THE PRO FILE - Eliot Lewis

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Eliot Lewis does just about everything well. He's a much sought-after multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer who has worked with artists like Dan Hartman, the Average White Band, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees Daryl Hall & John Oates, with whom he's been touring with since 2003. Lewis also appears on the wildly successful television series Live From Daryl's House, and is a formidable force as a solo artist, touring on his own whenever his schedule allows.

In our new series THE PRO FILE, Lewis talked to Keyboard about his musical beginnings, how he nabbed one of the most coveted gigs on the planet, and how he manages to play the entire Hall & Oates catalog on a single Roland VR-09 keyboard!

How did you get started in music?

I grew-up in Norwalk, Connecticut, around a lot of music. My Mom’s a classical pianist and teacher, so I heard that kind of music being played for many hours out of the day. I’m also the youngest of three brothers, and I have two older brothers who are both very musically-inclined. My oldest brother is a great blues guitar player, and through him and my middle brother there was music playing 24 hours a day - everything from the British invasion to blues and rock acts like Todd Rundgren and David Bowie. I was probably listening to more of the rock stuff, but my tastes were fairly eclectic – from classical to soul and funk like Stevie Wonder. It was a really good mix of great music, and I took to it very quickly. I think I played a little guitar up until the time I was around 10, because my father had bought an extra acoustic guitar for my brother. Then my middle brother tried his hand at drums. My parents bought him a cheap drum kit, and he knocked around on it for a couple of days before giving up on it. I took the drums over, and that was literally my “light bulb” moment. I had an epiphany and thought, “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” I was 10 years old then. I was learning a little bit of keyboards from my mom, but very casually. I’m not a schooled musician, so I’m really self-taught. I always say that hearing so much classical music from my mother really developed my ear. So, I started on drums at the age of 10, and I was a full-time drummer until about 16 or 17.

You playing were playing drums in school bands?

Yeah, exactly. I started a band with a friend of mine who was a schoolmate and who was a bass player. The story gets really interesting because his father was a heavyweight in the music business. At the time we met, this is back in 1972, his father was working with bands like Cream and Mountain and West, Bruce & Laing. He took us to show after show. I was 10 or 11 years-old and one week we’re going into Madison Square Garden to see Alice Cooper and I’m going backstage to meet him. The next week it was the Who, and the next week it was Elton John.

These days when you go backstage to a big concert, it’s often little more than three guys and some Vitamin Water. But back at that time, I’m sure it was a lot more interesting!

It was. And then going backstage to see Peter Frampton. This guy I’m just mentioning ended up becoming Peter Frampton’s promotion man. Right around the time of the album Frampton Comes Alive when Peter exploded, this guy Richard was very much involved in promoting his career. Peter Frampton would literally come up to my friend’s house in Connecticut and we would jam. I jammed with Frampton when I was about 14 years old or something. I was hooked on music and then instantly exposed to so much of everything I love. It was a pretty amazing situation for a young kid that wanted to do music for the rest of his life. It was like being a kid in a candy store. From that moment in 1973 when I saw Alice Cooper the very first time I ever walked into Madison Square Garden, it was always my lifelong dream to perform at the Garden. And we just did that last year with Hall & Oates. I never really thought it would happen, but it was one of those exciting moments.

So, you were a full-time drummer up until the time you were about 16?

Yes. Then I transitioned to the guitar. You know, when you’re a kid all you want to do is just have fun and play. But when I got to the age of 16, I was thinking much more long term like, “I want to make a lifelong career out of this.” I really wanted to be a songwriter, so I transitioned to guitar and played it for about three or four years in some bands and started to understand the concept of writing songs. Then got an offer to play bass in a band.

Had you played bass up until that point?

No. But it was a fairly easy transition. Having already played drums and guitar, I could kind of get my head around the idea of bass. I think I joined a band around 1980-81 as a bass player. And then when the early ‘80s hit and the keyboard revolution exploded, I dove head first into that. Then I realized, “Okay, with all of this technology starting to explode, I could really be a self-contained songwriter.” So, I went full steam ahead into keyboards and sampling. I just embraced all of it. I think I bought my first synth, which was a Roland SH-101 back in 1982. I was still playing a little bit of guitar, so I was kind of transitioning from guitar and bass to keys at that time. But then it really became full-time keys just because I was really on this mission to be a songwriter. I amassed a really nice collection of gear and I was really into the sequencing thing. I was a big fan of Howard Jones and Thomas Dolby and all the cutting edge stuff that was happening then.

My first sort of professional break was with Dan Hartman. I think it was my brother who put me in touch with him. This was probably the mid-‘80s around 1986. Dan lived close to me in Connecticut, and he was producing everybody at that time, including James Brown, Tina Turner and his own stuff. Dan Hartman was so cool because he had his pick of every top shelf musician in New York and he ended up using me on a lot of stuff. So, I’m very indebted to him. He used me on a Tina Turner record, a Joe Cocker record - a whole bunch of stuff. That’s when I really got my programming chops together. I would play bass on something, I would drum program, and I would play a little bit of keys. He’s such a great producer - just be able to look over his shoulder helped me learn a lot.

You became what we now call a “utility guy.” Nowadays, if you can do more than one thing, everybody wants you!

Exactly. I guess you become more valuable in certain situations. For me, it was never intentional. I just wanted to be a completely self-contained. I want to understand how to create music, how to write songs on different instruments. I wanted to be just good enough where I could be a songwriter. I never set out to be a virtuoso guitar player. Like, when Van Halen came on the scene I was like, “There’s no way I’m ever going to get close to that!” My goal was just to be a songwriter and then possibly an artist. That’s the way it worked out and it served me really well because right around that time, I also got an offer to start writing with one of the original members of the Average White Band. I had sort of at this point kind of given up at being a live musician. This was the 1980s and I had started working with Dan, so I kind of saw the path going for me to be a songwriter and a producer - being one of the guys that was producing and writing songs for a lot of other people. My first publishing deal was with Sony and that lasted a few years. It was a very exciting time. I immediately got a song put on hold for Madonna. It didn’t happen, but it was like two weeks into my publishing deal and it was like, “Oh, Madonna likes that song. She put it on hold.” But right at that time. I started writing with Alan Gorrie from the Average White Band and we hit it off immediately. At that point, the Average White Band were disbanded. They had broken-up around ’83, so we were just writing because I had my publishing deal and he had his. We just hit it off and we wrote probably 30 songs together over the course of a year.

I had the little home studio in Connecticut where we would do all of the demoing. I had my Roland gear, my rack of Akai S900 & S950 samplers, and all of that stuff. And then Average White Band decided to get back together. I had co-written three or four songs for their comeback record and everything went great. And then while we were out in Seattle making the record, they said, “Why don’t we just do a gig at this local place to try out some of this material?” I was like, “Cool.” I hadn’t played out in front of people for years. That sort of snowballed and led to more gigs and all the sudden, I’m singing half of the lead in this band, I’m playing a little bit of keys, and I’m playing bass with them. So, my career path switched again and I was like a full-time member of that band. It was great because I was able to write some, be very involved and be sort of a front person in the band a bit. Before I knew it, 13 years had passed. We started touring in 1990 and it lasted up until about 2001 for me.

What kind of gear were you using on-tour back then?

I was really into the sampling thing, so I was using a couple of Akai S900s or S950s and I think I also had a Roland digital piano. Later on, I was using one of the strap-on keyboards for a while because I wanted to be mobile. I used some Korg stuff along the way I remember, and definitely some Roland gear. Roland has always been sort of a staple for me.

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How did your tenure with Hall & Oates begin?

My relationship with Average White Band is what really introduced me to Hall & Oates. Alan Gorrie, the guy who I originally started writing with in that band, had been friends with Daryl Hall since the 1970s because they had both been on Atlantic Records and both had been produced by Arif Mardin. Often when we were in London performing, Daryl would come and see us because he had a place in London. And he would sit in with us. I got to know him back then. After that happened a few times, I remember him coming up to me with his manager and saying, “I want you in my band. I need you in my band.” I was like, “Thank you, but I’m still in Average White Band.” So, that sort of ran its course over another couple of years until I was ready to move on.

You weren’t tempted to leave to work with Daryl?

No. I wanted to just let things happen a little bit more naturally. I wouldn’t have just quit the Average White Band to do anything because I was pretty attached to that. But it was also at the time when I was starting to get frustrated because before you know it, decades passed and I wanted to do other stuff. I thought, “It’s really getting time for me to get off the road and get back to my own career.” I eventually did and I left under great terms with them. As soon as I got off the road with them in 2001, I started getting right back in my own thing.

By 2002, I had already made another solo CD and I put a little band together. Around a year later, I got a call from the late bass player T-Bone Wolk. He said, “El, we need somebody who can go out and do Daryl’s solo tour. We’re looking for a guy who can sing and maybe play a little percussion, a little keys, and a little bass. We were thinking, and then we were like, ‘Oh we’ve got to call Eliot!’” So I said, “Yeah, I’m ready to go back out and do some live stuff.” At that point, Daryl and Hall & Oates still had a keyboard player in place named John Korba. [The late] Bob Mayo had of course played previously, who I had met back in the ‘70s with Peter Frampton. He was a monster musician, just crazy, as was T-Bone. So, I joined to do a little solo run, which was only about two weeks long, and it went great. At the end of it Daryl looked at me - he literally pointed at me and said, “So who wants to join the band?” Like, for real. So, of course I raised my hand and was like, “Sure.” I accepted and I thought, “I’m going to really have to up my game here as far as my chops go and playing on that level.” Fortunately, I had a few months to sort of learn their catalog so it wasn’t a rushed situation, which I had already previously done. I had actually played bass on a Hall & Oates gig back in ’96 and that was my time being onstage with Daryl and John. I had two or three days to learn the 17 or 18 songs on bass. I think they were like, “If this guy can do that, he’d be good in this position.’ This was around the year 2003.

When you joined as their keyboard player, what gear did you take on-tour?

I knew there was quite a bit of organ happening in what the previous keyboard players had been doing. I also knew I wasn’t going to be playing an actual Hammond B3 because as much as I love B3 players - I’m a huge Billy Preston and Booker T. fan, I hadn’t had any experience playing a real Hammond organ. So, I went out and looked for at that time what I thought was the best organ modeler at the time, which was the Nord Electro 2. That’s what I came up with. And that served me well. It was a great meat and potatoes keyboard. I played that for years and it served me really well. And then years later somebody from Hammond reached out to me and they said, “Hey, we’re huge fans of Daryl’s show.” Who wouldn’t want to play a real Hammond? So. they sent me the SK1 and SK2 and I loved them and I’ve been using them ever since. I just recently incorporated the SK2 on tour with Hall & Oates as well.

Incidentally, there’s a long, involved thread on the Keyboard User Forum asking how a guy in your position can possibly be using just a single Roland VR-09 for the Hall & Oates tour!

I’ve always been torn between being a bit of a gearhead, and being a minimalist, which I really am. I wish I could have held on to everything, but I’d need a house dedicated to just hold all that gear! So, when I joined Hall & Oates, I thought, “How am I going to do this? Am I going to try to recreate all those ‘80s sounds?” Charlie the saxophone player always played a couple of the [keyboard] parts as well.

If I remember correctly, he had a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 and a Yamaha CP-70.

Yeah. And he was playing a [Korg] Triton for years. Now I think he’s playing Yamaha. He does some of the bells and embellishments that he’s been doing for years. He had already done a couple of the parts so I thought, “Maybe I should just try to make their whole approach a little bit more organic. Instead of trying to recreate this Oberheim sound on this record, maybe I should play it on an organ, and do this on a piano and do this on a Rhodes,” etc. I asked Daryl and John what they thought of a more organic approach to everything and they were like, “Absolutely. We love it.” They were really cool with me just rocking organ 90 percent of the night, and also some piano, some Rhodes and some Wurli and copping the main parts. I’m still doing the string slide on “She’s Gone” and some of the stuff on “One on One.” There’s six in the band and John and Daryl so there’s a lot of singing going on. There’s like five singers in the band. So I think they’re okay with a little bit of a stripped-down approach.

How did you decide which keyboard parts you were going to cover and with ones Daryl and Charlie would play?

It’s amazing because Daryl never said to me, “Do this,” or “Don’t do this.” He basically has given me complete freedom - free rein. We discuss parts more on Live From Daryl’s House because we have to carve-up between us what we’re going to do. And on that show, for instance, I’ll bring a computer into the mix, or I’ll bring in some other modules or something, depending on how much work there is in the keyboard department. Some of the stuff is very simple, but there’s other stuff where I really have to cover a lot of ground so I’ll bring in whatever I need to on that. But with Hall & Oates, it’s been really straight forward. Daryl just says, “Go for it,” and I guess he trusts me because he’s never sort of pointed me in another direction. We just listen to each other too and I kind of stay out of his way. If he goes to a Rhodes thing, I will go to organ. It just kind of naturally happens.

Why did you choose the Roland VR-09 for it?

This is the first tour that I’ve used the Roland on. There were a couple of songs that they added - some deep cut stuff that we haven’t done before, that involves some actual synth soloing. I knew I was going to need something to cover a lot of that stuff because the Hammond doesn’t have a pitch wheel and it really doesn’t have synth sounds. You can’t get in and tweak stuff like that. So, I looked for a board that could do a lot of different stuff. I tried a few things and ended up with the Roland and I was like, “Wow, the organ is really, really good in this and I thought maybe I could use just one board.”

You don’t find that a 61-key board is limiting for you?

Not really. Daryl is still on keys for some of this stuff and I play his keyboards at every soundcheck. Now he’s using the Roland RD-2000 piano. It was sort of funny because I separately ended up with this Roland keyboard after trying a few things. I knew Daryl was looking for some stuff because he had asked me my opinion on a couple of replacements for his Motif. When I walked into rehearsal and saw he’s using Roland too now, we kind of laughed. We ended up with some of the same stuff.

Daryl really only needs a good piano, a good electric piano, and a good Wurlitzer sound. His stuff is very “meat and potatoes.”

Exactly He’s not trying to recreate any of the synth stuff. On a couple of these deep tracks, I cover some of that stuff so that’s why I went with the Roland. After living with it for a few weeks, as much as I love it and I’m going to definitely keep it, I think I’m going to bring the Hammond SK back into the mix. I’ll use the Hammond for really what it’s designed for - the organ, and then the Roland for pretty much everything else. I’ll probably have a two-keyboard rig. And the response to this tour has been incredible. This is two years in a row they’re just selling out arenas night after night.

I was speaking to Howard Jones a few months back and he said to me, “People think of the ‘80s as one thing, but it wasn’t.” He said there were many different kinds of music, like glam rock, new wave, and synth pop, all coexisting together. Maybe that’s why the recent Hall & Oates/Tears For Fears tour was such a big success.

Yeah. This is true. They were floating this idea around when I first joined the band to do something with Tears For Fears, and I think it just didn’t line-up back then. So, it’s nice to see that it happened now. The obvious thing too is that they were both very prominent in the ‘80s, they’re both duos, and they’re both together. So it make sense. Their music is definitely a little different, but I’ve got to say night after night they sound great and they were recreating all the details in the original songs.

Let’s talk about what’s happening with your solo career. You have a new record out and I see you’re touring constantly as a solo artist.

Yeah. I just released a new album called Adventure. I’ve been putting out albums independently like lots of people - a CD almost every year. I’d sort of gave up on the idea of having a record label. But lo and behold, last year the record label SRG Records approached me, which is partnered with Universal Music. There really wasn’t a downside to signing with them, so I though,t “Let me try this. And they’re very much behind me. My new album is very guitar-focused because in my own career, I’m more of a guitar player. I confuse people a lot. When they come see my solo show sometimes and they know of me through Live From Daryl’s House, they kind of expect me to be playing keyboards and so they’re surprised when I’m playing guitar. But I do incorporate some keys on some of my solo shows, and I like to mix it up. And to me, it’s great because I have variety.

And your plan is to continue to intersperse the Hall & Oates tour dates with your own shows?

Absolutely. The most challenging thing in my world is scheduling. Once I get their touring schedule, I can look and see where it makes sense for me to do a solo show alongside their tours. I’ll use Brian Dunne, the drummer from the band and the television show, on my own shows, and sometimes even the bass player. But some of the stuff is tracked because I play bass and keys, so some of that is running alongside what I’m doing in my solo show. So even though there are only two or three members and I have a background singer, it sounds like a proper four-piece band. Most people don’t even realize it! They see a drummer and a guitar player and somebody singing that they don’t even think about the extra stuff sometimes. Musicians zone in on it a little bit. So, between my own career, Hall & Oates and Live From Daryl’s House, it’s pretty busy for me.

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