Robby Steinhardt (1953-2021), R.I.P.

Steinhardt singing on “Can I Tell You” from “Live from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” in 1975.

This is sad news (via Rolling Stone):

“Robby Steinhardt, violinist and co-lead vocalist of the rock outfit Kansas, died Saturday, July 17th. He was 71.

“Steinhardt’s wife, Cindy Steinhardt, confirmed his death on Facebook. Cindy said Steinhardt was admitted to the hospital with acute pancreatitis in May. Not long after, he went into acute septic shock and was placed on life support, and although the outlook was ‘very grave’ at the time, he managed to recover. However, several months later, just as he was about to be released from medical care and moved to a rehab center, Steinhardt suffered another sepsis.”

Steinhart had suffered a massive and near fatal heart attack back in 2013 (which he discussed here, in a video well worth viewing), but eventually recovered. He was apparently finishing up recording on a new album at the time of his death.

I rarely agree with Rolling Stone magazine on anything (politically or musically), but this is absolutely on the mark: “Steinhardt shared vocal duties with Walsh, with the pair switching between backup and lead; but it was Steinhardt’s violin that helped distinguish Kansas’ sound from other bands.”

Of course, great bands, such as Kansas, are really bands; they are great because they are a marriage of many impressive talents. Phil Ehart is one of the most underrated drummers in rock history; Dave Hope was also underappreciated for his stellar bass play; Kerry Livgren is a musical genius; Steve Walsh, in his prime, was a searing vocalist. But Kansas would not have been Kansas without Steinhardt’s precise, emotive, classically-trained, American-drenched, haunting violin. It is what caught my ear when I first heard Kansas as a young teen. It was never a gimmick or an “add-on”; it was central to the band’s sound, as you can easily hear in all of the albums from the 1970s.

Of those albums, my favorite (as hard as it is to choose) is 1975’s Song For America, which is a stunning brew of rooted rock, prog grandeur, spiritual restlessness (“Incomudro-Hymn to the Atman”!), and existential longing. Steinhardt’s playing is essential to the entire mix.

To be honest, I probably never appreciated Steinhardt enough as a vocalist as I should. His lead vocals, on songs such as “Lighting’s Hand” (on 1977’s classic Point of Know Return), are fantastic, with a rocking edge that contrasts with his pure (although often driving) violin-playing. His harmonies were also exceptional; he and Morse (the two band members not from Topeka, interestingly enough) melded together effortlessly, with perfect pitch, their tones and phrasing were key to that immediately recognizable Kansas sound.

I do hope we will eventually be able to hear the album that Steinhardt was working on at the end. Outside of true-blue fans, he will likely never get his proper due. Kerry Livgren, in a 1992 interview, summed it up very well: “Robby had a totally unique function as a violinist, second vocalist, and MC in a live situation. Robby was the link between the band on the stage and the audience.”

Rest in peace, Robby.

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