ThE ThrEE KEYBOARDISTS WhO INFLUENCED ME MOST
by Bobby Steel
Greetings Treasonites and Treasonettes!
In my last article, I wrote about drummers who have influenced me. Prior to that, I was describing all the things I love about my favorite guitarists. Interestingly enough, I have never written anything about my biggest keyboard influences – odd, since the piano was my “original first instrument.”
I took lessons for ten years with a pianist who toured four continents with legendary big bands as well as the the New York Philharmonic. And even though he was not a rock pianist, Pete Paratore was probably the largest influence on me. He was my mentor from age seven through high school graduation.
He loomed large during my formative musical years.
But of course, there were the rock gods of the keys that shaped me into what I am today – and what I still aspire to. So, here are big three who rocked the keys for the young Frankensteel.
As a youngster I gobbled up any Yes album I could find. My appetite for them was voracious.
Rick’s musical prowess was – and still is – astounding. He employed elements of classical music, which appealed to me as a young classical student, but he had those rock, blues and funk organ riffs that blew my cranium to smithereens. Check out his keyboard work on “Roundabout.” Rick could span multiple genres in a single bound- er, song. He was faster than a locomotive. Hell, he even wore a cape. He really was Superman. Rick new exactly what a song needed. He knew when to add atmosphere, tender cascading notes or a deluge of electronic sound via his tools of the trade. His multiple keyboard set up was jaw-dropping. I bet Sam Ash ordered keyboards from him to stock their stores. The guy could play a real pipe organ. Listen to “Close to the Edge.” To this day when that pipe organ comes in (recorded in an actual church), all the hairs on my body stand up. I get goosebumps. Electricity just runs through my body. Rick Wakeman also has a great sense of humor. Here was a man with extraordinary skill who managed to not be pretentious or take himself (or his bandmates) too seriously. How refreshing! His interviews are always very entertaining.
He is the consummate keyboard master.
Keith Emerson was Rick Wakeman on steroids, if that’s possible. He was a master of his instrument. Watching him play live was poetry in motion. I adored Keith Emerson because he actually took classical pieces and set them to rock n roll – my favorite of which is “The Barbarian,” which was based on a piece called “Allegro Barbaro,” composed by the incredible Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. It’s an extremely difficult piece to play not only due to its complexity (I know from personal experience), but also for the stamina it takes to play the piece. At some points it takes four hands to play what was written for two. Keith makes it sound so easy, child’s play, a leisurely walk through the park.
Keith has also created headbanging heavy rock out of other classical pieces like “Mussorsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition” (an absolute masterpiece), Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Aaron Copeland’s “Rodeo” and so many others.
But in the end, Keith was a master of rock and jazz organ, jazz piano, ragtime, avant-garde modernism, boogie-woogie, and so many other genres. He also made some mind-blowing extraterrestrial sounds with Moogs and ARP 2600s where he would switch patches and plug in cables and wires like an old-school phone operator mid-concert, while playing a solo. He was one of the first rock musicians to use a sequencer live. He could pull his Hammond B-3 , rock it on its side and lay on the floor balancing it with his feet creating thunderous explosions of sound. He could play the organ backwards and upside down. I’m convinced Mozart would have loved to jam with this guy and exchange fart jokes.
He actually composed a piano concerto, which was performed by one of my professors at Brooklyn College.
Keith was the ultimate musician, but he was also quite a showman. Just watch ELP live concerts on Youtube and you’ll see all the acrobatics this man can do. He makes it look so natural, so easy. I’ve played his music. It’s anything but easy.
Keith also so adept at odd time signatures. He made the ELP trio sound like an orchestra. Bravo.
John Paul Jones
Yes he was a bassist, but i don’t know if he gets enough credit for his wonderful keyboard work. The man has SOUL. Check out “Trampled Under Foot.” It’s so groovin’ and funky. “Ten Years Gone”…. his keyboard work is orgasmic. What about the organ in “Thank You?” Are you kidding me? That would land him a job in any Baptist Church. JPJ also did some cool stuff with keys on the “In Through The Out Door” album. He even had a touch of Latin music in him. But if I had to pick a song where I actually wanted to STEAL his keyboard riffs that would have to be the Eastern-flavored drone and melody of “In The Light.” When I listen to that, it transports me to another universe. It’s so otherwordly and psychedelic. Let’s face it, JPJ was – and is – a multi-talented, absolutely brilliant musician and composer. The other guys in Zeppelin get so much attention. Jones is kind of the quiet one, but you really have to watch out for those “quiet types.” They can be the most ferocious of all.
And man, is he FIERCE. Us keyboardists bow to this bassist when he plays the keys….we’re not worthy, we’re not worthy…..
… of course I have to mention Billy Joel and Elton John. Two legendary songwriters, but they could KICK ASS as musicians and pianists. When I started teaching piano as a teenager, a lot of my students wanted to learn songs from these guys, and let me tell you….their music is NOT easy to play, even though they’re considered “pop songwriters”. “Root Beer Rag?” Prelude to “Angry Young Man?” You have to be one hell of a pianist to keep up with that.
Elton had more of a gospel feel to his style which was real cool. I kinda ripped off a few of those in my musical travels.
It was after Elm Treason was formed that I learned a Floyd Cramer song to play as an accompanist for my school string orchestra. I loved his style so much that I actually applied some of his stylistic fingerprints to an Elm Treason song you might know called “I Like It There”. I mean , that piano part is literally a page right out of the Cramer playbook (now there’s a pun) – Of course, it was Steelified and Treasonized before it was unleashed. Floyd Cramer had a soulful teardrop in each piano line. Who WOULDN’T want to steal that?
Those are just a few of the main guys that have influenced and inspired me over the course of my musical life – guys that helped shape me into the musician that I am today.
E PLURIBUS ULMUS