‘Well, it’s a little chilly way up here in Canada, sweetheart. But, thanks for asking.”
The southern drawl is striking.
It takes a minute to realize what blues legend Sonny Rhodes just said.
And it takes another minute to realize that the 66-year-old singer just called me sweetheart.
Rhodes was in a motel room in Terrace, BC, and, apparently, it was nothing like Florida.
“I’m used to a warm climate; that’s where I live — it’s 80 degrees in Florida right now,” he said over the phone.
He was playing in Terrace that night; then was booked to play a few more BC cities before heading up to the Yukon for the first time.
I warned him it wasn’t very warm up here either.
“I used to watch a lot of Sergeant Preston and his wonder dog King in the 1950s on a little black and white TV,” said Rhodes.
“But I’m sure the Yukon’s not all Mounties and sled dogs anymore.
“And I can’t imagine the wonder dog King is still alive,” he said.
Rhodes was just a teenager when he watched the frosty Klondike adventures of the wonder dog from his steamy home in Smithville, Texas.
Munching on grilled catfish and sneaking sips of moonshine, he grew up living the quintessential life of a Mississippi blues musician.
“I was born at the right place at the right time,” he said.
The youngest of six, Rhodes was christened Clarence Edward Smith.
Back then his older siblings were simply referred to as ‘boy’ or ‘girl,’ but Rhodes was called Sonny, a pet name he earned as the youngest.
“Because I was the youngest, I couldn’t go out and play with the rough kids,” he said.
“And this was back before black people had electricity. So, my job was to stand beside the victrola (phonograph), wind it and put records on like an old fashioned DJ, while my parents and friends drank homemade beer and moonshine.”
Standing beside the victrola, Rhodes would sing along with his mother’s Christian and gospel records.
“I got really good at emulating the blues and gospel,” he said.
Walking into the living room one day Rhodes’ mother caught her eight-year-old son hunched over the back of the phonograph.
“I was looking for the little black men who sang and played in there,” he said with a laugh.
“I wanted to go join them.”
His mom didn’t think it was funny, and took her son to the doctor.
“She thought I was crazy,” said Rhodes.
But the doctor just chuckled, told her there was nothing wrong with her son, and advised her to let Rhodes continue with his phonograph sing-alongs.
Rhodes’ old, blind uncle was another early musical influence.
“I used to lead my uncle up town, and he’d sit playing his guitar and singing and get all these nickels, dimes and pennies in his hat, while I was in the cotton fields from sunup to sundown making 50 cents a week,” said Rhodes.
“And my uncle was making $11 in three hours.
“So, I thought, there’s something wrong with this picture — I’d better learn to play guitar.”
But Rhodes didn’t have a guitar and had no idea how he would ever afford one.
This is when the cotton-picking job paid off.
The owner of the field found Rhodes crying one day, after learning that it was a bad crop year, so he took an old guitar down from the barn and gave it to Rhodes to console him.
“I started plinkin’ away; I musta banged on that guitar for months,” he said.
Around this time, Rhodes played for some friends.
One said, “Wow, you sound so good with only that one string, think how good you’d be with five more.”
All this time he hadn’t realized the guitar was missing almost all it’s strings.
But Rhodes couldn’t afford to buy any, so he pulled five wires out of his mom’s window screen.
“The problem was, I took all the wires from one place,” he said.
“And all these flies and mosquitoes started getting into the house.
“My mom whupped my butt, but I played till my fingers were raw.”
Eventually Rhodes saved enough for a set of “ol’ Black Diamond strings.”
Around this time, he also started listening to more advanced guitar music.
At the Saturday night fish frys, someone would always be sitting around playing a guitar beside a bucket of moonshine, he said.
“And when the party was over, they’d tell us kids to clean up the place.
“Which we did, by drinking everything that was left in all the glasses.”
Rhodes quickly made friends with Jack Daniel’s whiskey, and did not end the relationship until four years ago.
“I would have jumped out of an airplane with a parachute, just to get a bottle of that stuff,” he said.
“I was lucky to get out of that without cirrhosis of the liver.”
After high school, Rhodes joined the US Navy and moved to California.
“I wanted to be like B.B. King,” he said.
“I kept playing while I was in the service and made cool contact with lots of people.”
While he was on leave, he met Muddy Waters and the two blues men became friends.
“He gave me my first marijuana joint, and I thought I was going to die,” said Rhodes laughing.
He began to hang out with Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and other blues greats playing shows in California.
“And I sang with Leadbelly,” he said.
“Actually, back in Texas, I used to cut Leadbelly’s wood for him, while he sat on the porch singing stuff like Irene Goodnight.”
Rhodes’ popularity began to grow and he cut a couple of albums.
“I kept the name Sonny, from when I was young, and added Rhodes, because I was on the road a lot,” he said.
Now, sitting at home between tours, with his wife of 47 years, Rhodes still gets itchy feet.
“When I’m not on the road, I want to go on the road, and I sit there and start to polish my shoes and hum me a little tune, and my wife says, ‘OK big boy, it’s time to go again,’” he said.
Rhodes has seven kids of his own, 26 grandkids and three great-grand kids.
“Alls I wanted was a boy, but we had four girls, then the fifth was a boy, and then I thought we needed another boy to help the first one protect all those sisters,” said Rhodes laughing.
“There are three priorities in my life, God above, my wife Annie, and the blues.”
And Rhodes is going to stick with all three till the end.
Blues musicians don’t retire, they play till they die — and they die with a smile on their face, he said.
“I love to share the blues. I play with as much intensity as I can and I love to see the joy on people’s faces,” he said.
“I do what I love to do.”
Rhodes and his band are playing tonight and Saturday at 9:30 p.m. at Paddy’s Place.