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.