Essay: “My Brilliant Non-career” Part 1

Magnus Chord Organ. This is -- in many ways -- the thing that started me When I was little my parents had this toy of a keyboard called a Magnus Chord Organ. Most 1960s homes seemed to have one. It was a two-and-a-half-octave affair, with (I believe) slightly undersized keys, and two rows of buttons that played “chords.” Black buttons were minor; white, major. Even as a child I loved the sound of holding down several of the chord buttons simultaneously, layering weird overtones. I had no idea what I was doing from a theoretical standpoint, of course (still don’t) but it was oh-so-cool. The Magnus sucked air through the bottom. It had a damper wheel on its underside (to control how much it sucked, so to speak) and I used to like to move the wheel while I played to vary the tone color.

When I was about nine or so, I decided I wanted to be a keyboard player. This was the very early 1970s, and other fads were catching the attention of kids, so my parents were quite wary of buying a piano. I mean, who needs that kind of furniture in their house if it’s not being used? So they agreed to pay for lessons, with the stipulations that I had to (a) practice like hell, (b) find other pianos in convenient places upon which I could practice and (c) use the Magnus in the meantime. In other words, if I wanted this, I was going to have to make it work.

The 1908 Rudolf apartment grand. This thing requires tuning every couple presidential administrations or so. I still play it every day. It worked. Within a year or so Mom and Dad bought me an old 1908 “apartment grand” which is essentially a tall upright piano. The piano, built by the Rudolf Piano Co. of New York City, is still in my proud possession. And while it’s not especially impressive to gaze upon, it sounds beautiful, stays in tune for years at a time, and is loud as hell. I still have the sales receipt. $325.00.

My lessons were the typical stuff. Learn the scales, learn the theory, play the classics. Eventually I did well enough that my teacher relented and let me learn some “pop” material alongside my serious stuff. I bought some music books, but was horrified to hear (when she played from them) that these were “arrangements,” not the keyboard parts from my favorite LPs. The songs sounded like lounge- or sing-along versions, with the vocal line played by the right hand. I was disgusted, but didn’t know how to learn the songs the “right” way.

The Outer Limits, posed in front of my parents' garage. Me out front with the Elka. You Are Entering the Outer Limits
A few years later, my piano teacher of the time decided to move to another state. She gave me a list of other teachers with whom I might continue my education. I threw the list away and convinced my parents to let me spend the $150 I had on a little something.

My first synthesizer, bought around 1978, was an Elka LX-600. This Italian-made keyboard had something like four sounds and not an especially fat tone, but from my standpoint, it had a couple of really cool features. One, it allowed me to play along with my Pink Floyd albums (DSOTM, WYWH, Animals) and basically re-learn keyboard playing by ear (1970s Pink Floyd music tends to play each chord for several measures, giving the ear-novice plenty of time to fumble onto the correct notes). Two, the unit had an internally-lit on/off rocker switch right next to the highest note: when switched off while playing, the sound would fade out and drop in pitch. Cool (albeit uncontrollable) note-bending effect similar to what analog monosynths of the day could do.

Pre-CBS Fender Deluxe Reverb. These go for four figures now. When I bought the Elka, the guy sold me an amp to go with it. It was a pre-CBS Fender Deluxe Reverb (with the single 12″ and four inputs). It’s a crying shame that I would sell it a few years later because it “didn’t have enough inputs.” Stupid kid.

The biggest problem (in fact the only problem) I had with the Elka was its lack of action. I had grown very accustomed to the feel of a real piano, and hated the organ-feel of the Elka’s keys. Not enough expression in them. I knew from my extensive reading of LP liner notes that there was a hybrid of a piano and a synth called an electric piano. Electric Light Orchestra used a Wurlitzer, and I soon discovered that the instrument had an unmistakable signature sound (think: ” Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night and you’ve nailed it). When I was about fifteen or so I begged and pleaded for a Wurlitzer Electric Piano.

Ah, yes. My late 70s arsenal. Note Union Jack on Elka. Clockwise from left (look closely): Wurlitzer 200A, Fender Deluxe Reverb Amp, Elka, Mutron Phaser Pedal.I try to be Ray Manzarek. An early photo experiment.
A Horse With No Chops
So this was my rig when I first started playing with other guys circa 1979. The Elka and the Wurlitzer, run through the Deluxe Reverb. Because of the arched top on the Wurlitzer, I couldn’t stack the Elka, so it had a separate stand. Wow: two keyboards, one in front and one off to the side. I was a regular Rick Wakeman!Wurlitzer Electric Piano 200A. Joy to the Fishes in the Deep Blue Sea. Well, that was pretty much it as far as equipment for several years. I played with some friends during my early high-school years. No real gigs of course, but several Law Enforcement visits to my parents’ garage. We played a dozen or so songs (no Beatles; they were sacrosanct) with no vocals. In 1980 I performed my first gig as a member of “Outer Limits.” The name came from a TIME magazine cover story on The Who entitled “Rock’s Outer Limits.” Now outfitted with a Real Live Singer, we played a CYO talent show and performed three songs: “Peter Gunn Theme” a la ELP (sort of), America‘s “A Horse With No Name” and, since we had said Vocalist, “Back in the USSR” . I have that tape…it’s horrible. We won, of course. Listening now, I do recall that it was my first experience singing in front of a crowd (harmonies on the America song). Not bad at all, actually.Fast forward to 1982. In college and working in the camera department at the local JCPenney, I made friends with one of the maintenance guys, an African American fellow named (ironically, I thought at the time) Wade White. Wade had a group that played R&B hits of the day (Kool and the Gang and such) and seemed to think I’d fit in nicely, being that I was (a) caucasian and (b) hated all music that was not rock and roll. So of course at 18 years of age I joined, and added a whole new set of experiences to my life.

First off, there was the practice venue. See, I had never set foot in a working-class black neighborhood before this, so I was surprised my much of what I found there. The concrete-block building we played in was a community center with a big, thick steel door and bars on the (broken) windows. I was not about to leave my equipment (worth at the time about $600 or more) in that place, so I had to schlep it all to and fro every time we practiced. The place had few electrical outlets, and we popped fuses all the time.

The group, “Phoenix,” was fairly large. As I recall, there was a drummer, a funk-poppin’ bassist, two guitarists, two or three horn players, a female vocalist/percussionist and me. All on a 4×8 piece of plywood. Well, almost. We played a number of gigs, all at which we were very well-received. The most surreal experience of all with them was on our way to a show at the American Legion in Buford GA. We got lost and stopped to ask directions. Picture us: a car overstuffed with black people and one white guy, in rural Georgia. I was elected Spokesman.

The Moog Rogue. If it had stayed in tune, I woulda kept it forever. Still probably shoulda. “Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to the American Legion Post?”
“Which one?”
“Um, what do you mean, ‘which one?'”
“The black one or the white one?”

It was a great show. As always, the crowd called out for us to play “that white song.” By this they meant the Brooker/Reid composition “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” My spotlight number. Naturally.

Wade introduced me to the wonderful world of Pawn Shops. I had never been in one prior to that time, as their barred windows and signage with GUNS in huge lettering scared me off. But I found them to be chock full of used musical instruments, at bargain prices. Wade and I found a Moog Rogue, a great little totally analog monophonic synth. I never fully realized the potential of this little instrument, though I did put it to good use for effects and such. It remained part of my equipment list for many years. I paid about $125 for it.

The JX3P. So hot it nearly burned my fingers.

Those Crazy Eighties
Of passing interest was the keyboard I was loaned for gigs. It was a Roland JX-3P with an amazing array of synthy sounds. The serial number had been scratched off, and part of the thing had been painted over. Hmm. It was offered for sale to me but I declined. Anyway, as far as the group, I don’t recall how or why I stopped playing with them. But I did get a lot of performance experience.

Summer 1984 I met a fellow student in one of my classes at GSU. He was in a new band that was looking for a keyboard player. Was I interested? I certainly was.

Remote Control, 1985. Me in the center. As of 2001, the guy on the left is the only one still trying to make a living at music. Completely bald and without glasses now. A couple weeks later I was a member of the group that eventually became “Remote Control.” As an aside, I should mention that I’ve named every group I was ever in, except Phoenix. This time the name came from the 1978 Tubes album produced by Todd Rundgren. My idea for a slogan, “Put yourself on Remote Control,” was, however, not well received. Something about pandering to groupies. Worked for me (this was ’84 after all).

The story of the band is worth a book in itself, but I’ll just hit a few high spots relating to my equipment.

The group had an Italian Crumar DS-2 which I used in practice. It had some nice (for its time) brass and string sounds, which I used a great deal. I think I used this board live on some early RC gigs, but at this late date I can’t be sure. No idea who owned it or what happened to it.

They called it Mello Yello. Quite Rightly. We were fortunate to have permanent rehearsal space, in the back room of an audio/visual equipment rental company’s space. The space was formerly a recording studio, so we had a soundproofed room with high ceilings and plenty of electrical outlets. There was an adjacent room that had formerly been the control room; now, with the console pulled out, it was just a room with a big glass window. But it felt like a studio.

In the corner was a big, bulky, garishly painted yellow something. Eventually I moved all the stuff off of it and uncovered it to see what it was. A Mellotron M-400 in fair shape! The owner of the place offered it to me for, I think, a few hundred dollars. I didn’t have the money, and so it went somewhere else. I never got to play it, which is a real shame. From a listening standpoint, the impossibly rare Mellotron is my hands-down favorite keyboard instrument.

Korg Poly 800. My introduction to the worlds of polyphonic synthesis and 21% APR credit cards. Since I was in college, I started getting offers in the mail for credit cards. Like most fools of that era, in 1984 I accepted and got my first VISA, with an APR of 21% or more. Of course I ran right out to Rhythm City and bought a “real” keyboard, my Korg Poly-800 Mk I. I think I paid $600, not counting the interest, and eventually paid the card off sometime in the mid 1990s.

To be continued.