There is a very poignant passage in the critically acclaimed documentary film, Evolutionary Blues; West Oakland’s Music Legacy, in which lap steel guitar master Sonny Rhodes describes an encounter that happened in his native Texas when he was a young boy. Having been gifted with his first guitar at age eight, the young Rhodes was making a few coins ferrying equipment, including a lap steel guitar for members of a famous Western Swing band in Austin, Texas in 1952.
Rhodes stayed around for soundcheck and marveled at the sound the lap steel player coaxed from his instrument. He was smitten by the instrument immediately. After soundcheck, he walked up to the musician and spoke.
“Excuse me, sir. That’s a beautiful sound. When I grow up, I’m gonna get me one of those and play it too.”
The player smiled and replied, “I don’t think so son. This is a white man’s instrument and nigger’s don’t play ’em.”
In the film, Sonny Rhodes cries real tears as he recalls the hurtful moment that propelled him forward in music. He vowed to be the best that he could be on the lap steel.
I was able to meet the self-proclaimed Blues Disciple a few years back at a birthday party for another septuagenarian of the Blues, Lester Chambers. Sonny was decked out in a mustard yellow leisure suit with fedora and shoes to match. When we spoke with him by phone in mid-June of 2019, his sense of style was one of the things we talked about.
“Back in the day, I carried Jr. Parker’s harmonica case and clothes from gig to gig. It gave me great satisfaction. I even asked him what must I do to succeed in music. He told me that it took will determination and prayer. And if the Good Lord felt it was for me, he would grant success to me. Jr. Parker showed me how to behave with class and good manners as well as how to dress stylishly. I incorporated all those things into my public personality.”
“I’ve always been a person that loved to dress ever since I was a youngster, but didn’t have a lot of clothes that I wanted as a young man. But the older I got, the better I looked when I put on my suits. Believe it or not, I still have several of the suits I had made for me back at Crown’s Tailor on E.6th Street in Austin Texas. I only wear them when I’m playing music.”
Sonny Rhodes was seemingly born into the Blues. He was orphaned by his birth mother. His birth name was Clarence Smith and he was born on November 3, 1940.
“Leroy and Julia Smith adopted me. I only saw my dad twice in my life. Once when I was about eight years old for about fifteen minutes and again when I was about fourteen years old. I went to Houston with my older brother for his funeral. I didn’t know anything about my birth parents.”
“My mother, Julia Smith, who raised me in Austin and Smithville, Texas, helped me see the rest of my brothers and sisters once a week. I remember when I was about eleven years old, they brought me down there to see them. Emma Maudlin, my birth mother, met us at the gate and told Julia Smith, the one that I called my mother, ‘I hope you don’t plan to leave him because I don’t want him.”
“It was hard to take then and it still hurts me today to know that she felt that way. All children want to be wanted, especially by their mother. I’ve always been a forgiving person and I never took advantage of anyone who did anything that I didn’t like. At near eighty years of age, I still believe in praying, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ That lessens the hurt and I’m able to continue to do what I do and do the best I possibly can while doing it.”
The young Sonny Rhodes received his aforementioned first guitar as a Christmas gift. And though it had only one string, by the age of twelve he was seriously on the guitar road, later forming his first band in his teenage years, gigging around Smithville and Austin. While still in Texas, he encountered a Blues inflected lap steel player, Hop Wilson. Wilson’s haunting licks enraptured Rhodes and served as a signpost along his life’s path. He was also influenced by Texas guitarists T-Bone Walker and Pee Wee Crayton.
His first professional group was called Clarence Smith and the Daylighters and they made some noise around the Austin area including a single released in 1958. After high school, Rhodes joined the navy and was able to visit the land of California.
“I always wanted to come out here,” relates Sonny. ” “The people who raised me couldn’t get me out here so the only way I got to see California was to join the U.S. Navy. By coming to California, I got a chance to run around and do a lot of things in music. That’s what really got me started in California. I’m probably known more for what I did in the Oakland area than anything I did in Texas or anywhere else in the United States.”
Along the way, Rhodes gigged with Freddie King and Albert Collins playing bass for both of them at different times. He also was a protege of The Poet Laureate of the Blues, Percy Mayfield.
“It’s something that I wanted to do as a backup musician. To study the role of a star. Those guys were very serious. As long as you did what you were supposed to do as far as they were concerned, you were alright. And I was the person who would follow the leader if the leader was right.”
“Percy Mayfield was like a father to me. He spent a night at our house in Austin. He had such a great baritone voice and wrote beautiful songs. My ideas about writing came from him. I don’t know any singer that wrote songs as good and true as Percy Mayfield. One of my favorites of his is Baby Please, where he sings the hook ‘Because I am a prisoner, and I need your love to set me free.’ “
Sonny Rhode’s evolution as a guitarist, bass player and finally lap steel master was solidified when he worked with Oakland’s L.C. “Good Rockin’ Robinson, the areas top lap steel man in the early ’60s. It was under Robinson’s strict tutelage that Rhodes earned his lap steel stripes. Sonny regrets that Robinson, who passed in 1976, was not able to witness the heights and acclaim that he achieved since then.
Sonny established his own record label in the 1970s, Rhodes-Way Records. By his own admission, the label was short-lived and not very profitable.
“It wasn’t very difficult. I just didn’t know what I was doing. I was lucky and surprised that it did get off the ground. I certainly didn’t make any money.”
The Rhodes-Way catalog consisted of one 45 rpm record and one album.
Sonny’s career has slowed down considerably of late. He has played less than a handful of gigs in 2019, the most recent being the Hayward/Russell City Blues Festival in mid-July. Many of the memories of his stellar career have been lost to the ravages of time. We spoke about his recording of the theme song, The Ballad Of Serenity, for the very popular TV series Firefly which ran for two seasons, 2002 and 2003. Truthfully, Mr. Rhodes couldn’t remember exactly how the recording came about and asserts that he didn’t get paid.
“Ah, I don’t know, you know. It’s just something that came about. To be truthful, I’ve done so much in the Blues that I can’t remember everything that I’ve done. Many things I’ve done were off the cuff, off the top of my head and weren’t notated. At pretty close to 80 years of age, some things have gotten away from me. I don’t remember getting paid for the TV show song.”
(To be fair, efforts to contact Joss Whedon, the creator of the show and credited songwriter of Firely, to corroborate or disavow Sonny’s assertion, were unsuccessful.)
As I researched the legacy of Sonny Rhodes, I came across a YouTube comment from a listener who thought that the sound of Sonny Rhodes reminded him of Stevie Ray Vaughn, who was some fourteen years younger than Sonny Rhodes. That being said, it stands to reason that the listener’s evaluation was probably backwards. When I mentioned it to Sonny Rhodes, he responded with the following.
“Of course I knew Stevie Ray Vaughan and jammed with him. I came up in an era when blacks and whites didn’t do much associating unless you were a part of what they were doing. Erroneous thinking doesn’t bother me. That’s the way it was and continues to be. I just give it to the Lord.
We end the music conversation with a question about his gear preferences.
“Well, I got my first Fender, oh man, more than fifty years ago. That was the instrument that most blacks played. Albert Collins, of course, played a Fender. I don’t own Fenders today. I have two “pawnshop guitars” today. A regular and a lap steel. I’ve never had an endorsement deal.”
As we bid good-bye I ask Mr. Sonny Rhodes if there is anything he would like to say to the thousands of Blues Blast readers. He shifts his response to the Creator.
“I thank the Good Lord for making me who I am and staying with me through the years. I thank Him for what I’ve done because, without HIM, there wouldn’t be no me!”