Sparkle Top

In 2011 Geoff dropped around a restored ’69 Fender Rhodes Sparkle Top for tuning and regulating. I fired it up and my ears immediately took me back to when they all sounded like this in the early 70’s. The playing was somehow more dynamic and the tines able to bark easier. A lot of that fat chunky sound came from having felt tips and heavier wooden stems on the hammers, plus there is a serious mass of alloy on the top of the fork. My offer of money, a lifetime of servitude plus a swap over Mark 1 didn’t cut it. Nope, not selling. I tuned and regulated it then it was eviction time as it appeared to be gloating at me going “I’ll never be yours!”. The next best thing was to either blackmail the owner, Geoff Williamson (but I didn’t have anything on him ‘cos he’s too clean) or record something on it to remember as a memento. I was forced into the latter and recorded a version, using programmed drums, percussion and bass, of ‘Mambo Influenciado’ written by the great Chucho Valdez. Listen:

See and download a chart of this here.

Some ancient history:

I moved, not graduated, from playing a Wurlitzer electronic piano to a Fender Rhodes in around 1974. The Wurlitzer for me was a great axe but a pain to tune after replacing broken tines. At the worst possible times, small metal filaments left over from filing the tines and bad cleaning would short out the pickups and make an incredibly loud and horrible noise. Repeated vacuuming, diligent brushing, magnets wet cloths all failed. I worked in a lot of night clubs, backing acts, and this nearly got me fired on numerous occasions. Also, the pickups were not insulated from the taxi radio frequency channel and this would blast out in the middle of a set. I had to do something, so I bought a Fender Rhodes 73.

During the times of lugging around the Fender Rhodes, people would come over while I was bandaging up my fingers and say, “Hey, nice and portable organ you’ve got there, when I used to be in a band we carried around a Hammond B3!”. Fair enough, I’d say, as a Rhodes can’t compare to the weight of a B3. But it kind of annoyed me as it was still pretty heavy and was not an organ. Occasionally, some kind person would take pity and help me lug the stuff whilst I was fending off parking cops, dodging trams and jamming lifts, but it was mostly just me and I was always losing trolleys. It was hard not to be envious of other band members, even drummers, as nothing was this heavy. They always seemed able to relax before and after the gig while I was walking back and forth humping the gear in and out. Still, it was all worth it and I have absolutely no regrets. All of us Rhodes keyboard players ruined our cars with these beautiful black Tolexed monsters. Terence Clark was my hero. He could lift an ’88 on his shoulder up a flight of stairs. Big respect to Terry.

As a taxi driver I schlepped around my Fender Rhodes ’73  in the boot of my Yellow Cab and avoided any customers who had luggage. Bob ‘Howling’ Howlett, Steve Ball and myself were amongst an elite group in Sydney in the late 70’s who seemed to do the Rhodes strata act with Mini Moog on top. When you added clavinet then you were set. It was worth all the pain but gigging with these monsters was a real chore. Now we can just cart one board that does it all, like a Nord or Yamaha CP for instance. BUT IT’S NOT THE SAME.

In the 70’s  Melbourne had pub rock and Sydney had a big funk scene partly influenced, I think, by the demands of American soldiers on R&R from the Vietnam war who swarmed around Kings Cross. A boat cruise gig took me through Sydney at this time in ’72  and in ‘The Cross'(King’s Cross) I happened on a trio called ‘BAG’ featuring  Ron Barry – vocal/guitar; Tony Ansell – doubling two keyboards using  left hand on a Rhodes Keyboard Bass (like the Doors); and Doug Gallagher on drums. This trio was very impressive and played behind the glitzy red bar in a room with blazing mirror balls. Unfortunately, I only had one night of shore leave but they left a lasting impression on me.

A few years later I moved to Sydney for a Thursday and Friday residency at the Musicians Club with Leon Berger. The Saturdays there had feature bands that included Renee Geyer, Mark Williams, Doug Parkinson, Tommy Emmanuel, Mark Punch and lots of others playing with a new funk groove that I had not experienced in Melbourne. There was a skip with the beat that all the drummers seemed to be doing that I had not felt before in the Melbourne pub rock scene. And Rhodes pianos were everywhere too. Even so, Tony Fossey from Farrell Music offered me a good deal on a Helpinstill portable grand which was going to be a contender to the Yamaha cp80. It weighed more than a B3 but fortunately came in two pieces and had its own pallet for transporting. I now had the heaviest axe in Sydney – what was I thinking? But it sounded fantastic. It was not feasible for one-nighters so I eventually rented it out for shows and tours. The Rhodes was still my main axe, even after moving back to Melbourne, and later on, when small and acceptable sounding digital pianos arrived, I bought a smaller car and at last found a way out of having to lug around a Rhodes. I do regret not having that ubiquitous sound but at least my back is still OK. Along with the roadies, we were the mules of the music industry.

For more about the Rhodes, here is a great documentary called ‘Down the Rhodes’, a film that explores the history of this amazing instrument.

2 thoughts on “Sparkle Top

  1. I had to create an account to thank you for this. It took me back to the 80s when I’d just moved to Sydney (to play with Marcia Hines). I remember you lived around the corner in Rose Bay for a while. I’ve owned two Fender Rhodeses: an 88 stage (that you played at Little Reata) and a 73 suitcase (that Jeff Pressing brought from the US), and also a MiniMoog, various Hammond surrogates and, in place of your Herlpinstill at Yamaha CP70 (that I eventually gave away). Great times!

    Thanks again,
    Steve = : ^ )

    1. So good to hear from you Steve, I had fun writing about the Rhodes and am glad you liked it. I still have my 3rd Rhodes but don’t gig it anymore. My board of the moment is a Yamaha CP73. Best fake Rhodes I’ve ever played. I am adding your name to the article even though you were in more name bands that had roadies at the time. Ha ho, Kindest Regards, David.

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