Harold Rhodes was born on December 28th, 1910 in California USA and by the age of twenty, he had purchased a music school from his piano teacher. Now called the Harold Rhodes School of Popular Piano, the school encouraged self-instruction on the instrument. During World War II, Rhodes was a member of the Army Corps where the first incarnation of his piano was created using aluminum pipes from military B-17 bomber wings. Originally the instrument was used by bed stricken soldiers for therapy and rehabilitation. The instrument ended up being a success and thousands were produced and Rhodes was awarded the Medal of Honour by the United States government for his invention.
After WWII ended, Rhodes established the Rhodes Piano Corporation, and produced a thirty-eight key version which was premiered at the first National Association of Music Merchants show in 1946. This version was acoustic like the original but Rhodes soon modeled an electric version that featured tube amplification and 6"speakers. After two years of producing the Pre-Piano Rhodes, Harold dissolved his business and moved to Texas. Several years later, he invented a tuning fork concept, which he later patented and used this new concept as the basis for a new seventy-two note model. During the 1950s, as Rhodes was reinventing his own electric piano, the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company began manufacturing their own electric piano. The Wurlitzer Electric Piano used steel reeds and a DC pickup system. Sun Ra was the first musician to record with an electric piano, the Wurlitzer, for his 1956 recording Angels and Demons at Play.
Rhodes combined forces with Leo Fender, the influential instrument producer of the 1950s, and they created the Fender Rhodes PianoBass. The model was released to the public in 1959 but, ironically, the seventy-three note version wasn’t released until 1965—after Fender was bought up by CBS for $13,000,000.00. The PianoBass was used heavily by Ray Manzarek for the bass sound of The Doors, one of most recognized musicians who incorporated the instrument into popular music.
Prior to the release of the suitcase Rhodes, there had up to this point been many instrument evolutions that drastically changed the musical landscape. 1960 saw the release of the Fender Jazz Bass, the Hohner Pianet arrived in 1962, and the Hohner Clavinet in 1964. Music making had greatly expanded by this point and the historical contributions of these innovations cannot be denied. During the years of 1965 and 1969, several different versions of the Rhodes were sold. The most common model sold during this time was the Fender Rhodes 73 note Electric Piano. The company also produced the less common Celeste version and a classroom system, both of which were made to order.
During the late 1960s, the Fender Rhodes electric piano became a revolutionary force in the future direction of jazz music. It’s often hard to point at an isolated innovations that creates a change in the sonic quality of jazz but the Fender Rhodes is one of those.
Along with the development of the Moog synthesizer and the ARP 2500 and 2600, many more tools were available for musicians to use in sound expansion. When fusion took off in the early 1970s, the Fender Rhodes was an integral part of the sound along with the aforementioned instruments. The keyboard is heard in full on Return to Forever recordings, starting with Light As a Feather, in 1973 and on Herbie Hancock’s 1973 album Headhunters. Iconic jazz rockers Steely Dan were also using the instrument—it has been featured on all of their releases and is still used by the band to this day.
By 1974, the Fender name had been taken off of the product. The company continued to develop and release new versions of the instrument for the rest of the decade. In early 1981, the piano was briefly produced with plastic keys but was soon discontinued and replaced with original wood keys. By 1983, Bill Schultz, the head of CBS, had bought the Rhodes corporation and eventually released the Mark V version in 1984. By 1987, Roland had acquired the Rhodes name from Bill Schultz.