Rondo Leewright, the St. Louis blues singer who captivated the city for years with his powerful voice, passed away yesterday of cardiac arrest. He was 65 years old.
Rondo was the featured vocalist in the early '80s for the Soulard Blues Band. He rose to greater prominence in mid-decade, though, with the formation of his own group, Rondo's Blues Deluxe.
"He was an unusually effective stage performer at his height," says Vintage Vinyl co-founder Tom "Papa" Ray. "He had what I'd call a gruff, bull-cow sort of voice. Raspy. In his day, he was definitely in the top tier of blues entertainers in St. Louis."
"Loving You Is Just a Gamble" by Rondo's Blues Deluxe (Courtesy of Blueberry Hill Records)
Rondo's Blues Deluxe held a weekly residency during the early years of Blueberry Hill's Elvis Room, and owner Joe Edwards says he sold it out every week.
"He had such an incredible, high-energy live show," Edwards remembers. "His trademark thing was, 'Somebody say yeah!' Almost like you were in church. The church of blues."
Edwards describes how, as the night wore on and the drinks kept flowing, the music would get more intense and Rondo would whip the capacity crowd into a frenzy. And when he'd say it -- "Somebody say yeah!" -- everyone in the room, no matter what else they might be occupied with, would yell it back.
Blueberry Hill Records released two Rondo's Blues Deluxe albums, 1987's Live at Blueberry Hill and 1990's Shack Pappy's. Edwards recalls getting a phone call out of nowhere from the legendary Bobby "Blue" Bland one day after the famed singer had listened to Live. "He said, 'OK, how'd you do that? How'd you record his voice that way? No one can sing that way! You must have overdubbed it or had two singers or something,'" Edwards recounts.
When Edwards assured Bland that all the cuts were live takes, the bluesman responded, "He must have two vocal boxes, because no one can sing that powerfully."
Health problems plagued Rondo in recent years. "I know that the last couple times I saw him perform [two years ago], he had to sit down on stage," Tom Ray tells RFTmusic, adding, "And he was still a really good performer."
Edwards notes that when he last spoke with Rondo, four or five months ago, the singer was in good spirits. "He was doing a lot of family history research," Edwards says.
Rondo was surrounded by family when he died.
"Another blues notable in St. Louis has passed," says Ray.
Note: We have reached out to Rondo's family and will update this post as soon as we're able.
"Blues Medley" by Rondo's Blues Deluxe (Courtesy of Blueberry Hill Records)