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Turban Bluesman

Steve Roberts

Clotheshorse of the Blues: Stylish Sonny Rhodes always dresses up, even for the low-down, grits-and-gravy numbers.

Sonny Rhodes is in charge on his latest album, 'Out of Control'

By Nicky Baxter

ELI'S MILE HIGH CLUB in Oakland was uncomfortably crowded the first time I saw guitarist and singer Sonny Rhodes. Although the show took place a decade ago, it left an indelible impression. It wasn't any one particular thing but rather the whole package: that grits-and-gravy vocal style, the phalanx of guitars (including a lap pedal-steel number), Rhodes' self-assured, affable banter.

But to be really honest, it was seeing a brother sporting a turban that stood out the most. Sure, it was showbizzy, but it worked. Unfortunately, outside of certain (mostly) colored communities like Oakland, the Texan-born guitarist has never really surfaced nationally. He's one of those musicians who is well respected in blues circles, but beyond those confining borders, it seems as if he's been miscast as a B-team player.

Distressingly, Rhodes is more popular in Europe than in the United States. Indeed, after recording a few singles that went straight to the underclass of chart action in the 1960s and early '70s, the mutton-chopped musician abandoned the U.S. for many years. In Europe, he garnered the kind of recognition his talent deserved, touring and recording a pair of albums, I Don't Want My Blues Colored Bright and Live in Europe.

Rhodes enjoys telling and retelling the story about how he stumbled onto his very first guitar. It was 1949, and the 9-year-old cotton picker couldn't stop sobbing; that year had yielded a particularly disappointing meager crop, which meant no Christmas presents for Sonny boy. Or so it seemed until "the guy we used to pick cotton for heard me crying. He had an old guitar in his barn and he gave it to me."

It wasn't gift-wrapped, but that was okay by Rhodes. In common with a considerable number of black youth growing up in the South in the '40s and early '50s, Rhodes fell in with the "wrong" crowd, those godless heathens who dug the low-land, low-down blues. Rhodes recalls digging church music but adds, "When I heard Bessie Smith and Lightnin' Hopkins, well, I knew what I wanted to do."

After a stint in the Navy, Rhodes returned to Texas, strapping on the electric bass for up-and-comers Albert Collins and Freddie King. Like innumerable Africans born in America's South, however, Rhodes believed in the myth about California being the land of milk and honey. Departing the social turmoil of the black belt's early civil rights days, he settled in Oakland, where he quickly established himself as an artist keen on elevating the blues to another level.

It mattered not a whit that Rhodes swiped the head-wrap idea from flamboyant R&B/rock singer Chuck Willis; Rhodes' music has always been own.

With blues as the unshakable foundation, he has always made like an itinerant sound catcher. Everything from Kansas City swing blues to Texas boogie to Chicago's mean-mistreater stomp to British blues-rock--it's all good with Rhodes.

IT MIGHT be a simple twist of fate, or maybe it's finally his time. Whatever the reason, the past two years have witnessed burgeoning interest what Rhodes is up to. In 1994, the bluesman signed with Florida's King Snake Records. That same year, Rhodes recorded and released The Blues Is My Best Friend, a disc that did reasonably well for the label--and maybe Rhodes, as well.

Rhodes' current release, Out of Control, ought to do even better, displaying as it does an array of stylistic stances. Check, for instance, the tart guitar pyrotechnics of "Dollar Bill Woman" and the shattered-heart lament of "Another You." The two tunes deftly illustrate Rhodes' mastery of the up-and-down world of the blues.

The title track offers some social commentary framed by bright, combative horns, simmering organ and a funky rhythm section. Rhodes' gravely vocals are surly and accusatory. Still, he's not just pointing the finger at others; he's as guilty of apathy as the rest of us. Sluicing right through the thick, blues-soul accompaniment is Rhodes' keening pedal-steel guitar. In his hands, the instrument assumes an anthropomorphic presence, alternately sobbing disconsolately and giving us what-for for the fine mess we've gotten ourselves into.

But, as his long and winding career indicates, Rhodes isn't a quitter. He's a fighter and a music lover. And after listening to Out of Control, it is crystal clear that Rhodes possesses a surfeit of real blues power. Maybe it's something to do with that turban, after all.

Sonny Rhodes plays Thursday (July 11) at Scalawag's, 14 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $3. (408/295-6969). He also plays July 19 at JJ's Blues Lounge, 3439 Stevens Creek Blvd., San Jose. (408/243-6441)

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From the July 11-17, 1996 issue of Metro

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