Keyboardist returns to 'musical home' for tribute
BRATTLEBORO -- In early 2000, during a show in Orange, Mass., a woman in the audience requested a song from keyboardist Richard Eriksen.
"Richard said, ‘Sure we can.' The band didn't know it -- half the members never even heard the song," recalled Mike Slahetka, who was on stage that night.
Eriksen gave the band a chord chart, and they played the song with Eriksen singing.
"On the next break, I said, ‘Richard, when's the last time you played that song?' He said, ‘I never have played that song in my life,'" Slahetka said. "He said, ‘It's just all there in my head.' I'll never forget that. He had never sung the song or played the song, but he knew the song."
That's the kind of knowledge and virtuosity -- earned over a half-century of musicianship -- that will be honored at 7 p.m. Friday with a public party featuring music and dancing at Brattleboro's Fraternal Order of Eagles Club on Chickering Drive. Bringing the event to Brattleboro is important, Slahetka said, as many longtime fans in the local music scene have heard Eriksen's handiwork at any number of venues -- or via some well-known recordings.
"He is a native of Greenfield, Mass., and he still lives there. But the fact is, he's more known in Brattleboro than he is in his hometown," Slahetka said.
Known as a man of relatively few words, Eriksen sums up his career this way: "I thought of it as a job -- one that I liked. I wish I had worn ear protection and done less lifting."
He also attributes his longevity to the fact that he can play solo piano and handle some vocals. Slahetka has played with Eriksen since 1997, but during a recent interview he made clear that Eriksen's long, diverse career as a performing and recording musician stretches back to the early 1960s.
That was when Eriksen began playing with a band called the Moon Riders, which shortly thereafter changed its name to the Straitjackets. His next gig was in a band called The Busters; though relatively short-lived, the group scored a hit record titled "Bust Out."
That song, penned by local musician Al Orkins, climbed the Billboard charts in 1963 and still gets occasional radio airtime, Slahetka said.
Eriksen's next move may have been his biggest: He joined The Trophies, a Brattleboro band that "went on to major outings," Slahetka said.
"They signed with Kapp records, a major label," he said. "They also signed a deal with the William Morris Agency in New York. And William Morris Agency, to this day, is unquestionably the biggest rock ‘n' roll music entertainment agency in the world."
The Trophies'' version of "Walking the Dog" gained a lot of attention as a "regional and up-and-down-the-coast hit," Slahetka added.
"It brought them to more national touring. They opened for and worked along with national acts," he said. "They also worked with -- backing him up -- Del Shannon. Del Shannon had a big hit with the song, ‘Runaway.'"
The band had a big enough following that, on one occasion when returning to Keene, N.H., from New York, "they were met by an incredible array of people to welcome them back," Slahetka said.
The Trophies came to an end in 1967. But Eriksen's music career continued as he subsequently played for several bands including a national act called Autosalvage, with which he recorded in 1968 in New York City.
Returning to New England, Eriksen reunited with Orkins to play bass in Al Orkins' North Country Gentlemen. Local fans, however, may know Eriksen best from his next venture: He teamed with former Trophies member Jack Dunham to form Solid Gold Cadillacs from 1984 to 1995.
"They were one of the biggest, in-demand covers and oldies bands that Brattleboro has ever seen," Slahetka said. "Whoever had a private party, a wedding, a business function of some sort -- they were the band. They had to turn down work, they were working so much."
Slahetka believes those were "the golden years for local musicians. A lot of work, a lot of places. Sometimes, bands would play five nights a week in that era."
When the Cadillacs' run ended, Eriksen's musical ventures included the Sapphires, Crocodile Tears and Tales from the Heartbreak Hotel. The latter venture was an Elvis-tribute act that included Slahetka, who recalled that the group landed a spot at the Rockabilly Festival in Tennessee in April 2000.
"There, we played alongside and with legendary figures of rock ‘n' roll including Bill Haley's Comets; Buddy Holly's remaining band, the Crickets; Brenda Lee; Carl Perkins' original band members; Paul Burleson from The Rock ‘n' Roll Trio; and other internationally known recording stars," Slahetka said.
The gig led to a spot on a recording called "Rocking on Madison Avenue -- The Rockabilly Masters," which remains available at music sites including iTunes and Amazon.com.
During that recording session, the legendary guitarist and producer Roland Janes -- who worked on Jerry Lee Lewis' hit records -- heard Eriksen warming up.
"He told (Eriksen), ‘I've worked with every major piano player that you can just about name ... You have one of the best left hands I've ever heard in my life. Whatever you do, keep on going,'" Slahetka recalled.
Eriksen's career did keep on going, as his later ventures have included solo work, collaborative ventures and a big role in Shakin' All Over. That band plays dance hits from the 1950s and ‘60s and features members of both The Trophies and Solid Gold Cadillacs.
The group remains popular in the Brattleboro area, where Slahetka estimates that Shakin' All Over has played more than 100 gigs. The latest such show will be Friday night, when Shakin' All Over will play Eriksen's celebration party at the Eagles club.
The event, for which there is a $10 admission charge, also marks Eriksen's 70th birthday. Eriksen is expected to join the band for some numbers, and there will be "special guests," Slahetka said.
The show is billed as "a celebratory honorarium for somebody who has dedicated so much of his life to music," Slahetka said. He hopes new fans will become acquainted with Eriksen's talent, which Slahetka calls a "treasure trove of piano stylings."
"Richard is always in service of the style and the song that's being played," Slahetka said. "Although he possesses a tremendous vocabulary of improvisational and stylistic techniques, he services the song that he's playing with a ‘less is more' attitude."
Eriksen said that style is the product of his experience.
"I have my own style now. It's changed over the years," he said. "I prefer playing the melody of songs now instead of flashy solos that I might have done when I started out."
Eriksen also believes he owes much to the Brattleboro music scene.
"I've always considered Brattleboro as my musical home, so to speak. It's the place where I learned my craft," he said. "I've met and played music with many fine musicians from the Brattleboro area. I'm very lucky to have been in both The Trophies and Solid Gold Cadillacs."
Eriksen's advice to young musicians is brief and to the point: "Practice, play, listen, learn and have a plan B."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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