Rhodes less traveled 

This story is the eighth part of our Century of Sound series, tracing Detroit’s musical heritage over the last hundred years.

 

Detroit in 1937 was, like the rest of America, still in the throes of the Great Depression. Nearly half of the work force was unemployed, food lines snaked around blocks, the upstart United Auto Workers staged “sit down” strikes in auto factories, demanding fair treatment, and wages, for workers. Nationwide, 22 million people were on some form of government assistance.

Well, history has taught us that dour times make for great art and entertainment; Detroit had no shortage of spirited clubs, bars and eateries that featured live music.

Pianist Todd Rhodes marked his 10th anniversary as a Detroiter that year and was playing in Cecil Lee’s reputable orchestra at Club Plantation, a plush nightspot in the basement of the Norwood Hotel on Adams. The club offered black entertainment for white audiences (called a “Black and Tan” in the parlance of the day).

Rhodes was of the second generation of jazz musicians. He witnessed the birth of the Jazz Age and, incredibly, stayed steadfast in the face of subsequent changes in American music: swing, bebop, R&B, and modern jazz, either adapting to the current style or avoiding it altogether. And, from 1947 to 1954, Rhodes led one of Detroit’s most popular bands, the Todd Rhodes Orchestra, and scored top ten hits on the national chart. During his Motor City reign, Rhodes made a decent living and provided for his wife and three children.

But not even the resilient Rhodes could survive the Motown juggernaut. Ironically, two of Motown’s key studio players had apprenticed in Rhodes’ band. Once Motown became the music for American youth, Rhodes’ employment opportunities dwindled. He finished his days largely lonely and forgotten, working a lowly “sing-a-long bar,” accompanying amateur vocalists slogging though the latest hits: the ’60s equivalent of karaoke. This was the last stop for the pianist. He’d been in a downward spiral since losing his record deal in 1954. The public forgot his dozens of superb recordings.

It was a far cry from 1927, when the fresh-faced 27-year-old Rhodes manned the piano chair in the cutting-edge McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. Detroit was then the fourth largest American city, home to Ford, Chrysler and GM as well as lesser concerns like Packard and Willys-Overland. The city was awash in cars and optimism and the music brought in by the Southern African-Americans who came in droves for factory work.

 

Todd Washington Rhodes Jr. had been playing music since his youth. The Kentucky-born pianist — who was raised in Springfield, Ohio — and some music-playing buddies formed a six-piece band around 1920, procured snazzy outfits, and started gigging in Ohio and Michigan. Their timing was perfect — the jazz age, during which the seeds of contemporary American culture blossomed — was about to take off.

When Prohibition took effect in 1920, speakeasies — illegal joints that served booze — popped up all over Detroit and fueled the music. The city was, after all, a short hop away from the largest liquor store in North America — Canada.

Rhodes arrived in the Motor City in 1927 with McKinney’s Syncos, a Springfield, Ohio, band that played the “new” music sweeping the land — jazz. They had caught the ear of Detroit bandleader/impresario Jean Goldkette, who booked them into his Graystone Ballroom, a block-long dance emporium on Woodward Avenue at Canfield (now McDonald’s). The Graystone was grand, tops as far as ballrooms went — it wasn’t uncommon to find 4,000 dancers shimmying to music atop its polished wood floors. Built in 1922, the Graystone was one of a dozen Detroit dance emporiums catering mainly to middle-class whites. (Black folks were allowed to rent the facility to sponsor dances but were otherwise barred — conversely, black bands worked there frequently.)

Goldkette, a white guy, thought “McKinney’s Syncos” was too generic a name and insisted the band change it. The idea was to let audiences know the band was black. A Goldkette employee came up with “McKinney’s Cotton Pickers,” a moniker that, of course, insulted the band members. But it got them the gig. Black entertainment for white audiences was presented in a reassuring manner for white folks then. Stereotypical images of the South, or Africa, were invoked — Detroit nightclub names included Club Congo, Plantation Club, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Cotton Club.

McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, through Goldkette’s connections, snagged a Victor recording contract in 1928 — a real prize, as record sales, not radio, spread a band’s popularity. McKinney shrewdly hired pioneer big band arranger Don Redman to create an atypical sound for his band, and Redman obliged — jazz historians like Gunther Schuller cite the Cotton Pickers as a cutting edge orchestra; they didn’t have many strong soloists but their precision ensemble work and pat-your-foot rhythm captivated audiences.

Rhodes played piano for McKinney until the Cotton Pickers’ demise in 1935. Depression-era economics finally sank the band, along with the mighty Graystone. McKinney struggled on, but there were too many payless paydays and the musicians needed steady work. The Cotton Pickers didn’t make another record after 1931. (The record industry nearly vanished then; most of the smaller record labels, like the minor car companies, merged or disappeared.)

The Jazz Age, which began with the Charleston, went out with a shuffle after the 1929 stock market crash. Detroit suffered numerous social ills in ensuing years, including a lack of decent housing for both blacks and whites. Detroit’s African-American population continued to slowly expand out of its near East Side enclave, a cause for grave concern among Detroit’s majority white population. This underlying friction culminated in the 1943 race riot and, 34 years after that, the 1967 rebellion.

There were positive signs. In 1937, GM and Chrysler recognized the fledgling UAW, a momentous first step toward decent treatment for assembly line workers, but not until WWII would Detroit rise above the depression and become “The Arsenal of Democracy,” building tanks, aircraft, and the ubiquitous Jeep in auto factories that converted to wartime production.

Entertainment in Detroit flourished as money was plentiful for those with cushy auto trade jobs. Saxophonist Cecil Lee led a hot seven-piece band at Club Plantation. It was a good gig — friendly atmosphere, steady paychecks and decent music — and Rhodes got on board. Swing was king then, and Lee’s band was hot. The septet stayed intact until its leader was drafted in 1943.

In order to help the war effort, Rhodes took his first, and only, day job as a maintenance man at the Fisher Body plant on Piquette.

“He’d never done (that) before,” his widow Annie Mae Brown said. “’Cause his hands … he didn’t want to hit them or nothing. He’d go there in the morning and clean up … he’d take a suit and white shirt with him, and he played for all the people in the office … and then at night he’d go play music.” Rhodes quit the job when the war ended.

 

Rhodes and Brown married in 1934 and raised three children: Sherwyn, Brenda and Elden. He stood 6 feet 2 inches, was solidly built, smoked cigarettes but didn’t drink. He was quiet and soft-spoken, so much so that one musician’s wife didn’t think he was a musician. His longtime bassist and friend Joe Williams told me, “Todd was a fine gentleman — trustworthy, congenial.”

Rhodes’ first piano inspiration was James P. Johnson, a master who could make the piano sound like an orchestra. Todd blended well in a rhythm section, had a nice touch on ballads, and a deep feel for the blues. He loved George Gershwin’s music, especially “Rhapsody In Blue,” his featured number with Cecil Lee’s orchestra.

Todd’s days as a bandleader started in 1946 — he needed the money, and Annie Mae pushed him to form his own band. He’d led small quartets before, but this was the big time.

“He said, ‘Oh, that’s too much responsibility, I don’t wanna do that,’” she recalled. But family needs prevailed, and Rhodes put together a six-piece band for Broad’s Club Zombie, located on Oakland in the North End. The Todd Rhodes Orchestra featured music for dancing and also accompanied the hour-long shows — singers, dancers, comics, a chorus line — and they worked six nights a week. From the Zombie, Rhodes moved to Club Three 666, reportedly one of the city’s finest black and tans. When he landed at Lee’s Club Sensation, on Owen at Oakland, the Todd Rhodes sound was intact. He played music people could use — simple, direct and blues-based, not like bebop (clubgoers didn’t dance to bebop). Rhodes also played standards, classical pieces (like “Rhapsody In Blue”) but it was the bluesy material that cemented his rep and won him the contract with Sensation, one of Detroit’s newly minted record labels.

In July 1947 the Rhodes Orchestra headed into United Sound Studios and recorded “Dance Of The Redskins,” a wild version of the popular ’30s number “Redskin Rhumba.” His band fused elements of gospel, jazz and blues. Held together by a solid backbeat, Rhodes’ brand of music was the immediate predecessor to rock ’n’ roll. It was turbocharged, high-octane rhythm, driven by eight-to-the-bar piano and urgent growling tenor sax sounds and, sometimes, a vocalist.

Rhodes’ version, replete with Lou Barnett’s moaning tenor sax answered by the other horns and driven by Huestell Talley’s steady tom-tom beat, announced the beginning of Detroit’s golden age of rhythm ’n’ blues, a several-year span when R&B bands and vocal groups (like the Five Dollars) took root and flourished. It culminated in the birth of Motown Records in 1959. Major vocalists like Little Willie John, Hank Ballard (and the Midnighters), and Lavern Baker (both Ballard and Baker recorded with Rhodes) toured with Rhodes’ band.

Rhodes’ recording became a local hit, one he played nightly in Detroit clubs. And the live show was something: His horn section would exit the stage like pied pipers and prance about, sometimes outside the club, followed by the audience. For the next seven years, Rhodes’ band remained a top draw in Detroit (Rhodes’ band took first place in a 1948 popularity contest sponsored by the Detroit Tribune) and throughout the Midwest, and as far south as Kentucky. These were Rhodes’ salad days, the apex of his forty-plus years in the music biz, and his home life was good.

Rhodes didn’t hang out after gigs; even as a member of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, he loved home. If he wasn’t on tour, he spent most of his free time there, honing his piano chops and sometimes playing for neighborhood kids. He encouraged his children to play music and Brenda took lessons — but not from her famous dad; as breadwinner, Pop wasn’t inclined to teach.

Rhodes’ first string of Sensation releases pushed him onto Midwestern radar screens as did his savvy manager Wilson “Stutz” Anderson. Anderson, a former Detroit bandleader with a keen business sense who knew how to exploit audience demand for his client.

Buoyed by Rhodes’ success, the Sensation owners attempted to broker a national distribution deal for the discs. They contracted with Vitacoustic Records, but Vitacoustic went belly-up — it was rumored “organized crime” controlled the label and the gangsters weren’t impressed with the hit-or-miss nature of the business, so they invested their money elsewhere.

Sensation next partnered with King Records: King would record Rhodes and the records would be issued on both labels. Sensation would have exclusive rights to Michigan, and would receive a percentage of all King sales. Unfortunately, King violated their agreement terms. By the time Sensation got their masters back, they were kaput; small labels had a short life span. Rhodes continued with King, and notched national chart hits. In 1948 Rhodes hit No. 3 on the R&B charts with “Pot Likker” and No. 4 the next year with “Blues For The Red Boy.”

 

What’s remarkable is how Rhodes’ career ran from the beginnings of jazz right through the flowering of Motown. The time line shows how the man adapted to severe musical and economic changes. But after losing his King contract in 1954, he began a slow but inevitable slide into obscurity, inevitable because he and his audience were aging and younger listeners moved on to rock ’n’ roll.

By now Rhodes had a jaded view of the record business. “The competition in this business is more fierce today than in the McKinney era,” Rhodes told writers Thurman and Mary Grove in 1952, comments that eerily echo any upcoming band today. “There are dozens of small record labels and hundreds of recording bands. Success on a national scale is almost a grab bag situation, with all the recording artists hoping and praying for some silly tune they record to catch the public fancy and push them overnight into the headline spot. Most often the number is utterly worthless — it is a senseless proposition in a crazy business.”

At this point, Rhodes was the oldest guy in his band. Most of his sidemen were ten or twenty years younger than he and preferred bebop, not R&B. As long as the money was good, their discontent with the music was held in check. But as the ’50s wore on, Rhodes’ popularity waned and the number of gig-worthy venues, and his performance fees, shrank. Once their salaries went from “good” to “fair,” the sidemen sought employment elsewhere. Most of the musicians took day jobs to support their families.

In fact, things got so bad for Rhodes and his family that they moved to Flint, hoping things would improve. They didn’t — Flint, like Detroit, depended upon the auto industry, and disposable income was scarce. Annie Mae, an expert seamstress, took in sewing work. Flustered, the Rhodes’ returned to Detroit a year later where Rhodes was connected, hence possible gig work.

And the music scene in Detroit had improved, for some musicians — Motown Records had arrived. And Rhodes, now nearly 60, was a dinosaur; his music consigned to the dustbin of American culture. The times indeed were a-changin’.

Rhodes was unsettled; he was accustomed to being on top, but by 1961 there was little opportunity for him.

“There was always someone interested in Todd Rhodes,” bassist Joe Williams told me. “But he got small jobs that weren’t paying anything.”

Sometimes the prideful Rhodes wouldn’t accept work if the money offered insulted him.

Annie Mae summed up Rhodes’ situation simply: “His years of success with the band had given him a swelled head.”

She’d been having tough times then too: Reports of another woman in her husband’s life saw Rhodes move out and take up residence at the Carver Hotel, a “weekly” dwelling across the street from the Flame Show Bar, one of his old glory day haunts. His room offered a melancholy view of the Flame, and he could sit and watch people entering the club to see someone else perform.

Rhodes occasionally ventured into the Flame to hear Maurice King’s band — but the Flame’s best days were about done too, and it closed in 1963. Show Bars, at that point, were slipping into the past.

Williams visited Rhodes at the Carver, and thought he was in good spirits, but his health was bad; Rhodes believed he had diabetes but his distrust of doctors ruled out any check-ups. Worse, his room didn’t have a piano, and there was little to do. Occasionally he went out to hear old friends play, a lonely figure dressed up with nowhere to go. He also continued his affair, but, according to Williams, his heart wasn’t in it. His heart was in his music.

In early 1964, Rhodes began a residency at the Morden House, a hotel in downtown Sarnia, Ontario. The hotel had a “sing-along” bar, and six nights a week — plus a Saturday matinee — Rhodes accompanied the locals. Although it wasn’t a jazz gig (he was limited to playing pop hits), Rhodes must have found some joy in the opportunity to play regularly — his room at the Morden, where he now lived, also lacked a piano.

Word spread around Sarnia that a good pianist had taken up at the Morden, and musicians came to hear. Pianist Marg Chevalier remembered: “He had a very intricate arrangement of “Glow Worm” which much impressed me. The place was always so crowded, though, he couldn’t really play any jazz.”

Rhodes’ career had come full circle, completing a cycle he’d spoken of years earlier in the Groves’ interview: “First you play solo, then get a small band and enlarge it. You play locally, take to the road, and then make some records.”

Rhodes was, in a sense, starting over, but time had run out. Following a matinee performance in autumn of 1964, Rhodes went to his room to lie down and didn’t turn up for that night’s show. He was later discovered in his bed, conscious but unable to speak.

Annie Mae took him to Wayne County Hospital. Rhodes had suffered a stroke, and it was discovered that he had advanced diabetes. He regained his speech but lost a leg, and never recovered enough to leave the hospital. Annie Mae stood by her man as did Rhodes’ lover, and there were uncomfortable moments in the hospital.

The pianist died on June 4, 1965. Rhodes — the man who linked Detroit jazz to R&B to Motown was all but forgotten, and his death sparked little more than cursory mentions in local papers. If anything, his life was symbolic of that uniquely American pop concept: If it ain’t current, throw it away.

Though some of Rhodes recordings were reissued on various LPs by King Records, much of his music was destined for oblivion. That is until UK’s Ace Records obtained rights to Rhodes’ Sensation catalog. Most are now reissued and remastered: Todd Rhodes and his Orchestra: Blues For the Red Boy. Go to www.acerecords.co.uk.

Jim Gallert is a Detroit-area jazz historian. His Web site (with Lars Bjorn) is detroitmusichistory.com. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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