DAVID ROSENTHAL • Stories From the Road

The Fascinating Tale of a Musical Journeyman Who Works With Everyone From Billy Joel & Elton John to Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, and Ritchie Blackmore

    Additional Reporting by
    icon Feb 17, 2024
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Last Tuesday Saginaw Valley State University and the SVSU Foundation brought the longtime keyboardist and musical director for Billy Joel into town for an evening of reflections and musical selections. Titled “An Evening with David Rosenthal: Stories from the Road”, this free concert and presentation took place in the Rhea Miller Recital Hall on the SVSU campus, and also gave students in the music department an opportunity to interact one-on-one with this fascinating, talented, and engaging musical artist.

Rosenthal began working with Billy Joel in 1993 and has joined him on numerous tours since, including the “Face 2 Face” tours with Elton John. For the past 10 years, Rosenthal has been an integral part of Joel’s record-breaking Madison Square Garden residency. Indeed, with a distinguished career spanning four decades, Rosenthal has achieved broad-based success as a musical director, keyboardist, and synthesizer programmer, developing quite a resume working with a litany of artists including Bruce SpringsteenElton John, Enrique Iglesias, Robert Palmer, Ritchie Blackmore and Rainbow, Cyndi Lauper, Alicia Keys and many others.

A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Rosenthal has won numerous gold and platinum album awards and has been nominated for Grammy Awards twice. While he was in town, I had an opportunity to sit down with Rosenthal for a chat about the long and winding road of his fascinating career.

REVIEW: So let’s start at the beginning of what inspired you to pursue music as a career and some of the influential artists who helped shape your decision.

Rosenthal: If I go back to the very beginning it would be to the time when I was 7-years old when I started playing piano and asked my parents to buy a piano. I have no idea where the inspiration came from, but I kept asking and eventually they got one,  I started lessons and was a very fast learner who kept growing.  At that time the only music I wanted to play was Top-40 songs on the radio and cared nothing about Classical or Jazz. It wasn’t until later that I got serious about those genres and started studying them and eventually got accepted to Berklee College of Music.

As I grew into my teens I got into a lot of progressive bands and artists like Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Chick Corea, but I continued to enjoy whatever was on the Top-40 radio, only back in those days popular music wasn’t as formulaic as it is today. In those days you could have a hit song by being different.

REVEW: Did you play in many bands growing up?

Rosenthal: I started playing in bands when I was 12 and by the time I was 13 years old I was playing with guys who were 18 and 19 who all wanted me in their bands. My parents - bless them - gave me permission to play in bands with these older guys, so long as we practiced in our basement, so they could keep an eye on things…and man, we were loud.  I know we put some cracks in the plaster of the house, but my parents tolerated it, and I started playing a bunch of gigs. There was never a pinnacle moment that I decided this is what I wanted to do with my life, it was just the only thing that I was interested in. 

I didn’t choose music, music chose me. This is who I am and what I do and I decided whether it would work out in the long run wasn’t an issue, I would be a musician.

REVIEW: Tell me about your experience at the Berklee College of Music.

Rosenthal: I started there in 1978 and graduated in 1981. I started a band with Steve Vai there when both of us were 18-years old at the time. Neither of us had any success yet at that age, but we’re still good friends and I’ve played on three or four of his albums.

A lot of people came out of that graduating class and Berklee was a great experience for me. Right out of school I was fortunate to get my first break when Ritchie Blackmore asked me join his band Rainbow. He had been through a few keyboardists, so I auditioned and got the job. I played on the Straight Between the Eyes album and the Bent Out of Shape album and we had several hits like Stone Cold and Street of Dreams back in the early days of MTV. We did a couple tours and then the band broke up because Ritchie wanted to go back and reform Deep Purple. I then moved on to do a tour with Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul. 

After that I was asked by Cyndi Lauper to play on her True Colors world tour in 1986-87, followed by Robert Palmer on his Heavy Nova tour. At that time Simply Irresistible was a huge hit, and also got asked to play on lots of studio albums in genres ranging from R&B to Metal. I played on Whitesnake’s Slip of the Tongue album and from there the studio work snowballed. By that time Billy Joel was looking for a keyboard player and my name popped up, so I was asked to audition along with one other guy and I got the gig. I’ve been working with Billy for 31 years now.

During the River of Dreams tour with Billy Joel the idea came up for him and Elton John to do a double show playing together in big stadiums over multiple nights. At the time it was one of the biggest shows on the books and since then the shows have gotten even bigger.  Now Billy fills stadiums all by himself.

REVIEW:  Tell us about your composition and songwriting work.

Rosenthal:  As Billy’s musical director one project I’m currently working on for him is to correct his entire catalog of sheet music. Songs like Piano Man had missing measures and wrong notes and wrong chords.  Billy told me to take my time with the project, so in a sense it’s a backburner project, but he did say “Before I die I want to make sure all my sheet music in print is accurate”, so I’m working on the ‘official version’ of his entire catalog. I've gone through 10 albums so far and its an ongoing project. 

I also write my own music and have my own band called Red Dawn. We released a record in Japan and the UK and it was critically acclaimed worldwide, but didn’t sell a lot of copies even though it was well-loved by melodic album oriented rock radio stations. Frankly, it was bad timing. It was released when the whole Grunge thing started to happen and it was the wrong time for that style of music, so it never took off. 

One of my most cherished musical experiences was when I had an opportunity to work with this progressive rock band known as Happy the Man. They were one of my favorite bands growing up and were mostly an instrumental group.  I used to transcribe all their music and 25 years later they decided to do a reunion, only their original keyboard player didn’t want to participate, so I gladly offered and had an opportunity to record with my all-time favorite band.

REVIEW: Are there any other benchmark projects or experiences that stand out in your museum of recollections?

Rosenthal: Performing with Billy continues to be amazing and keeps getting better and bigger the more shows we do. Billy just clocked his 99th consecutive show with his Madison Square Garden residency, and apart from the interruption caused by the Pandemic, has been going on for 10 years now, which is truly remarkable.

Billy said he would do the Garden residency as long as there was a demand and that demand never went away. He only does two shows a month now, one at Madison Square Garden and one elsewhere, although this year we’ll be doing a bunch of shows with Stevie Nicks, some with Sting and one with Rod Stewart. 

It’s a very civilized schedule and last week I got to play at the Grammy Awards, which was a blast.  I’ve been nominated for two Grammys - one with Rainbow when they were up for Best Rock Instrumental in 1983, and then another as one of the producers for the Movin’ Out cast album. I also worked on a charity project which won an Emmy last year for a version of New York State of Mind, which was like We Are the World, with all these different singers doing different lines.  It was comprised of mostly Broadway and New York singers and was released to coincide with the re-opening of Broadway after the pandemic.

REVIEW: What’s the most challenging component involved with what you do?

Rosenthal: The challenge is that every artist has his own way of doing things. Some are good at communicating what they want and some not so good at explaining what they’re looking for and what their artistic visions are, but my goal is to absorb what they want and deliver it, which to me isn’t really a challenge so much as a unique part of what I have to do in order to be a successful freelancer.

REVIEW: Are there any projects of your own that you’re currently working on?

Rosenthal: I’m doing a film score for a documentary right now and will be exploring more of that world as Billy winds down his touring career, which will eventually happen. I have a beautiful recording studio in my home and do my work there and plan to do more of it.  I also do a lot of synthesizer programming for other artists, which includes designing rigs for Bruce Springsteen’s keyboard players, and many others. I do all my own programming and some artists like bringing me in as a programmer because I come from a different path of being an experienced live onstage performer.



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