Sing Us a Song, You’re the Piano Men
How the heck have I managed not to create this theme until now?!?
You might assume that I’m a guitar girl. I’m not. I’m a piano/keyboard chick (though I do adore a great 80s sax). I will acknowledge that the cool-or-quirky-guy-playing-guitar thing has its, ahem, appeal.
Anyway, I was recently reflecting on the piano. Although the trumpet is my favorite instrument, it doesn’t make a lot of appearances in pop music or my beloved alt 80s scene.
I believe I have unearthed the reason why I’m such a fan of the piano. Freud would probably back my theory. Growing up my dad played the banjo (he taught himself by watching a weekly PBS show — yes, seriously) and the piano (he had a baby grand in his bedroom as a teen — yep, he was that hip).
As a kid, there were many nights that I fell asleep to the sound of Dad playing the piano. He gave up the banjo about a year ago, but he can still play the piano!
I always say that if you have a discernable style then you are a good player. My dad does — his style runs pretty with a fair amount of flourish.
When I studied in London many, many years ago, we took a group trip to Wales, staying in a rented house. There was a modest piano in the main room and we gathered around the lone music major while he took requests. Everyone eventually got bored…except me. I kept asking him to play until he tired. I really do like live music!
In any case, this is by no means an exhaustive list of talented pianists (that I’m calling “pop” in the most generous sense), but it includes my very favorites. You’ll note that I’ve only included men today. As I crafted today’s mixtape I knew I would create a female-focused version in the future.
I’ve opted to start today’s mixtape off with the most unassuming performance. I absolutely adore Jackson Browne’s piano playing. It’s easy like Sunday morning.
Introspective, quiet, forlorn, and very pretty. This live interpretation is more rushed compared to the studio cut, but it’s stripped down so you can easily focus on the piano.
If you explore Jackson Browne’s 70s and 90s material (his 80s catalog was more guitar-centric), you’ll discover that he is a gem of a piano player. Though he wouldn’t make many folks’ top 10 (or even 20), I’m a big, big fan of his piano playing. It melts me in a way that no one else does.
Confession: I had this poster of Harry Connick, Jr. on my college dorm wall. Another confession: I think “On the Street Where You Live” might be the most romantic song ever written.
So, yes, I might be an unreliable critic here. But I’ll never apologize!
I mean, LISTEN to this — this is soooo Harry Connick, Jr.
I certainly could have picked a traditional New Orleans song, but it’s really a bit irrelevant. You can take the man to Broadway but New Orleans is always in his head and at his fingertips. He takes a standard and plops and pounds, creating something that honors the source material while sounding exactly like Harry Connick, Jr.
Sexy, no? Smooth, jazzy, confident. Notice that there is A LOT of flourish, A LOT going on here. But Billy Joel’s style is so slick you probably don’t notice how much he’s sneaking into this performance.
This isn’t about precision. It’s about the moment, the vibe, the bravado.
“New York State of Mind” is one of those songs that we’ve heard so many times we forget to listen to it. It is so, so good! This live performance from BMT favorite, the Old Grey Whistle Test, is iconic.
Chances are you haven’t given Jerry Lee Lewis much thought. This performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” from 1957 is going to blow you away!
The one pop pianist my dad has mentioned over the years is Mr. Lewis. Dad saw him in his prime and commented that he was as crazy as everyone has ever said. The show was memorable!
Frenzied, unrestrained, impassioned, unhinged, unapologetic, and riveting. He might be unstable but he is one of the most gifted pianists that ever existed. Jerry Lee Lewis remains in a league of his own!
Of the pop/chart-toppers, Billy Joel and Elton John probably share the ability to pivot the most effortlessly. That said, Elton John keeps things simpler than Billy Joel. He’s a bit more focused on the notes and melody while Billy Joel is going for mood. But when Elton John does let loose, he tends to veer towards Jerry Lee Lewis as much as anyone.
It’s interesting to go back to an early performance of something like “Tiny Dancer” and see more hesitancy when Elton John is a young man. By the mid-80s, EJ’s timidity is obliterated.
“I’m Still Standing” is my go-to Elton John song. Nothing else captures his exuberance, defiance, and swagger better. You’ll note that even as amped up as he is here, his style is still contained. By the end, he is almost careening, but the notes are still clipped, crisp. Go back and compare it to Billy Joel’s performance.
Yes, Ben Folds. If you doubt his inclusion, check out “Army.”
I’ve previously shared that I saw (and briefly met) Ben Folds a few years ago at Bass Concert Hall in Austin. I marveled at his talent. He is a musical genius! His improvisational skills are unrivaled.
He’s exuberant, over the top, whimsical, and highly melodic. He’s got a strong, sure hand.
When I was in grad school in Austin a small group of us trekked to Houston to see the double bill of Billy Joel and Elton John perform at the stadium at Rice University.
Frustratingly, I remember almost nothing from the show. I do recall that it had been raining and was still sprinkling when Billy Joel came onto the outdoor stage. He plinked out a brief refrain of “Singing in the Rain” when he sat down. I was charmed at his improvisation!
This live duet performance of the two most successful pop piano men is a treasure.
Until her 40’s, Bonnie’s worst nightmare included writing and sharing personal stories publicly. At her friends’ suggestion, she bemusedly started Bonnie’s Mixed Tape on Medium in 2017. She remains shocked that anyone reads her stories and that P.S. I Love You, Assemblage, the Writing Cooperative, and the Ascent have published her work.
Bonnie loves all types of music, but really, really, really loves the 80s.
Thank you for reading this story
I know you are busy and have lots of ways you could be spending your time. you using your time to read my work means the world to me — my sincerest thanks!