Rudolph Winstead, 86, known to his friends as “J. Thaddeus Toad”, or “Toad” for short, sits down on a stool with his guitar, introducing his first song. Her voice resonates, soft and strong. “I am walking on the ground on you.”
He earned his nickname, he said, because he had trouble remembering people’s names, so he just called them “Toad.” And the people turned on him.
“I added the J. Thaddeus to improve the game… I thought it seemed important,” he said.
“I’m old, so I play old songs,” he says. He follows his first number with “Blues Stay Away From Me” and “Melt Your Cold, Cold Heart”.
Toad’s playgrounds are in Nash County, but anyone who was in Greenville in the 1950s might remember him and his sister from “The Jewel Box Jamboree” with Sammy Bland on WNCT-TV. The folks of Rocky Mount can recognize him from WCEC radio station or, in recent years before COVID, play country and gospel tunes every Thursday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Les Hardees across from Lowe’s. Due to the location, his daughter, Celeste, said some people called them the “Highway 301 Opry Band”.
And he’s not just a musician, but a storyteller. The stories are of a life well lived.
“I was born in Nash County at 9 pm on September 12,” Toad said with surprising precision. But musically, the story started when he was in seventh grade.
“I have always been little. In school, when they were getting ready to pick teams to play ball, another boy and I were always picked last because they thought we couldn’t kick the ball past the pitcher’s mound, ” did he declare. “I didn’t want to play ball, not how. I told dad that Eddie Pridgen had a guitar and showed me some chords. I asked him to buy me a guitar.
His daddy told him he would buy him a cheap one, and if he learned anything, he would buy him a better one. He bought her a brand new Harmony guitar in 1947 for $ 16.50.
“I learned a few chords, but back then in country music most songs only had about three chords… every once in a while you had a song that went to the fourth chord,” Toad mentioned. . “Nowadays you sometimes have to change agreement every three words, or so. “
In eighth grade he would take his guitar to school and he and his friend Eddie would play a song during oral sex time. His teacher auditioned him with Ray Wilkerson, the program director for WCEC radio station in Rocky Mount.
“We had my sister (who played the piano), Eddie’s brother Bob, who played the double bass, and we went over there and sang three or four songs. He put us on the radio every Saturday from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.
“There was nothing else to do before the television came out. Every Saturday the radio station was almost full of people coming to listen, ”Toad recalls. “Most of them were girls. “
Listeners also mailed cards with requests for hand-written songs in cursive, such as “Ask Rudolph to sing“ A House Without Love ”… don’t disappoint. Or “Ask Rudolph to sing ‘A Heart Full of Love’ for Betty, Marie, Rebecca, Margaret and Shirley.” The cards would be creatively signed, like “Cute Chick” or “Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes and Shorty”.
The group sang around a microphone. Although his sister was part of the group, they became known as “Eddie Pridgen and the Riverland Playboys”.
“The reason the ‘Riverland’ came in there is because I stayed on the north side of the river and Eddie stayed south, about a mile apart.”
It might be better not to ask how the “Playboys” part of the name came about, but Toad admits to having an affinity for blondes.
Back when the band was on the radio, Toad was too young to have a driver’s license, so his father had to drive them to the station every Saturday. On Friday and Saturday nights, Toad and Eddie also performed in the Buddy Baker’s Dance Band, at square dances in Middlesex and Spring Hope.
“We started at 9:00 pm and played until noon. Between the square dances we would play what they called a round dance, a boogie or a waltz. “
After the square dances ended, they performed at the Pack House Jamboree in Wilson on Saturday night.
Around 1949, Toad’s father must have decided that he had learned something, because he bought him a better guitar: a Gibson for $ 66.50. He still has it.
He remembers the first time he got paid to play guitar. It was with Pete Winstead (no relationship) on electric guitar, Toad on rhythm guitar and his daddy on violin. The country store owner liked them because the farmers lingered and bought more RC Colas and Moon Pies. So when they were done he paid the band in Nutty Buddies.
“I said every time you get paid you’re a pro, aren’t you? “
Sammy Bland, then a DJ at WCEC and later known as a race broadcaster and for his TV shows with Witney the Hobo, would open a few doors, musically, for Toad.
“When we were singing on the radio, Sammy would come up where sometimes when the show was over, he would come up there and want to sing a song, and we would play for him. The next thing I knew was he wanted to make a record. So me and Eddie, my sister and Sammy went to Philadelphia to Gotham Record Label and made a record. It was an old 78. We recorded four songs that day, but you only put two on the record.
“Carolina Tears” was on side A and “My Kind of Girl” was on side B.
“Then seven years ago I found out that someone went back to the storage room and picked out another of the songs we recorded,” I Just Heard the News “and put it on a CD. with several other artists, ”Toad said. .
Wilson’s comedy radio duo “Mustard and Gravy” was one of the other artists featured on this compilation. “Mustard” was Frank Rice and “Gravy” was Ernest Stokes.
“Frank ran a men’s clothing store in Wilson. They were on the radio about every week, “Toad said,” They ended up in the movies. “
Then in the 1950s, Sammy Bland had a show on WNCT-TV in Greenville sponsored by The Jewel Box called The Jewel Box Jamboree, featuring Toad, his sister and the band, then known as “The Folk Caravan” .
He recalls making more money playing concerts in high school than after graduation when he got his first real job.
But the stories Toad enjoys telling the most are about his 63-year-old wife, Betty Rose, who died in April this year. When he first saw her he said, “This blonde is a beautiful thing.”
He went to a gospel song with Wally Fowler and the Oak Ridge Boys and spotted it there.
“I tried to convince her to let me take her home and she said, ‘My mom is coming after me.’ Sure enough, I followed her out and her mom was setting right there in that blue 48-inch Plymouth right outside the door. I walked her back to the car and opened the door for her. She messed me up the first time I saw her. This is the reason why I am not right now.
Toad’s story involving the king of rock and roll might be the best example of how infatuated he was.
“It must have been in 1955, because I had just bought a 1955 Ford Victoria… in black and white. Black at the bottom, white at the top and in the middle. Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas were going to be in Wilson at the baseball stadium. They were two of the best stars in country music at the time. And I wanted to go, ”Toad said.
“So I asked Betty Rose to come with me. She had to ask her mom because it was country music and her mom was a Sunday school teacher and she didn’t want her to do things… maybe I would. But she let her go. We went about an hour and a half early, got a good seat in the front.
“When the show started, the announcer came out and said, ‘Before our stars come out, we’re going to get a young man to come and do some songs for you. I want you to welcome him. He called out his name right away, and no one had heard of him. He got a little helping hand, you know. He came out and started singing and twisting a bit.
It was at this point, about three-quarters of the way through the song, that Betty said, “I think we have to go.”
“I said, ‘What for?’ She said, ‘Because he’s vulgar,’ ”Toad recalls as clearly as if it had happened last week.
“I said, ‘Naw, we can’t go; we haven’t seen the stars! ‘”
He remembers that with the second song it was a little worse.
“She said, ‘I just can’t sit here. If mom knew I was watching this, she would never let me go anywhere else with you. I said, ‘OK, then we’ll go.’
“So we got up and drove off, walked back to my car, and the two front hubcaps of my new car had been stolen. I lost the ticket prices, wasted time seeing the country music stars, and went out on Elvis Presley, all in the same night.
“I’ve told people over the years not to pay attention to Betty Rose… she’s not a good talent judge.”
Brilliant black and white photos of Toad looking very much like a pulsating musician, with his shiny hair and elegant outfit, are carefully preserved. The boxes contain postcards and other keepsakes that commemorate a life spent playing music.
Still, Toad looks at them and says thoughtfully, “I sang in the Calvary Baptist Church choir, I think 20 or 25 years ago. From 1968 to 1976, for seven years, my wife and I led the youth choir… and we had 72. I think we had 17 at the first rehearsal. One of the highlights of all my music was this choir. I liked everything else, but it seems to take the top spot.
And Toad’s story as a musician suddenly turns into a testimony that isn’t playing on the radio, making records, or being on TV. It’s a story of prioritizing and investing in others. And thankfully, it’s a story that’s still being written.