INTERVIEW: No Second String for Rhett Tyler

Interview and story by Don Wilcock

When Ozzy Osbourne’s lead guitarist Randy Rhoads was killed in a 1982 plane crash, Sharon Osbourne called Rhett Tyler – who is headlining at TJ’s Flightline Pub in Scotia on Saturday night (June 7) – to replace him.

“Of course, I turned her down,” says Rhett today. “I wouldn’t even do the audition.”

Never mind that Randy had combined classical influences with heavy metal and was on several greatest guitarist lists. David Fricke in Rolling Stone proclaimed him the 85th greatest guitarist of all time, declaring unequivocally in 2005, “Were it not for (Randy’s) 1982 demise in a plane crash, his already enormous influence on metal-guitar playing would have increased a hundredfold.”

Rhett says simply, “I did not like his music at the time. I was not into that dark thing. I didn’t realize that he (Ozzy) was really a Vincent Price character, and that it probably would have been a lot of fun, but you know….”

Then there was the time in ’75 when a mutual friend told Rhett that Keith Richards loved his music but couldn’t consider him as a replacement for Mick Taylor in the Stones because Rhett wasn’t famous enough.

And for years Rhett wondered why Stevie Ray Vaughan sounded so familiar to him until someone came up to him during a gig at Terra Blues in the Big Apple and said that Stevie had spent hours and hours learning to play guitar from a Rhett Tyler audition tape that Rhett’s dad had left at the studio where Stevie recorded his first five albums.

Listening to his new double CD The Rhythm, the Power and the Blues, it’s obvious that for Rhett it’s totally about the music, never about the glory. “We’re hoping to get the music out there and to get it presented in a way that people can pick up on what it really is,” says Tyler, “and not some Pepsi commercial.”

Imagine Johnny Winter informed by John McLaughlin fusion. Think of Pink Floyd if they’d grown up in the Delta. And then realize that Rhett went to both Julliard and Berkley School of Music and was the band leader for Ruth Copeland, the British R&B singer who earned her chops singing and composing with Parliament/Funkadelic. To say that Rhett Tyler copies Stevie Ray Vaughan is to say Picasso made children’s drawings.

Rhett is sanguine about the whole thing. “These guys like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kistofferson and all these guys talk about being outlaws? I was like, dude, you have no idea. I’ve had record deals offered to me from EMI down to Epic, and you know what? You can’t tell me what to do because I just don’t fit into that. I don’t believe in it.”

If you haven’t heard Rhett play, this all must sound like intense bravado, but I’ve known him, booked him and listened to him for more than 15 years. When I listen to his new CD and hear the range of his talent from baroque chamber music to delta blues to eclectic/electric/sonic symphonies, I’m reminded of a time I took sailing classes for gym credit at Tufts University. I would take a small dinghy out on the lake and literally sail rings around everyone else in the class.

I wasn’t trying to show off. I had been the ballast in my father’s Comet sailboat that he raced every weekend in season at Lake Piseco since I was a kid and had just absorbed the feel for the sport into my being. I’d never taken the tiller, but I knew all the moves. I felt the wind in my bones, and the line running through my fingers. Rhett’s got guitar playing in his DNA. It’s as natural to him as eating
breakfast. And when he’s on stage, he sails rings around the artists signed to the labels that he’s turned down.

As a kid growing up in Mississippi, Ohio and St. Louis, Rhett was bullied because he walks with a limp. “There’d be 14 kids all imitating my limp walking to school.” And when Martin Luther King was killed, he sat holding his father’s hand when King’s funeral train passed through. “I saw the tears in my father’s eyes, and here I am in the middle of the Midwest and everybody was prejudiced. That’s why I know it has
something to do with when I play the blues, I am the real deal.”

In the early ’70s he worked with Ruth Copeland, a British R&B singer who co-produced George Clinton’s first Parliament LP. Bernie Worrell, Eddie Hazel and others from Parliament/Funkadelic appeared on her solo albums. “I became her band leader after she left Parliament/Funkadelic,” says Rhett. “She was treated very badly by the industry because the industry is a bunch of rock and roll punks that want to control
women, and I’m totally not into that. We had a really good relationship, (but) I had to leave because we were about to do an album with Hall & Oates producing it. I had written most of the material with her, but alcoholism took her over, and I had to leave.”

A regular at Manny’s Car Wash in New York for 16 years, Rhett released Live at Manny’s Car Wash in 1999. His other releases include Total Package in 1992, My Passion in 1997 and Don’t Put Me in No Box in 2003. He was a regular at Northeast Blues Society events in the ’90s. A diabetic, he casually admits to having five near death experiences in the last seven years.

“The first time put my blood sugar at 12,070. I shouldn’t be alive. The second time, my blood sugar dropped to almost zero, and I drove the car for 45 minutes completely unconscious all the way from Hudson to Millerton. I did not hurt anybody at 65 MPH, and then I rolled it at the top of the hill three times over, and I came out of it with nothing but a scratch, even though they had to cut me out with the jaws of life. Then I had another episode where my blood sugar dropped to two or three. Then, I got lyme disease and was pronounced dead in the hospital. I don’t exactly remember when.”

Rhett Tyler lives to play. Not the other way around. “I might have an idea for a catch phrase in the chorus or what I want to sing about or the feeling about it, but a lot of these songs I just turn the microphone on and go.”

Straight on and focused, Rhett sees God as his compass. “(My belief) has allowed me to surrender. It’s allowed me to surrender, move on and grow. It’s allowed me to accept the way things are and to deal with them. It’s allowed me, no matter what happens, to try and concentrate on loving life, and just loving what is good and just keep going. It’s pretty amazing. It’s made sense of everything.”

Rhett Tyler and his band Early Warning – bassist Doug Howard (six years with Edgar Winter) and drummer Jeff Prescott – are scheduled to play at TJ’s Flightline Pub in Scotia at 9pm on Saturday (June 8).

PERSONAL NOTE from Don Wilcock: This article is dedicated to my dear friend Bob Rosetti, who died last weekend from complications of a bee sting. I love you, my brother, and I’m going to miss you.

  1. Stanley Johnson says

    I remember Rhett headling one of the Blues Fests that Don brought to the Empire Plaza a few years back and a more recent gig at the Riverlink Park in Amsterdam, where he was backed by Vinnie Amico of moe. Too bad hardly anybody showed up in Amsterdam, because his guitar playing was blistering.

  2. Bill says

    I saw Rhett headline the Concert for the Catslills benefit for Hurricane Irene victims a few years ago, and also at the Ale House in Troy last year. Both shows were excellent and I’m fortunate to have the benefit concert on DVD. Will mark my calender for Saturday.

    Interesting to hear about Ozzy offer. It’s a shame in a way that he didn’t accept as he might have become better known.

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