All Graphite and Glitter: ‘Down the Rhodes: The Fender Rhodes Story’

Reviews / November 12, 2018

down the rhodes coverDown the Rhodes: The Fender Rhodes Story
By Gerald McCauley and Benjamin Bove
Hal Leonard Books, 2013

Earlier this year, while on a YouTube nostalgia tear through NBA highlights from the late ’70s and early ’80s, I made the following observation on Twitter after watching a live performance of Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Let It Flow (For ‘Dr J.’)” set to vintage hoops footage: “The sound of my early childhood is ineluctably a Fender Rhodes electric piano.” And it’s true. The tinkling Paul Griffin keys that accompanied Washington’s soulful saxophone evoking Julius Erving’s effortless glide to the hoop; Bob James’s classic smooth jazz jam “Angela” (1978), heard endlessly in TV syndication as the theme song for Taxi; and Griffin yet again on Steely Dan’s “Peg” (1977), a song that seemed omnipresent on adult contemporary and pop radio in my folks’ station wagon—the Fender Rhodes is the pop music sound of the turn of the decade.

And apparently I’m not the only one to attach strong early-life nostalgia to the trademark sound of this quirky little product of postwar electronic technology. In the foreword to Gerald McCauley and Benjamin Bove’s phenomenal 2013 book, Down the Rhodes: The Fender Rhodes Story, music journalist A. Scott Galloway tells a very familiar story of his own childhood infatuation with the instrument, the “sonorous enchantress within the soundtrack of my life”:

The Rhodes floated me through my latch key/TV childhood, beginning with the transfixing aural bed beneath Blossom Dearie’s soprano voice on “Figure 8” from “Multiplication Rock” and Bob James (again) settling me in for “Taxi” to Dave Grusin’s flinty flares under Sammy Davis Jr. singing “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow (Baretta’s Theme)” and George Tipton tapping the black sheep in his genes for the soulful “Soap” theme.

McCauley and Bove, both musicians and music industry professionals, met and bonded over their own mutual love of the Fender Rhodes, especially on ’70s recordings by Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire. They produced this handsome coffee table book to accompany their 2011 documentary on the Fender Rhodes, which is included with the book as a Blu-Ray disc. Through interviews with the technicians, musicians, and producers who pioneered the use of the beloved electric piano, McCauley and Bove explain its origins, the source of its utter ubiquity in jazz and pop recordings in the 1970s, and where it went after its heralded heyday was over.

The Fender Rhodes originated as many 20th century technological advances did: because of the exigencies of war. Harold Burroughs Rhodes, a piano teacher assigned to the Army Air Corps during World War II, developed a “laptop” keyboard as a method of rehabilitation for wounded airmen and soldiers. Rhodes gave thought to how the wounded could use a keyboard instrument while in their hospital beds, and got inspiration by the repairs being done to B-17s on the air field: “I saw aluminum tubing hanging out of the wings,” Rhodes recalls in a mid-’80s radio interview included in the book, “and I thought, ‘Maybe I could make a piano-like instrument out of this scrap material.'” Rhodes recalls that over a quarter of a million patients ended up learning how to play one of the instruments inspired by his original design. The primitive “Army Air Corps Piano,” or “Xylette,” evolved after the war in Rhodes’s workshop into a fuller keyboard instrument using electric pickups. Mass manufacturing came when Rhodes brought his invention to the Fender electric instrument company in 1959: just as the electric guitar gained wider popularity in the 1950s thanks to the nascent rock and roll scene, the novelty of the electric piano would soon become de rigueur in the worlds of jazz, funk, pop, and rock.

The Fender Rhodes was considered a “toy” or an instructional instrument throughout much of the early ’60s; CBS purchased Fender in 1965 and widely marketed a Rhodes “system” where instructors could “tune in” on headphones to individual keyboards in the classroom. Only when the Rhodes was used on some of Miles Davis’s groundbreaking late-’60s output with virtuoso keyboardist Herbie Hancock did it gain broad popular appeal to both professional musicians and listeners. Davis and Hancock thought that the Fender Rhodes would add a certain innovative sonic quality to their pioneering collaborations, and they were right. On Davis’s Miles in the Sky (1968), where Davis first “plugged in” and went electric, and In A Silent Way (1969), the Fender Rhodes makes its major recording debut and arguably sets the sound for a decade or more of jazz fusion to come.

In dozens of interviews with jazz and pop artists in Down the Rhodes, it’s clear that the very same unique qualities of the Rhodes that made it so appealing to Davis and Hancock—the warm sound, the customizability in terms of “stretch” tuning, the portability, and the electrification/amplification—made it a Swiss army knife of sorts for all kinds of musicians in all kinds of styles and musical genres. Everyone from sui generis composers like Frank Zappa to Brazilian musicians like Eumir Deodato and Sérgio Mendes, to the jazz fusion mainstays who made it a trademark sound of the ’70s has their own story of how they first discovered the instrument and, in most cases, it was love at first sight. Ray Manzarek of the Doors and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan recall how the Rhodes almost instantly supplanted the less versatile Vox Continental electric organ and the fuzzier Wurlitzer electric piano, respectively. Which is not to say that the Fender was perfect. Plenty of the interviewees recall how well they got to know the engineers at the factory because of the frequent repairs necessitated by the damage the pianos would suffer under the rigors of touring or by the tweaks that artists would make to the famously-fussy mechanical innards. But this collaboration—musicians working directly with the engineering team—meant that the Rhodes throughout its history was a collaborative project, its designers receptive to the needs of the musicians who used them on the road and in the recording studio. Improvements on the Rhodes were iterative and driven by the needs of the consumer.

Just how ubiquitous was the Fender Rhodes in the 1970s? So ubiquitous that newly-minted national railway Amtrak decided to put Amtrak-branded Fender Rhodes electric pianos in the lounge cars of their Superliner trains: a closeup of the Amtrak Rhodes is one of the many full-page photos included in Down the Rhodes that show off the resolutely mid-century styling of the instrument. Like artifacts from a forgotten future, Rhodes keyboards have that certain ineffable retrofuturistic quality; one of the student pianos from the late-’60s is even informally called “the Jetson model.” It’s no surprise that Donald Fagen used Greg Phillinganes’s understated virtuosity on the Rhodes to anchor his own paean to the high-tech future promised in his suburban New Frontier-era childhood.

Part of the magic of Down the Rhodes is reading and listening to these veterans of the music business discuss their lives and careers in the context of the Rhodes. When Quincy Jones goes off on a tangent about his life and projects and collaborators, he’s steering the interview like a jazz musician improvising. But like a soloist, he ultimately returns to the underlying theme: the role the Rhodes played in all of those recordings: “Nothing else could accomplish that warm, mellow sound that the Fender Rhodes created.” The Rhodes era seems to demarcate a special time in most of these musicians’ lives, in some cases this demarcation marking the peaks of their careers and even their preferred musical idiom.

Technology marches on, and in many of these narratives there is a profound disappointment, even bitterness, when the early ’80s arrive and the synthesizer began to insinuate itself in the recording studio, and subsequently became the instrument of the new decade. The early synths were precise, but they couldn’t match the warmth and musicality of the Rhodes; as Donald Fagen says in his interview with McCauley and Bove, “With synthesizers or any kind of digital pianos, you’re stuck with pure temperament; where all the fundamentals are in tune, but the harmonics you hear are going to have that quality of flatness on top and sharpness at the bottom.” Much like the range of tones the Rhodes can produce, the instrument itself wiggled its imperfect way into the hearts of musicians and the pop culture lexicon as the signature sound of its era, before synthesized, mass-produced “perfection” shoved it out of the way. A better allegory for the coming of the 1980s probably couldn’t be contrived.

A playlist of Fender Rhodes tracks featured in this piece, plus some bonus tracks:


Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. You can read his thoughts on museums and more on Twitter at @MuseumMichael.

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