By now I’m sure you’ve heard that Robby Steinhardt passed away a week ago at age 71 after complications from acute pancreatitis and sepsis. I wanted to write something sooner, but it’s been a busy week. Since Robby Steinhardt is a far more important figure in progressive rock than he is given credit for, I thought I’d share a few thoughts. The timing of his death is doubly tragic since he was in the final phases of finishing a new solo album, and he had plans to tour the country in the future. I hope that album still gets released.
More so than any other band member, Steinhardt is arguably the one person who set Kansas apart from any other rock band in the 1970s. His violin created an entirely new sound. Sure there were other rock and progressive rock bands incorporating violins into their music, but no one else came close to touching Kansas. Pretty much every other rock band that incorporates a violin does it in a way that allows the violin to shine in a more traditional symphonic way. The violin tends to add a folk element to a rock band’s sound. That isn’t a critique against violinists in rock bands who play that way, but Robby didn’t play that way. Even though he was classically trained, he was able to take that background and apply it to a rock sound, creating something entirely new in the process.
Steinhardt’s violin had this magnificent ability to supplement Steve Walsh’s and Kerry Livgren’s keyboards in some parts of songs while carefully interplaying with Livgren’s and Rich Williams’ electric guitar riffs at other parts. He played a hard a fast violin for those rock moments, but he could play the gentler, smoother sounds when needed too. “Song For America,” one of Kansas’ best tracks, displays both methods. Without the violin, that song just wouldn’t have the power that it has. It’s pure Americana, and it’s pure progressive rock at it’s finest. Arguably a top ten track in the genre.
Like many people, I was initially drawn to Kansas’ music by the violin, as was my Dad, who saw the band play at Six Flags in Missouri in the early 1970s before the band released their first album. As a kid, he was struck by a rock band using a violin. I had the same reaction as a kid. I was exposed to Kansas’ music about the same time I first heard Rush’s music, and both bands ended up playing an enormous role in my life, so much so that I wrote an academic essay on Kerry Livgren for one of Dr. Brad Birzer’s (Progarchy’s founding father) classes in college. But it was that violin that first grabbed my attention and pulled me in for a closer listen.
If being a whiz on the violin wasn’t enough, Steinhardt also had a golden voice that elevated Kansas’ sound. In his prime, Steve Walsh had the finest voice in rock music, but Steinhardt added a grit to their sound. Walsh was capable of that heavier blues singing, which can be heard on their first couple of albums. Steinhardt didn’t add a blues flair, though. His voice had a natural deepness and tone, and the harmonies the two vocalists made were glorious. His voice had a distinctive sound, and it was backed by a lot of power.
Together Walsh and Steinhardt made a sound that was unique. Just listen to “The Devil Game.” When they harmonize, Walsh takes the highs and Steinhardt takes the lows, providing a well-balanced sound that reflects the lyrics. How many bands would have a secondary singer open up their album, as Kansas did with “Down the Road” off Song For America? That shows how vital Steinhardt’s vocals were to the band’s sound.
Outside the prog world, Steinhardt and Kansas are perhaps most well known for “Dust In The Wind,” a hauntingly beautiful song that reflects the mournful words of King Solomon in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes:
So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
– Ecclesiastes 2:9-11
All we are is dust in the wind. Livgren’s acoustic guitar lays a beautiful foundation, but Steinhardt’s violin is what elevated the song to the number 8 position in the Billboard charts in the US in 1978 (Kansas’ only top 10 US hit). It remains their most well-known song, which is a bit ironic since it bears little in common with the rest of the band’s output. But that’s ok, because it is a wonderful song that tells a timeless truth. Steinhardt’s vocal harmony also adds much to the piece. His fingerprints on that song will last through the ages. Just look at the number of views their music video has on Youtube – over 118 million at the time of writing (July 25, 2021):
Steinhardt’s finest vocals appeared on “Miracles Out of Nowhere.” Last week I was driving home from work the day after I found out Robby had died, and the local classic rock station was playing “Carry On Wayward Son,” which is a great song but one where Steinhardt doesn’t even play violin. After the song ended the DJ talked about Steinhardt’s passing. My first thought was why on earth didn’t the station play “Miracles Out of Nowhere.” It has everything Kansas had to offer – the rock, the violin, the vocal harmonies. But we all know the state of FM classic rock radio in America. I digress.
Steinhardt’s voice is so beautiful on Miracles, and musically he soars when he begins his violin section. He plays lead at some points, but he’s also following both the guitar and keyboard lines at other points. This is the quintessential Kansas sound. If you wanted to share one Kansas song with someone who had never heard their music, “Miracles Out of Nowhere” should probably be the one you share. And it’s a fine tribute to Steinhardt as a musician and a vocalist.
On a crystal morning I can see the dewdrops falling Down from gleaming heaven,
I can hear the voices call
When you’re comin’ home now, son, the world is not for you
Tell me what’s your point of view
What a talent. Steinhardt changed what was possible in a progressive rock band. He showed that a traditional instrument could be used in innovative ways. He brought an extra layer of complexity to Kansas’ vocal passages. He brought millions of fans joy.
I sang this song a hundred, maybe a thousand years ago
No one ever listens, I just play and then I go
Off into the sunset like the western heroes do
Tell me what you’re gonna do
Rest in peace, Robby. Thanks so much for sharing your talent with us and for being such a vital part of Kansas’ sound. You are sorely missed.