As a young boy in Florida, Thomas Rhyant used to slip out of the house late at night to sit in his daddy’s Cadillac and listen to AM radio stations he couldn’t pick up during the day. He heard voices from the Bahamas, Chicago, New York, all over the place. He dreamt of seeing those places. It was music that would take him there.
Rhyant was raised on quartet gospel music. His father, an aspiring singer, was frustrated with the difficulties of trying to keep a group together. Eventually, he built one the organic way, fathering four sons who became a family gospel quartet known as The Rhyant Brothers. All four sons sang, but Thomas — the oldest and the one with a razor-sharp musical memory — was elected to be the guitarist.
Early on, Rhyant followed his father’s musical vision, but the first time he heard Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers — on his dad’s 8-track player — his own musical aspirations snapped into focus. The sound, range and versatility of Cooke’s voice captivated Rhyant. He began working to emulate Cooke’s style, and found his efforts paying off when, at 19, he traveled with his father to a multi-night engagement at a church in the Bahamas.
“Every night, the church was jam-packed with girls, I mean full!” Rhyant recalled with a laugh. “And there were guys all around the outside of the church who kept yelling through the windows, ‘Sing, sing. Sing some more, man. Sing some more!’”
With Cooke’s style as a guide, Rhyant set about pursuing those late-night Cadillac dreams. He traveled all over, singing and playing guitar. He became part of The Violinaires, the legendary group with whom Wilson Pickett cut his teeth before becoming an R&B superstar. The group’s drummer was the son of R.H. Harris, Sam Cooke’s mentor and teacher, and one of the most important figures in the history of gospel music. Rhyant listened intently to every story the younger Harris told. Through The Violinaires, Rhyant met many of his musical heroes, and spent hours listening, soaking up the history of their lives and music.
These days, Rhyant uses music to tell the stories of those who came before him, allowing people to not only understand but emotionally connect with history. When his 93-year-old mother-in-law came to hear his Sam Cooke show — he mixes Cooke tunes with stories about his life — she threw her hip out dancing. “She couldn’t get up the stairs the next day,” Rhyant said, “but every now and then she asks, ‘When are you going to do that Sam Cooke show again?’”
Rhyant is well on his way to fulfilling his dream of seeing the world. But now he realizes that the traveling is only a byproduct of his real calling — making people happy by sharing the music he loves, and keeping its history alive.
— Will Boone