Ralph Schuckett, a keyboard player best known as a member of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia as well as an in-demand session player and producer and, later, composer for “Pokemon” and other animation projects, died Sunday at 73.
No cause of death was immediately given, although he was known to have been ill. When a Utopia reunion tour was announced in early 2018, Schuckett was announced as part of the lineup and even met with other members for a publicity photo, but he was forced to withdraw shortly before rehearsals began.
Among his early studio credits prior to joining Utopia were Carole King’s first three albums, including the landmark “Tapestry.” “Ralph Schuckett was a sweet guy, a great friend, and a very talented cat,” King said in a statement Wednesday morning. “That’s his sparkling piano on ‘Smackwater Jack.’ Rest In Peace and love.”
Rundgren, who enlisted Schuckett to play on his classic “A Wizard, a True Star” and “Todd” albums as the group Utopia was beginning to come together in the early ’70s, shared his thoughts about his former bandmate with Variety.
“The last time I saw Ralph was almost three years ago,” Rundgren said. “He came to see Utopia during sound check at the Wiltern, a gig that was supposed to be his. After, we talked for a while outside the stage door and I watched him walk away slowly up the incline, embarking on an unknown path that has ultimately led to here.
“But the way I prefer to remember him is from a time long ago,” Rundgren continued. “We were a new band on one of our first tours. Our gig in Albuquerque was canceled so we decided to spend a few days in Santa Fe at the Sonesta Hotel, an adobe and tile open-court design. Someone had gifted us a pile of mushrooms, which band and crew all consumed, and we spent the day at a pueblo reservation. It was early in the a.m. by the time most of us retired and the hotel became quiet, but for the distant sound of a piano. I followed the music and found Ralph playing a floor below me, the sound gently filling every corner of the building. He had his back to me so I just listened to him spin out notes and colors and emotions until I grew sleepy and went back to my room.
“For the rest of my life,” Rundgren concluded, “this is where Ralphie will be — improvising in the back of my mind.”
The Spirit of Harmony Foundation, Rundgren’s music education charity, was first to acknowledge the death this week, posting on social media accounts, “May the great Utopian Ralph Schuckett rest in eternal love and harmony.”
— Carole King (@Carole_King) April 7, 2021
When word of Schuckett’s passing first began to circulate earlier in the week, King’s account simply posted, without comment, a video of her and Schuckett sitting together at the piano playing the “Tapestry” song “Smackwater Jack” together for “BBC In Concert” in early 1971.
Schuckett’s early session work included playing on James Taylor’s “Walking Man” and “Flag” albums, the Monkees track “Porpoise Song (Theme From ‘Head’)” (which was co-written by King and Gerry Goffin), David Blue’s self-titled album and Bette Midler’s “Songs for the New Depression.”
With Rundgren, he played on several key solo albums, beginning with 1973’s “A Wizard, a True Star” and continuing with the double-album “Todd,” “Initiation” and “Back to the Bars.” He was part of the original prog-rock-oriented lineup of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, playing on that group’s self-titled debut album in 1974 (and earning co-writing credit for the side-long opus “The Ikon”) and its follow-up, “Another Live.”
In the 1980s and ’90s he moved more into production work, with Sophie B. Hawkins’ “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” (co-produced with Rick Chertoff) being perhaps his best known release as a producer. His other work during that time included multiple solo albums by Belinda Carlile and the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons. He played on, produced or arranged songs by Whitney Houston, Daryl Hall and John Oates, Phoebe Snow, Cher, Patty Smyth, Rachel Sweet, Rodney Crowell, Helen Reddy, Evelyn “Champagne” King and even the actors Joe Piscopo, Cheryl Ladd and David Hasselhoff.
He departed Utopia before the Rundgren-led band shortened its name and turned in a less prog, more pop direction, but returned to the fold for a reunion concert that was held in 2011 to benefit another keyboardist he’d worked alongside in the band, Moogy Klingman (also since deceased), an affair that was finally released last year as a CD/DVD package. He’d earlier reunited with Rundgren for a national tour in 2009 reviving the “A Wizard, a True Star” album in its entirety, which was just commemorated in a vinyl release last month.
Schuckett had a stint as director of A&R at Columbia Records from 1989 to 1992. Thereafter, he focused mainly on television and animation composing work, including writing the themes for “Kate and Allie” and “Another World.”
He co-composed music for 1999’s “Pokémon: The First Movie” and went on to work with the franchise’s TV series. Other animation credits included “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Chaotic,” “GoGoRikim,” “WInx Club,” “Ultraman Tiga,” “Funky Cops,” “Cubix: Robots for Everyone” and “Viva Piñata.”
Paul Myers, a foremost Rundgren/Utopia authority, interviewed Schuckett for his book, “A Wizard a True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio,” and remembers the keyboard player fondly. “I came to ask him about his time as one of the early members of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, the funkier, jazzier lineup that he’d been brought into by Rundgren’s other keyboardist, the late Moogy Klingman. He was warm, kind and exceedingly generous with his time and insights.
“I remember he had a synthesizer in the room with him and whenever he was describing something musical, he’d just play it for me over the phone, like a great music teacher who wanted you to really feel the changes as he’s explaining them,” Myers recalls. “Despite having played with a lot of legends he was more than happy to shine the light on what, to him, made Rundgren’s music so special. He said it came down to a particular way Todd voiced chords and strung together chord melodies. After he showed me a passage, he would then demonstrate. ‘[Plays chord pattern] I could be wrong but I think no one did that before Todd. I had never heard anybody do anything like that before him. And I listened to everybody, you know, I really was into whatever was happening. None of the jazz people did it at first, even like Mahavishnu Orchestra and those guys, nobody did that voicing thing. Carole did traditional block chords and minor seventh chords and major seventh chords but she didn’t do any of those things where each chord has a melody note on top so the chord changes have a counter-melody to the vocal, a contrapuntal melody…’ And on and on it went like that for about two hours.
“As a journalist and biographer I’ve talked to hundreds and hundreds of musicians, but that call with Ralph stands out as one of the most gracious and generous interviews of my career. He was so great at deconstructing that magical blend of art and science behind the music that hits our hearts and stays with us forever I’ll miss that now he’s gone.”
In an interview for the Spirit of Harmony Foundation about bring music education to disadvantaged communities, Schuckett said, “Really, true art breaks down those barriers and communicates with people from a lot of walks of life. It speaks to the basic needs of human beings.”