The decades go by quickly. One loses touch with old friends. Spouses, children, work and other concerns demand attention. But now and then an opportunity presents itself to renew old acquaintances. So when news broke that Darryl Rhoades was planning a Hahavishnu Orchestra “Celebration” concert some ten years ago, a light went on. Get in touch with Darryl. We could talk and I’d work up a story, like in The Great Speckled Bird days. So we talked. There was a lot of ground to cover, but first things first. We talked baseball.
Our baseball chatter focused mostly on the Braves, then experiencing a so-so season. However, so-so was a great improvement over the Braves we knew in the mid to late ’70’s when infielders Darrel Chaney, Rod Gilbreath and Pepe Frias cleared paths for ground balls to go through. It was in those days and at least for another twenty years that every Braves game was on TBS (Channel 17), with repeat broadcasts in the wee hours of the morning. That was great for a baseball-loving musician who wouldn’t get off until after midnight. “I’d walk through the bar where they had the game on live and I’d look away from the set and cover my ears so I would not hear the score. If someone told me who won the game, it ruined the rest of my day,” Rhoades remembers.
Remembering the days of Ernie, Pete and Skip behind the mic evoked other memories of Atlanta in the ’70’s, long before the era of the Cumberland Mall Braves. There was a sense of adventurism in the city’s music community. Acts were getting bolder yet the attitudes were not unpleasant. Affability was a good thing. Because so much is in your face these days, the daring but still accessible comedy of Darryl Rhoades and The Hahavishnu Orchestra now seems comforting and rather harmless. Besides, Rhoades didn’t want his satire to make people angry; he just wanted people to think.
It could be those who were angered over one thing Rhoades said or sung were too busy laughing over what he said or sung next. Darryl Rhoades is an equal opportunity offender. In fact, if he doesn’t somehow offend you, he’s sorry. But he may be equally sorry if you don’t wonder what influenced the offensive lines.
Rhoades, after all, is a guy who opened his shows one holiday season dressed as Santa Claus nailed to a cross. That certainly confused some people. But let’s consider society’s blessing of the marriage between organized religion and crass commercialism. It was society and its acceptance of declining values and phony leaders sparking Rhoades’ cynical humor. Perhaps Darryl Rhoades should be regarded as an unorthodox traditionalist: the crass world he encounters is warped and he’s going to respond in ways that make people uncomfortable; when they’re not too busy laughing, that is.
Darryl Rhoades had spent the better part of the late sixties and half of the seventies playing the drums in lounges at Holiday Inns and bars along such strips as Atlanta’s old Stewart Avenue (now Metropolitan Blvd). It was a living but he tired quickly of keeping time with “Love Will Keep Us Together.” So he decided to try something new. Rhoades created a new musical persona as the front man in a band with two guitarists, a keyboardist, a bass player, a saxophone player, a drummer, three background vocalists (one dressed in drag to fit in with the girls), an emcee and two female dancers. The most remarkable thing is that Rhoades and his Hahavishnu Orchestra made it work. They also made it great entertainment.
For three years beginning in the Fall of 1975, performances by Darryl Rhoades and the Hahavishnu Orchestra were must-see shows, especially in Atlanta. Rhoades got it going by promoting himself and his comedic musical offerings on WIIN 97, a rock station with low ratings but a loyal and enthusiastic audience. Rhoades would play tapes of his songs such as “Surfin’ Shark,” “This Song is Boring” and “Burgers From Heaven.” Along with hosts Ross Brittain and Rex Patton, he’d talk up the songs and the band he was putting together.
Within months, he and the Hahavishnu Orchestra were appearing before big crowds at The Bistro, The Great Southeast Music Hall and The Electric Ballroom. They took the show on the road, appearing up and down the eastern seaboard. Word was getting around. People in the music business loved the songs. They loved the show. But the record labels had no idea how they could make Rhoades’ music work on vinyl. The act was “too visual,” or so said the record labels. They missed the point. Yes, the shows were visual. The assemblage of musicians, vocalists and dancers with Rhoades holding court was something to see. The songs were funny and entertaining musically. Darryl Rhoades knew how to craft smart but accessible music. The hundreds and thousands of people that came to see the shows wondered when they could buy a Rhoades album.
By 1980 Darryl Rhoades had his album. He paid for the recording and handled the distribution himself. The album included many favorites from the Hahavishnu days and intriguing new songs such as “I’ll Be Watching You.” In less than two years,10,000 copies were sold, mostly in the South. That was an impressive do-it-yourself project in those pre-internet days. But to many fans, the album symbolized a look back instead of a new path for Rhoades. People missed The Hahavishnu Orchestra. They missed the energy and creativity the band displayed on stage. They missed Jonny Hibbert and his wailing saxophone. They missed Jimmy Royals, the guy who dressed in drag and sang, “I am Woman. Hear me bitch. Buy my records and make me rich.” Face it; this was a fabulous group that Rhoades assembled. At most every performance, particularly the first year or so, the people on stage seemed to enjoy the shows as much as the people in the audience.
But bringing smiles to the audience doesn’t always put food on the table. As Royals remembers, “everyone was having a hard time making ends meet.” He went on to say that “things got too weird when we went to New York City and our per diem was $15.00.” Tensions rose within the group. “There were meetings and side meetings; people were fighting with one another, although that is not so uncommon with that many people….. people from all walks of life,” Royals explains. Matters came to a head because everyone had bills to pay. So Darryl Rhoades and The Hahavishnu Orchestra played their last show in October of 1978.
Royals, as well as Hibbert, still looks back at the experience fondly, despite the struggles. “It was exciting to be creating something that had never been done before,” Royals says. So it was no surprise that Royals, Hibbert, and other Hahavishnu alumni participated in the “Celebration” concert.
Darryl Rhoades has a lot to celebrate. Although he hasn’t been that visible on Atlanta’s entertainment scene in the last decade, he’s stayed busy. In fact he’s kept busy working as a stand-up comic. Some 40-45 weeks a year he’s on the road offering perspectives on the new-world-disorder. While many of us weren’t looking the last 35 years or so, he released 9 albums. His latest, The Last Goodbye, is a fine effort with various musical styles incorporated. As noted previously, Rhoades can work up some terrific songs. He can keep you thinking, laughing and humming.
As the angel Clarence might say to Rhoades, he’s had a wonderful life. Just talk to the guy and you’ll realize it’s true. He’s not a sour satirist. He has great enthusiasm for what’s happening around him. As expected, he loves all kinds of music. Very little in news and culture gets by him. He’s run the Peachtree Road Race. He collects autographed baseballs and revels in the game’s history. He also shares the passion of many hard-core baseball fans when lamenting how the economics of the game have thrown things out of whack. He says he’d “love to see markets like Pittsburgh have a chance. I don’t celebrate the A-Rods getting massive contracts which result in a family paying $100 for a ticket and $8 for a hot dog and $20 for parking, etc, etc.” Darryl Rhoades for Commissioner of Baseball, anyone?
Rhoades jokes that he and The Hahavishnu Orchestra were the band that “Rolling Stone said could not miss but we proved them wrong.” The writers at Rolling Stone were not the only ones who thought Rhoades would sign with a big label and end up on The Tonight Show, talking with Johnny about his home in Malibu. But none of that happened, and that’s fine with Rhoades. Now and then, Suzanne, his wife of 23 years, will ask him what-if questions. He replies that if he did go on that path to stardom, he would have never met her and he’d rather not think about that. He also thinks about the values that were instilled in him by his parents that kept him grounded but free in his thinking.
Rhoades says he remained close to his parents “until they left the planet.” His parents were hard working people and maintained a strong Christian faith. He says his mother may not have understood his career but he believes she was always proud of him. Yet there was a day when Darryl was visiting his mother, just watching TV. On the television, Darryl and his band were performing a song that would not pass the mother test. “Darryl,” Mrs. Rhoades said, “we raised you better than that.”
(Darryl Rhoades, Thermos Greenwood and other stellar musicians will appear at The Great Southeast Music Hall Reunion at Smith’s Old Bar, August 4. You got to be there.)