When Rob Shrock, the music director and pianist for Dionne Warwick and long-time keyboardist, arranger and music director for Burt Bacharach, performed at spring band concerts while attending school in Monticello he would often be dressed in his baseball uniform.
“He loved baseball,” said Shrock’s high school band director, Frank Ferguson. “I remember him coming to spring band concerts wearing his baseball uniform because he was either coming to the concert from a baseball game or leaving the concert to go to a baseball game.”
Though he began playing the trumpet and acoustic guitar in the fifth grade, Shrock was more interested in baseball and wanted to be a professional baseball player until the age of 14 when the mother of one of his childhood friends discovered that he had a gift for the piano.
“My neighborhood friend, Robert Wallace, couldn’t play baseball or basketball after school until after he practiced piano 30 minutes. So, I used to hang out waiting on him,” Shrock said. “I started reading the treble clef of his piano music and taught myself how to read the bass clef. Pretty soon, I was playing his lessons for him. His mom would be listening from the other end of the house to make sure he was practicing. After about six months of this going on, she finally walked in one day and saw I was the one playing while Robert was doing something else, like reading a comic book. After initially being furious, she called my parents and said they needed to get me a piano right away. I always give (the late) Carol Sue Wallace some credit for me playing piano.”
Shrock, who will be returning to his hometown on April 19 to perform at the University of Arkansas at Monticello Fine Arts Center, is a musical renaissance man. He is at equal ease playing Debussy on the piano or rocking a B-3 organ; orchestrating for and conducting a symphony orchestra or thrashing a Les Paul through a Marshall amp; songwriting with an artist or composing instrumental music for film.
He has recorded and performed with such legendary artists as Elvis Costello, Leann Rimes, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow, Whitney Houston, Adele, Chrissie Hynde, Ray Charles, Faith Hill, Wynonna, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes, Chris Botti, Rufus Wainwright, Garth Brooks, Jamie Cullum, Michael Bublé, Peabo Bryson, ‘N Sync, Boy George, Clay Aiken, Rubben Studdard, Kristy Lee Cook, Cliff Richard, Ivan Lins, Gladys Knight, Frank Sinatra, Queen Latifah, David Foster, Gloria Estefan, Barry Manilow, Cyndi Lauper, Ben Folds, Olivia Newton-John, Patti LaBelle, Smokey Robinson, Jeffrey Osborne, David Sanborn, Trijntje Oosterhuis, Johnny Mathis, Natalie Cole, George Duke, Ronald Isley and a host of others.
In 2000, Shrock was one of three musical directors for the 72nd Academy Awards, along with Don Was and Burt Bacharach. He wrote the arrangements and conducted the pit orchestra for the four-hour awards show and played keyboards in the on-camera band that featured Ray Charles, Garth Brooks, Queen Latifah, Faith Hill, Dionne Warwick and Isaac Hayes in a tribute to Oscar-winning songs.
He also sings, plays guitar and keyboards and is the bandleader for AM/FM, the best 70s Classic Rock band in the USA.
Shrock’s early musical development began in Monticello. Frank Ferguson and Bankie Holley were his band directors throughout junior high and high school and Laura Ferguson and Marjorie Bond were his piano teachers. “I couldn’t have asked for a more encouraging group of people to be in charge of my early musical development,” Shrock said.
“In 7th grade, I composed an alma mater for Monticello Junior High,” Shrock said. “Although, I’m sure it has disappeared into oblivion by now, Mr. Ferguson took that as an opportunity to start teaching me about band orchestration. I clearly remember going over to his house on a Saturday and him sitting down to explain all the transpositions of the various instruments; as certain instruments don’t name all pitches the same and it’s a bit of a puzzle to learn.
“He wrote out a sheet with all the instruments, their clef and their specific transposed relationships to each other,” Shrock said. “I used that as my Rosetta Stone into the world of orchestration, and I scored the MJHS Alma Mater for the band. He even let me conduct it at one of the band concerts. I have a picture of that somewhere… my back to the audience, holding a baton for the first time and waving my arms. Little did I know that would continue on into adulthood.
“When I left for California in the early 1980s, I took that transposition cheat sheet with me and for years it was one of my references when I first started writing arrangements,” he said. “I have that piece of paper in my file cabinet of charts to this day. I should get that framed.”
Shrock’s first piano teacher was Ferguson’s wife, Laura.
She had to be careful playing for Shrock because he would play back what she played, note-for-note, even if there were mistakes.
“If she made a mistake — fumbled a finger or something — he would repeat it; he had that kind of ear,” said Frank Ferguson. “That’s when she realized he wasn’t necessarily reading the notes, he was playing back what he’d heard her play.”
After a year of studying piano with Laura Ferguson, Shrock said she decided to pass him on to Marjorie Bond, who he described as one of the best piano teachers on the planet.
“She was one of the best piano teachers on the planet and just happened to live in Monticello,” Shrock said. “I knew her from First Baptist Church, where I went. She had mostly retired from teaching, but decided to take me on. She was magnificent, and I learned probably 75 percent of what I know from the three years of study with her. I was a bit lazy at times and tried to slide by on talent when I got busy with baseball, girls or playing in a rock band, but she wasn’t having any of that. I got my discipline from her.
“Sadly, she just passed away not too long ago,” Shrock said. “I saw her last time I was in Monticello, and it was always wonderful speaking with her. She could barely play at the time, but she managed to sit and play a bit. Her tone, her touch, all just musical beyond description. I wish she could be here to come see me play.”
Upon graduation from Monticello High School, Shrock won the top Ouachita Baptist University scholarship from its music department.
“I was majoring in composition under Dr. Francis McBeth, another Arkansas legend,” Shrock said. “However, after a year I became disenchanted. A lot of what I wanted to learn wasn’t going to come around until my junior and senior years, which seemed like a lifetime away at that age. As much as I loved all of my music teachers up to that point, I didn’t think I was cut out for that occupation and it was not what I wanted to do. I felt that was where I was heading if I stayed at Ouachita.
“So, I decided to give it all up and move to California,” Shrock said. “After a few bloody noses, musically, I started to get some breaks, meet some people and get better as a musician. I also started learning engineering, which has proved so valuable over the years.
“The path of how someone gets where they are is not something that can ever be duplicated, but there are some guidelines,” he said. “It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you. Being prepared when an opportunity comes along. Giving 100 percent, even when you’re being paid peanuts. Keeping in mind that your next opportunity is going to come from those half a dozen people you’re working with right now; they’re the ones that will refer you or vouch for you. If you’re a pain to work with the trail ends there.”
Eventually, Shrock got on the radar of Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach.
“Musically, we were a great fit and much of what I do bloomed out of that,” Shrock said. “Before meeting them, I had already done some indirect work for Prince and MTV’s “Live Aid” but my touring, symphonic orchestrations and learning about songwriting and arrangement really was forged out of the school of Bacharach and David through Dionne Warwick. Dionne and Burt are like family to me to this very day.”
While some can point to their single greatest career achievement or a career highlight, Shrock says he can’t think of one that stands above the rest.
“I’ve been onstage or in the studio with an extraordinary amount of legendary talent,” Shrock said. “I’ve played the best rooms in the world, most of them more than once. I’ve helped develop young artists that became very successful, like Leann Rimes. And, for the most part, the people I’ve worked with have been beyond my wildest expectations of talent and musicality.”
Shrock is the son of former Monticello residents Nasser and Betty Kay Shirakbari, significant members of the community for more than 30 years. His father owned Nasser’s Pharmacy and his mother was once the president of the Seark Concert Association, the organization sponsoring his April 19 performance in Monticello.
“I would not be here if not for them,” Shrock said. “Of course, that’s literal, but I’m talking about having the opportunity to do what I’ve done; that would not have happened without their encouragement, insight and guidance. It truly is the American dream come true. No matter your circumstance, if you choose to give it your all, you have a shot to make it. I’m very proud of them, and I really respect the life they built and gave to me and my sisters here in Monticello.”
Shrock will perform on April 19 at 7 p.m. at the University of Arkansas at Monticello Fine Arts Center Auditorium. Tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for students between the ages of 13 and 17. UAM students with an ID and children under the age of 13 will be admitted free. Tickets may be purchased in advance by calling (870) 460-1060.