Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Leslie Arnold 'Sabu' Rex, street merchant and musician, dies at 57

LESLIE ARNOLD "SABU" REX knew something about how to survive on the street in the kind of bitter cold we've been having.

LESLIE ARNOLD "SABU" REX knew something about how to survive on the street in the kind of bitter cold we've been having.

He mastered the "Street Vendor Shuffle."

He also knew to try to stay off concrete, if possible. Concrete holds the cold. Plant yourself on bricks or cardboard. And, of course, dress in layers of warm clothing.

But the main thing is the shuffle. Sabu invented his own version as he sold jewelry and other accessories that he designed and made himself, most recently at 11th and Market streets.

He was a fixture there for 20 years, but Sabu was also a popular drummer with musical groups in the city and in Germany, where he lived for a time.

Sabu Rex, an Army veteran and devoted family man, died of multiple organ failure Monday. He was 57 and lived in North Philadelphia.

He was a founder and performer with the music group Absolute Zero, which played at the World Cafe and other venues throughout the city, featuring rock, blues, funk and soul.

While in Europe, he played drums of his own design with such performers as Donna Summers, Fleetwood Mac, singer and actor Roberto Blanco, Niagara and others. At one time, he performed before the king of Spain.

Sabu was born in Philadelphia to Leslie Edgar Rex and Dorothy Thorpe. He grew up in the tough streets of North Philadelphia, where he discovered a talent for making music and handcrafting jewelry.

At the age of 17, he entered the Army and spent most of his service time in Germany. That was where he met his wife, Hannelore.

His daughter Dorothy was born there. After leaving the service, Sabu and his family remained in Germany, living in Munich, where he worked for the original BMW factory.

It was there that he designed and built his two compound drums. He secured a patent on the drums, and thus entered the archives of the American Society of Inventors.

Sabu returned to Philadelphia in 1977 and played with the Philadelphia-based reggae band Debteras for nearly three years.

He worked in security at the old Budd Co. before deciding to sell his jewelry on the street.

He had a stand on Passyunk Avenue near South Street in the mid-'80s, when the city passed a law banning street sales in the South Street area.

He moved to 11th and Market, where he became a well-known fixture.

Sabu and other vendors were interviewed by an Inquirer reporter in winter 1996 about how they kept warm, or, at least, how they survived in sub-freezing weather.

At the time, Sabu was decked out in goose-down jacket, boots, thermal underwear and two sweatshirts.

"You've just got to keep stomping your feet, keep moving your feet," he said. "That's the secret to staying warm out here.

"I was out here once when it was 15 below. People panic when they hear it's going to be cold. They think the store's going to run out of stuff, and they just get crazy. I say, whatever the weather is, we're going to get through it. People need to just calm down. They need to chill."

"Sabu has touched so many people during the course of his life," said his daughter, Dorothy. "After 20 years of working on the street and seeing thousands upon thousands of people and speaking with hundreds, he always had the time for you.

"He was selfless and giving in ways that cannot be described in words."

Besides his wife and daughter, he is survived by another daughter, Sarah Rex, and a sister, Anna Marie.

Services: 1 p.m. tomorrow at the Alfonso Cannon Funeral Chapel, 2315 N. Broad St. Friends may call at noon. A repast will be held at the Songhai Community Center, 3117 Master St. *