Interview Keyboard Magazine 2016
If you've seen legendary singer, songwriter and piano man Billy Joel during the past quarter century, chances are you've also seen and heard his ace keyboardist and musical director David Rosenthal. Since 1993, the New Jersey native has accompanied Joel on sold-out runs at storied venues such as Madison Square Garden in New York and the Colosseum in Rome, Italy. But don't let his casual smile and apparent ease fool you: Rosenthal is as serious as a surgeon when he hits the stage, executing a well-choreographed dance behind his cascading keyboard collection. From the individual sounds he has painstakingly programmed over his nearly three-decade run with Joel, to his pinpoint accuracy in performing some of the most memorable keyboard parts ever recorded, Rosenthal never misses a beat.
The night before yet another sold-out Joel show, Rosenthal sat down with me in midtown Manhattan to talk about how his attention to detail has made him one of the most in-demand musicians around.
Did you come from a musical household?
No. I'm the only musician in my family. But for some reason, when I was six years old, I asked my parents for a piano. Their response was, "Pianos are expensive!" [Laughs.] So I saved up my allowance and contributed a little bit. And that's when they realized that I was serious about playing the piano.
So you took piano lessons?
Yeah. I began studying when I was seven years old. Right from the beginning, my teacher told my parents, "Your son is learning extremely fast." I remember the first time we had our piano tuned, I was fascinated. I watched everything the tuner was doing, and when he was finished he said to me, "Hey kid, just for fun, let's see what happens. What note is this?" He played a note, and I said, "That's an A." And he freaked out. So he played another note and I replied, "That's a D." My tuner said to me, "You have perfect pitch!" And I replied, "What's that?" I didn't think anything of it. I just knew that when my piano teacher would show me something, I would do whatever he asked me to do.
What kind of music were you listening to in your formative years?
I listened to a lot of Top 40 pop radio at the time. I was born in 1961, so we're talking about the late 1960s and early 1970s. When I first started taking piano lessons, my parents gave me records by Peter Nero and Ferrante and Teicher. Later as I got more into the piano, I copied things from people like Billy Preston, and other blues and rock players. I really liked the Johnny Rivers' single "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" and, of course, records by Billy [Joel] and Elton [John], too. Later I started taking a liking to more complex things with synthe-sizers like Yes and ELP. Keith Emerson, who we just lost, was a big influence on me, as was Uriah Heep's Ken Hensley. Also Chick Corea and Kit Watkins from Happy the Man were big influences.
Besides taking lessons and listening to records, were you also playing in bands?
Yes. I played in bands from a very young age. I was in my first rock band when I was 12 years old. All of the other guys were 17! They wanted me to go out and play gigs with them because I held my own in the audition, but my parents said, "Only if you guys rehearse at our house, so we can keep an eye on things." So we rehearsed at my parents' house.
What kind of keyboard gear were you using back in those early days? The first keyboard I had was a Farfisa organ. Later I got a Rhodes. I really wanted a synthe-sizer, but my parents thought they were toys and a waste of money. They told me, "If you want one, you'll have to pay for it yourself!" So I went and cut lawns for two summers to afford a Roland SH-1000. I will never cut another lawn for as long as I live! [Laughs.] I was really into pitch bending, but the Roland didn't have a pitch bender. So I had it modified to use a pitch-bending ribbon from a Micromoog.
So you were a keyboard geek from the very beginning!
I was. I got so into it. My parents didn't really want me to have a career in music, but since they saw that it was the only thing I cared about, they sent me to music camp at Glassboro State College in New Jersey. It was at that camp that I got to experiment with a Moog Modular synthesizer, and also where I first heard [Japanese composer and synthesist Isao] Tomita. That's what really put me over the top. I must have been 13 or 14 when I first heard him. I thought to myself, "Game over. This is what I want to do." To-mita's sound was so incredible; the things he recorded in the 1970's still hold their own today.
At that time, while I was starting to listen to bands that had more keyboards and synths in their music, I was also getting more and more into clas-sical piano. When I became a teenager, I realized that I wanted to get better on my instrument, and I had considered going to the Manhattan School of Music. But after visiting Berklee College of Music, I took one look around and said, "I'm going here!" I loved the vibe and the atmosphere of Berklee so much; I knew it was for me. I loved it there.
What subjects did you concentrate on in music school?
I focused on piano performance, synthesis, and audio recording. I approached it like a triple major. I had a band called Morning Thunder with [guitar-ist] Steve Vai, where we did original fusion music along with music by Happy the Man and Frank Zappa. It was that band's demo that Steve actually sent to Frank Zappa to get his first gig with him.
Did you graduate from Berklee?
I did, but I actually left during my final semes-ter to audition for the band Rainbow. I only had a few classes to complete when I left, so I finished my degree via correspondence.
How did the Rainbow audition come about?
Back in 1981 when I was 20 years old, a friend of mine at Berklee knew a friend of [Deep Purple and Rainbow guitarist] Ritchie Blackmore and heard he was looking for a new keyboardist. So I sent Ritchie a recording of my senior classical piano recital at Berklee, along with a tape of my cover band. I ended-up getting called to audition for the band, and not knowing what to expect, I went-out and bought all of Rainbow's albums. Up until that point, the band had three other keyboard players, so I listened to all of them, looking to see what each of them had in com-mon stylistically. I figured if I could understand that, I'd understand what Ritchie liked in a keyboardist.
I went to Long Island, New York, to audition for the band along with tons of other keyboard players in a typical "cattle call" setting. I brought all of my gear with me-my Farfisa, my Roland and my Fender Rhodes. When I arrived, I saw that Ritchie had his own keyboards set up. He had a Hammond organ, a Minimoog, a Clavinet and some other things. Now I had never played any of those keyboards, but I knew all about how they worked because I had studied syn-thesis at Berklee. When I showed up to my audition, Ritchie said to me, "Forget your equipment, you're playing mine!" So we jammed for around 15 minutes in a sort of free-form format, and then it was over.
Later that night they called me and said, "It's down to you and another guy. You each have three hours for your audition tomorrow." So I asked myself, "How can I get an edge over the other guy auditioning?" And so I called every Sam Ash Music Store in Long Island until I found one that had a Minimoog on their sales floor. I went there with a pair of headphones and sat for hours, learning my way around it. When I went to my 'call back' the next day, I was flying all over it!
During my second audition, Rainbow bassist Rog-er Glover said to me, "Okay. We're onstage in front of 20,000 people. Ritchie breaks a string and you need to fill space. Go!" So I played something on the Ham-mond, then I played another thing on the Clavinet, then I riffed on the Minimoog. What was really inter-esting and something that I only found out later was, the thing that tilted the audition in my favor was that I was fearless. I was the only guy that really played when given that scenario by Roger. So when I was 20, I got the gig with Rainbow. I recorded the Straight Between the Eyes album and did a world tour of are-nas with them. It was a lot of fun. We eventually did another album Bent Out of Shape, another world tour, and a live album too. I stayed until they disbanded, when Deep Purple re-formed in 1984.
What keyboards were you using on that first Rainbow tour?
I had a Hammond B3 organ, and two Mini-moogs because I had to be able to go back and forth between them. In those days, synths didn't have any memory, so you really had to prepare sounds in advance for songs later in the set. I also had a Clavinet and a Roland Paraphonic RS-505 string synthesizer, and an Oberheim OB-Xa, which was brand new at the time. On that one you could play chords and save patches!
After your stint in Rainbow came to an end, what came next for you?
I did a lot of different things. I did a world tour with [Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band guitarist] Little Steven and his Disciples of Soul. I also put my own band together and produced a band called Hammerhead in Europe. One thing led to another and I got the call to audition for Cyndi Lauper's True Colors world tour in 1986. The sounds I had to get with Cyndi were completely different than the ones I was using with Rainbow, so the gear I was using reflected that change. I toured with Cyndi from 1986 to 1987. Then I joined Robert Palmer for his Heavy Nova tour from 1988 to '89. That tour actually ended up in the Guinness Book of World Records. On the first leg we did 56 shows in a row in 56 different cities! After that, I started concentrating more on studio work from 1991 to '92, playing and recording with people like Steve Vai, and Whitesnake, as well as my own band Red Dawn. Then in 1993, I got the call to audition for Billy Joel.
How did that audition come about?
I had heard that Billy was looking for a new keyboard player, so I got the call to go to a closed audition between just me and another keyboard player at SIR Studios in New York City. I was asked to learn four songs, which included "We Didn't Start the Fire," "Pressure," and "I Go to Extremes." I didn't sleep. I worked around the clock getting ready for the audition, learning the songs and copying all of the sounds from the records. Then I rented a truck, hired a keyboard tech, and set up all of my gear at the audition. When it was time to play the songs, I nailed them. From what I heard, the other keyboard player just learned the chord changes and jammed along to the tunes! So, long-story short, I got the gig and soon was off with Billy and the band for the River of Dreams tour in 1993. That tour lasted for 18 months, and I've been in the band ever since!
On Musical Talent and Education
What can you tell us about having perfect pitch?
I would say perfect pitch would be hearing the note “absolutely” by its letter name. When I hear a note or a chord its like it says its name to me. Relative pitch would be hearing the note by its relationship to the notes which surround it. You hear the motion and the intervals, and then you can figure out the notes. When I was learning intervals, I would hear the notes first and then figure out what the interval was. For example I’d hear a C and then an A, so therefore the interval was a sixth. But I eventually learned how to hear the motion as well, which brought my hearing to an even finer-tuned place because I can hear both ways now. But initially out of the box I would go, “Oh yeah, it’s a C Major 7th” or whatever it is. I just hear it by name.
I’m sure when you got to Berklee it was helpful.
Yeah, that’s where I learned to hear the other way – by relative motion. They teach ear training and everything is done by interval and relative pitch using the Solfège System. So it was a big help that way too.
How did your Berklee education help your career?
Berklee helped hone my reading skills for sure, and that’s where I developed my playing chops and increased my technical knowledge. But what they don’t teach you at Berklee and at most music schools, and I think that they should, is how to function in a professional environment; that it’s not about how many notes you can play and it’s not about any specific thing. It’s about how you can deliver the part that you need to play for that song. The song is the most important thing and it’s not about putting everything you know into one song. It’s just about doing what’s right for the song, and that’s all that matters and that’s all that most artists are looking for. So I think some people come away from school feeling like they need to impress the artist that they’re working for—impress them with their skills—when in fact, you impress the most if you just do what needs to be done, nothing more and nothing less.
Did you learn a lot about programming at Berklee or was it mostly on-the-job training?
It was both. I learned the theory of programming and I learned on a modular synth at Berklee. So it was there that I learned all the concepts of signal flow and about how synths work.. But none of the synths I use today even existed back then, though the concepts were the same. The signal flow is the same and the way that they work is the same; it’s just, some of the terminology has changed over the years from the different manufacturers. The on-the-job training happens when you have to quickly learn a piece of gear that you’ve never seen before. That’s when having a strong theoretical background really comes in handy.
I remember reading that you got a teacher who had an Arp in front of the class and you had to turn around so you couldn’t see what he played.
Yes, he had an Arp Odyssey and then an ARP 2600 and then a 2500. He would set up a patch on the synth and the class wasn’t allowed to see the control panel. Then he would play the sound and we had to draw a block diagram of how the patch was created only by listening to it. It was phenomenal ear training. With that knowledge, I learned how to pull any sound I hear off a record and replicate it, and also learned how to create any sound I hear in my head.
That’s amazing. How hard was that to learn?
At first it was tricky, but it all made sense to me. I was really eager to learn. I was so into synthesizers because I was so into Tomita when I was a teenager. I absolutely had to learn how this guy created those sounds. I had already been to a music camp at a state college when I was 15 and they had an electronic music lab there. That was the first time I was exposed to a synthesizer. At that time I knew about bands like Yes, ELP and Uriah Heep and some other bands that used synths. Ken Hensley was one of my early influences. I learned B3 playing from him and I learned the way he used the Moog. And he also played guitar, which is why I learned how to play guitar as well. In all my high school bands I always played keyboards and guitar so that we could also cover songs that had two guitars. I actually started to get pretty decent at guitar, or so I thought until I met Steve Vai. When I met Steve at Berklee I was like, I’m putting my guitar away!
Is that how you got involved with Passion and Warfare?
Steve and I had a band at Berklee called Morning Thunder. We played in a band together when we were 18 before either of us had any success and after that we kept in touch. We still keep in touch, in fact we’re great friends. I played on Passion and Warfare because I was out visiting him and he said, “Hey, why don’t you play on my record?” And I said, “Sure, I’d love to.” In that same session, over a few days, he was also doing overdubs for Whitesnake’s Slip of the Tongue album. So he said, “Hey, while you’re here…,” then he switched the master tapes and I played on Slip of the Tongue. I also did Steve’s Story of Light, his newest album. I played piano on the title track, and that was a really neat thing because we did the sessions while he was in his studio in L.A. and I was in my studio in New Jersey.
Via what kind of hookup?
We did it over Skype. He sent me the Pro Tools session and I had a live talkback mic in my room, which I ran into the Pro Tools session, then fed the master outputs of the Pro Tools computer into the line inputs on my Mac Book Pro over Skype. So he was able to hear the whole thing and we could also see and talk to each other. Skype is mono, but he trusted that the sound was right with what I was doing and we focused mostly on the creation of the parts. He has a very specific vision of what he wants to hear. It came out really cool. At the end of the recording session, I sent him the finished Pro Tools session.
Okay, last subject: Do you still have your Oberheim OB-Xa?
Absolutely! It’s in a case. I have my Memorymoog. And I still have the first synth I ever had, a Roland SH-1000.
Do you ever bring those out, not to tour, but just to mess around with?
Not really. I’m kind of keeping them because I don’t want to get rid of them but I don’t really have a whole lot of use for them. They’re collector’s pieces now. They’re not really practical.
Keyboard Magazine - July 2016