Song Writing

Rob Landes of Fever Tree

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If you were a teenager in the '60s, the place you wanted to be was San Francisco – in particular, you wanted to be in Haight-Ashbury, where some 100,000 flower children gathered in the summer of 1967.

The "Summer of Love" inspired many songs, the best known of which were Scott MacKenzie's "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" and "San Franciscan Nights" by Eric Burdon and the Animals. But the best "Summer of Love" song of them all may have been Fever Tree's "San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native)."

Fever Tree was formed in Houston, Texas, which was a long way from San Francisco. It was one of a number of memorable Texas psychedelic bands of that era, including the 13th Floor Elevators, Bubble Puppy, the Moving Sidewalks, Red Krayola, and the Golden Dawn.

Rob Landes, a classically-trained pianist and organist, replaced Fever Tree's original keyboard player shortly after the band formed in 1966. Songfacts contributor Gary Hailey recently caught up with Rob, who still lives in Houston, where his jazz trio plays dozens of gigs yearly and where he's the organist and artist-in-residence at a large Methodist church.
Gary Hailey (Songfacts): Rob, I understand you started playing the piano at a very young age. What sparked your interest in music?

Rob Landes: My dad was a cellist and played the piano. My mom also was a pianist and sang professionally on television in the early days of TV in Houston, so I was raised with amazing music in our home. So playing came very naturally for me. I started playing at two years old and when I was three, my parents put me with an outside teacher. As a very young kid, I remember my parents playing 78s by Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, and some of the other great musicians of their generation.

Songfacts: I assume you studied the classical piano repertoire as a student. What were some of your favorite piano composers and pieces? What was the most challenging classical composition you ever performed?

Rob: I studied many of the classics and was a piano major in college. Ravel and Debussy were at the top of my list. I guess the most difficult piano piece I ever played was "Jeux d'eau" by Maurice Ravel. It is a very splashy impressionistic piece that is supposed to be representative of a huge fountain.

Songfacts: When did you first start to listen to pop/rock music? Who were your favorite groups when you were a teenager?

Rob: I have an older brother, and he listened to rock music when I was very young – Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everly Brothers, Johnny Mathis... I loved them all. I still have a lot of the 45s that he bought back then.

Songfacts: You weren't an original member of Fever Tree. I understand you were playing the organ at a church when you were asked to join them. Did you transition from studying piano to studying organ at some point, or were you more a pianist who just played the organ on the side?

Rob: I got interested in the organ when I was around 10 years old. I took pop organ lessons from the choir director at our church, who was an excellent pop organist. I studied on the Hammond B-3 organ at our church. When I was 13, I began taking classical organ lessons on a pipe organ.

Songfacts: Who were your favorite B-3 organists from that era? Who influenced your organ style?
You can click here to see an absolutely insane live performance of "You Keep Me Hangin' On" by Mark Stein and Vanilla Fudge.
Rob: I think about the only influence on my B-3 organ playing was Mark Stein of Vanilla Fudge. I really don't remember listening to any others besides him. When I started playing with Fever Tree, I played on a Vox Beatle model organ. It wasn't until later that I got a Hammond with Leslie speakers.

Songfacts: Did you use any other keyboard instruments when you were with Fever Tree?
The Hohner Clavinet, which had a five-octave range, was manufactured in Germany from 1964 to about 1980. That instrument produced its distinctive sound by electrically amplifying the vibrations that resulted from the forceful fretting of its 60 steel strings – similar to the guitar technique known as "hammer-on."
Rob: The instrument you hear at the very beginning of "San Francisco Girls" is a Hohner Clavinet, which I often played in our live performances. It had actual strings in it and they were plucked like a harpsichord. Each string was amplified. I wish I still had that instrument! I'm sure it is a collector's item by now.

Songfacts: You played not only organ and piano on Fever Tree's records, but also flute and harp and cello and recorder. How did you learn to play all those instruments?

Rob: I learned the cello because my dad played it, and I played the flute and piccolo in the marching band at Bellaire High School in Houston. I was a harp minor in college. I wanted to compose music for the harp and I figured the best way to approach writing for the harp was to learn how to play it. I enjoyed it so much when a harp student showed me the basics that I bought a harp and took lessons from the harpist in the Houston Symphony.

Songfacts: Fever Tree's most famous song is "San Francisco Nights (Return of the Native)." It is an absolute classic, if you ask me – I'm not sure there's a better "Summer of Love" record out there. Fever Tree was from Houston, which is a long way from California. Had any of you ever been to San Francisco when you recorded it, or was your image of the city based on TV shows and movies?

Rob: I had been to San Francisco many times as a youngster. We had relatives in Berkeley and made the trip across the Golden Gate Bridge many times in to San Francisco. It was always exciting to go there and romp up and down the hills and of course, to ride the cable cars. I think I was probably the only one in Fever Tree who had ever been there when we recorded "San Francisco Girls." I found it interesting that we never played there when we toured.

Songfacts: Who were some of the other late-'60s groups whose music really impressed you?

Rob: I was a huge fan of Spirit. They had a song called "Fresh Garbage" that I really liked a lot. We performed with them a couple of times and they were really nice guys. I think the drummer was the father of one of the other band members.

Spirit drummer Ed Cassidy was the stepfather of Spirit guitarist/vocalist Randy California. Cassidy, who sported a distinctive shaved head, was 44 when the band formed – possibly the oldest rock musician of his era.
Songfacts: Spirit is one of my favorites, too. Who else did you like from that era?

Rob: I was a fan of the Association. I loved their amazing vocals. Also the Beach Boys for the same reason. I was enthralled with Laura Nyro and her playing as well as her writing, and of course, her amazing voice. She died young, and was an incredible talent.

Songfacts: I'm glad you mentioned Laura Nyro, who you don't hear much about any more – she was terrific, and had a very distinctive style. Shifting gears, tell us about the Rob Landes Trio, your jazz group. How long have you been interested in jazz? Who are some of your favorite jazz pianists?

Rob: I became interested in jazz at a very young age. I listened to George Shearing, Oscar Peterson and Andre Previn as a youngster and loved listening to their improvisations.

I think it was a great influence on me to realize that you could play music that wasn't actually written on the page. I started the Rob Landes Trio in the early '80s. We worked at venues like Houston's Four Seasons Hotel for years, then started doing concerts and one-nighters at many different venues in the area. We appeared on the Good Morning, Houston television show for three years, and that exposure was invaluable for my group.

Songfacts: As someone who plays the piano, I have to ask what kind of piano you would choose if you could have any piano in the world?

Rob: If I could go out and buy any piano I wanted, it would be a Steinway D. That's the concert grand. Of course, every one of them is totally different, with their own personality and sound. If I was going to buy one, I'd want to play at least a dozen of them before I took the plunge and bought one.

The Steinway D-274 is the nine-foot-long flagship of the Steinway & Sons line of grand pianos. The vast majority of grand pianos in concert halls around the world are Steinway D-274s, which retail for around $80,000.
Songfacts: I've never played a Bösendorfer piano, which is a legendary Austrian brand. I'm sure you've played Bösendorfers – what do you think of them?

Rob: I play occasionally at the home of a wealthy Houston couple who have an amazing Bösendorfer concert grand. It's an even longer piano than the Steinway D, and has several extra keys at the bottom of the keyboard. When I play on that piano, I feel like I'm driving a Rolls Royce automobile. It's pure pleasure to play that instrument.

To read more by Gary Hailey, visit his music blog, 2 or 3 lines.
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Comments: 1

  • Allen Greene (greenehandmusic@yahoo.com) from Nolensville, TennesseeHey Gary I really like your Articles on the Internet, very interesting, thank you. I graduated from H.S. many moons ago down in Texas. After High School I joined the US Navy. I served a tour of duty in Viet Nam in 1966 when I was only 19 years old. My ship The USS Topeka went up and down the California coast. I really liked going on Liberty along the California coast, especially in San Francisco and Los Angeles. I got to go and hear' Jefferson Airplane' (Gracie Slick),' The Association' and my most well liked California Band 'The Moby Grape' (Band's vocals were 6-Part Harmony). I also heard 'Janis Joplin' whose Band's name was "Big Brother And The Holding Company" back then. I really miss the 1960's Music Groups. I'm just a very happy Ole Hippie now with Great memories of the past...
    Oh yeah, I'm also a Music Publisher and Songwriter. I received a 'Gold Record' for my song "He's killing Me With Those Love Songs" (And I'm Dying' For His Love} recorded by Heidi Hauge (Norway)...
    Musically Yours,
    Allen Greene
    Greenehand Music-BMI
    greenehandmusic@yahoo.com
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