Saturday, September 12, 2020

A Very Candid Conversation with David Rosenthal

David Rosenthal has the gig of a lifetime. Since 1993, he has been the keyboardist in the Billy Joel Band. David has also toured with several other artists including Cyndi Lauper, Robert Palmer, and Enrique Iglesias. 

David had a fast start with his career. Shortly after graduating from renowned Berklee College of Music, a tape of David’s piano recital made its way to guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. Ritchie, who had previously played with Deep Purple, created the rock band Rainbow and invited David for an audition to be the keyboardist. It was during his time with Rainbow (1981 to 1984) that I became familiar with David. I particularly like his keyboard opening of “Can’t Let You Go” (1983), as well as his playing on Rainbow’s concert in Tokyo in 1984.

In 1984, Rainbow dissolved, so David teamed up with Little Steven (aka Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band and actor on The Sopranos). Shortly after his world tour with Little Steven, he played with Cyndi Lauper and Robert Palmer. After playing with these big names, David formed a melodic rock band called Red Dawn, which included Chuck Burgi who had played with David in Rainbow and future Rainbow member Greg Smith. Red Dawn attracted listeners all around the world with their 1993 album Never Say Surrender. (You can find my interview with Chuck Burgi here.)

In 1993, David landed his gig with Billy Joel. Despite the high-profile gig with the Piano Man, David also toured with Enrique Iglesias (where he would reunite with Chuck Burgi again) and worked with guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen. David later joined the group Happy the Man for a reunion album and series of concerts when their original keyboardist, Kit Watkins, decided not to participate. 

Since then, David has continued with Billy Joel, including a historic concert at the closing of Shea Stadium as well frequent sold out shows at Madison Square Garden. In addition to his gigs, David has done keyboard rig design and synth programming for various artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, and Phil Collins.

In this candid conversation, we covered David’s extensive career from Rainbow to Billy Joel. I want to thank David for his time. In addition, a special thanks to David for letting me use photos from his website. 

Jeff Cramer: What prompted your interest in music?

David Rosenthal: I was about seven years old and I asked my parents for a piano. We didn't have one in my house at the time. I have absolutely no idea why, but I was determined to play piano, and I kept pleading with my parents to get one. And finally they did and I started piano lessons. But I don't know where the inspiration came for me to want to play that particular instrument . . . I guess I had some sort of calling to it.

JC: Were you a classically trained pianist?

DR: Yes, I was classically trained but not from the beginning. When I first started playing, I only wanted to learn songs that were on the radio. So I learned how to read sheet music—I learned all the chords, I could read anything, and I learned how to solo. I was already playing in bands by the time I was 12. I started studying some jazz when I was 13. I really got into classical when I was about 14, and I dove in deep. I have a very extensive education, but I didn't start with classical right at the beginning.

JC: I understand you studied at Berklee College of Music. 

DR: Yes. I continued my study there. Berklee is mostly known as a jazz school, but they do have all other types of things there. I studied jazz, classical, synthesis [“synthesis” is the technique of generating sound from a synthesizer], audio recording, and orchestration. It was a great school and I got a really well-rounded education there. 

JC: A tape of you playing a Liszt piece when you were in Berklee made its way to Ritchie Blackmore. His reaction was being a little fearful that you probably wouldn't want to join Rainbow because Rainbow was rock and the tape of you playing was classical. 

DR: Oh, really?

JC: Yeah. Ritchie said, "He's gonna be too good for us," and at the same time, Ritchie wanted a keyboardist who was oriented in rock and classical music. After auditioning several keyboard players that didn’t work out, he finally called you in.

DR: That's funny because the cassette tape that I sent him, which got me the audition, had my classical piano recital from Berklee on one side of the tape. And on the other side was my cover band at that time, which was playing all rock and roll songs.

I assume he listened to both sides of the tape. Maybe he didn't, I don't know. In any event, the tape got me the audition with Ritchie. But that’s interesting, I've never heard that side of the story before.

It's funny because I totally have rock and roll running through my veins. I grew up on rock and roll and I love it. It sounds like a cliché but it's true. I studied classical because I wanted to become the best player I could possibly become and I wanted to take my playing to a point of virtuosity. But I never had any intention of making a career as a classical pianist. However, my teachers at Berklee were suggesting that I become a classical pianist. I was like, "No way. That's not at all what I want to do." I just wanted to elevate my playing up to that high level. 

JC: I have interviewed several people who played with Ritchie and one thing just about everyone tells me is that they have a story about Ritchie. What's your Ritchie story?

DR: I endured some of the traditional initiation things that he does to all new Rainbow members. But I had a great relationship with Ritchie. He really respected my musicianship and I had tremendous respect for him and we got along great. I know a lot of people didn't have similar stories to that, but I always got along fine with Ritchie. Yeah, he's a prankster—he does his pranks and everything—but when it came time for the music, we really clicked on a lot of levels I think, musically.

JC: I can hear the chemistry between you two when I listen to Rainbow. I particularly like the keyboard opening you do for “Can't Let You Go.”

Rainbow (Dave in middle) (1984)

DR: Yeah. That was actually improvised on a pipe organ sound that I played on an Emulator. Ritchie and I both loved that sound. We wanted to do something with it, and he asked me to create an intro like something reminiscent of Bach's Toccata in D minor, a piece which we both love. But it needed to be something that would work well for “Can't Let You Go,” and that’s what I came up with. [Click here to hear “Can’t Let You Go.”]

JC: One of the most memorable times in Rainbow was when the band did “Difficult to Cure” [a rock instrumental of Beethoven’s Ninth] with the Japanese orchestra. What are your memories on that?

DR: Oh yeah, that whole experience was a lot of fun. I did all the orchestration for the live performance of “Difficult to Cure.” We got to Japan and rehearsed with the orchestra. We were doing two shows at the Budokan and both the shows were sold out, so we didn't need to announce the orchestra in order to sell the shows. We did it unannounced; it was really a surprise to everybody. 

And all of a sudden at one point in the show, we started the beginning of “Difficult to Cure” and it gets to that big chord . . . we're all holding out the chord and suddenly there's a curtain that opens behind us and there's an entire orchestra lit in rainbow colors. The whole audience gasped and went, "Whoa." On the live album you can hear the crowd doing that. And then we launched into the song with the orchestra playing along with the band.  In the middle of the song the band stopped and the orchestra played an excerpt from Beethoven’s 9th. The whole thing was really cool. [To hear “Difficult to Cure” with the Japanese orchestra, click here.]

JC: Who did you play with after Rainbow?

DR: After Rainbow was Little Steven. I did a world tour with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul in ’84. 

David (top right) in Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul (1984) 

JC: And how did that come about?

DR: Well, Rainbow had come to an end because Ritchie decided to put Deep Purple back together to do a reunion. So I was looking around to see what might be out there for something I could get involved in next. I crossed paths with Steven Van Zandt, and he invited me to do the tour with him. So that's how that went. [To hear Little Steven’s cover of Black Uhuru’s “Solidarity,” click here.]

JC: And then I know you worked with Cyndi Lauper. 

DR: Yes. That came a couple years later. After Steven's tour ended, I produced an album for a band called Hammerhead in Germany for EMI Records. I was writing a lot of music and put together my own band called Infinity. Some of the songs from my Infinity days made their way into the group I later formed, Red Dawn.  But in those early years I was working with singer Mitch Malloy and writing songs for Infinity. Then I got the gig with Cyndi Lauper on the True Colors tour. That was 1986 to 1987. [To hear a 1986 live performance of “Time After Time,” click here.]

David (far left) in Cyndi Lauper’s band (1986)

JC: Okay. What's interesting is going from Rainbow, then Little Steven, and now Cyndi Lauper. All three acts are different musically.

DR: Yeah, well . . . they're completely different. But I have a lot of musical styles that I'm very comfortable with. I love pop music just as much as I love rock and hard rock. And there’s lots of keyboard parts in Cyndi’s music. The band was great—it was all top-notch musicians. She was at the peak of her career at that time, so yeah, it was kind of cool. Yes, it was completely different, but why not?

JC: And then  you also worked with Robert Palmer.

                David (left) and Robert Palmer (1988)

DR: Yeah. I did the Heavy Nova tour with him. That was also a great tour with great musicians. We are actually in The Guinness Book of World Records for that tour. On one leg of the tour we did 56 shows in a row in 56 cities in 56 nights. It was pretty crazy. [To watch a video single of “Early in the Morning,” click here.

JC: Now to the group Red Dawn you mention earlier . . . when I had interviewed Chuck Burgi about Red Dawn, he had said you were the musical leader of this band. How did the whole Red Dawn project get started?

DR: Right . . ., I had been looking for a deal for quite some time for my previous group Infinity, but we weren't able to get a deal at that time, so everybody went in their own direction. I eventually ended up getting a deal in Japan to do the Infinity record, but Infinity no longer existed at that point.  The label was fine with that, and they said, "Just put together a new band." I said, "Okay." And so I signed the deal in Japan with EMI-Toshiba and I put together a really, really amazing band which became Red Dawn. I asked Chuck if he would be willing to do it. I didn't even know if he was available or if he would consider it, but he was really enthused about it and he was a great addition to the band. 

There was Greg Smith on bass who also went on to play with Rainbow in the nineties. Greg's an awesome bass player and a great guy. That was the first time Greg and Chuck had met, and right from the first day when the two of them played together it was magic instantly. I knew immediately that was the rhythm section I wanted. 

I had worked on some other projects with Tristan Avakian, a great guitar player from New York; he was my first choice for guitar. Larry Baud was the last piece of the puzzle to put into Red Dawn. He was just a tremendous singer. I just think the band was great, and I'm very proud of the album we made Never Say Surrender. [To hear a live acoustic version of “I’ll Be There” in Japan with David on keyboards and Larry on vocals, please click here.]

JC: When I interviewed Greg Smith about Red Dawn, he told me he was in a foreign country—I forget which one—when he was asked to autograph a Red Dawn CD. 

David (far left) in Red Dawn (1992)

DR: Yeah, we have quite a following around the world. Never Say Surrender made a lot of noise over time. It’s a shame that it didn't really do well when it was first released because maybe then we would've had a different trajectory than we did. But the record was very highly critically acclaimed, and it was loved by a lot of AOR fans all over the world. [“AOR” stands for “album-oriented rock” focusing on album tracks by rock artists. AOR evolved from hard rock and progressive rock.]

JC: So after that, I understand you met Billy Joel. How did that gig land?

DR: I heard that Billy was looking for a keyboard player. You know, I was at that point in my career when my name popped up in those circles when somebody was looking for a keyboard player. So I was invited for a closed audition and I beat the other guy out. I got the gig and I started on the River of Dreams tour in 1993. [To hear “Pressure” from the River of Dreams tour, click here.]

The Piano Man and David (right) (1993)

JC: I've watched some videos of Billy's early shows and there was only him on piano and keyboards. Were you the first keyboard player to have played alongside with Billy Joel? 

DR: No, I wasn’t. It was Billy on all keyboards in the early days. Sometimes he would play piano and then he would jump to a Minimoog [a Minimoog is a type of keyboard] and a couple of other keyboards. And sometimes some of his other bandmates would double on keyboards. But he did have a keyboard player through the eighties on some of his tours. Dave Lebolt was first, and then Jeff Jacobs did the Storm Front tour and then I started on the River of Dreams tour. But yeah, it’s been 27 years that I’m with him now, by far the longest of any keyboard player that he's had.

JC: One thing I've heard about Billy live is that even his own band doesn’t know what songs he’ll be playing in concert.

DR: Well, we do have a set list, but he will sometimes veer off it or he'll throw a song in spontaneously or just start playing something. Sometimes he'll play a song that we haven't done in a long time, and sometimes he'll even play a song that we never did before and we just go for it. So it's a lot of fun. Everybody in the band is a phenomenal musician, but it keeps us on our toes and it's really great because we never know what he's gonna do next. As a result of that, no two shows come out the same, and that makes it a lot of fun. 

I think the audience really picks up on that and they love it too because they can see that we're really up there playing and we're just going for it. The audience loves that and they appreciate the spontaneity of what we're doing as well. That’s a big part of what Billy does, and it takes a unique group of players to be able to do that. I think we have a really unique chemistry within Billy's band—it's really a unique band. 

JC: What's your keyboard setup for playing with Billy?

DR: Well, all the keyboards that I’m using on stage are MIDI controllers [a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller is any hardware keyboard that transmits MIDI data to devices to trigger sounds and control parameters of an electronic music performance], and I'm running MainStage [a music application by Apple which is designed for use in live performance]. All the sound sources are coming from a computer, but because computers can crash, I have a second computer system running simultaneously at all times should that ever happen.

JC: I understand that you've done some keyboard rig programming for other artists like Bruce Springsteen.

DR: Yeah. Since programming is a big part of what I do, over the years not only have I done it for myself but I've also done it for several other keyboard players and some big artists. They bring me in to program their setups, design keyboard rigs, things like that. I'm always pushing the envelope of technology and I love it. I’ve had a lot of experience with redesigning my own rigs over the years, so I have been called to do some of that for other artists as well. 

JC: I want to talk about some of the other artists you played with after you initially played with Billy. First, let's talk about guitar legend Yngwie Malmsteen.

DR: Right. Well, I played on a couple of tracks for Yngwie’s Inspiration album. When we were working on that album, he started telling me about his concerto that he was writing, so he brought me aboard as the orchestrator for his concerto. It was a big, big project. We first recorded his Millenium Concerto Suite in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic in 1997, and then we recorded it again in Japan live with the New Japan Philharmonic. I think that was 2001. [To hear Yngwie and the orchestra’s “Icarus Dream Fanfare,”  click here.]

David (right) and Yngwie Malmsteen

JC: Well, I've noticed throughout your career you got to play with a lot of guitar greats.

DR: Yes, I've been fortunate to play with a lot of great guitar players maybe in part because I have a deep understanding of guitar. In high school I played guitar as well as keyboards. When my band played a song that didn’t have keyboards in it, I would just play guitar. But I kind of gave guitar up when I met Steve Vai because he and I played in a band together at Berklee. When I saw how he played guitar, I thought, "You know what? I'm gonna put this instrument down and just do what I do best" [laughs] and that was keyboards. 

So even though I don't play guitar professionally as part of my career, I do have a deep understanding of the instrument. I think that comes in really handy when I play with a lot of guitar greats like Ritchie, Yngwie, Steve Vai. and many others. I've just been fortunate to play with so many great guitar players over the years, and they all seem to like what I do.

JC: In addition to guitar greats and Billy Joel, you also played with Enrique Iglesias. 

DR: Right, that tour was in 1997. Several of the guys in Billy's band were involved in Enrique’s band. I was playing with Chuck Burgi again. We had played together in Rainbow, then Red Dawn, then Enrique Iglesias, and as you know, Chuck would also end up in Billy's band. [To watch the video for Enrique’s “Solo en ti,” click here.]

David and Enrique on keys (1997)

JC: I understand you were involved in the Movin’ Out Broadway show.

DR: Yes, I was on the creative team for that. I was associate music supervisor and I did the synth programming. I was offered a position to play in the band, but I didn't want to do it because it was eight shows a week. I preferred to just be on the creative team and not have to do that. Although, I did sub a bunch of times. I did quite a number of shows as a sub on Broadway and also on the touring production. They would also bring me around to work on all the touring productions of the show. There was a national tour of Movin’ Out in the US, then there was a non-union tour in the US, and there was a West End production in London. I was involved in all those productions as well as the Broadway production. Another part of my job was to train each of the piano players to be sure they were playing Billy’s parts correctly.

JC: While Movin’ Out was going on, you got to play with Happy the Man. That band had been one of your favorites.

DR: Yeah, they were one of my favorite bands of all time. Happy the Man is a progressive rock instrumental band. When I was at Berklee, I studied their music heavily and transcribed a lot of [keyboardist] Kit Watkins’s solos. I think I wore out their records listening to them so many times! The band was a big inspiration to me musically, and their keyboardist Kit Watkins was a big inspiration to me as a keyboard player. Unfortunately, by the time I found out about Happy the Man, they had already broken up. 

In any event, fast forward 20-somewhat years later—I think it was 1999 or 2000—and Happy the Man were gonna do a reunion. I had become friendly with the guys over the years. Kit Watkins didn't want to do the reunion, so I was like, "Hey, I'm your guy. I'll do it. I know all the songs." They were thrilled with that. We got together and we played, and the chemistry clicked immediately and we started writing songs. Most of the song “Contemporary Insanity,” which is the lead track on the album,  I had written when I was at Berklee wishing that I could someday be in Happy the Man. At that time, it  was an impossibility because they had already broken up and didn't exist anymore. 

So when it was time to actually play with them, I said, "You know, I got this song called “Contemporary Insanity” that I think is pretty cool . . . see what you guys think of it." And they absolutely loved it. So I polished it up, and it became the first song on the album that I did with them, The Muse Awakens. I also wrote a couple of other songs on that record. It was just a thrill to be able to play with those guys and to be able to make a record with one of my favorite bands of all time. 

David recording Happy the Man’s The Muse Awakens (2004)

JC:  Now getting back to Billy Joel . . . the concerts with him had hit a new dimension in recent years. There was a live performance at Shea Stadium, and then of course there's now the residency at Madison Square Garden. 

DR: Shea Stadium was an incredible experience. I mean, it was two shows and all of these amazing guest artists came up. It was sorta capped off at the end with Paul McCartney. To be able to play with a Beatle at Shea Stadium was really a cool moment. I grew up in New Jersey. Shea Stadium is a place that has a lot of history, not only for baseball but also for concerts. And it was really cool that we did those shows. At the Shea Stadium shows, we had a string orchestra as well which I did the arranging for. It was just a really, really cool event, definitely one of the highlights of my career. 

And now to be able to do the residency at Madison Square Garden has been incredible. We've done 73 shows sold out in a row, interrupted only by the pandemic. When this is finally over, we'll go back and continue, but who knows when that will be. We all hope it will be soon. As I mentioned, I grew up in New Jersey, and when I was a kid I used to go to concerts at Madison Square Garden. I saw so many great shows there.

Billy, David (back left center) and famed violinist Itzhak Perlman (right) at Madison Square Garden (2015)

Now, to be able to play there so many times has been an amazing experience. I mean, 73 shows on this run alone, but over the course of my whole career, I've played there well over 100 times. It's really something that I don't take for granted because most musicians are lucky to play there in their lifetime even once. And to be able to play there over 100 times, it's pretty special and I never take it for granted. I always try to take a mental snapshot of the whole picture of everything when I'm on stage each time to really write it into my brain and really remember how fortunate I am to be in involved in something like this. [To hear Billy Joel’s “My Life” performed at Shea Stadium, please click here.]

JC: I also saw that Billy has trusted you to do piano transcriptions of his songs. 

DR: Well, I'm actually still in the process of this. I'm correcting his entire sheet music catalogue, which has been sold for many years and has had tons and tons of mistakes and wrong notes and all kinds of crazy stuff. He trusted me to just go through the entire catalogue and make sure that all of his sheet music that's in print is correct. I'm going album by album—not in consecutive order, but I've finished seven of his albums so far and I'm working on the eighth one now. I'm gonna keep going until I get through the whole catalogue. 

JC: You’ve been with Billy a long time and he's trusting you to do the transcriptions. What do you think has been the key to your success with Billy?

DR: I just think that he saw my ability and my deep knowledge of his music and the job that I was doing as a band member, and  eventually he made me musical director. He knows that I really know his music inside and out. He knows that I also have a deep understanding of his music as a piano player myself, so he trusts me to make sure that it's all correct in print. I'm quite honored to have that job.

JC: My final question is similar to a question I asked earlier. It’s not just that you have played with many musicians, but the many musicians you’ve played with are different musically from each other. What do you think your success in playing different genres is due to?

DR: I'm very comfortable in a lot of different genres. The one thing I think is true across the board with any style of music is that it's great if it’s done right. And music can be great in any style. I enjoy the challenge of reinventing myself as a player and for the types of sounds that I use and what I can contribute to all of the different roles that I've had over the years. So I wouldn't say that I love anything more than anything else. I love music, and I've been very fortunate to play in some great bands with some great artists. I think every situation I've been in is special and unique unto itself. 

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