentz, who told him he’d never make it with a name like Clarence. He’d already settled on ‘Sonny’—Zaentz suggested ‘Rhodes’ and a blues legend was born. In part he has Canada to thank for his start in the blues—some of his earliest gigs were performed at Calgary’s legendary blues bar, the King Edward Hotel, a.k.a. the ‘King Eddy.’

For more on Sonny Rhodes’ bio visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonny_Rhodes or https://www.allmusic.com/artist/sonny-rhodes-mn0000045823/biography

JOYCE: What was it like growing up as a black person in Texas in the 1940s and ’50s?

SONNY RHODES: Well it was bad. Coming from the south like I did, if I turned around every time I heard the word ‘nigger’ I’d be walkin’ backwards. If someone called me a nigger I didn’t care. Why should I care? You look up above and you say, God forgive them, for they know not what they do. They called me a mule and all those terms and I grew up with that, you know.

I took it until I graduated from high school because there weren’t too many black people who graduated back in the ’40s. If you were going to get something out of life you had to graduate, at least I got that. I graduated from high school in 1957 and I wanted to see California but I didn’t have a job that could take me out there. If you didn’t have the knowledge to work in a factory, you had to pick cotton or grow corn. So what I did, I joined the navy. And they didn’t have that many black people in the navy at that time.

Sonny onstage @ Finlay's 2A copy

Sonny onstage at Finley’s Bar & Grill, Nelson, BC

JOYCE: It must have been quite difficult for a black person break into the music market back in those times.

RHODES: Yes. But you know, I had my mind on that, and I had to ask God to help me be what I wanted to be.

JOYCE: So was it in 1958 you made your first recording?

RHODES: Yes. I had just come out of the navy. Three ladies in Austin, Texas owned a company called Domino Records and they were looking for musicians to record. My first single was I’ll Never Let You Go and the other side was All Night Long I Play the Blues.

JOYCE: What was it like playing bass for Freddie King and Albert Collins?

RHODES: I always looked up to them. Freddie King, he was the big man. Albert King, he was kinda hard to get along with but if you kissed his ass, gave him a big smile, fine. If you messed up a note while you was playin’ he’d be ready to kick your ass, so best to get out of his way.

JOYCE: So you felt like you learned a lot from T-Bone Walker, King and Collins?

Yes I do. I learned everything I could get from them except their personality. I had my own personality. I don’t want to be T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and all those. I just want to be the best I can be, as good as Sonny Rhodes can be, because that makes my own legacy. I got started on lap steel with LC Good Rockin’ Robinson, from the south. I met him in Oakland when I lived there—he was playing one of those. He said you can play but you’ll never be as good as me, you’ll never beat me, and that pissed me off, so I decided to get good on it. I also play guitar but I had both of my hips replaced a couple years ago so I have to sit down to play now.

JOYCE: Do you think they influenced your sound at all?

RHODES: When you’re learning for the first time, you gotta find someone you can play like without makin’ a lot of mistakes. So this is what I was able to do, play like the people I liked to listen to, and kind of put them all together. So whether it’s Albert King, or B.B. King, or Albert Collins, you put them all together and you might hear a note here and a note there, but it’s not anybody’s, it’s my own.

Sonny's band 2 lo-res copy

Sonny’s band warms up the crowd at Finley’s on a hot summer evening: Greg Smith, guitar; Steve Wilson, drums; Rob Van der Laan, bass; Jon Burden, guitar (right); Clint Swanson, saxophones.

JOYCE: I can’t say I envy musicians their lifestyle, because you guys really have to work very hard for your money. And there’s good things and bad things about the road.

RHODES: Well, you know, you’re never thinkin’ about that. When you’re doing what you love to do, and enjoy that while you’re doin’ it, there’s nothin’ out there bad enough to discourage you from doin’ that. What you do, you smile and think of all the people that enjoy what you’re doin’.

JOYCE: But then there’s the hazards of the road, too, like drugs and alcohol. Have you lost friends to the lifestyle of the road?

RHODES: I have tried these things but I had bad experiences with them. They made me sick, they made me feel like, I don’t wanna do this again, this is stupid. And I have so many people that I cared for that died behind using drugs. There’s nothin’ I can do about that—you have your own life, so if you do this, I try to stay away from you. I don’t put up with that in my band.

JOYCE: Any particular friends that have passed that you really miss?

RHODES: Well all the good people like Albert Collins, Freddie King. I was always a person that cares for people. And I still do. But of all the people that have gone on, I have learned something from them, either good or bad. The good things I try to keep from them.

Sonny w Art @ Finlay's lo-res

Sonny Rhodes: Gentleman of the Blues, with Sean Arthur Joyce, at Finley’s Bar & Grill, July 21, 2018.

JOYCE: If you could offer young musicians these days any advice about starting a career in the blues, what would it be?

RHODES: What I would honestly say, go and do what you wanna do but always have the good Lord in mind, because he is your creator. If you can learn how to say, the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, I truly believe in that.

JOYCE: In other words, have a form of spirituality.

RHODES: Exactly. There’s nothin’ better than that. That has helped keep this body together.

JOYCE: Do you think blues has changed?

RHODES: Well, yes, but it’s a changed blues because it’s different people playing it. And there’s different things happening in the world today that people have to write about. The blues is about heartache and pain and how to overcome all that. But even if it’s a different style, it’s still blues.

JOYCE: What future would you like to see for the blues?

RHODES: Well I would like to see more of it. I would like to have the profanity taken out of it; not talking about sex so much, but about what is wrong with the world today and what we have to do to protect it, what we can do about it to make it better.

JOYCE: Because really, the blues started out as protest music, didn’t it? The cotton field workers singing in code, ‘the man, he be oppressin’ us.’

RHODES: That’s right.

JOYCE: And so that tradition has to carry on.

RHODES: It does. Because the world has not gotten better, more people are dyin’. And we got these millionaires who ain’t gonna let it stop.

JOYCE: That’s interesting, because Son House had a different idea; he always said it was all about a man and a woman. But if you go back further, say to people like the Reverend Gary Davis, they were very much concerned about what was happening in the world.

RHODES: It’s about life—what’s happening in life, you can make it better or make it worse, depending on what kind of person you are.

JOYCE: I appreciate you taking your time for the interview, thank you. It’s been a great honour to meet you.

RHODES: Thank you.

For more information on upcoming shows sponsored by the Kootenay Blues Society visit: https://www.kootenaybluessociety.com/

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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