An Interview with harp player/ radio host Bill Rhoades, the "Godfather" of the Northwest Blues scene

"Blues is music from your heart and soul. People really feel it in themselves and in their feet. Many times it seems like it’s almost a heartbeat."

Bill Rhoades: Harpbeat Attack !

Bill Rhoades has been called the "Godfather" of the Northwest Blues scene. Growing up in Eugene, OR., Bill became interested in the Blues in the mid 1960's thru listening to the British Invasion groups who were covering Blues songs by American Blues artists. By the end of the 60's Bill was starting to perform with a small group of friends and in the early 1970's had formed his first band "The Rhythm Kings." By the mid 70's the opportunity came up to host a radio show on KLCC 89.7 FM called "Blues Power". Bill was on the air for almost nine years. Also at the time, Bill started the Oregon blues Society with longtime friend Ray Varner.


By the mid 70's his band had dissolved so he formed a new group called the Bill Rhoades Blues Band, which later became the Party Kings. This band had a two year stretch as the house band at Taylors in Eugene. Also during this time the "Kings" had the honor to back up Albert Collins, Louisiana Red, Sonny Rhodes, J.J. Malone, Troyce Key, and Michael Bloomfield. A young Robert Cray would also sit in with the band. They also opened shows for Son Seals, James Cotton, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells and Bill had the pleasure to sit in with Buckwheat Zydeco and Queen Ida. By the mid 1980's the Blues boom in Eugene had pretty much dried up, so Bill made a move to Portland, OR. At this time he formed Blues Deluxe but went back to the Party Kings name. Also at this time Bill began doing a radio show on KBOO 90.7 FM called "Blue Monday" which he is still doing today. His radio show can be heard every Monday from 2 to 4 pm (PT) on

With renewed public interest in the blues, Bill, Miles Ward, and Mark Goldfarb created the Cascade Blues Association. Reforming the Party Kings, Bill once again had the honor to back up many great Bluesmen including Jimmy Rogers, Luther Tucker, Big Daddy Kinsey, Smokey Wilson, Fillmore Slim and Lurrie Bell. Bill was also the founder and organizer of the Blues Harmonica Blow Off and the Blues Harmonica Summit. Bill Rhoades remains committed to playing "Good Rockin' Down Home Blues".


Interview by Michael Limnios


When was your first desire to become involved in the blues ? 

After I heard the sound of the Harp and the Blues tunes that British Bands were doing in the 60’s, that’s what I wanted to do. After I heard (on record) Sonny Boy Williamson II I was gone and hearing Muddy Waters sealed the deal.

                                                                              Bill Rhoades and J.J. Malone

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why? What experiences in your life make you a good bluesman?

From the mid 60’s to the late 70’s there was so much Blues going on in Eugene Oregon, it was hard to keep up with. First just discovering all the great Bluesmen and their recordings and then in the late 60’s being able to see many of the Blues legends play including Son House, Big Joe Williams, Bukka White, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Otis Rush, J.B. Hutto, George “Harmonica” Smith, James Cotton, Clifton Chenier and many others. As for what experiences I’ve had – I worked at many hard labor jobs over the years (wood mills – 10 years), fire crew, ranch or farm work. Those jobs will give you the Blues. When I lost my job in the early 80’s I had to deal with surviving and paying the bills. Pretty much what everyone has to deal with in everyday life. Relationships, keeping a roof over your head, food on the table, keeping the bill collector happy. Learning to do without in life will make you more appreciative and Blues offers an outlet like no other. It’s like a cleansing or a way to feel better.


What characterize Bill Rhoades blues philosophy? How do you describe Bill Rhoades & the Party Kings progress?

I guess my Blues philosophy would be that I don’t feel that Blues is a “down music”. I think that by playing or listening to Blues music you can relieve your own Blues that you live and deal with daily. I like it when Blues artists stick to a Blues format and express themselves in that format. I love the individual sounds of different Blues artists. For example – if Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters both do the same song, each version is great but they’re expressing their own Blues. As for the progress of Bill Rhoades & the Party Kings – I’ve actually been very lucky over the years to have played with such great musicians here in the Northwest USA. In the Party Kings I’ve had such great guitar players as Jim Cochran (Cherokee guitarist), Paris Slim (Franck Goldwasser), Rick Welter, Joel Foy, Alan Hager, Mark Rowen, Mike Osborn, Marco Savo and many more. We have also been very lucky to have opened for and played with many great Bluesmen. Over the past 5 years I have had to deal with 3 major surgeries and 1 year of chemotherapy. So I’m sort of starting over with a new group of players, including guitarists Henry Cooper, Newell Briggs and Chuck Laiti. I feel good about our progress and I think things will just keep getting better.


                                                                          Albert Collins and Bill Rhoades

What advice Albert Collins has given to you, what was your relationship with & which memory makes you smile?

Albert said he liked the fact that I was quiet and said that when he was around groups of people (not playing) he would remain quiet and just listen. We played with him maybe 5 times and he was great to work with. Very nice to all of us. He told me that I sounded like a combination of Big Walter Horton and Charlie Musselwhite. He said “I know because I‘ve played with both of them”. Once when we were playing a club in Eugene, the rhythm guitar player didn’t show up. I asked Albert what he wanted to do and he said for the bass, drums and myself to open the show. That’s bass, drums, harp and vocals? Now sitting right in the front is Albert and Robert Cray. We went ahead and started the show and things went fine. Albert came on stage and said for me to keep singing and he would play guitar. That was quite an honor. We were playing with Albert at the Eugene Hotel on the night that Freddie King died. Albert was very down at first and then he said with a big smile - “Well I’m heading to Texas, since Freddie is gone, it’s wide open there now. That was Freddie King country”


Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues & what characterize the sound of blues harp?

I think that the harp began as another voice in the Blues song. If you listen to Blues players like Noah Lewis, Sonny Boy I, and Sonny Terry, it sounds like the harp is answering their voice. It also became a great solo instrument in Blues music, with a sound like no other instrument. That’s what I love about the sound of Blues harmonica, is that no one sounds alike. Big Walter Horton told me that he could show me any of the licks that he played, but that they wouldn’t sound the same because my mouth, tongue, breathing and etc. would all be different.

                                                                         Bill Rhoades with Jimmy Rogers

What's been their experience from “studies” with Jimmy Rogers, Luther Tucker, Big Daddy Kinsey, and Smokey Wilson?

Working with Jimmy Rogers was a pleasure. What a nice person. Patient, polite and real good. Luther Tucker was the same way but very intense when he played. I rode with him from Oakland, California to Eugene, Oregon and talked to him the whole ride. He had many great stories about Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and James Cotton. Fantastic guitar player! Big Daddy Kinsey was pretty gruff and wanted me to play nothing but Blues. When we finished he told me that he really like my playing and “I did the job right!” Smokey Wilson could also be sort of short tempered but I got along pretty good with him. He was also an intense player and the real deal.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES.

I believe it’s because Blues is music from your heart and soul. People really feel it in themselves and in their feet. Many times it seems like it’s almost a heartbeat. I just hope that over the years, it doesn’t change too much. I really have no interest in Blues Hip-Hop, Blues-Rock and others forms which go too far away from the Blues format or what I would consider Blues structure of a song.


What are some of the most memorable tales with Michael Bloomfield?

I only played with Michael Bloomfield at 2 shows in one night. To be honest with you I wasn’t too impressed. He was dressed pretty bad and seemed very unhappy. Both shows we played were sold out but he left with all the money. We never got paid. Sonny Rhodes opened both shows and backing him was the best part.


                        Michael Blooffield and Bill Rhoades - Photo by Bob Biesser

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Son Seals, James Cotton, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells?

When we opened for Son Seals, he sat right up front and listened to our set. He later said that “It wouldn’t be right not to listen to the opening act”. He said he liked our Blues. Really nice person. I think James Cotton is the greatest living Blues Harmonica player. We opened for him once and I don’t think it was a good night for him. He seemed like he was upset at about everything. Love his playing though. When we opened for Buddy & Junior, they were having a rough night. They drank a whole bottle of Brandy before they came on stage and it showed. Junior was really unfriendly and Buddy was very friendly. I’ve always loved their music. I think Junior was a big influence on me for singing and playing harp.


Are there any memories from Sonny Rhodes, J.J Malone and Troyce Key, which you’d like to share with us?

Sonny Rhodes was one of the first Bluesmen, that we backed up. He came up to Eugene, OR. and played a number of times, so we got to know him pretty well. I stayed at his house in Oakland, CA and that’s when I first met Luther Tucker, J.J. Malone, Troyce Key, Floyd Dixon, and L.C. “Good Rockin’ Robinson. When I first met Sonny, he wasn’t playing the lap slide guitar. He sang like Little Junior Parker and played great Blues guitar. J.J. Malone was walking talking Blues. He was a very nice person, who liked to laugh, party and play music. I thought he was a really great musician, who could play piano or guitar equally well. He told me that growing up, he liked to listen to Muddy Waters, Tampa Red, Big Maceo and Mercy Dee Walton records. He had to be careful though, because his sister was very religious and didn’t allow Blues to be played in the house. We played a lot of shows with J.J. and I miss him. Troyce Key was the most dapper gentleman that you had ever seen. Always dressed up and looking good. He was a real country boy from Oklahoma who ended up in Fresno, CA, then later in Oakland. He could be a real down home Bluesman or play some more uptown style. He was a real Percy Mayfield fan. He would always say “And I don’t Be Jivin’”. Great guy!


                            Bill, Clarence "Guitar" SimsSy Hyung Kim & Troyce Key

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music? 

Well, I’ve always been waiting for it to get better and playing Blues to be more accepted. The money isn’t much better than when I first started playing. I guess though, that since Blues has always been on the outside, it makes it more special for me, when you do hear someone playing good Blues. It seems to be popular for awhile and then kind of fades but always comes back. People can relate to it. It’s a real roots and people music.


What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Probably when we were the house band at Taylor’s in Eugene, OR. Robert Cray and Richard Cousins used to sit in with us and they were incredible! They really took things up to another level.


Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

There have been so many “Best Moments” I don’t think I could list just one. Playing with and meeting many of my idols had to be high points. The worst moment was probably when I feel through the floor of a stage at a show we were playing. I thought I broke both of my feet! I still played the show but I was hurting.


Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?

There are so many but right up there were Jimmy Rogers, Clifton Chenier, Buckwheat Zydeco, Luther Tucker and Albert Collins.


                                                                         Bill Rhoades with Luther Tucker

What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from your first step in blues and the jams in high school?

When I first started playing, it was exciting for me, just to take the Harmonica out of the box. When I would learn a new song or harp part that was gold! In high school we used to jam at a farm out in the country and it was a ball! Curtis Salgado, Jim Cochran, and David Olson (Cray drummer) all used to play. That was where we learned how to play. It was more exciting to just be playing than to feel like you were having to go to work.


Tell me a few things about your Blues radio show on KLCC and KBOO FM, how that came about?

I started on KLCC in the mid-70’s and was on the air for almost 10 years. The show was called “Blues Power”. This was in Eugene, OR. After I moved to Portland, OR. I started doing a show on KBOO called “Blue Monday”. I was there for 23 years. Presently I’m on KMHD 89.1 FM in Portland. My show is called “Voice of the Blues” I’ve been on there about 2 years. It’s on every Wednesday night from 9:00 pm to 11:00 pm. It also streams online at


What are some of the most memorable interviews you've had?

On KLCC I interviewed Philip Walker. Roy “Good Rockin’ Brown, Koko Taylor, Robert Cray, J.J. Malone and others. On KBOO I interviewed Sonny Rhodes, Clarence “Guitar” Sims, Jimmy Rogers, Paul delay, Rick Welter, Paris Slim. Troyce Key and others. I also interviewed Big Daddy Kinsey and Buddy Guy. I still have most of these interviews on tape.


                                                       Bill, Big Daddy Kinsey and Donald Kinsey

Tell me a few things about the Oregon Blues Society, and Cascade Blues Association, how did you get that idea?

The Oregon Blues Society was started by my good friend Ray Varner and myself. We decided that there must be a way to promote or bring attention to Blues music. We put on shows with Albert Collins and a show with Buddy Guy & Junior Wells. This was in Eugene, OR. When I moved to Portland, OR. Miles Ward, Mark Goldfarb and myself started the Cascade Blues Association, with the same goals in mind. The Oregon Blues Society is no longer operating and the Cascade Blues Assoc. is going strong.


How do you characterize the local scene? What's been their experience from Oregon’s Blues Society, and CBA?

We have a really strong local scene here in Portland. Norman Sylvester, Lloyd Jones, Terry Robb, Jim Wallace, Duffy Bishop, Lloyd Allen, Curtis Salgado and Jim Mesi are just a few of the bands that work on a regular basis here. The CBA has been strong in promoting Blues and keeping the interest in Blues alive. At their monthly meeting they feature an acoustic Blues act and an electric Blues act plus putting on shows throughout the year. Thanks So Much for your interest!


Bill Rhoades @ Cascade Blues Association


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