Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he became a professional musician at 15, working in the mid-1940s for Jerry Wald, Jimmy Dorsey, Georgie Auld, Elliott Lawrence, Benny Goodman, and Les Brown. He was inspired by hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to change his style to bebop, moving on to play with Claude Thornhill, Gene Krupa, and Woody Herman. In 1949 he accepted an invitation from Charlie Parker to join his quintet. As the only white member of the group he was billed as Albino Red when playing in the racially segregated southern United States. In 1950 he joined the Charlie Ventura band. During this time he also recorded extensively.
In 1958 he left jazz because of diminishing opportunities, lack of acceptance as a white bebop trumpeter, and legal problems due to his drug addiction. He continued to work in other musical fields. Although he continued to be paid well, he supported his drug habit through theft and fraud, eventually spending 27 months in prison.
1963 proved to be a difficult year. During a run-in with police, a detective hit him in the mouth, loosening several teeth and starting the cycle of dental issues that continued into the 1970s. In September 1963, his father died; a month later, while his wife was driving him back from a Las Vegas gig, she lost control of their car and plunged down the Nevada highway embankment. Rodney, asleep in the back seat, awoke to find his wife and 14-year-old daughter dead.
During 1969, Rodney was in Las Vegas playing alongside his fellow Woody Herman colleague, trombonist Bill Harris, as part of the Flamingo casino house band led by Russ Black. Similar work continued through 1972.
In the early 1970s he was bankrupted by medical costs following a 1972 stroke. He returned to jazz. He also managed to give up drugs during the 1970s, although in 1975 he was incarcerated in Sandstone Minnesota for drug offenses. While jailed he gave music lessons to guitarist Wayne Kramer of the MC 5. He began a slow comeback in 1973.
From 1980 to 1982, Rodney made five highly regarded albums with multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan. In these albums he started to play post-bop jazz. He continued to work and record into the 1990s. Most notably, he performed on The Rolling Stones' drummer Charlie Watts's tribute to Charlie Parker. Rodney provided an early showcase for saxophonist Chris Potter, who was a regular member of his working group and only 19 years old when Rodney recorded "Red Alert" in late 1990.
Rodney's son, (Mark Rodney), was in the acoustic duo, Batdorf and Rodney, and is an accomplished guitarist. Rodney's youngest son, Jeff Rodney, is known as disc jockey Jammin Jeff as well as being a musician in his own right.
- 1951: First Sessions – Volume 3 (Savoy Records)
- 1952: Red Rodney Quintets (Fantasy Records)
- 1957: Red Rodney 1957 (Signal) with Ira Sullivan, Tommy Flanagan, Oscar Pettiford, Philly Joe Jones.
- 1959: Fiery (Savoy) reissue of Red Rodney 1957 (Signal)
- 1959: Red Rodney Returns (Argo)
- 1973: Bird Lives! (Muse)
- 1973/1981: Bluebird (Muse/Camden) K
- 1974: Red Rodney plays Superbop (Muse) with Sam Noto, Dolo Coker, Ray Brown, Shelly Manne.
- 1976: Yard's Pad (Sonet) with Arne Domnerus, Red Mitchell, Ed Thigpen, Bengt Hallberg.
- 1981: Night and Day With Ira Sullivan (Muse MR 5274)
- 1982 "Spirit Within" (Electra) with Ira Sullivan
- 1986: No Turn On Red (Denon)
- 1988: Red Giant (Steeplechase)
- 1988: One For Bird (Steeplechase)
- 1988: Red Snapper (Steeplechase)
- 1992: Then And Now (Chesky)
- 1993: The Tivoli Session (Steeplechase)
- 1945: Charlie Ventura: 1945–1946 (Classics)
- 1946: Buddy Rich: 1946–1948 (Classics)
- 1948: Woody Herman: Keeper of the Flame (Capitol)
- 1949: Charlie Parker: The Complete Charlie Parker On Verve
- 1949: Charlie Parker: Swedish Schnapps (Verve)
- 1950: Charlie Parker: Bird At St. Nick´s (OJC)
With Dizzy Gillespie
- To Diz with Love (Telarc, 1992)
With Lee Konitz
- Live at Laren (Soul Note, 1979 )
With the Bob Thiele Collective
- Louis Satchmo (1991)
- Fresh Air from WHYY, December 30, 2002
- Morton, Richard & Cook, Brian: The Penguin Guide To Jazz, New Edition, London, Penguin, 1994
- Morton, Richard & Cook, Brian: The Penguin Guide To Jazz on CD, sixth Edition, London, Penguin, 2002, ISBN 0140515216
- New York Times, <http://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/06/arts/pop-in-review-376991.html>.
- His character, played by Michael Zelniker, has a prominent role in "Bird", Clint Eastwood's 1988 film about Charlie Parker.