10 of the greatest piano players in Rock
When it comes to rock and roll the piano player gets a raw deal. Pick up any book about rock music and it will be littered with pages about the great guitarists and singers that pioneered and shaped the music. Music lovers will debate endlessly whether Hendrix or Clapton was the better guitarist, but when it comes to the great piano players little is ever said. This hub sets out to change that and pays tribute to some of the greatest piano players of all time in rock and blues.
The Best Piano Players in Rock - Top 10
Jerry Lee Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis was not only a pioneer of early rock and roll music, but he invented a style of piano playing which was and remains completely distinctive. Lewis’ piano playing was every bit as wild as the man himself, with some critics maintaining at the time that Lewis would have more success if he toned down his wild, hard edged piano style. Lewis had his biggest hits in the 50’s with “Whole lotta Shakin going on” and “Great Balls of Fire”, but also had success in the 60s and 70s in the US country charts. Lewis (77 years old) is still recording and touring today and in 2010 released his most recent album Mean Old Man. Here is an early Jerry Lee Lewis recording of “Whole lotta Shakin going on”.
Elton John is such a colorful character that it is easy to overlook what a brilliant musician he is. At the very core of Elton’s songs is his piano playing. Elton John (real name Reginald Dwight) began playing piano at a young age and got his first gig at a pub near his parents home aged 15. In 1966 John met up with long time songwriting partner Bernie Taupin which began one of the most successful songwriting partnerships in history. Between them they have written over 30 albums and sold over 250 million records. John’s playing style is heavily influenced by gospel music, Americana and classical music.
Ray Charles is one of the most legendary musicians of the 20th century. Charles learnt piano at a young age where he studied classical music at St. Augustine's School for the Deaf and Blind. His music draws on a wide range of influences early gospel and blues, jazz, big band and country. Ray Charles has one of the most distinctive voices in music, but it was his piano playing that gave his songs their unique style. Few musicians have been able to successfully fuse together such a range of influences as Charles and at the heart of all his songs is his incredible piano playing. Charles favoured instruments were the Wurlitzer electric piano and Fender Rhodes piano which can be heard on his biggest hits including “What'd I Say ” and “Georgia on my mind ”.
Billy Joel was America’s answer to Elton John. Joel burst onto the scene in 1973 with “Piano man”, a song about his experiences at playing in a piano bar in Los Angeles. Joel based the characters in the song after real people he met while playing at the bar. Joel had a string of success in the 70’s but it wasn't until 1978 until he had his first number 1 album with 52nd street. Billy Joel has had most success writing piano ballads such as “Just the way you are”, “Honesty”, “Innocent man”...however the title of balladeer has never sat easily with him. Here is Joel playing..............a ballad “Scenes from an Italian restaurant”.
Leon Russell is an American singer, songwriter, musician who started playing music at an early age in the clubs of his native Tulsa, Oklahoma. Russell started his career as a session musician and played on the recordings of a number of high profile artists including Eric Clapton, The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan. Russell was also a member of Phil Spector’s studio group and played on many of the popular releases in the early 60s. It wasn't until 1969 before Russell had his biggest commercial break when Joe Cocker covered Russell's own composition “Delta Lady”. In 1970 Russell released his self titled album which featured perhaps his best loved song “A song for You” The song has been covered by more than 40 different artists, here is Russell playing that song live with John Mayer.
Allen Toussaint is an American songwriter, performer and musician who was hugely influential in bringing New Orleans R&B to mainstream. Toussaint’s songs have been covered by hundreds of artists spanning 5 decades. Some of the more notable covers include “Working in a Coal Mine”(Lee Dorsey, Devo) , “Southern Nights”(Glen Campbell), “Fortune Teller” (the Who, the Stones) and “Mother n Law” (Ernie K-Doe). Toussaint continues to release albums and in 2006 released The River in Reverse with Elvis Costello, which was followed up with The Bright Mississippi in 2009. Here he is playing “Working in a Coalmine” live at the BBC.
Bruce Hornsby shot to fame in 1986 with the release of “The Way it Is”. The song featured poignant social commentary and a memorable driving piano riff which propelled the song to the top of the American music Chart. Hornsby’s music draws on a wide range of influences from jazz, bluegrass, rock, pop, Dixieland, motown and blues. Hornsby has worked with a number of other artists, in the early 90s he had a brief spell as keyboard player for the Grateful Dead and has also played with Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton. Hornsby’s music has been covered by many artists, notable covers of his songs include Don Henley “The End of Innnocence” and Tupac Shakur’s sampling of “The way it is”. Hornsby’s music is distinctive due largely in part because of his incredible piano playing , here he is playing unaccompanied on “Gonna be some changes made”.
Rick Wakeman started playing keyboards from an early age and was a session player for a number of popular artists including Elton John, Ozzy Osbourne and David Bowie. Wakeman then went on to join the band Yes in 1971 where he was instrumental in developing the bands prog rock sound. Wakeman left the band in 1974 to pursue his own solo projects and released three albums between 1974 and 1976. Wakeman then rejoined Yes before leaving the band for good in 1980. Back in the 70s Wakeman was normally seen surrounded by a wall of keyboards and wearing a cape, here he is playing a beautiful solo piano rendition of of the “Close to the Edge”.
Mac Rebennack better known as Dr John is another brilliant and enigmatic pianist hailing from New Orleans. Dr John started off as a session musician in the late 50s originally playing guitar, before his guitar playing career came to an abrupt end after his finger was injured by a gunshot when he was defending a band mate. Following this incident he switched to piano and released his first solo album in 1968, the weird and psychedelic Gris-Gris . Dr Johns music combines New Orleans jazz and blues with a psychedelic voodoo inspired sound which earned him the name “the night tripper”.
As the 70’s progressed Dr Johns music became more conventional drawing upon the New Orleans R&B sound that he grew up with. Dr John has continued to release albums regularly, his most recent being the 2010 album Tribal . Throughout his career Dr John has experimented with different sounds, however he has never strayed far from his New Orleans roots. Here he is on the Jools Holland Hootenanny playing one of his best loved songs “Such a Night”.
John Cale is a founding member of the Velvet Underground. Cale’s percussive piano style was a pivotal part of the Velvet’s early sound and can be heard on early releases “I’m waiting for the man” and “All tomorrows’ parties”. Cale left the velvet underground in 1970 where he went on to forge a successful solo career. Cale’s music spans a wide range of styles, from piano ballads to abrasive industrial rock. This clip comes from the BBC in 2008 with Cale playing one of his early songs “Fear is a man’s best friend”.
After writing this hub I kept thinking of great piano players and keyboardists that should have made the list (I’m sure I have forgotten a few obvious names as well). So here is a list of honourable mentions that perhaps should have made the top 10. Some of these didn’t make the list because as brilliant musicians as they are, they are predominantly keyboard, rather than piano players.
Mike Garson (David Bowie, Smashing Pumpkins)
Jon Lord (Deep Purple)
Keith Emerson (ELP)
Ray Manzarek (The doors)
Donald Fagan (Steely Dan)
Roy Bittan (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band)
Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers)
Nicky Hopkins (The ultimate unsung session player)
Richard Manuel (The Band)
Bill Payne (Little Feat)
Gregg Allman (The Allman Brothers Band)
Chuck Leavell (Session player, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, The Black Crowes)