East Side Stories: OSCAR “SMOKEY” RHODES: “Like playin’ piano with your feet”

 By , on his site at http://www.michaelcorcoran.net/east-austin-history

Smokey Rhodes

Smokey Rhodes

(from June 2002, Austin American Statesman)



Under the coffee table of this small apartment in Rosewood Courts off East 11th Street is a row of scuffed shoes with cracks in the leather. They’re lined with paper, these five pairs that look like they’d go for about a quarter apiece at a garage sale. Little pieces of flattened metal on the soles make these shoes special, however. “My favorites are the red ones,” the skinny old man says from the couch. “They’re like magic, man. When I put those on I feel like I’m flying.”

At age 82 (or 83 — he’s not sure), Oscar “Smokey” Rhodes still has the moves that made him the favorite dancer of Austin musicians, including the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, who would often call him onstage. His motions are slower these days, the tapping coming at a typewriter’s cadence rather than the spitfire pace of old. But as one of the last of the great “buck dancers,” Rhodes is often sought out by up-and-coming hoofers.

Rhodes says he loves to pass on the techniques of the flat-footed “buck” style, which is more syncopated and reliant on musical accompaniment than the standard tap dancing. “Kids nowadays, though, they want everything like this,” he says, snapping his fingers. “They want to learn, but they don’t want to listen.”

To listen to Rhodes on a recent afternoon is to learn about a life that has known great camaraderie, but also tragedy. They’re reconciled, the highs and lows, in the marriage of clicks and thumps of the buck dance, which gets its name from the old “buck and a wing” routine. As long as Smokey’s dancing, everything’s gonna work out.

This craft was handed down to Smokey by his mother, Mary, a rarity as a female buck dancer, who toured the Southern vaudeville circuit in the ’20s and ’30s. She also taught Smokey how to dance tap and the ol’ soft shoe.

“I’ve missed my mother every single day since she passed,” he says of the fun-loving disciplinarian who died of heart failure in the early ’70s. “She taught me that when it’s time to work, you work your tail to the bone. When it was time to play, well, go have yourself a ball.” Rhodes says he’s also never stopped mourning his only brother, Willie, who died of pneumonia on Christmas Day 1934 at age 13. Father Harvey, the namesake for Smokey’s oldest son (one of six children), passed away a few years after Mary. “I don’t care how old you are. You never get over losing your family.”

Mary and Harvey Rhodes, who both grew up in Bastrop, picked cotton when they weren’t dancing. “They’d dance for a man from Kyle who sold a potion he called ‘Getcha Ready.’ Wasn’t nothing but hackberry limbs all chopped up and boiled. My parents’ job was to rouse up a crowd with their dancing, then the medicine man would step up and sell his bottles.” Smokey would play percussion, strumming a washboard with thimbles on his fingers.

The family settled in Austin in 1938 when Harvey got a job at a cotton gin that used to be at 1914 E. Sixth St., where a post office is now.

Before he started taking dancing seriously, Rhodes’ first love was baseball. After attending Anderson High School, Smokey was a star leftfielder for the Black Senators and then the Austin Palominos in the Negro Baseball League. Local 7-Up distributor Ed Knable was a big baseball fan who often gave jobs to players he liked, so he hired Smokey as a driver — a job he’d hold, during three different stints, for 31 years.

The first time he had to quit was when he was drafted into the Navy. His wartime duties were safer than most — mixing drinks in the officers clubs at bases in Corpus Christi, Oakland and Chicago. It was in the Windy City that Rhodes met his dancing idol, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. “He was the smoothest, man. You could learn as much watching his hands as you could watching his feet.” After studying Robinson night after night at a Chicago nightclub, Rhodes finally got up the nerve to approach the star. They hit it off and, over coffee, Bojangles gave Smokey some tips, but even more importantly passed on words of inspiration. ” ‘Keep on dancing’ is what he told me. It was the highlight of my life.”

Back in Austin after the war, Rhodes got his job back at 7-Up and also delivered ice for a Waco company. One stop on his route was the Harlem Club in Dallas, ruled by a guitar player named T-Bone Walker. “He blew everybody away,” Rhodes says with a big smile. “I got so excited I just hopped onstage and started dancing. That’s how it started for me, dancing with bands.”

Smokey especially liked to dance to the rhythms of barrelhouse piano, and in East Austin he teamed with such ivory thumpers as Robert Shaw, Roosevelt “Grey Ghost” Williams, Erbie Bowser and Smokey’s best friend since childhood, Lavada Durst. “The piano, man, that’s the whole program with buck dancing. It’s like playin’ the piano with your feet.”

When there wasn’t a piano around, Durst would pound out rhythms on a barrel while Rhodes danced. In their teens, the pair used to entertain Zilker Park picnickers by doing this routine from a raft in Barton Springs Pool. “They used to have this contest, where four guys would stand on the raft with one hand tied around their back and the other one with a boxing glove on it. They’d try to knock each other into the water and the winner would get five bucks. Well, when they were all done with that, me and Lavada would take over the raft.”

Though Smokey hates to fly, he made an exception when Texas Folklife Resources booked its “Texas Piano Professors Tour,” emceed by Marcia Ball and also featuring Durst and Bowser, at a venue in Long Beach, Calif., in 1993. Rhodes almost stole the show with his “Stop Time” routine with Bowser. “It was so wonderful to see all these lifelong friends reconnect onstage” says Texas Folklife’s Pat Jasper. “I think the experience really invigorated Smokey.” The man known for walking all over East Austin, sometimes miles a day, had a new spring in his step.

Tary Owens of Catfish Records, whose late ’80s releases of albums by the Ghost and Bell and Bowser led to a rediscovery of the East Austin barrelhouse blues scene of the ’40s and ’50s, says Rhodes was very much part of the revival. “When Smokey danced, it all came back. You could feel the spirit of the old days,” Owens says.

“Those guys were my brothers,” Smokey states. “Robert Shaw, Lavada Durst, Grey Ghost, Erbie Bowser, T.D. Bell — man, we were all so tight.” As he sits in the living room with the front door open on a hot afternoon, sadness passes over his face.

“They all died in a row. Like, one died on a Saturday and here comes Tuesday and another one passed. Now all my friends are gone.” Tears stream from under the hand covering his face.

Grey Ghost, Bowser and Durst died in ’96. Bell passed away three years later.

“I’m the last one left,” the 82-(or 83)-year-old, who lives alone, says with a sigh.

And until he goes, you can bet Smokey Rhodes, who remembers his mother in the steps she taught him and his friends in the moves their music inspired, will keep on dancin’.