From humble beginnings to worldwide inspiration

As with many icons of our time, the Rhodes has a fascinating history. McCauley gives the brief version: “It was conceived really as Harold Rhodes was bored. He was in the US Air Corps, and he was a bit of an educator, a piano teacher, so he wanted to show his buddies how to convert their telephone numbers into simple melodies and things like that. He understood that music is a mathematical language or science, and once he started seeing soldiers coming back from Battle of the Bulge, injured badly, he thought that maybe music could be some form of therapy for them. At the same time he had seen all these pieces hanging from disabled war planes, and thought ‘I can make a piano-like instrument out of that’. The first piano he created was small enough to put over a bed, so started being used in his therapy programme, which was so successful he exposed over 250,000 soldiers to the keyboard. All those people, who didn’t know they had musical abilities, began to play and learn to play something simple. I think that helped as therapy for those people and it was beautiful.”

The Rhodes’s calming, soulful quality then is no accident. “I think Harold’s intention comes through that piano and I think that everyone who plays it is able to mould it to their own soul, their own musical personality. It’s something about the sound, the warmth, even the funkiness of it. It brings out some of the inspiration we have as musicians when we sit down to play it, inspiration that we may not know we had.”

The Rhodes less travelled: the keyboard’s pioneers

Choosing a stand-out track to demonstrate the magic and diversity of the Rhodes is no easy task, with the piano appearing on everything from The Doors through to Ray Charles, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, and The Carpenters. McCauley suggests we look back to its early days: “If people want to find the truth about the instrument and how it’s used, go back to the roots of it. Go back to the source where it comes from, learn about who experimented with it, who really brought it out, and I think those things help you understand the uses of any instrument best.” In the case of the Rhodes we come across artists like Miles Davis who were very influential in popularising the instrument. “He put it in front of his musicians and said “play it!” where they were reluctant because they hadn’t heard of it before and thought it was a toy. It’s something everybody’s afraid to experiment with at first but Miles was bold and brave, so I think he was very responsible for popularising the Rhodes, especially with his use of it on records like ‘Silent Way’.”

Down the Rhodes George Duke Down the Rhodes Ray Manzarek

Almost as though listing old friends, McCauley name-checks other musicians responsible for pioneering the Rhodes in its early days – Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Donny Hathaway, George Duke, Les McCann – and Ray Manzarek who popularised the Rhodes bass: “He was using it as the bass sound in The Doors. He wasn’t the first man to do that but once he saw another group using that, he thought “Man I’ve got to get one of those too”… I think that was pretty inventive and creative of him”. Not to mention Bob James, playing on Quincy Jones’ ‘Walking in Space’: “A lot of people got exposed to the Rhodes because of his music, and he certainly has a great repertoire that embodies the Rhodes piano sound.”

 

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