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SENSATION 20; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

What a difference a year makes.

In the waning days of 1948 Todd Rhodes was riding high. His career which had started way back in the 1920’s as a member of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers who had a good national reputation in the early days of jazz had gradually declined as tastes changed and by the early 1940’s he was just another club musician in his hometown of Detroit, respected around town but a long way from stardom.

The style of music he’d grown up playing was commercially moribund, opportunities for someone like him to record were almost non-existent and to top it all off a new louder, rowdier and more ragged style of music called rock ‘n’ roll came along which would’ve seemed to lower the curtain on any chance he had of re-emerging from a nearly fifteen year musical hibernation.

Instead rock’s arrival had allowed Todd Rhodes to be re-born.
 

 

Out Of The Groove
Signing with local Sensation Records in mid-1947 just as rock kicked off, Rhodes released a string of instrumentals that fit perfectly into the groove-laden sound of early rock while showcasing enough old school versatility to maintain his credibility in other circles should rock’s appeal wither over time.

When King Records picked up the already released Sensation titles in the summer of 1948 for national distribution Todd Rhodes, now 48 years old, began scoring Top Ten hits in a style that featured mostly stars half his age if not younger. But then it all came to a grinding halt when in June of 1949 he got robbed of two additional hits when King gave label credit to saxophonist Joe Thomas for a Todd Rhodes record, Page Boy Shuffle, which went to #7 in Billboard and which remained popular in pockets all across America for months, while its flip-side, the pop-slanted Teardrops, just missed the Top Ten itself.

Now four months later Thomas’s career was the one being revived, even getting enough votes in a Cash Box poll of Music Ops to place him sixth among rock artists for the year, while Rhodes’s fortunes had once again taken a downturn.

He would never score another hit.

Before you go changing into a black suit or veil and order flowers for his funeral we need to point out that Todd Rhodes’s career was far from over and he would go on to contribute to the hits of others as a backing musician, but his brief reign as one of the most interesting and reliable stars of rock were over thanks largely to that typographical error that may or may not have been intentional on the part of King Records in their effort to hype Thomas who needed the shot in the arm a hit could get him.

But as unjust as that turn of events had been for Rhodes, depriving him of not just the hits themselves but also the momentum for his next release coming off that one, he still had the name recognition and more importantly the skill to that flatten that unfortunate mountain back into a molehill by releasing something that was unambiguous in its attempt to reclaim the rock fan’s ear.

Unfortunately Moonlight Blues is not quite it and with rock constantly seeing new artists reaching more precipitous heights by taking the music to places that seemed unthinkable just a year earlier, the stalled progression in Rhodes’s output proved too much to overcome.
 

 

 

A Waning Crescent Moon
This release consisted of the last two sides recorded by Rhodes – with Thomas sitting in – from his January 1949 session, which included the aforementioned Page Boy Shuffle, the hit credited to Thomas when Rhodes’s original Sensation release of that record had been picked up by King, as was their standard operating procedure. Considering the first two records from that date which were released got him, or he and Thomas that is, three hits (Pot Likker being the other) shows he was on quite the roll. But they obviously hadn’t saved the best for last because this single comprised the weakest of the material.

The other side to this, Midnight Session, was too jazzy to connect in rock, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing from the standpoint of diversity, provided this side we’re reviewing now was more emphatic in displaying its rock credentials. Instead it vacillates on that premise, making its acceptance in either jazz or rock circles far from a sure thing. As we’ve stated countless times before when you try and split the difference stylistically you wind up pleasing no one, the jazz fan doesn’t like the rock attributes and the rockers like us are uneasy at the milder aspects that seem to suggest Rhodes was having second thoughts as to where he wanted to be situated as an artist.

This of course is nonsense. Artists are creative explorers and not all explorations pay off. If this one was a little too compromised to connect with us that didn’t mean he was turning his back on us, or on rock itself, but rather that he simply misjudged the ingredients ever so slightly. But when he’s in desperate need of a hit to reaffirm his place in the ever growing rock landscape this was the worst time he could’ve chosen to fall short in his aims.

That being said however nothing that Todd Rhodes and his crack band ever play will be downright bad. Inappropriate maybe? Yes. Underwhelming compared to his best sides? Sure. But these guys were the utmost professionals in rock, a veteran crew fully invested in one another thanks to Rhodes graciously spreading out the responsibilities on record and allowing each member a chance to shine. But sometimes that generosity undercuts a song’s effectiveness as it does just a little on Moonlight Blues.
 

Lost In The Moon Mist
As befitting its title the song is a mid-tempo waltz more than a slow groover and certainly more than a rousing call to arms. It gives the impression of something that is playing when you’re still out on the town and the night’s a long way from finished but coming at a time when your energy is lagging before you catch your second wind.

Like so many of his other efforts it’s an instrumental and so it has many different facets that get highlighted in the course of the song. Each part features something unique, but there are sections when he simply emphasizes the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Take the intro. The horns are playing in unison as Rhodes’s darting piano skitters underneath. The idea itself is fine but the horns are lacking gravity because the baritone sits out. As a result there’s no weight to it, no urgency in the mood. It prances rather than struts. When the horns shift to the main melody it’s a good one and your hopes rise. Billboard magazine, which liked it a lot, compared it Paul Williams’s The Hucklebuck, the biggest record of the year which had been released just before Rhodes laid this one down, so certainly there was a likelihood it influenced Moonlight Blues just a little.

The problem though the horns are still too mild, something which is necessary because Rhodes is intentionally holding back the baritone, or else a very nasal tenor, for the solo which is the best aspect of the arrangement. But who is to say that that horn can’t also provide more heft to the group section which forms the bulk of the record, especially when the song’s at risk for becoming a little too lightweight without it?

The other problem IS that sax solo – the best part of the arrangement remember? While it’s very good, a moody interlude that has hints of trepidation, almost like you were heading down a shadowy street on the waterfront one late foggy night, the pacing remains rooted in the middle lane. There’s no sudden interjections, no squeals from another horn, no quick biting riff on guitar, or even some strong left-hand keyboard smashing by Rhodes to keep you off balance. It’s a mood piece but the mood doesn’t quite dial up the tension enough to transfix you, nor does it offer any release from what they DO offer.

In other words it’s a little monotonous and this was hardly the time Todd Rhodes could afford to appear to lag behind.
 

The Old Man In The Moon
One of the ways the singles era was different than the album era in rock is that a subpar single had a potentially bigger effect than if that same song had been buried on Side Two of a full length LP. If a single doesn’t sell it has a tendency to push the artist to the back-burner as others line up to take their place in the pecking order with more acceptable recent releases. Of course you can make another argument that in the singles era you had a quicker turnaround from one release to the next, sometimes just two or three months, so you could more easily rebound from a misstep, but for Rhodes time was against him now.

For starters the rift between Sensation and King was growing bitter, as Syd Nathan had a tendency to stir up trouble when he felt it was in his best interest. He’d recently – and forcibly – taken over DeLuxe Records to get Roy Brown and then jettisoned the founders of DeLuxe who took most of their remaining roster with them to Regal Records. He’d also turned another distribution deal with Gotham Records into a tug of war for sax star Earl Bostic, another battle which Nathan won. No wonder he was growing cocky in his underhanded moves.

But while he’d eventually land Todd Rhodes as well by 1951 the matter was far from settled at this point and after the label credit snafu it’d be awhile before any Rhodes records got issued nationally on King. That meant underpowered Sensation had the full responsibility of getting this heard nationwide and they just weren’t equipped to do so, although this did make the charts in Miami of all places.

But Sensation was never going to compete nationally with more powerful labels such as King Records which meant that the momentum of Rhodes was stalled just as he’d finally achieved a measure of sustained success.

The sad thing of course is none of this was Rhodes’s fault. Even if you want to complain that Moonlight Blues wasn’t his best effort, it’s certainly not bad. But while late-1947 and all of 1948 had seen one good break after another fall into Rhodes’s lap, from rock’s invention itself which gave him new life musically while at the same time signing his first record contract in years to having those subsequent records picked up for national distribution by a bigger company, everything went right for him. Then 1949 took most of those breaks back, fate being forever the fickle mistress.

I guess that’s why they say, “Those are the breaks”.

Just don’t say it to Todd Rhodes. I doubt he’d be in the mood to hear it.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 

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