Russell Coltharp still has the first tuning lever that his father gave him almost 50 years ago. An enthusiastic 50-something Midtowner, he has turned that lever and countless lessons from his parents and grandparents into Coltharp Piano World, an innovative family business that sells and services pianos in several markets and maintains a showroom here in Memphis that is unique in scope. Whether there is a major flood or just an evening with Jerry Lee Lewis, Coltharp has been there and knows how to fix a piano. And only a piano: “We don’t offer or service trumpets or trombones or guitars or saxophones,” he says.
Memphis is a music city, and Russell Coltharp has been in the middle of that musical mix for decades. “In the 1970s and 1980s, the Mid-South Coliseum was a big music venue,” he says. “Back in those days, I was really involved with the convention center, the Orpheum, the Mud Island Amphitheatre. Every venue had an acoustic piano. And if the artists carried their own instruments, they needed technical support and tuning. I was pretty much involved in every musical event.”
Few people have spent more hours listening to the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. And fewer have had to deal with the exacting demands of virtuosic musicians.
“I’ve spent much of my life sitting backstage. I would have a consultation with an artist on a Wednesday, a Thursday rehearsal, Friday a rehearsal performance, Saturday performance, and Sunday matinee,” he says. “I was on call and on standby for eight months out of the year. Usually, I would be dismissed by intermission. The stage lights get hot. That affects the tuning of the instrument. The artists are very demanding. It can be very challenging. When the piano is your personal orchestra, and that’s your performing piece, it’s live. Working all these years with all the artists, they don’t redo it.”
While stressful at the time, Coltharp laughs about one of his more difficult charges, whose name he declines to mention. The house was packed for a full orchestral performance, when the guest pianist stopped the conductor’s opening count and refused to play. “It was a moment in time,” Coltharp recalls. “The managing director of the symphony was standing next to me. He said, ‘Russell, I think you need to go out there.’ I said, ‘I think you need to go out there.’ Then we agreed to both go out there.”
Eventually, the issue — a minor problem with the piano — was resolved much to the audience’s delight. “As we walked off, the whole place burst into applause. They were tapping their violins.”
Coltharp understands the situation from the artist’s perspective. He knows how complex the piano is and how complex its player is too. “You’ve got to know they are in charge,” he says. “Every ear hears differently. There’s feel, touch, after touch, tonal color. I’ve had artists come in and say it was the best [piano] they’d ever played. Three weeks later someone says the piano plays like a beanbag. A bean bag.
“You work through it,” he says. “But that understanding is key: to figure out where the artist is coming from, if it’s in touch, tone, or feel.”
Russell Coltharp comes honestly to his understanding of the piano as a mechanical, acoustic, and psychological tool. His family provided him with a unique set of experiences.
“My father, my mother, and grandmothers were all piano teachers. I had a great-grandfather who was a music man. I’ve been raised in this all of my life. Memphis has been my home all of my life. My mother and father both exposed me to a small mom-and-pop business. My father exposed me to work under the best technicians that I think have ever lived.”
Through his business, Coltharp nurtures the relationship between an instrument and its player. His showroom on Summer Avenue has guided both the novice and the superstar through their musical pursuits. It’s a place where teachers, technicians, and performers foster relationships.
“I’ve worked for Charlie Rich over on Cherry Road,” he says. “He came in this store many a time. Jane Swoboda taught here for many years; she was a good friend and taught a lot of the local musicians. They would come in and want to learn certain licks. She was wonderful. She was with me for 15 years. I miss her dearly. She played at Folk’s Folly and at the University Club. She had a real way with adults to help them. I’ve worked with a lot of artists over the years. It’s a great musical journey.”
The economy has taken him on another journey of his own. In recent decades, several factors have conspired against his profession, starting in the 1980s with digital instruments and more recently with the Great Recession. But Coltharp is an innovative thinker.
“Of course your symphonies still have the purists of the acoustic piano. But that has so changed now due to the electronic and digital age of synthesizers,” he says. “It’s just really changed through the years. There’s just not as much involvement in the concert venue that there once was.”
What’s a tuner to do?
“We have mobile shops. About 15 years ago, I started building mobile shops that are powered and able to go to any market or venue and do warranty service, technical support, internal service, and do the work on site. That’s been a blessing. Before the mobile shops, everything had to be transported into our facility. We had to do the work and tranport it back. Just the cost to move an instrument of 1,000 pounds back and forth is a big part of the job. So the mobile shops have been quite successful. It’s worked for manufacturers, too, because I’m able to do cost-effective service in any marketplace. I have [living] quarters in the satellite shops, so I’m able to shower and stay and go comfortably from venue to venue. I have three with technicians available. The technical support is very busy. Thankfully, we’re very busy. I cover quite a bit of ground in other markets.”
The opening of the Nashville market was a godsend. And Coltharp didn’t go halfway: His client list there is top shelf.
“I was asked to rebuild a seven-foot Steinway that’s in RCA Studio B [Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson have recorded there]. It took about a month with mobile shops on site,” he says. “I did a lot of work at night. I’ll put in 50-amp hook-ups with water and equipment. I do work in Nashville at the Country Music Hall of Fame. I got involved there with the entertainment side of the industry. I did a restoration to the nine-foot gilt concert grand that’s on exhibit.”
Don’t worry, he’s still a Memphian.
“I enjoy taking care of [Nashville]. But there’s a big difference in the music market in Nashville. We’re very busy here, but the recording industry is so different there. Nashville has been a blessing. I’m thankful for Memphis. It’s my home.”
Another aspect of Coltharp’s business is piano rescue.
“When there are situations with flooding, like what Nashville went through,” he says, “they need assistance to get those instruments moved immediately, then we do dry-out procedures to salvage the instrument. You need mobile equipment. We had 8,000 claims of water damage just in Memphis [this past winter]. Not all of them had pianos, but many of them did. Our shops on Broad and downtown are full. We have about 300 instruments in stock, not counting all of the restoration.”
Fixing musical instruments in Memphis is a great way to dive into the character of the city. Coltharp has had a ticket and a front-row seat to observe Memphis’ musical greats and curiosities.
“There are many hand-built harpsichords in town,” Coltharp says. “I have many customers with interesting, collectible musical instruments. Organette, Victrolas, Nickelodeons that have snare drums, bass drums, piano, and tambourines. Customers in Memphis have collections, especially the old vacuum-pump players with the bellows. Those are not easy to work on.”
Coltharp won’t name names, but there is a pipe organ in a home somewhere in Memphis. And that’s not the half of what comes through his warehouses and shops. “I’ve done a lot of work for the Elvis Presley estate,” he says. “When he passed, I was doing some restoration. His pianos became quite valuable after his death.”
One of the more unusual jobs Coltharp has taken on involved German artist Juergen Teller’s photo shoot of William Eggleston for W magazine. Teller decided that his portrait of the esteemed Memphis photographer should be taken in the parking lot of Tops BBQ on Summer Avenue. But Teller wanted a particular prop.
“They wanted a concert grand in the parking lot behind Tops,” explains Coltharp. “So they contacted me. He wanted [Eggleston] to sit out in the parking lot with a cigarette and piano. So I had mobile shops on the scene. We just had to stand by to reposition the piano. It was a nine-foot concert instrument. It was cool. He was enjoying that moment in time.” (For more on that particular shoot, see “The Art of Being William Eggleston” by Tim Sampson, in the June 2012 issue of Memphis.)
But what about a certain piano player, the one from Ferriday, Louisiana? The man with the pretty hair and the fire in his belly? What about the Killer?
“He used to damage all of our pianos back in the day,” Coltharp says of longtime customer Jerry Lee Lewis. Lewis would leave a signature token of his esteem on Coltharp pianos.
“He used to damage the keyboard on the treble end with his boot. But now he doesn’t quite get the foot up on the keyboard. So sometimes the bench gets knocked over. We get a lot of damage through the years. We had to get deposits to offset piano damages. I think at one point we were the only people who would rent or lease pianos to him because of the damage. He wanted at least a six-foot grand piano. I never knew him to be that particular over the brand or model. He liked a very bright piano with a lot of clarity. Fast action. He is a very fast player, heavy-handed.”
Coltharp’s relationship with Lewis led to a job managing the pianos for the production of the biopic Great Balls of Fire. The script called for pianos throughout Lewis’ life from the old Stark upright, at which Lewis learned to play with cousins Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart, to the extravagant pianos he accumulated (and destroyed) over his life. The film job involved 37 pianos. Coltharp had all of the models in his warehouses and kept some poor instruments on a rotation between daily destruction and onsite refurbishing.
As Coltharp walks around his showroom, his passion is evident. A wall display explains every aspect of a piano’s construction. He walks from model to model, banging out chords that reveal each instrument’s character. Not many real piano shops are around anymore, and even fewer places where people have taken the time to develop the skills and the savvy to sell a complicated, expensive product.
Coltharp stocks pianos from the gargantuan Bösendorfer concert grand to the most affordable spinet. He likes to show customers the range of sounds and prices. But as he walks through the showrooms and introduces his employees and his family members who are working there, Coltharp demonstrates that building musical relationships is his life’s work.
“We are passionate about a musical work of art called the piano,” he says. “That’s my passion, and thankfully we stay very busy.”
Joe Boone is the music editor of the Memphis Flyer.