Anecdotes: The Man...The Myths...The Legends...
The following is a compilation of anecdotes about the late great Harold Rhodes and his amazing inventions. We don't know for sure how much of this is true, but what we do know is that it's definitely entertaining!
The Rhodes electric piano could arguably be the most important instrument to
come along in the 20th century. Before the synthesizer was actually available
and became an active member of the music world, the Rhodes had become a standard
in jazz, pop, rock and R&B.
Ian Carr (author of Miles Davis)
On live gigs, when there was a Steinway grand piano available, Chick Corea
would try to sneak it in somewhere, but Miles would stop him saying,
"The piano is over. It's an old-fashioned instrument. I don't want to
hear it any more. It belongs to Beethoven. It's not a contemporary instrument."
Joe Zawinul first used the Fender-Rhodes in 1967 on the Cannonball
Adderly album 74 Miles Away. It was a part of his setup until early 1983
when he replaced it with a Rhodes Chroma. He used an assortment of effects
processors, including a [Mutron] phase-shifter, echoplex, and wah-wah pedal. Speaking
of the Rhodes in 1975, Zawinul said, "There was always a nice relationship
between the artists and Harold Rhodes, the inventor of the Rhodes piano. Of
course, he always wanted to improve the instrument and he would constantly
be asking cats what was happening with it. In the beginning, it was not
really a piano that could be used for traveling that much. It was getting
messed up, getting quickly out of tune, and so more and more he started
adjusting it. Today, it's a heck of an instrument."
"I'm still absorbing what I learned from Cannonball's band. I loved the high
level of rapport and the energy...but I knew after three years that I didn't
need the road. The time had come to develop my own musical identity." He
made the difficult decision to leave the Quintet in 1975. Another major
realization was that he had been avoiding the acoustic piano and the
responsibilities of it. "I had to go back," he said, "after all, I was an
acoustic pianist." As a symbol of his commitment to himself, he wheeled his
Fender Rhodes to a dock on the Hudson and threw it into the river, watching
the bubbles rise as it sank.
Chick Corea (by way of All About Jazz)
AAJ: The electronics of it, was that something you were ready for?
CC: Not at all. I was extremely disappointed. I thought the electric pianos were kind of
a coloration thing in addition to the ensemble. One night as I was walking on
stage and heading toward the acoustic piano, Miles turned around, pointed at the
Fender Rhodes and said 'Play that.' So I did. Probably from that day forward,
which was about six or eight months after I got in the band, I played pretty
much exclusively electric keyboards. Mainly the Rhodes. So I learned as I went
along and it was an experiment.
Chick Corea (by way of Chick Corea)
Cody Campbell from Kentucky asks: "I wanted to ask you what kind of effects you
used on your electric piano for those shows (Miles). I like the sound of a
Rhodes and want to get one, but I want to find out how to get that distorted
tone that I hear on fusion records. I don't know whether it is a feature on the
Rhodes itself, or if it's some separate box or module."
CHICK'S ANSWER (#1):
Thanks for writing in.
When I was with Miles during those live shows and also in the recording studio, I had a different
rented Rhodes each night so the sounds I got were very random and of the moment.
I had to work with what was presented to me by the rental company. There were a
few pieces of effects gear that I would carry with me sometimes. One of them was
a box called an "Echoplex". It was basically a little tape recorder that the
signal passed through with an adjustable record head that enabled me to wiggle
it while the sound was going through and get all manner of weird
I also used an old ring modulator made, I think, by Oberheim.
But the distorted sound of the Rhodes you refer to was achieved by having bad
sounding amps and no knowledge of how to use amplifiers or electric instruments.
It was all new and unfamiliar. This is true but not a recommended way to achieve
the result causatively of course. I know there are ways to achieve distortion by
overdriving the amplifiers in the way that guitarists do it. But I'm no
authority on this. I'm sure any self respecting distortion creating guitarist
can show you how to do this with pre amps and amps.
The viewpoint about
making that music that way at that time though was: you take anything and make
music out of it. Good luck with your music creation. Have lots of
Harold was always a teacher first and an inventor second.
Before the war he owned a small chain of piano studios. With the war happening,
he turned studios over to his best student and the girl he wanted to marry (her
father would not let her. But she turned out to be his last wife anyway. That's
While waiting to be assigned, he was teaching GI's simple
tunes in the PX and was approached to create a rehabilitation program using his
methods. He me, he had to create a keyboard they could build and play while in
bed. The rest is known. He created something unique but guess what, he was never
thrilled with the sound of it. He was always driven to improve it. We are the
Some interesting facts about Harold:
- He taught upwards of 150,000 wounded GI's during WWII to build
their own bedside piano. It was a little mini unit they could assemble
in their beds. It was the most succesful government music education
- He maintained that it was he, and not Leo Fender, who really
the Fender electric guitar.
- The Rhodes was the largest selling electric keyboard instrument of
time; when it was being mass produced by CBS, Harold got a royalty
of 1 cent
per key. That's between 73-88 cents per unit, and units had wholesale
sometimes over $1,000. Nice of them, wasn't it?
- He won a lifetime achievement NARAS (Grammy) award in '96.
Josef Zawinul (Weather Report):
"Harold, before you, my life was hard. You gave me a sound and you
gave me a
"The Rhodes represents the only true advancement to the piano
the 20th century."
"The Rhodes was a musical atom bomb, changing the face of the
In short, Harold was a great guy. He used to travel with Cannonball
helped young artists like Herbie Hancock and Patrice Rushen, made
play" piano videos, *and* he installed his own gas pump at his house!
The Rhodes is a deceptively simple instrument that, like its more
complicated uncle, the piano, is amazingly resistant to accurate
He was not a very good businessman, unfortunately, and the lawsuits
his heirs and other interests continue, as I have heard, even to this
Mik Collins (by way of Mark Vail)
It was with great sadness that I read in Keyboard that Harold Rhodes
had passed away. I'm very glad and grateful to see that an article in
an upcoming issue will pay tribute to his work. The impact that
his inventions had on the music world is, of course, immeasurable,
but please don't forget to let everyone know what an extraordinary person
he was as well. I'm sure you know the story of how his invention came
to be, it's all been detailed in your pages before. The fact that
the Rhodes was born as an act of kindness to the wounded soldiers in
the middle of WW2 is a great testament to the kind of person he was (He
won the Medal of Honor). But I also have a personal story about Harold,
and although it's not as exciting or grand as some of the others I've
read, it does go straight to the heart of who he was.
Around 1994 I bought my first Rhodes electric piano. It was, to say the least, in
less than mint condition. As it turns out it had been through a flood and a
fire and God knows what other biblical disasters before it made it's way into
my hands. It was going to take a lot of TLC to get it back into shape. I
obviously had my work cut out for me but, without a manual or a repair guide
I had no idea where to begin. How did this funky thing even work?
I started scouring my back issues of Keyboard for information or repair shop
ads. After a fruitless hour or so I ran across Harold Rhodes' phone number in
the July 1993 issue. What the heck. I thought he might know somewhere that I
could get a service manual, or if I was really lucky maybe he might have a
copy he could fax me. So I called him up.
Over the course of the
next hour and a half Harold walked me through every aspect of repairing,
tuning, and maintaining the Rhodes, completely from memory. He would tell me
how to fix something and then, while I performed the work, he would chat with
me and tell me stories about the Rhodes and his life. I had expected to find
a hurried businessman on the other end of the phone, but instead I found
something completely different. He made me feel like an old friend.
At the end of our call my Rhodes was almost completely up and running. I
told him that I had it under control and that I didn't want to waste anymore
of his time. He assured me that it was no bother and that I could call back
anytime. He didn't have anywhere to be until later that afternoon anyway,
when his wife had her doctor's appointment. I told him I hoped everything was
all right. He informed me that she had terminal cancer and had been given
only a short time to live, but that they were fighting it tooth and nail.
They were on their way to investigate some alternative treatments that
I was stunned. A total stranger had called him out of the blue
with a bunch of trivial questions about a 20 year old broken-down
keyboard and, although he obviously had bigger things on his mind, he had
taken a huge portion of his day just to help out.
We spent a few
more minutes on the phone trading family cancer stories the way people do in
these situations, and then we said good-bye. Just before we got off the phone
I wished his wife well, thanked him again for his help, and then said what
I'm sure everyone wants to say to him now- Thanks Harold for your kindness
and for one of the most beautiful instruments ever made.