We’ve reached the end of the protracted ordeal involving bandleader Todd Rhodes, his small Detroit label Sensation Records which revived his long dormant recording career in 1947, and King Records who in distributing many of those records on a national basis for Sensation decided to steal him for themselves with Rhodes as a willing accomplice in this contractual hocus pocus.

The courts however ruled against such chicanery and he was forced to honor his contract with Sensation. With this release he’d met his obligations and the next time we’ll meet him come spring he’ll be on King Records, the biggest – and honestly the best, at least in terms of production qualities, though not ethics – of all the independent rock labels of the day.

But Sensation Records still deserves to get one last moment to bask in the spotlight for giving their soon to be departed star his mojo back.


Beautiful Island
The thing about instrumental titles – as we’ve said countless times – is their main objective is simply to draw in curious souls with something mildly intriguing or relevant to their intended audience.

We’ve seen numerous titles refer to soul food, targeting listeners stomachs before their ears get a chance to sample the dishes being served up on records. There’s also the more suggestive sounding titles like Pussy Cats At Midnight to raise your eyebrows and your curiosity.

Here Sensation Records – if not Todd Rhodes himself – was paying homage to their home base constituency around Detroit with Belle Isle Boogie, an ode to the nearly thousand acre state park (as of 2013, prior to that it was run by the city) situated in the Detroit River which has been an oasis in the midst of a teeming urban center since the late 19th Century.

It houses everything from an aquarium to a conservatory and botanical garden, there’s grand prix races, public beaches, a museum, a lighthouse and even a giant slide… it is a testament to what people are capable of creating if their intentions are pure.

Of course those outside of Detroit don’t need to know any of that, to the majority of those listening to the record it doesn’t matter what its title obliquely refers to since the music contained within has nothing whatsoever to do with what activities you could partake of on the island itself.

Nevertheless it was a nice touch to incorporate something that forged a connection with the community that had supported the record label, the artist and the music that allowed them all to thrive.


Pleasure Drive
One other attraction on the island – in case you were thinking of making a trek out there – is a band shell for live music, but while Todd Rhodes, who died in 1965, certainly won’t be playing, this sounds like something that would go over pretty well at a place like that.

It has a touch of class in its melody yet has the requisite harder sounds to stir the passions of the rock crowd. More than anything though what stands out about it is Todd Rhodes’ smart arrangement that makes good use of dynamics – taking us from laid back to explosive with some PG rated grinding in between.

Mostly Belle Isle Boogie is a showcase for his beloved band, The Toddlers, giving them all room to stretch out and strut their stuff on a record that manages to somehow bridge the gap between eras and styles in a way that doesn’t pose a conflict to fans of any of what is touched upon. It seems to exist in its own world where all of it is perfectly compatible and the ever-growing stress between genres gets wiped away.

The early stretch leans a little more to big band jazz with a high and tight horn section smacking you in the face with clipped riffs in between Rhodes’s piano carrying the melodic thread after a sucker punch by the drums which kicks it off. Yet in spite of this it never gets too far removed from rock thanks to the way they attack their lines. The instrumentation mix might be slightly out of place but they’re in no way giving themselves over to the prevailing jazz mindset in their deliveries.

When Louie Stephens tenor takes the first solo you’re dropped into your comfort zone as he starts off with a beguiling hesitation move that draws you right in before seguing into a more in your face performance which is suitably aggressive and dirty yet never exploitative or out of control.

Once he bows out – temporarily anyway – the other horns don’t drop the ball, giving us the catchiest single riff on the record followed immediately by Rhodes’s piano and Huestel Talley’s bruising drum fill that segues right back to Stephens giving us some more gritty soloing.

If it falters at all down the stretch it’s really just in comparison to the textures that Stephens can get out of the tenor horn that the others are not capable of in the brass section. Yet their trade-offs with Rhodes are still pretty rousing all things considered and they build to a peak and release it with such ease that speaks well of how comfortable they were playing together.


Banded Together
Of course a record like this, ostensibly you could call it a tenor sax instrumental heavy on the accoutrements if you wanted, is almost too proficient to be a truly great rock record. They’re in control of things a little TOO much and surely some would argue the excitement is manufactured more than spontaneously achieved.

Maybe, but while we’ve seen the gradual decline of sax instruments over the past few months in both number and popularity, it’s still nice to encounter one that doesn’t skimp on the best attributes of the horn and is still able to fit it into a well-made frame.

Belle Isle Boogie in many ways makes for the best farewell Rhodes could have on Sensation. An instrumental rather than a vocal, a full band performance where everybody is contributing to the overall feel on a song that is energetic, exuberant and yet still well crafted.

For a guy born in the waning days of the 19th Century, Todd Rhodes managed to fit in quite nicely in the music that defined the middle of the 20th Century… and which is still a major part of the sounds of the Twenty First Century. The techniques may have changed some since he cut this, the focus on which instrument was the best equipped to satisfy the prevailing tastes of the day has shifted repeatedly over the years, but the music is still designed to get you on your feet, rocking in a groove and enjoying yourself.

Chances are if he was around now he’d still be able to do all of that pretty well.


(Visit the Artist page of Todd Rhodes for the complete archives of his records reviewed to date)