Jazzy saxophonist still jammin’ at 90

by Timothy Cox, Special to New Pittsburgh Courier

Two days after the stroke of 2021, the man mostly known as Aliquippa’s jazzy saxophonist turned 90 years old. He’s known to friends and family as Charles “Sonny” Childs.

Though several of his contemporaries have earned their way into Rock ‘n Roll heaven, “Sonny” Childs is the Georgia-born musician that continues to enjoy onstage performances, and staying in-tune with his tenor saxophone.

While Peach State notables like Godfather of Soul, James Brown, Little Richard, Ray Charles and Big O, Otis Redding are four artists who, like Childs – were reared amongst those Georgia pine trees made famous by Charles’ version of the song, “Georgia,” Childs is enjoying his ninth decade as a working musician.

And importantly, while blessed with good health, Childs says he has no plans to retire.

Born Jan. 3, 1931, Childs has enjoyed his musicians-life for most of his life.

For Childs, the Southwest Georgia city of Americus, was his native homestead. When his grandfather moved north to land work at Jones & Laughlin Steel mill, in the Pittsburgh suburb of Aliquippa, Pa., Childs, an only child, joined his mother and also made the northern trek to Beaver County, Pa. He attended elementary school up north, but returned to his native Sumpter County, Ga. to complete the remainder of his schooling.

He cited shoveling snow and coal as major reasons why he preferred living in the South over Quiptown.

“Down South, my chores didn’t involve shoveling coal and snow to heat the house during cold, wintry nights,” he recalled with a smile.

“That was just too much for me,” he said. Instead, he developed a passion for music. “I got my first saxophone in 9th grade – and I’ve been playing ever since,” said the Hopewell Township resident, about 20 miles northwest of Pittsburgh proper. He consistently honed his skills while first, playing in the A.S. Staley high school Tiger marching band and orchestra. After graduating from the racially-segregated high school in 1949, he returned to Aliquippa where he worked at the gas station affiliated with the J&L Company Store.

From January 1951 to January 1954, Childs served in the Korea War era – U.S. Army.

Though he was never deployed overseas – instead, he was stationed in Chicago as a radar-anti-aircraft operator. On weekends, he found time to compare his sax chops with some of the notables at the city’s South Side night spots. He recalls chance meetings with his namesake Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, two of his favorite fellow tenor saxophonists. “And very nice gentlemen – both of them” he recalls.

He also describes Pittsburgh’s Stanley Turrentine and Philadelphia’s Grover Washington Jr. as sultry saxmen worthy of mimicking their tone and skills.

Up until the recent Pandemic of 2020, Childs had been playing his horn on a regular basis.

For 25 years he worked with a group called the Basic Sounds Band – a Top-40, wedding band. Members included Roger Barber, trumpet; Robert D’Vaughn, flute; and brothers Jul Thomas, organ and Sel Thomas on drums. His first band after returning from the Army was the Del Palmer Quartet featuring Palmer on drums, George Jones, organ; Ezra Lowe, bass guitar and Sonny on alto sax. His most recent band is Coffee’s Love Train, with Rodney “Duck” Abercrombie on drums; Dwight “Coffee” Thompson, organ; Roy Garrison, guitar and Sonny’s sax.

The Basic Sounds Band once opened for The Temptations at the Holiday House in Monroeville, Pa., he said. Childs recalls that moment as “quite memorable. We also played supper clubs like the Carlton House in Pittsburgh and various wedding receptions,” he added.

Though fully committed to the music, Childs was equally committed to family.

His late wife, Patricia Ann Brice Childs, of Brookville, Pa., was the mother of his two children. “We were married 44 years, eight months and four days,” he vividly recalls. She died in October 2003.

Daughter Sandra Lynn Brice DeShazier, 60, is a retired principal in Decatur, Ga.; his son, Charles Brice Childs, 58, is an aerospace engineer in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sonny has two grandchildren.

“My father is so blessed. His mind is sharp, and he loves to travel. We’re planning a trip to Japan sometime soon,” said Mrs. DeShazier, a graduate of Temple University with advanced degrees from Florida A&M University and Georgia State University. She’s also a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated.

To support his family, Childs formerly worked at Richmond Radiator in Monaca and retired from CODO Manufacturing in Leetsdale, Pa. where he was a forklift driver in the shipping/receiving division.

Childs is a member of Triedstone Baptist Church in Aliquippa.

Photo credit: Sylvester Washington

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