Music News & Reviews

He was the Hilton Head rock ‘n’ roller ‘nobody knew about’ — who fixed cars and guitars

Balakrishna "Bala" Rao is photographed in John's Music on Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Balakrishna "Bala" Rao is photographed in John's Music on Hilton Head Island, S.C. Submitted

Update: The family of Balakrishna Rao will host a celebration of his life at 11 a.m. Saturday at Tower Beach on Hilton Head Island.

Shortly before he passed away Sunday, Balakrishna Rao — known to family and friends as "Bala" — bought a Gibson Les Paul.

He had about 20 guitars, according to family members, but this one was different.

It was new. Brand new. And he was proud of it.

"He was tickled with that guitar," his wife, Holly Hicks, said Tuesday. She held the brown-and-black Gibson in her lap as she and their children, Hope and Maxcy Hicks, remembered Rao, who, over the years, shared the gift of music — and his ability to fix anything — with friends, loved ones and Lowcountry artists.

Rao was a rocker — a self-taught musician who loved The Beatles and liked to tear through Jimi Hendrix riffs — but he was a behind-the-scenes guy. The go-to guy. An instrumental part of Hilton Head Island's music scene who, according to Cranford Hollow frontman John Cranford, kept local bands like his on the road.

"If Bala couldn't fix it, you either sent it back to the factory, or it wasn't worth fixing," Cranford said Tuesday. If a piece of equipment broke during a tour, the band always tried to wait till it returned to the island, where Rao would repair it expertly, and for a fraction of the cost.

"He was a big dude in the (music) scene, and probably nobody knew about him but us (musicians)," Cranford said. "But we wouldn't have been able to be out there playing for the past 10 years without Bala ... ."

Balakrishna "Bala" Rao and Holly Hicks Hope Hicks Submitted

Rao, 62, worked at John's Music on Hilton Head.

It was a side gig, according to his family, and, in a Facebook post Monday, the store's staff called him "our beloved repair man."

"(He) took care of so many musicians' gear, cellphones and computers, always putting others' needs in front of his own," the post said. "We will miss you my friend!"

Cranford once snapped a picture of Rao in the store, in a back room ringed with work tables, crowded with tools and parts and a can of WD-40.

That was his element, Cranford said, where Rao sported his usual "uniform": khakis and a sweater. Sometimes he wore a cardigan.

"Not what you'd think of as super rock 'n' roll-y," Cranford said of the attire, "but he was a rock 'n' roll dude."

Balakrishna "Bala" Rao is photographed in John's Music on Hilton Head Island, S.C. John Cranford Submitted

He taught himself to play the electric organ, his sister, Rekha Koppa, of Columbia, said. He learned The Doors' organist Ray Manzarek’s solo from "Light My Fire."

Their father worked for the United Nations, Koppa said, and Rao grew up in Bangkok and Rome before coming to the U.S. as a teenager.

Her brother was the first of her family to immigrate to America, Koppa said, and he was always the one to pick relatives up at the airport when they made the move. He helped them acclimate as they enrolled in college. He later offered advice on investing and retirement.

He recently retired from a position with the Aiken County Library, Holly Hicks said. Before that, he'd worked for the state in Columbia. He was earning his master's in engineering at the University of South Carolina when they met.

It was sometime in 1996, Hicks said, and she was stranded in a parking lot near The Horseshoe on USC's campus. Her old Ford Tempo — one her daughter said was "always needing something" — was acting up.

Rao fixed it.

They later met for coffee.

They married in 1998, and would have celebrated 20 years together in October.

Hope Hicks wasn't necessarily looking for a stepfather that year. She and her brother were teenagers and, as she recalled, a handful. But Rao would make sure she and Maxcy went to college. He helped them with math and physics tests. He fixed their cars.

They didn't have to worry about their clunker vehicles, Hope joked, because they had an in-house mechanic.

Rao eventually became "Dad" to the kids, something that made him happy. Them, too. And Tuesday, they dabbed at their eyes and held sobs at bay as they told stories about him.

Balakrishna "Bala" Rao Hope Hicks Submitted

"His pride was his Gibson Les Paul," Holly Hicks said, holding her late husband's instrument, fighting back tears. "That's the odd one, that's what's so different — that it's new."

Moments earlier, as his mother was retrieving the Gibson from a back room, Maxcy remembered coming home recently and hearing his father playing. He couldn't recall the riff or the song, but his father was wailing away, he said.

"He never really tried to get an expensive guitar, or anything," Maxcy said, explaining why the Les Paul was such an oddity. "He just, like, made (other guitars) work."

"No, he'd want them taken apart so he could put them back together," Hope said. "The more pieces it came in, the better."

"When I first met him — and he probably still has it to this day — he had that 1960-something (Fender) Stratocaster," Maxcy said.

Rao had cobbled that guitar together from other parts, Maxcy said.

Put a new neck on it.

Made it work.

It looked good.

Sounded great.

Absolutely rocked.