IF YOU WERE ANYWHERE NEAR A RADIO IN 1980, AMBROSIA’S “BIGGEST Part of Me” is probably still stuck in your head. From its soul-tinged vocal harmonies to the simmering stew of keyboards throughout, the song delighted casual listeners, won cred from musos, and rocketed to number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Written by frontman David Pack for the band’s fourth album One Eighty, “Biggest Part of Me” was a departure from Ambrosia’s original prog-pop sound. Still associated with the band decades after its original success, keyboardists Christopher North and David Lewis revisited the vintage gear behind the song’s success.
Christopher North: I was a founding member of Ambrosia in 1970. The idea was to put together a sort of “supergroup” out of players from the South Bay music scene near Los Angeles. We started as a four-piece, with me on keyboards, Joe Puerta on bass, Burleigh Drummond on drums, and David Pack on vocals and guitar. We released two totally progressive albums and were playing gigs to around 3,000 people a night. Later, when David Pack wrote the hit song “How Much I Feel” on our Life Beyond L.A. album, our sound started moving toward pop and “blue-eyed” soul. In those days, I was playing mostly Hammond organ but also piano, Hohner Clavinet, and Fender Rhodes. So I played keyboards on the first two albums, but I left for a brief time before they started recording the third one. That’s when David Lewis came into the band.
David Lewis: I graduated in 1976 from the California Institute of the Arts. I was playing around town with a bunch of local bands when the guys from Ambrosia came down to CalArts, and we jammed. It felt great immediately. When Chris left the band for a short period, they thought of me as a replacement. I got the gig right away, but I was never really an organ player. I mostly played piano. So they started auditioning B-3 players and went through quite a few of them until I finally said, “These guys are terrible! Just get Chris back in the band.” And so Chris came back and our sound became huge. I was playing mostly Rhodes and piano at that time, and Chris was playing a Chamberlin and a Hammond B-3—piano and Rhodes sound great layered with organ. Then I brought the Prophet-5 in for the next record, One Eighty. David Pack had been thinking of using strings on “Biggest Part of Me,” but when we started recording with the Prophet, the string idea got axed because the synth sounded so contemporary and full.
DL: The B-3 we used in the song was cut down by our keyboard tech Bob “Omaha” Toth, who was working for Elephant Keyboards as well as Ambrosia at that time. That organ had an effects loop, and the Leslie speaker was customized with a 375W driver and crossover setup with a Gauss bass speaker. The Leslie was powered by two Yamaha amps, which could practically part people’s hair in the first ten rows of a venue! What made this organ chop unique was that Bob kept the original tube preamp in it. [Often, solid-state preamps are used in chopped Hammonds for space and weight reasons. —Ed.] That made the organ sound much warmer and less harsh than other custom B-3s I’ve played. When I recorded my parts for the song at LRS Location Recording in Burbank, California, the organ was set up in the control room. Large studio monitors were used instead of headphones, and the Leslie was placed way down the hall with the power amps even further down to eliminate the buzz.
DL: I played Rhodes on the song first. Later, David Pack decided he wanted piano on it as well, so I overdubbed it on top of the Rhodes, which created a great doubling effect on the chords. Combined with the Prophet brass patches, it was a really unique sound for the time. It still sounds great.
CN: I started playing organ at age 16. I got a Farfisa first and then a small Hammond M-3 when I was 17. Even though I’ve played in churches and I studied pedaling in college, my education really came from listening to people like Jimmy Smith. I’ve always had an affinity for funky, jazzy kinds of things. I think playing the Hammond is really a feel thing. I’m constantly tweaking the drawbars and the Leslie as I play. It’s really a two-handed instrument.
Rigs Then and Now
“I wish I still had all that stuff,” David Lewis jokes, recalling how his trove of vintage keyboards has thinned over the years. Glance at the rigs he and Christopher North presided over in the band’s heyday, and you’ll wish you had it, too. From Lewis’s Yamaha CP70 electric grand, Fender Rhodes, Minimoog, and Prophet-5 to North’s chopped Hammond B-3, Hohner Clavinet, and ARP String Ensemble, the Ambrosia keyboard collection was as monumental as the band’s hits. “The Prophet got stolen out of my garage,” Lewis recalls, “and I foolishly sold the Minimoog, which was modified to have two voices. It was sweet.”
Lewis and North remain gigging keyboardists, with North still in the Ambrosia keyboard chair and Lewis sitting in on occasion. Lewis’s current axe is the Roland V-Synth. “It’s gnarly, man,” he says. “When I finally heard the V-Synth and understood how it actually works—how there are five different kinds of synthesis all put together, I flipped. I haven’t even scratched the surface of what it can do. I also have a rack-mounted Korg O1/W and a small mixer. When I was in the band Shadowfax, I used something like seven keyboards, but this rig is all I need at the moment.”