In January, I wrote a piece about the benefits of following an artist over the course of his or her creative life. Charlie Peacock was my personal Exhibit A. Here is a piece Charlie wrote back in 2010 that dovetails well. It’s about the joy of following a piece of gear– namely, one particular Fender Rhodes– over the trajectory of its creative life. (As a bonus, Charlie also gives us a not-too-shabby mini-history of his early career, and also of the electric piano’s impact on music, offered in the form of hyperlinks.) Enjoy. — Russ Ramsey
This past April  I was in Los Angeles meeting with film producer Brian Wells and music producer/Idol icon Randy Jackson about production work on their soundtracks. Later that evening I met up with Svend Lerche and Ran and Ricky Jackson of The Daylights for Indian and good conversation. I’m working with the band as part of Twenty Ten Music‘s Film/TV partnership with Secret Road. Our most recent placement is the song “Oh Oh” in Rabbit Hole starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Sandra Oh.
After dinner we headed to the band’s house in Studio City to listen to new songs. Like every band house I’ve ever been to this one was stuffed with gear, including three upright pianos. I made an obvious alliteration about a plethora of pianos. They gave me the Craigslist story on the instruments. Then one of the fellas, pointing to a little dining alcove said, “We’ve got an old electric piano over there.”
Vintage electric pianos always get my attention. I turned and moved toward it. Not ten feet from the piano I spoke clearly and without hesitation, “That’s my piano.”
And it was. I knew it was. At the speed of blink I proved Malcolm Gladwell‘s thesis. Of course I had to prove it to the guys, which was not that difficult. It was the right era, a Fender Rhodes Mark I Stage (1969-75), specifically 1972 vintage — manufactured by CBS (who purchased Fender). I bought it used in 1976 and customized it by installing a MXR Phase 90 into the metal front panel between the volume and bass EQ knobs and the center logo. The Phase 90 was still embedded in it.
I sold the piano in 1978 in northern California — probably to make rent. I couldn’t believe I was seeing it again after 32 years. I think I was in shock. Lots of celebration, high-fives, and “No way dude!” ensued. The band offered me the piano. Maybe someday. I was content with the unexpected reunion.
Later that night, driving to LAX airport, I reflected on the odds of me working with a band in Los Angeles that would somehow be in possession of my first Fender Rhodes piano from 32 years ago. Stunning. I got a little emotional — shed some tears. Strangely, I felt the love of God, as if no detail in the universe was overlooked, no stray molecule, no Fender Rhodes unaccounted for.
The Rhodes electric piano is a classic American invention with its genesis in the armed forces. There is no other instrument over the last 30 plus years that I’ve played on more recordings. It continues to be a timeless, inspiring tool in my production toolbox.
There are lots of memories in that first Fender Rhodes piano. I played my first recording sessions with it, as well as many gigs with lifelong friends like Aaron Smith, Gerry Pineda, Henry Robinett, Bongo Bob Smith, Alphonza Kee, Larry Casserly, and Lorraine Gervais. Harold Rhodes‘ son David used to maintenance this piano for me. In addition to the MXR Phase 90 phase-shifter I used a Cry-Baby Wah pedal. In the studio I had access to a Mu-Tron Bi-Phase, which sounded wonderful. For a time, in a group with Al Kee, I played a Navy issue Deagan rosewood xylophone alongside the Fender Rhodes– stepping away from the piano to solo on the xylophone — which I referred to as a marimba. I can’t imagine my mallet performance being very impressive. Plink, plink, plink.
The Fender Rhodes I rediscovered at The Daylight’s house had been quite the tourist. Ace keyboardist Korel Tunador (Goo Goo Dolls and Katy Perry) was given the piano in Pittsburgh by his uncle Barry Gilmartin who picked it up in Eugene, Oregon in 1979. Korel took the piano to Boston and Berklee and eventually out to Los Angeles where he just recently had given it to The Daylights. I have no connection to the GGD but Katy did come to my house a few years ago for career counsel (assign me no credit for her success – this was a different matter altogether).
In 1978 I bought a new Rhodes Mark I Suitcase (1975-79). This instrument had it’s own stereo amplification, bass and treble EQ, and the famous Rhodes stereo vibrato (which is really a tremolo). Though still owned by CBS, the name Rhodes was solo on the nameplate again, sans the Fender logo. I really wanted this particular version because a piano player I admired, Jimmy Cox from Oroville, California played one. The stereo tremolo moved left and right between speakers directly under the keyboard. This was the sound we were all going for. Jim Cox played at our wedding reception in 1975. Later he was a member of Dire Straits and has become one of the most recorded keyboardists in pop music and film scoring history. He’s quietly everywhere. Which is no surprise. I would put him in the category of extraordinary musical gifting.
At this time I started using the Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man and EH Electric Mistress. The first is a echo/chorus/vibrato pedal; the second is a flanger. The Cry-Baby stayed in the loop for any funk-oriented playing. Ultimately I gravitated to the Memory Man exclusively for it’s versatility and attitude.
The Mark I Suitcase model is the instrument I owned when I first started playing my original music at Maurice’s American Bar in Sacramento, CA in 1979. In addition to a few vocal songs like my favorite, “Springtime in Israel,” we mostly devised “Sons of Miles” Bitches Brew improvisations. Guitarist Robert Kuhlmann played in that first band along with the late Erik Kleven. Blues harp legend Rick Estrin was often in the audience as was master jazz pianist Jessica Williams. Tower Records founder Russ Solomon would stop by, as did our Zen-Governor of California, Jerry Brown. My fellow Scorch Brothers, guitarist Patrick Minor and visual-media artist/songwriter Steve Holsapple were always there to hang and champion whatever experimentation was taking place. Maurice’s was the perfect creative environment to develop as a young artist. Art was front and center and people came anticipating surprise.
Hauling the Suitcase model around in my Ford Maverick was no easy task. It completely trashed the back seat. I attribute all current back problems to dragging that beast around on gigs with 60’s rock legend Sal Valentino (The Beau Brummels, Stoneground) and various NorCal jazzers of my era like Darius Babazadeh, Joe Espinoza, Jimmy Griego, Tom Peron, Steve Homan, and Henry Robinett.
My primary influences for Rhodes playing are in the R&B/soul, jazz, and funk categories. This is where the sound of the instrument really found resonance with musicians. Rock artists and singer-songwriters made use of it too, but not with the genre-bending results that Stevie Wonder or Herbie Hancock brought to it. I first wanted a Fender Rhodes because of a keyboardist named Craig Doerge. He played one with James Taylor. There’s a picture of Craig at the electric piano on the back of One Man Dog from 1972. Joe Sample of The Crusaders and Les McCann figured into my education too. Sacramento musician, Roger Smith was a ridiculous player and held all locals to a higher standard. All influences considered, playing the Rhodes was about what Herbie, Joe Zawinul, and Chick Corea had pioneered with Miles Davis. That’s the electric piano vocabulary I was inspired by and still draw on today.
–Charlie Peacock, August 2010
Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.