LIKE MANY YOUNG BRITISH musicians who came of age in the ’60s, Chris Stainton became infatuated with African-American blues and R&B. Such musical conversions weren’t rare for players of that generation, but Stainton’s career longevity is. Fifty years on, he still plays the blues with the passion he felt then—often as keyboardist for singer/guitarist Eric Clapton.
“When I first started listening to music in the ’50s, it was all Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra,” he recalls, speaking from his home in Camberley, a small town 30 miles west of London. “Then all of a sudden we had Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is it—this is what I want to listen to and play.’”

Stainton has worked with Clapton on and off for 35 years. In the guitarist’s current band, he shares keyboard duties with another great British player, Paul Carrack. Carrack, a former member of Squeeze and Ace, plays organ, while Stainton handles piano duties.

But Stainton was a seasoned sideman long before he began collaborating with Clapton. He made his initial splash with the Grease Band, the Sheffield, England, blues-rock group that launched the career of singer Joe Cocker. At the time, Stainton played bass, an instrument that strongly influenced his keyboard style.

“Even now, I think like a bass player,” he observes. “My left hand is always going where the bass part should be. Sometimes I have to be careful not to tread on what the bass player is doing.”

clapton-sideStainton played bass on Cocker’s breakthrough hit, a cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” that owes as much to Ray Charles as the Fab Four. That memorable session, was recorded at Olympic studios in London (now sadly closed down) with British musicians (Jimmy Page, Albert Lee, Myself, Tommy Eyre and B J Wilson). Stainton cites the recording, which he co-arranged with Cocker, as a career highlight.

Not long after, Cocker began performing with a new band, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Cocker, who loved Stainton’s keyboard playing, asked him to switch instruments. Stainton often performed in the group alongside another great player, Leon Russell, who Stainton considers one of his three favorite keyboardists, along with Ray Charles and Nat King Cole.

“I admire Leon Russell so much,” Stainton says. “He’s an exquisite piano player, especially in that Louisiana style. He was so hot then, at the top of his playing ability. When Leon played piano, I’d play organ, and then I’d switch to piano when Leon took over on guitar.”

The colors Stainton relied on then—piano, organ, and electric piano—remain his bread-and-butter sounds today. “Those were mechanical instruments, not digital, and they were all we had in those days. They were good sounds—so good, in fact, that now all the electronic keyboard makers emulate those early sounds digitally. Like Yamaha, who in my opinion create the best acoustic piano samples in the world, as well as some of the best electric piano sounds. It’s amazing, the sounds you can get from Yamaha keyboards.”

These days Stainton’s workhorse is a Yamaha CP1 Stage Piano. “I’ve had a lot of Yamaha keyboards over the years,” he says. “I had a Yamaha organ in the ’70s. And I had a CP70 electric grand piano. Before the CP1, I played a P250, which I thought was fantastic. But the CP1 tops even that. It truly feels like a piano.”

Even if Stainton had never played with Cocker and Clapton, he’d probably be known for his contribution to Quadrophenia, one of the Who’s most important albums. He describes the sessions as exciting but demanding: “Pete Townsend is a real stickler for what he wants, so it required a lot of discipline on my part. He wanted something very specific after hearing my piano part on a Joe Cocker song called ‘Hitchcock Railway.’ Pete was jumping up and down when he heard that. He said, ‘I want you to play something like that on my record!’”

Stainton says that he thrives under the direction of a strong music director. “As a musician,” he says, “you need someone to be a leader. Eric Clapton is absolutely a leader, but in his own quiet way. Pete Townshend is a leader in a more vocal and aggressive way. And Joe Cocker is another guy who is definitely in charge, knows what he wants, and is very good at directing the group.”

For Stainton, playing music is as big a thrill today as it was a half-century ago, but he allows that his approach has matured: “Over the years I’ve learned to play a bit less and listen more. And that would be my advice for a younger player, actually: Slow down a bit. Listen more. Learn when to shut up—and when to really play something!”