Today, the “Home of the Blues” is a neon-lit echo of what it once was. Tourists pile in on Saturday nights for diver buckets and live music, the heyday of true blues long past. But in early February, fans from around the world crowd into Beale Street’s venues for the International Blues Challenge (IBC), and that history reverberates — through steel guitars, upright basses, washboards, handmade instruments, and soulful singing from the hearts of IBC hopefuls.
Inside B.B. King’s Blues Club, Rodd Bland mans the drums for a tribute set to his father, legendary blues singer Bobby “Blue” Bland, who hailed from nearby Barretville, Tennessee, and passed away in Germantown in 2013. The ensemble, a group of Rodd’s friends and Bobby’s former band mates, perform a selection of Bobby’s songs under the moniker Rodd Bland and the Members Only Band. The last act in a Thursday afternoon Galaxie Agency showcase, the group — fronted by Nashville-based blues guitarist Stacy Mitchhart — plays to an attentive, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, a crowd who knew Blue’s songs, and sang along.
“Bobby was always my favorite; anybody who knows me knows that,” Mitchhart says before the first notes of “Ain’t That Lovin’ You” hit. “Anything I can do to honor him and his legacy is a pleasure.”
Rodd sits behind the drum kit, straight-faced and focused, soft blue stage lights shining overhead as he keeps the beat for some of his father’s most well-known tunes. A few days earlier, he’d expressed a twinge of nervousness about the tribute. “I haven’t really approached playing more than one or two of his songs since he passed,” he says. “But it will be some of my dad’s old horn section — Marc Franklin on trumpet and Art Edmaiston on sax, Chris Stephenson on B-3 organ, Harold Smith on guitar, Stacy Mitchhart — he opened up for dad several times; and rounding it out on bass, Russell Jackson, who played for B.B. [King]. It’s like a family thing, and if you’re going to venture to do something that you may or may not be ready to do, it’s good to do it with your brothers.”
As smooth guitar riffs lead into “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” couples glide onto the dance floor, arm in arm, swaying to the sounds of Bobby’s 1974 R&B hit. By show’s end, as the band closes with “Turn on Your Love Light” — horns screeching, keys jangling, Rodd in the back cracking a slight smile as he drums — the audience migrates to the foot of the stage, dancing ecstatically.
After the set, Rodd prepares to judge an evening IBC solo/duo showcase at King’s Palace Cafe. He’s made a name for himself on Beale — as a professional drummer for various blues/rock acts — continuing, in his own way, the musical legacy left by his father.
Growing up Blue
Rodd, 40, was born in Memphis and grew up in Germantown, attending Houston High School. Upon graduation, he went to Lambuth University in Jackson to pursue a marketing degree, but after a year, the music called him back home.
Growing up in a musically rich environment, Rodd gravitated toward drums and says he was “destroying pots and pans” by the time he was 3 years old. “I would go in the kitchen at my grandmother’s and start pulling stuff out. Other kids would be playing with building blocks and I’d be building a drum kit,” he says. “Or I’d take spoons and go into the living room or dining room and hit furniture.” He recalls how Blue would scold him, “Hey! Hey, buddy!’’ with a hint of disapproval, but, Rodd says, “My grandmother, his mother, would get on to him and say, ‘Leave him alone. One day you’re going to need him. He’s going to be your drummer.’” Grandmother was right.
“I started playing drums on stage with him when I was 5,” says Rodd. “I was like this little sideshow novice, I guess, as a part of his show with a 10-piece band — 10-and-a-half, counting me.”
Though Rodd says growing up with a legendary bluesman as a father was “probably no different than every other kid — he just happened to have a talent that no one else did, which was his job — being a singer, an entertainer,” his stories sing a different tune. During summer and winter breaks from school, he’d hit the road with his parents while his dad toured. He rubbed elbows with numerous celebrities and performed alongside a host of musical greats. “I’ve always been on and off the road with him,” he says.
Rodd recalls a gig in New York, when he was 7 or 8 years old, during which he had an unpleasant encounter with Mick Jagger. “I didn’t like Mick Jagger,” he scowled. “Not that I didn’t like the Stones — at that time, my musical education centered around Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King, Albert King, so I wasn’t exposed to rock-and-roll.”
But Jagger was a big fan of Blue and was invited to sit in during a song. Being a blues performance, Jagger pulled out a harmonica. “I think my dad was doing his version of the Merle Haggard tune ‘Today I Started Loving You Again,’” Rodd says. Rodd’s brother, Tony Coleman, was on one drum set and Rodd was on his, a “blue sparkle Slingerland kit” he received when he was 5 years old, and still has today. “And here comes this skinny dude — you can imagine him doing his Mick Jagger moves — playing the mess out of this harmonica in my left ear.”
Young Rodd was put off. “For quite a while I had no love for harmonicas,” he laughs.
As Rodd grew older and more experienced at his craft, he became more than a “sideshow novice.” In the 1980s, many bands, including Bobby Blue Bland’s, had double drummers (two drummers playing two separate kits). “That was what led to my further development of becoming a seasoned drummer — learning how to be a show drummer; you play a designated set, it’s regimented,” he says. “There’s not going to be much ad lib and stretching out as a drummer or a bass player, everything is structured. I really did my lion’s share of work by the time I was in my teens.”
Rodd was 19 when he “got the keys to the plane” and began to perform with his father as the sole drummer. “It grew to the point where he knew that I was always going to be dependable, that very seldom would he have to turn back and look at me to give me a cue,” he says. “I know a lot of the time what he’s going to do before he does it.”
Over the years, Rodd played several shows with his dad, even touring internationally to Japan and Europe. He’d also play behind his godfather, Blue’s best friend, B.B. King.
Honor Thy Father
Rodd stands proudly with his father and Beale Street representatives on April 10, 1996, the day of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s brass note ceremony.
The weekend before the IBC festivities, Rodd, sporting a T-shirt marked with the Memphis skyline, a backwards Stax cap, and black-rimmed glasses, has lunch at Miss Polly’s Soul City Cafe before a gig with the Will Tucker Band across the street at B.B. King’s Blues Club. He sits at “the old man’s table” — a pub table adorned with a painting of an iconic image of Blue crooning into a mic — and talks about his father in the present tense, as if he’s still with him; in many ways, he is.
On this day, red and yellow balloons are tied to a high-backed chair in celebration of what would have been Blue’s 87th birthday. Miss Polly’s is abuzz, so we relocate, shifting into a table next door in the quiet, not-yet-opened Club 152, a venue in which Rodd regularly plays drums with blues/rock band Mercury Boulevard.
Sun streams through the windows lighting the otherwise dimly lit club. Outside, sparse crowds meander down Beale — a quinceañera party, a rowdy crew pedaling a Sprock n’ Roll party bike — before the night sets in. The muffled melodies of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” play on an outdoor loudspeaker and sneak in through the closed doors.
The first time Rodd played drums on Beale was at the New Daisy Theatre, with his father’s band for the 1996 recording of the album Live on Beale Street (released in 1998). Within a year, he began receiving calls to sub for house-band drummers on the street, and when he wasn’t touring with Blue, he’d accept. “I didn’t want to get back on a gig with the old man and be cold; it was something to do to keep my chops up,” he says. “And it just snowballed from there.”
A typical week for Rodd now sees him playing three or four nights a week in various venues on Beale. Weeknights at Club 152 with Mercury Boulevard; weekends at B.B. King’s Blues Club with the Will Tucker Band; gigs at Rum Boogie and Alfred’s, shows with Brimstone Jones or other acts. Sets are mostly a mix of blues and rock, with songs like Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” or Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Cold Shot” on the lineup.
It doesn’t go unnoticed that Rodd has made a career as a professional musician on a street where his father first gained momentum. “Rufus Thomas used to host amateur night down there at the old Daisy, as it’s called, and the grand prize was five bucks,” he says. “Blue was out there winning that as often as he could. I think he held a record for most consecutive wins before Rufus had to shut him down.”
Back then, Blue, along with B.B. King, Rosco Gordon, and Johnny Ace formed a group called the Beale Streeters. “They got their start together here on Beale,” Rodd says.
The first few times Rodd performed on Beale after the recording of Live on Beale Street, the significance hadn’t yet set in. “It wasn’t the focal point,” but these days, he says, “Say I’m playing 152, so I load my gear in, and I might take a moment to look out this window and try to envision what it was like for him back in the day. Obviously it’s not the same street they cut their teeth on, but at any given moment, it’ll hit me that I might be standing in the same spot [he stood] or where that iconic picture of him and Elvis was taken, down at the old Daisy, then the Palace Theatre.”
“I’m a part — in my own way, shape, form — of a Beale Street legacy,” says Rodd. “Maybe I’m a new Beale Streeter?”
Riding with the King
In 2003, Rodd got his first chance to play with his godfather and longtime family friend B.B. King at King’s namesake club on Beale Street.
In 2005, he performed with him again. During a show in Biloxi, Mississippi, on B.B.’s 80th birthday tour, Rodd says, it was “Dickey Betts, Bruce Willis, Dr. John, Deborah Coleman, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Bryan Lee, and my dad, of course — he had all these people sitting in at the same time; it was like the ultimate jam session.”
The band’s then-drummer Calep Emphrey caught up to him and said, “You know you’re gonna have to help me out; I might have to sneak away.” So Rodd sat in. “It was an opportunity for me to be on stage with my dad and B.B. at the same time, which was a rarity for me,” he says. “It was one of those things where I was glad I was in the right place at the right time.”
In 2010, when B.B.’s drummer Tony Coleman had to break away due to a family emergency, Coleman called Rodd to sub for him. “We’re talking 90-minute shows, tuxedo time,” says Rodd. “I had one show scheduled with my dad that ended up being during the time that I needed to go do the B.B. thing. My dad said, ‘Son, you need to do this, this is part of your legacy; I can get somebody to cover me for a night.’”
Rodd played that show — with B.B. King and Buddy Guy — in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the Sandia Casino Amphitheater. During the “maiden voyage,” as Rodd calls it, he was “on pins and needles. I don’t do nervous when it comes to playing drums — I set up the kit, sit down, grab sticks, and go. But this was [different]. I was groomed to be able to swing the drum mantle with my father and with B.B. The guys that I looked up to have all done that — John “Jabo” Starks, Tony Coleman — they flip-flopped between the two of them. It was my turn to follow in those two guys’ footsteps who I admire and love so much. I’m fortunate that I got to do that.
“Of course, I’m still cheesin’ about some of the YouTubes I’ve seen of it,” he says with a grin.
They followed with a show in Telluride, Colorado, where Rodd met fellow musicians Allen Toussaint and Beth Hart.
When B.B. King passed away in May 2015, Joe Whitmer, with the Blues Foundation, asked Rodd to carry B.B.’s Gibson guitar, Lucille, at the funeral procession. At first, he says, “I asked him, ‘Isn’t there someone else more dignified or qualified that you could ask?’ He helped me to realize that, in a sense, I’m honoring both B.B. and my dad — my two dads, as I always call them.” Rodd agreed.
At the farewell, thousands of mourning fans gathered on Beale Street, with Rodd leading the procession, Lucille in hand. “It was powerful — the overwhelming sense of love and appreciation shown toward someone who was very impactful in my life,” he says. “But it was a bittersweet moment because I was being forced to say goodbye to the last piece of what my blues life had been built upon. I had just come to terms with the fact that I would never sit on the stage with my father again and play his music with him. The last true semblance of what real blues music is; it’s no longer there.”
Photo by James Wessels
GodBye BB KIng
Rodd carries Lucille at B.B. King’s funeral procession on Beale Street.
Love in the Heart of the City
Real blues still echoes in the “Home of the Blues,” though, thanks in part to people like Rodd. Throughout the 2000s, playing with the Corey Osborn Band at B.B. King’s Blues Club, and still today, in the various bands with which he performs, he carries on that Beale Street blues legacy. While not all of the music is considered “true blues,” he keeps it alive as best he can. Just don’t ask him to sing.
“My dad was the most soulful singer there ever was or will ever be in the blues. That’s my factual opinion,” he says. “I’ve attempted to do some background vocals — trying to help out, or so I thought, where I could while playing drums. God bless Blake Ryan and Patrick Dodd and Corey Osborn for letting me muddle up some words. Long story short: No, I don’t sing. I did attempt to sing to a couple of girlfriends; that’s probably why I’m single,” he laughs.
As for playing on Beale for nearly 20 years, Rodd says, “It’s nice to know that I have support and backing from various venues and their managers and owners. It’s not often a sideman drummer gets a lot of love and respect, but they go above and beyond the call of duty to show you how important you are to them, to make you feel like you’re not just an employee, or just a sideman musician, but an integral part of their venues.”
On any given week, you’ll find Rodd down on Beale, keeping the beat — and adding fuel to the flickering flame of “true blues.”
“You don’t just wake up and say, ‘I got the blues.’ It’s a feeling — a cumulative thing,” he says. “It comes from deep within the heart and soul. It can’t be manufactured.”