When archeologists of the argot try to puzzle out the 20th century, what will they make of the term “long-haired music”? Have the classics given way to shaggy rock? It is a distinction perhaps uniquely blurred by Robby Steinhardt, whose original heroes weren’t Holly and Presley but Heifetz and Paganini, and the backup group he fantasized about was a fab four dozen classical masters. Back then, he says, “I never imagined the violin could be a lead instrument for rock.” Yet today at 26, Steinhardt has helped catapult the rock band Kansas’ fourth LP, Leftoverture, into the dizzying top five, right alongside Wonder, Streisand, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Just as tellingly, rock fiddler Robby says his work “thrills” his father, Milton Steinhardt, a retired University of Kansas musicologist who specializes in the Renaissance period.
Brilliantly versatile and fluid, Robby might be dubbed the Oistrakh of rock, but he modestly names Jean-Luc Ponty as the ranking jazz violinist of the day. Steinhardt also defers to earlier crossover virtuosos from the classical like Mahavishnu’s Jerry Goodman and the Electric Light Orchestra’s Mik Kaminski, among others. Steinhardt’s own instrument is an ordinary violin he received in high school from his parents, but it is amplified by a tiny pickup built into the fragile wooden bridge. Chromium-steel strings and an all-fiberglass bow provide a harsher, more forceful sound that gets him heard above Kansas’ driving guitars, bass, drums and two keyboards.
Rock, of course, is a better living than the classics, says Robby, but “I’ve developed bad playing habits. I have to press an ear against the edge of the violin to hear myself, and when I go running around onstage it causes bad performing posture. I don’t like earplugs,” he adds. “I need the intenseness and interaction of this kind of band.” Robby still feels “I could probably have made it in classical music—but I never could take the six hours of practice a day. As a life-style it’s much too disciplined and ascetic.”
Then again, the old masters never had to barnstorm Holiday Inns 200 nights a year, succumbing to fast-food binges out of lonely boredom. Though the latest cyclonic three-month tour pushed sales of the Kansas LP to 1.5 million, Robby and wife Mary, 21, don’t defend the Road. They far prefer their implausibly simple—by rock standards—$32,500 Spanish-style home in Tampa. In fact, Mary reports, they could hardly afford to be apart: after a $275 phone bill for one month while Steinhardt was touring, the record company agreed, generously, to fly her out for the last three weeks. The Steinhardts are an attentive and affectionate pair—the calls weren’t just bed checks. Robby jokingly bemoans the fact that groupies gravitate to drummers, and even roadies, ahead of violinists.
Robby was adopted when he was 4 days old and grew up in Michigan and Ohio, before his father moved the family to Lawrence, where he became music history department chairman at the University of Kansas. (Now 64, he played flute with Sousa, has mastered numerous other instruments and has conducted.) Robby learned he was adopted at about 7, but after “a few personal hassles I decided my actual parents couldn’t have loved me as much as my adopted ones.”
Music at home tended to be the Budapest and Guarneri string quartets (“they’re the real heavies”), and Robby was always “picky” about what he allowed himself to hear, largely ignoring rock’n’roll. He spent a year in Vienna (father was a Fulbright scholar) where he started classical studies at age 8, and as a teenager was concertmaster at summer art camps. At 15 the family went to Vienna again, where Robby played with European orchestras. He put the instrument down for two years while he tried college, but at 20 he was asked to join a local Lawrence bar band. In 1971 he began playing with a group called White Clover, which later that year evolved into Kansas.
Steinhardt now dreams of “wandering through Kentucky and Tennessee and finding an old fiddler somewhere who could sit on a porch for a week and teach me a few things.” He also admits to a latent rock-star fixation to “smash up $20 violins” onstage. With massive, rippling forearms it wouldn’t be hard for the 6’2″, 220-lb. fiddler. “I did play football in sixth grade,” he recalls. “Kids would hang onto my legs and I just dragged them around. But I never pursued team sports. I always put my competitiveness into going for First Chair.”