Interview with drummer Phil Ehart
There are many words that can be used in describing the musical attributes for classic rock music legends KANSAS. Words like profound, intricate, symphonic, epic, spiritual, progressive, and hard rock. The bands classification may even be considered a genre within a genre, or some sort of a musical enigma.
Kansas original drummer and co-founder Phil Ehart compares the group’s eclectic musical elements to their longtime disciples The Allman Brothers Band … but I’ll simply classify KANSAS as "American Progressive Rock Heroes."
While observing and studying the bands intricate orchestral rock reverberations during my high school youth, and sharing the passion of music with a clique of rock aficionados, there had always been a genuine certainty that each member of Kansas had graduated from the most esteemed colleges with the highest of music degrees. It made perfect sense at the time, how else could anyone create or mastermind such elaborate musical masterpieces.
After all those years, the answer was finally revealed to me in this interview with drummer Phil Ehart. The members of Kansas did not attend fancy colleges or music schools and hadn’t obtained the highest of music degrees. In fact, they couldn’t even read or write music. This has to be the most fascinating component for so many legendary music artists, and it never ceases to amaze me. The fact that musicians become legendary based on pure genius and naturally gifted talents. And the list is staggering …The Beatles, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Ritchie, and Ronnie Montrose to name just a very few. In fact … most rock musicians only played by ear.
In 1970, Topeka natives, Phil Ehart, Dave Hope, and Kerry Livgren formed the inception of what would become one of the greatest American classic rock bands of all-time.
Legendary American publisher, producer, talent manager, and songwriter Don Kirshner (The Monkees, The Archies) dubbed as “The Man with the Golden Ear,” signed the group to their first recording contract as Kansas in 1973.
Their self-titled album Kansas was released in 1974 establishing the bands symphonic rock arrangements while fundamentally spotlighting elements of classical violin. The band toured extensively and instantly developed a huge cult following. The original line-up featured Phil Ehart (drums and percussions), Dave Hope (bass guitar), Kerry Livgren (guitars, keyboards, vocals), Robby Steinhardt (violin, vocals), Steve Walsh (keyboards, lead vocals), and Rich Williams (guitars).
Kansas followed-up with the releases Song for America (1975) and Masque (1975). The track “Song for America” is a complex musical arrangement overwhelmed with epic delights. “Icarus” (Borne on Wings of Steel) and “The Pinnacle” from the Masque album are inspirational masterpieces, and although not yet a commercial success, Kansas had already established itself as one of the most exceptional rock acts in the U.S.
Their fourth album Leftoverture (#5 Billboard album charts) released in 1976 spawned their first commercially successful Top 40 hit, “Carry On Wayward Son” (Certified Gold #11 on pop singles Billboard chart). The album also produced one of Kerry Livgren’s most inspirational penned compositions, “The Wall.” It was apparent that Livgren’s proficient lyrics, the bands virtuoso music abilities, along with commercial success and headlining status had introduced Kansas to superstar caliber.
Kansas continued its momentum by releasing Point of Know Return producing the Top 40 hits, “Point of Know Return”(#4 Billboard Hit) and “Dust in The Wind” (Certified Gold #6 Billboard Hit). Leftoverture and Point of Know Return each sold over four million copies.
The bands sold-out concert performances were captured in a double-live album entitled, Two for the Show in 1978. Their sixth studio album Monolith generated yet another Top 40 single entitled, “People of the South Wind” which referred to the meaning of the ‘Kaza’ (Kaw) Native American people, after whom the state and band are named.
The album Audio-Visions generated, “Hold On” (#40 Billboard Hit) the last Top 40 hit by the original line-up. Kansas had personal changes throughout the 80s. Kerry Livgren’s lyrics became notably Christian influenced. Steve Walsh left the band and was replaced with John Elefante.
Vinyl Confessions (1982) was their first album with Elefante as lead singer. The following release Drastic Measures generated the single, “Fight Fire with Fire” (#41 Billboard charts).
Livgren and Hope both left Kansas in1982.
In 1985, Steve Walsh returned to Kansas but without Livgren, Hope and Steinhardt. Bassist Billy Greer (Streets) and guitarist Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs) were also added. Their tenth studio album Power spawned, “All I Wanted” (#19 Hit) the last Kansas single to reach the Billboard Top 40.
In 1990, a German promoter was able to reunite all original members of Kansas except for Robby Steinhardt for a European tour. At the end of the tour Dave Hope left but Kerry Livgren remained until 1991.
Their fourteenth studio album, Somewhere To Elsewhere released in 2000 marked a reunion of the original Kansas line-up. Billy Greer was also featured on the album. Kerry Livgren composed all the album’s tracks.
In 2000, Kansas supported Yes during the Masterworks Tour.
Kansas continues to be a strong concert headliner. Based out of Atlanta, Georgia nowadays, the band has always been a crowd pleaser in the Tampa Bay area. The band headlined Fun ‘N Sun Fest at Coachman Park in Clearwater to a huge gathering in 2011.
Kansas recently played the Rock Legends Cruise II event earlier this month and will be headlining a show at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Saturday, January 19th with a rock symphony orchestra. It will mark the first time that Kansas has played at Ruth Eckerd Hall. You can purchase tickets at www.rutheckerdhall.com or call (727) 791-7400 for more information.
The current KANSAS line-up is …Phil Ehart (drums), Rich Williams (guitars), Steve Walsh (vocals, keyboards), Billy Greer (bass), and David Ragsdale (violin).
Phil Ehart and Rich Williams have appeared on every album that Kansas has released. Phil also manages Kansas.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Kansas co-founder and original drummer Phil Ehart recently about the bands spectacular musical journey.
Here’s my interview with drummer/percussionist/band manager/ and co-founder of classic rock band Kansas …PHIL EHART.
Ray Shasho: Happy 2013 Phil!
Phil Ehart: “Yea, same to you, we’re lucky to be here.”
Ray Shasho: Where did you celebrate ringing in the New Year?
Phil Ehart: “The band was actually home this New Years. We’re based in Atlanta now and not always home obviously, so it was good to be with the family and everything … not bad at all.”
Ray Shasho: How many children do you have Phil?
Phil Ehart: “I’ve got two kids … a fifteen year old boy and a ten year old daughter. I married a woman quite a bit younger than I and we had our little girl when I was fifty two years old.”
Ray Shasho: So you’re not even close to becoming a grandfather yet?
Phil Ehart: “Hey, I’ll be lucky if I can make it that far. (All Laughing)
Ray Shasho: You look like you take good care of yourself, I wouldn’t worry. How were your children first introduced to Kansas music?
Phil Ehart: “Probably just coming to see me play …let’s go see dad work. And then some of their friend’s parents know what I do for a living, so mainly from just coming to see dad going to work. It’s not like we have classic rock music playing around our house all the time. They both kind of have the thing that they do. Of course they hear me down the hall practicing my drums and I also manage the band, so they hear me on the phone all the time and conducting all the band business. But they’re just good kids and not in awe by any means about what I do; they just say dad plays drums … well, that’s cool. So let’s get back to texting somebody. (All laughing) But it’s just so low-keyed at our house, and what I do is something we don’t make a big deal about and so they keep it all in prospective.”
Ray Shasho: Kansas is about ready to set sail on the Rock Legends II Cruise.
Phil Ehart: “I’ve never done one of those so we’re kind of anxious to see what that’s like. Everybody I talk to says it’s really cool. We know so many of the bands, having all come up together, so it’ll be fun to see them, and yea, we’re looking forward to it.”
Ray Shasho: Kansas will be performing at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on Saturday January 19th with a symphony orchestra. How does the band decide which venues will get that full experience of performing with an orchestra?
Phil Ehart: “It’s the people at Ruth Eckerd Hall that invited us. We’ve been trying to get into Ruth Eckerd for many-many years. It’s a place that everybody has played except us. When this offer came we jumped on it. The routing just never worked out in past years, but it worked out really well this time. We’ve done a lot of symphony shows … I think probably over fifty of them, so when the offer came in we jumped all over it. We’ve wanted to play the venue and love that part of Florida, and that orchestra comes very highly recommended …we’re really looking forward to it.”
Ray Shasho: How difficult is it synchronizing the band with a symphony orchestra?
Phil Ehart: “Instead of having five people onstage, all of a sudden you’ve got fifty five people onstage. Larry Baird is our conductor and has done all of our symphony dates with us. So he’s very cognizant of our music and of course has done all the charts. He knows what he’s conducting and has worked with that orchestra before. The orchestra rehearses with Larry for a couple of hours and then we come in and rehearse with them for about four or five songs. So by the time we start, we’re pretty locked in and everything is worked out before we do the shows.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve always found it fascinating … no matter where Kansas plays their music… at an outdoor festival or in a symphony hall …the band always sounds like a full-blown orchestra, even without an orchestra… it’s truly amazing.
Phil Ehart: “(All Laughing) Well, yea we do …with the keyboards and the violin, we’re able to kind of create a lot of orchestral textures with our music and that’s on purpose. That’s why moving into the orchestral thing, it wasn’t really hard for us. For a lot of bands it just doesn’t work. It may work for them on a few songs, but for us it works on every song. And that’s because we’ve always had that sort of orchestral sound to our band anyway. So the orchestra just enhances that. It’s pretty cool to be up there and hearing that, it gets you pretty fired up.”
Ray Shasho: When I was in high school, we always thought that everyone in Kansas had music degrees from the most elite colleges and studied theory … is that true?
Phil Ehart: “No, none of us had. Other than David Ragsdale on the violin, you kind of have to have that training to play the instrument, but the rest of us are all self-taught. None of us went to music school or had any formal training at all. We didn’t read or write music. I think you’ll find the majority of my peers are not trained and are self-taught.”
“But we’re very proud of our music and take it very seriously. We work very hard, it takes a lot of practice, and we’ve certainly not mastered the instruments by any means. You’ve got to stay up on it, practice, and work hard.”
Ray Shasho: You left Topeka and went to live in England for awhile… what was that experience like?
Phil Ehart: “I had pretty much played with everybody in Topeka, not that I was better than anybody in Topeka, I just thought I was going to go play somewhere else and see what was outside of Topeka. I guess I could have saved myself a bunch of money and gone to Kansas City. (All Laughing) But I went there because I thought I’d like to go there. So I spent a number of months there and played with some folks and then my visa ran out … so I came back. Not that I was anything special and England was waiting for me with open arms by any means. I had played in Topeka for a number of years …lets go somewhere else and see what’s there. It was a good experience, but it just made me realize that I liked playing with the guys, so I came back, started calling people, and eventually it turned into Kansas.”
Ray Shasho: We’re all glad you came back Phil.
I’ve seen a lot of great drummers in my time … and I consider you one of those great drummers. I know it’s sort of rare to witness a Phil Ehart drum solo … I’ve seen you solo and would love to see more of them.
Phil Ehart “(Laughing) I don’t know about that. I appreciate the guys letting me have a drum solo but it’s just one of those things, I like playing songs a lot more than I do soloing. A lot of Kansas songs are just freakin’ drum solos anyway. There are so many different parts and sections that you have to go through and play them well and it’s almost like playing a drum solo. But for me, I just like playing with the band.”
Ray Shasho: When I talked with many of the older drummers and asked them who influenced you into playing the instrument, many say DJ Fontana (Elvis’ drummer), and many of the younger drummers would say John Bonham. Who influenced you in becoming a drummer?
Phil Ehart: “Easily, the guy who influenced me the most is Ian Paice of Deep Purple. That guy and the band, Deep Purple in general was just always my favorite. They were intricate but they also rocked. But, they were very good and are still very good at what they do. And Ian Paice was definitely my biggest influence without a doubt.”
Ray Shasho: In an earlier interview that you did, you compared the logistics of Kansas to the Allman Brothers Band, and I’d never thought that way before, but now I understand where you’re coming from. Many people think of The Allman Brothers as just a southern rock band, but their music is eclectic and complex.
Phil Ehart: “Oh yea, those guys were very complicated, a lot of different time signatures for a blues band. Great melodies and sound, great players … The Allman Brothers really influenced our band.”
Ray Shasho: Phil, Is there a particular album or song that is a favorite of yours?
Phil Ehart: “People ask me that sometimes and I say if you had to buy only one album that sort of covered where we were at a particular time, it probably would be Leftoverture. Even though it doesn’t have “Dust in The Wind.” That and Point of Know Return …those two albums were really us at our peak. But I like a lot of our time periods and when you’ve been around going on forty years, we’ve played a lot of stuff. We’ve got a lot of material and I like most of it.”
Ray Shasho: Congratulations on forty years … that’s incredible!
Phil Ehart: “Thanks … we signed our recording contract in 1973.”
Ray Shasho: My favorite Phil Ehart drumming piece is the “Song for America” track. And like you said earlier, it’s almost like you’re doing a drum solo throughout the track anyway.
Phil Ehart: “That’s definitely a full drum workout.”
Ray Shasho: Another tune I enjoy from the Song for America album is a song that you co-wrote called “Lonely Street,” which is a hard rockin’ blues number. What was the inspiration behind, “Lonely Street”?
Phil Ehart: “Actually four of us wrote it … I came up with the time signature beat. We sort of wrote that as a four piece. We were in the rehearsal hall and I was just messing with the beat and Steve came up with some stuff and we went from there. But that’s one attribute that we have … we can sound many different ways.”
Ray Shasho: People will usually interpret lyrics in their own way … but Kerry Livgren’s lyrics always seemed to generate a spiritual message since the very beginning.
Phil Ehart: “Kerry’s lyrics were always meant to mean to you, what they mean to you. However you hear them, however you experience them, whatever they say to you … that’s what he intended. It’s for you to have your own interpretation.”
Ray Shasho: Every once in awhile Kerry will still contribute to the band, correct?
Phil Ehart: “Every once in awhile he will, yes, he’s doing great.”
Ray Shasho: Is he still a Christian artist as well?
Phil Ehart: “Not so much anymore … here and there, yea.”
Ray Shasho: Phil, here’s a question that I ask everyone when I conduct an interview …If you had a ‘Field of Dreams’ wish to play or collaborate with anyway past or present, who would that be?
Phil Ehart: “I guess because it’s such a stretch and will never happen, one guy I really admired is Robert Fripp from King Crimson. He’s one of those guys that is just an incredible talent, guitar player, always wrote the coolest stuff, and is in all the great bands. Fripp is just such a reclusive type of a guy, and I know some guys who have played with him, but he’s just a talent that I’ve respected for such a long time, and has never veered from what he’s wanted to do and what he’s believed in, so a lot of respect in that.”
Ray Shasho: I love it when rock stars sort of humble themselves when talking about their own rock heroes. When I talked with Jon Anderson from YES, he told me that he was really nervous when he met George Harrison and didn’t know what to say to him.
Phil Ehart: “I remember one time we opened for The Rolling Stones and it was 90,000 people at Cleveland stadium. It was us and The Stones and Mick Jagger walked in our dressing room to see how we were doing and we all just looked at him. He said, “How’s everything going?” And there was complete silence … we all just looked at him. Then he said, “Is everything okay?” Silence again … we were all just dumbstruck. He must have thought we were just complete idiots. Mick just caught us off guard, we were just absolutely stunned … but he was a really nice guy.”
Ray Shasho: I was a big fan of Don Kirshner. I think the music industry is missing those types of innovators.
Phil Ehart: “You Tube has kind of killed innovation. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but you don’t have to prove yourself anymore because you can just put something on You Tube and millions and millions of people can see it and come and see you play, or not come and see you play. You Tube has a lot of pluses but also has a few minuses. What record companies will tell you now is get a video made, get on You Tube and rack up the views. When you’re up to one hundred thousand views or half a million or whatever, come and see us. And so that’s what the record companies do, they want you to build your own type of following so they won’t have to mess with it. A lot of young kids have discovered us thanks to You Tube. Like I said, it’s got a lot of pluses and a few minuses.”
“But Don Kirshner was really the first one to do rock bands on TV with Rock Concert. That was kind of the first You Tube you might say because that’s where a lot of people saw bands on Rock Concert, and we were on there six times. We actually got to do six songs I should say. But we were very fortunate to have him come along in our career.”
“I thought it was odd that Don had The Monkees and The Archies and then had us …just very weird. Don totally left us alone, he was supportive, wrote the checks to get us recorded …he did want a single really bad. He’d say, “Guys, we’re going on the fourth album now, but I really need to get something on Hit radio now.” There was plenty of stuff on FM. So when, “Wayward Son” came along we really made his day. And for all of us, it really helped a lot. But Don just loved and supported us, and we loved him, and it was a great thing.”
Ray Shasho: Phil, you are an advocate for Autism?
Phil Ehart: “My son has Autism, so I kind of live it. It’s the kind of thing that’s in my life, and it’s an epidemic spreading across the world, and it’s something that any chance I can do to help make people aware, than I do that. Yes, I’m definitely an advocate. But he’s doing well, he’s fifteen and a great kid, loved very much, and we just take it day by day.”
Ray Shasho: How’s Autism research coming along?
Phil Ehart: “They have some hypothesis and ideas but as of this moment nobody knows what causes Autism and 75% of the cases are boys. Young parents who want to have kids are terrified. In California they have 15 to 16 kids a day diagnosed with Autism … its epidemic and very scary.”
Ray Shasho: Phil, what’s next for Kansas?
Phil Ehart: “Our plan right now is to make it through our fortieth anniversary this year. So we’re going to go out and celebrate that and tour it and we’ve got some irons in the fire, but we want to enjoy our fortieth year as a band and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Ray Shasho: Phil, we’ll see you and the rest of Kansas on Saturday, January 19th for the bands very first appearance at Ruth Eckerd Hall, and with a symphony orchestra. Thank you so much for being on the call today, especially on a Saturday and for all the inspirational music Kansas has given to us over the years.
Phil Ehart: “Thanks Ray and we really appreciate the interview, see you in Clearwater.”
KANSAS will be headlining a show at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Saturday, January 19th with a rock symphony orchestra. It will mark the first time that Kansas has played at Ruth Eckerd Hall. You can purchase tickets at www.rutheckerdhall.com or call (727) 791-7400 for more information.
KANSAS official website www.kansasband.com
Very special thanks to Chipster PR & Consulting Inc. and J.R. Rees
Coming up …Dr. John (The Night Tripper) and Pete Best (Original drummer for The Beatles)
Contact classic rock music journalist Ray Shasho at firstname.lastname@example.org
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