Rodney Justo was born in Manhattan on February 8, 1945. His family relocated to Tampa, FL, when he was just two years old. Music was in Rodney’s blood; he attributes this to his Spanish lineage. Justo remembers watching Elvis Presley on T.V. as a boy. It was inspiring, and soon family members and classmates realized that Rodney could sing. He first started singing on radio programs as a child with old standards like “I Love You Truly” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” His father also encouraged Rodney’s musical talents and bought him a drum kit when he was 14.
As a teenager, Rodney wanted to focus more on drumming and became the replacement drummer for different bands when their regular drummers couldn’t make a gig. While rehearsing with a band called E.G. and the Hi-Fis, where he was filling in for the drummer, Rodney somehow ended up singing a song while waiting for the singer to show up. Apparently, E.G. (Emilio Garcia) exclaimed: “Let’s get our drummer back and fire the singer.” At that point, Rodney became the lead singer for E.G. and the Hi-Fis. Justo notes that “after a short while, I figured out that he was making all the money. So I paid him back for his generosity by taking his band with me and joining up with three other guys who were putting a band together known as The Mystics.“
The band turned into an eleven-piece outfit focusing primarily rhythm and blues in their time together from 1961-1965. The Mystics also became the house band at the Clearwater Auditorium, which later became the premier venue for big-name artists at what was to become the WLCY Star Spectacular. During this time, the successful record acts were not bands, but single artists who would tour to support their current record release. According to Rodney, “Since the guys in my band were good music readers, we ended up backing up most of the big artists like Roy Orbison, Gene Pitney, Fabian, Ray Stevens, Neil Sedaka and Bobby Vee. Just about anyone who had a hit record from 1961 to 1965 was backed up by Rodney and the Mystics, as we had become known, due to the suggestion of the promoter, Paul Cochran, (who later became my manager).”
The first single artist to eventually travel with his band was Roy Orbison. The rhythm guitarist in this touring band from Dothan, AL, the Candymen, was Bobby Goldsboro. When Goldsboro scored a hit of his own with a song called “See the Funny Little Clown,” Orbison asked Rodney to take his place. This opportunity gave Rodney a chance to see the world as he toured widely with the Candymen, playing with other featured Dothan artists like John Rainey Adkins and hobnobbing with the up and coming Dothan music promoter and songwriter, Buddy Buie. The Candymen ended up touring the world with Orbison throughout most of the sixties and opened for huge acts like The Beatles, The Yardbirds, and The Hollies. They also recorded songs with Orbison. One can still find video clips circulating online of the Candymen playing the number one hit, “Pretty Woman,” with Orbison on the Ed Sullivan Show on July 4, 1965.
The Candymen also went on to cut two albums – The Candymen and Candymen Bring You Candy Power on ABC Records in 1967 and 1968. The band ended up having some mainstream success with “Georgia Pines” (co-written by John Rainey Adkins and Buddy Buie), which hit the Billboard Hot 100 spot – #81 in November 1967. The group also performed this song on American Bandstand on December 2, 1967, where Rodney is featured prominently in Dick Clark’s interview of the group.
Rodney recalls that he was never in a better band than the Candymen and had spent so much time in Dothan over the years that he felt like it had become a second home to him. Yet, he also was looking for other musical outlets. In 1969, the Candymen broke up, and Rodney returned to Tampa to team up with local musicians. They formed a band called Noah’s Ark, which released a single called Purple Heart on Liberty Records. Rodney remembers that when the record came out, the record jacket said Noah’s Ark – Featuring Rodney Justo, wording that was pushed by his manager – not him. Rodney noted that the other members were not particularly pleased with him getting top billing, and that was the end of Noah’s Ark.
In 1970, Buddy Buie placed a phone call to Rodney and invited him to be in the first supergroup from the South, the Atlanta Rhythm Section (ARS). He said that in the initial call, he remembers Buie saying: “Move to Atlanta, you’ll be one of the musicians on other people’s records and make plenty of money while we’re recording our own album for Decca. I’ve got the other guys lined up, but we need you to be the singer.“
Rodney ended up working with ARS for two years; in that time, they put out a moderately successful yet critically acclaimed album. But the band’s future direction concerned Rodney as it seemed that they were more interested in studio work. He said that while they were on tour with Deep Purple, he was told that they would soon return to Atlanta to begin cutting soundtracks for a cartoon T.V. show – called “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids.” That did not interest Rodney, so he decided to move to New York City to pursue his own studio musician work.
During this time in New York City in 1972, Rodney became the bandleader for B.J. Thomas, which supplemented his income while he was getting started with studio work. Luckily, he was able to connect with Allan Schwartzberg, one of the most sought-after session drummers in the United States. With that connection, Rodney landed the job of singing big jingles on advertisements for Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Hardees, and Mazda. He also had the opportunity to sing with the legendary guitarist Roy Buchanan in Europe for six weeks. He ended up connecting some of his former bandmates from the Candymen to become B.J. Thomas’ back-up band on the road, under the name – Beaverteeth.
Jingle life, although lucrative, was not ultimately rewarding or meaningful. So, Justo decided to return to Tampa in 1974 and married his childhood sweetheart, Shirley. In 1975, he got a call from his old friend, John Rainey Adkins, formerly of the Candymen and now Beaverteeth, who asked Rodney to come back on the road with Beaverteeth to replace their singer/drummer, Charlie Silva, who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Rodney ended up taking the call for the road and spent the next few years with Beaverteeth, who ended up releasing two albums on RCA Victor, Beaverteeth in 1977, and Dam It in 1978.
On May 13, 1978 – Rodney decided to take a break from music to focus on his family life – wife and three children. He ended up becoming a successful sales manager for 29 years at Southern Wines and Spirits, the largest alcoholic beverage distributor in the world until he retired. However, the pull of music continued to draw him back for reunion shows with ARS starting in 1983. And in 2011, Rodney took on a regular weekend gig schedule, singing with ARS again. More recently, he started a new band, Coo Coo Ca Choo, which has now become a favorite band in the Tampa area. The Wiregrass Blues Society is pleased to recognize Rodney Justo as our 2020 Living Honoree and continue to claim him as part of Dothan’s rich musical heritage.