As a teenager in the early ’90s, Rhoda G. went to a Kenny G concert with her father at the Fox Theatre, and her life changed.
Her father had given her a new saxophone the same week her mother died of cancer. She says something about the way Kenny G held a superlong note that night left her transfixed.
“He started that note onstage and walked off the stage still holding the note,” says Rhoda G., whose full name is Rhoda Graham. “The band stopped playing, and he caught the elevator upstairs still holding the same note. I was sold. My mind was blown.
“I said, ‘I’m gonna do that one day.’”
Though Rhoda G. got her first horn in 1993, she didn’t take the sax seriously until 2004. In her youth, she remembers paying attention when her parents played songs featuring a saxophone solo, such as Anita Baker’s “You Bring Me Joy” and the Whispers’ “Is It Good to You.”
“It was the sound — the color it adds to the song,” she says. “When the saxophone solo came in, it would take the sound to a whole other level for me.
“I don’t listen to a lot of horn players. That’s because I’m self-taught. A lot of sax players are jazzy or jazz-oriented. I play what I grew up on and what’s hot.”
She has taken overseas gigs for which she has had to learn jazz tunes, but it was always smoother jazz like Grover Washington Jr. — never straight-ahead jazz.
One of her first gigs outside of church was performing with old-school R&B band LLC, which she credits with giving her a start. She also performed with the group Under the Influence for a while before going out on her own.
“It’s a pretty rough industry to be in dealing mostly with guys,” she says. “There’s not a lot of females out there. I think that’s why I do OK.”
Today, her performances are marked by the climactic moments when she holds a single note, sometimes longer than three minutes.
“I have yet to sit down and time how long I can hold it,” she says. “Most of the times when I do it, it’s my finale. It’s the end of the show, and I’m tired. That note takes everybody home. After that note you don’t want to hear anything else, anyway.”
Rhoda G. has become sought out on the St. Louis R&B scene.
She has performed at venues including the Fox Theatre, the Pageant, the Marquee Restaurant & Lounge, Knockouts Bar and Grill, Cuetopia, Duck Room at Blueberry Hill, the Rustic Goat, the Loft and the Old Rock House, just to name a few.
Rhoda G. has found her niche by playing saxophone versions of popular hits, sometimes with her band and sometimes over tracks. In either instance, she’s not just coming in near the end with a sax solo but performing the verses and choruses, assuming the lead vocal role.
“A lot of saxophone players play (Beyoncé’s) ‘Love on Top’ but midway through soloing they jazz it up so the audience can’t sing it anymore. When I do it I play it more verbatim.”
She specializes in current Top 40, R&B, hip-hop and pop hits. Her saxophone mix of Fetty Wap is drawing attention now, along with her versions of Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” and Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”
“I play stuff you wouldn’t expect to hear on sax,” she says.
Other covers she has been known for include T-Pain’s “Buy You a Drank,” one of the first hip-hop songs she ever played (she played it in a competition in Atlanta years ago and won first place).
Drake’s “Find Your Love,” Marsha Ambrosius’ “Far Away,” Maxwell’s “Pretty Wings” and Charlie Wilson’s “There Goes My Baby” have also been staples. “I played that so much I had a baby,” she says of the latter title.
“People say they can’t stand a song, but when I play it, they say they could listen to it all day,” she says. “I like challenging stuff — artists who challenge me. When I approach a song, one thing I notice is that it’s totally different.”
Though Rhoda G. is known for her covers and her mixtapes, she plans to release a project of original tunes. She put out an original album in 2004, but not much happened with it. She may refresh some of those tunes, though she says she’s on a whole other level these days.
“That’s the last thing I need to do before I can take off, if that opportunity comes along,” says Rhoda G.
She’s featured on St. Louis musician Mark Harris’ new EP.
What STL-R&B Concert Series with Rhoda G. and Cold Summer, Tiffany Elle, D. Smith, Bigg Rich, Frank L • When 7:30 p.m. Friday • Where Harris Stowe State University Main Auditorium, 3026 Laclede Avenue • How much $20 • More info 618-530-6337