Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Spinning, the multi-faceted mirrored disco ball threw bits of rectangular white light mixed with programmed spotlights that change color, shape, direction and intensity. The musicians' jazzy sounds floated and swooped and zoomed into the room. The audience sat, listening, swaying slightly to the beat, grooving.
Then Henry Rhodes stepped to the mic. Men and women sat up straighter and leaned forward in their chairs. With a voice smooth as cashmere, Rhodes sang soulfully. Soon the audience answered him like a gospel choir well versed in the call-and-response technique. You could still hear the individual instruments, but it was that mesmerizing voice that held you, that thankfully turned you every which way but loose.
"People have said the voice doesn't fit the body, that I sing first or second tenor but look like a baritone. I can go down to get a little bass," Rhodes, a former college and professional football linebacker, said with a rumble. As we talked in his office at Herrin-Gear Chevrolet where he's happy with his day job selling cars, Rhodes, 53, peppered his conversation with bits of songs.
"I grew up listening to those soul singers. Donnie Hathaway—I grew up with him in church, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gay, Sam Cook, Nat King Cole, Brooke Benton.
Growing up in and around St. Louis and East St. Louis, as an only child Rhodes learned that it's not real good for a child to be by himself. His mother took time with him, teaching him to sew, cook and clean. "My wife appreciates me," he says. He grew up with a white family, Walter and Betty Hanfelder in Granite City, Ill.
"He was a horseradish farmer. My mom was their housekeeper. They practically raised me. He'd take me out on the tractor with his son. He'd come to my games, and when I did good, he'd yell 'That's my boy! That's my son!' … When Betty came to pick up my mom, she wouldn't start the car unless my mother was in the front seat, and you know that wasn't how it was done back then. … His son sent a jet to get me when he was about to pass. I was there when he passed," Rhodes said quietly.
Born in Pocahontas in 1952, Rhodes came back to Mississippi in 1971 to attend Jackson State and play football. After he graduated with a degree in sociology in 1975, he played linebacker with the Cincinnati Bengals until 1978. "Athletics taught me a lot, kept me on an even keel," Rhodes said. "It's a good experience, especially for young men to learn to get out and deal with people on a social basis."
He had two reasons for calling Mississippi home during and after his football career: the weather and his family. He wanted away from the cold Midwest and near his extended family. Fans became part of that family over the years. Rhodes began singing professionally in 1974 and has performed around the world.
"I always want to thank my family, my fans, the people that love me here in Mississippi. The state of Mississippi is a beautiful place to live. Up north, they've got the wrong idea about Mississippi," Rhodes said, "I've been playing white clubs since the '70s," he said. "I played the Stone Toad at the Main Harbor at the Reservoir in 1977-78. … I didn't have time to let color stand in my way," Rhodes explained.
Whether he's developing bonds with his customers at the dealership or recording his CD to be released next April or May, Rhodes knows people respond to him the way he responds to them—he's living evidence of the power of the Golden Rule.
As much as he loves working at Herrin-Gear, Rhodes isn't afraid to say that he hopes the CD takes him national and gives him the chance to just sing for a living. "The album might change my whole life," he said. "I might get a chance to touch more people."
Rhodes knows he puts joy into people's lives. "I've got fans from their 20s to their 60s," he said. "It's like a family. We laugh. Sometimes I heal a love affair. Sometimes I bring people together with a love song. That's the best part about being a musician, that you can take away their cares and worries. They see me on the street and say 'Aren't you?' and I feel like I'm accomplishing something. I'm sharing what God gave me with other people. Underneath this shirt and tie is a cross I never take off, no matter what I'm wearing or in the bed or the shower. I have a strong belief. I don't do anything without Him, Christ, the Son and the Father."
Rhodes then told me about his ultimate dream, to be able to give back to those talented kids in this area that he loves so much. "The needs for the arts in Jackson are not met, like how David Banner had to struggle to make it at first. … I want to make a studio where talented kids can make something of themselves." He wants the world to come to know the talent that abounds in his beloved Mississippi.
Until that as-yet-untitled CD comes out next spring, go experience the magic that is Henry Rhodes on Tuesdays with eZra Brown's Seven* and Fridays with Rhodes' Mo'Money Band at the Executive Place, 2440 Bailey Ave.; or with that same Mo' Money band on Thursdays at the Southside Bar and Grill in the remodeled McDonald's building outside Metrocenter Mall, and Wednesdays at Hamp's Place, 3028 W. Northside Dr. "We've been playing there six or seven years," Rhodes said, "packing them in. People come from Detroit, New Orleans, New Jersey, California—when they come home, they come to see us. People hearing us for the first time can't believe we're from Mississippi."