Everyone knows that the rich bass/baritone voice that emanates from the platform on Sunday mornings belongs to Roderick Sanford. But what do you know about the man behind the golden voice?
Born in Waco, Texas, to Alfred and Helen Sanford, Roderick spent his growing-up years in Fort Worth. His father was a minister at an AME church, then earned a theology degree from Southern Methodist University, which propelled him into the United Methodist Church. He eventually earned a doctorate at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University.
Growing up in a parsonage had its perks. “I was the only kid in elementary school who had a key to the entire church,” Roderick said. “Our house was just across the driveway from the church, and if somebody needed to get in, I’d go unlock the doors.”
Church life was a constant in the family. “On my mother’s side, you either sang or were a minister of some sort. My dad was a minister; my older brother is a minister (and was a navy chaplain and a Federal Bureau of Prisons chaplain). I have aunts and uncles who are all ministers,” he said.
Church music is in his DNA. He said, “We were in church every Sunday, every Wednesday. My mother was the choir director, so I’ve been singing in choir since I could stand up. In summers, we’d go to my grandmother’s church. That’s where I learned to read songs. Church has been the main part of my life always, except when I first went to college and realized I could sleep in on Sundays. I tried it for a while but it started feeling weird, so I went back to church.”
In school, Roderick first sang in his middle school choir, “and that’s when I started learning to read music,” he said. In middle school and high school he advanced in UIL competitions for solo and ensemble singing, which led to voice lessons, “because, to get more patches on my sleeve I had to learn how to breathe and to use my voice in the proper way,” he said.
In 1984, in the summer between Roderick’s sophomore and junior years of high school, the family moved to Paris, Texas, where his father had been assigned a new church. Arriving in the small East Texas town was a bit of a culture shock, but, he said, “One good thing about it was there was less competition for UIL, so it allowed me to stand out more than I would have in the big city.”
After he graduated from Paris High School in 1986, Roderick’s college search landed him at Southwestern University in Georgetown. He had loved all his high school teachers, and his favorite was his English teacher, so he decided on teaching English as a career. Then a friend invited the young English major to audition for a show in the theater department. His audition overheard by the choral director, he was quickly recruited for the chorale. “I told him I couldn’t read music, but he said I had a natural ear and I could pick it up, and I did.”
“After my first experience in the show at Southwestern, I began to think about taking theater classes, maybe adding a theater minor to my English major. It ended up that the theater part won out, and I earned a theater degree with a minor in English,” he said.
Before he decided against teaching as a career, Roderick did a stint of student teaching at Leander High School. He said, “One day a drug dealer or somebody came on campus, and he was described as a ‘tall black man.’ At Leander High School in 1991 there weren’t many black people. On my way home that day I was pulled over and asked where I was coming from. When I told them Leander High School, they got excited. It ended when I heard my principal over the police radio speakers saying, ‘No, no, no. That’s our student teacher. That’s not the one. Let him go!’”
When he graduated from Southwestern in 1991 he moved to Austin because “I met a girl from A&M, fell in love, and she and I moved in together. After five years we realized we were no longer in love, but I still loved Austin, and I’m still here.”
Now openly gay, Roderick shies away from such labels. “In high school I had a girlfriend; in college I had a girlfriend; I’ve even gone out with a few girls recently,” he said. But when he moved out of the relationship with that live-in girlfriend, he moved in with the first man he’d had a relationship with. “That lasted twelve years,” he said. “We raised two kids from his previous marriage, bought three houses, and lived the happy, suburban, West Lake Hills dream (for a while).”
His minister father responded unexpectedly. “I don’t recall my dad ever giving that ‘Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve’ sermon, ever,” he said. In fact, when his dad first visited UCOH, Roderick said, “I was really apprehensive about how he would take all this. I was freaking out and thinking, ‘Please don’t come on a Sunday when they’re talking all this weird hippie stuff.’ After he first visited Unity, we were at dinner and he said ‘I totally get it. I see what it is, and I understand it.’ I was so relieved.”
Roderick’s entire family is open and loving. He said, “When I was in the relationship with Rodney [a more recent partner], I took him home to a family reunion, and my 96-year-old great uncle pulled us up to him and said, ‘You know, there are things that have changed in our world, and one thing that’s so great about this family is that we’re all loving. We love everybody, we love change, and we welcome growth.’ He was basically hugging both of us, and it was a touching moment. It was great.”
His father died in 2015. His mother, whom he affectionately refers to as “Ms. Helen,” lives in Fort Worth and drives to Waco every week, where she works in a barber shop on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. She is contemplating a move to Austin to be closer to Roderick and younger brother Collin, who lives in Georgetown and is currently recovering from a stroke.
Roderick has been asked why he stays in Austin, instead of pursuing a glamorous career on Broadway or in Hollywood. He said he has had the opportunity to do everything he wanted right here, without being like some of his theater classmates who live in New York “working as waiters and having eighteen roommates and still not getting to do what they went there for, because of the competition, or just getting bogged down in making ends meet.”
“Staying here,” he said, “I’ve met people who’ve helped me do other things. I recorded for Disney on projects like a karaoke album and story books like The Little Mermaid. So I sang all the songs in the movie, like ‘Kiss the Girl’ and ‘Under the Sea.’ I also did that for Pocahontas and a Disney Christmas album. None of that would have happened if I’d been somewhere else.”
In Austin theater he’s played every major part he’s wanted to do, he said, “except for one role in Pippin that I want to do, but no one does Pippin anymore. Actually, I’ve been in the show, it just wasn’t the part I wanted.”
He’s been in plenty of shows. Back in his Fort Worth days, he performed in Kiss Me, Kate at Casa Mañana, which modestly bills itself as “The Best Theatre in Texas.” Locally, he has appeared in, among others, Little Shop of Horrors; The Gospel of Colonus; Ragtime; Rent; You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; Smokey Joe’s Café; A Christmas Carol; and The Full Monty.
The last two deserve additional comment, one for the elaborate costume and the other for the lack of one. Roderick’s costume as the ghost of Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol at the Zach Theatre included many pounds of iron and plastic chains and wooden boxes. Dressed in the cumbersome suit, he not only sang but danced. This year’s performance will be his fifth year in the role.
The Full Monty, in which Roderick performed at the Palace Theater in Georgetown, is the story of a group of unemployed British blue-collar workers who form a male striptease act, a la the Chippendale dancers, but who decide to outdo the Chippendales by “going the full monty”—stripping all the way. Suspense builds throughout the play, and in the final scene, just as the men toss their G-strings aloft, the audience is blinded by a flash of white light from the stage, preventing them from seeing anything.
The obvious question: Were you really totally nude? His reply: “That G-string was a breakaway, but we also had on a whole pack that had to hold our microphones and everything, so nothing was exposed. Even if the light had not flashed and the stage light somehow came back on while we were still there, all you would have seen were five out-of-shape guys standing there looking surprised.”
He said, “I got roped into that because a friend of mine was the music director, and he needed somebody to sing the song, ‘Big Black Man.’ We had a lot of fun, and I got to check off my list ‘stand on stage semi-naked.’ I don’t have to do that ever again!”
Next on the performance list is Side Show, upcoming in October with Trinity Street Players.
Since 1995 Roderick has been part of a cover band called The Atlantics. They have played all over Texas and surrounding states almost every weekend for weddings, clubs, casinos, and special events, but the band now has slowed down. “It’s great to have my weekends back,” he said. “There were some Saturday nights when we’d have a gig in Midland, and afterwards I’d jump in the car and drive back so I could be in church Sunday morning. It was okay when I was thirty-something, but now that I’m fifty, I’m not doing that anymore!”
With such a busy schedule, Roderick doesn’t have much down time. If there is, he said, “I spend it going to see my friends in their shows or going to see a band. There’s music in my house, in my car, pretty much everywhere I go.”
Barbara, booking manager for the band, was a friend of the Lyndon Johnson family, and when Lady Bird became ill, Barbara asked Roderick to help plan the funeral. When the event came, he helped coordinate the service at Riverbend Church and sang solo at the graveside service at the ranch in Johnson City. The connection resulted in his singing at the weddings of three of Lady Bird’s granddaughters. He said, “There’s a picture somewhere of me kneeling down and talking with Lady Bird in her wheelchair out at the wildflower center.”
What prevents Roderick from “waiting tables and having eighteen roommates” is his day job of twenty-three years as a customer service representative for CoreLogic, a company that provides flood zone certificates for real estate transactions. “When I’m doing a show, I get off work at four, and I’ll have rehearsals from six to eleven some evenings. Get out of rehearsal, come home, take a nap, and I’m back at work every morning at six forty-five. Most of my clients are on the East Coast, and the banks open by seven our time, so I have to be ready to deal with them,” he said.
Roderick has sung at UCOH since almost the very first service. Revs. Ron and Lenore Scott or someone in their family saw him perform at the Zach Theatre. They asked if he would provide music occasionally for a small start-up church that was meeting in the Grisham School auditorium. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m a preacher’s kid and I’ve been singing in church my whole life. What would you like?’”
Rev. Ron asked him to sing certain music based on the talk topic. “We sang some hokey stuff,” Roderick remembered. “One Sunday I sang ‘The Rainbow Connection’ because it had something to do with his topic. Another Sunday, I sang Mariah Carey’s ‘You’re My Hero.’ I finally said, ‘Can’t we get more church music?’ So they let me bring in more hymns—more stuff that I knew.”
Susan Heinrichs had also been attending the fledgling church and asked Roderick’s opinion on some music she played. They agreed on the music, and eventually others joined to form the group that is now Celebration.
Roderick has always known there needs to be a connection between the music and the message. He’s been told, “You’re the reason we come to this church.” His response to that is, “No, I don’t need that pressure! I’m just a part of the service, part of the church. Whatever I can do to help it grow—that’s my intent.”
He concluded, “No matter what you come to Unity for, I think everyone gets something. Whether it’s the music or the message, there’s something there for everybody. That’s the goal, and I think that’s what we’ve created at Unity Church of the Hills.”