Ten Best Piano-Playing Rock Stars of All Time
Elton John: Only a piano player?
Photo by Andrew Potter
Were it not for the extroverts, rock 'n' roll piano players would be at a decided disadvantage.
Though a frontman who wields a guitar has the mobility to move about the stage and pose and posture, your average keyboardist is forced to remain in a stationary position due to the fact that most grand pianos aren't really made for portability. Still, certain exceptional showmen found a way to do gymnastics while using their pianos as props, one they can stand on, duck beneath, or somersault off, depending on their athletic prowess.
Call it compensation. After all, Elton John humbly named one of his bestselling albums Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player in an attempt to lower expectations. Regardless, here the ten best piano-playing rock stars of all time, including Elton himself.
10. Rick Wakeman
Flash and finesse make Wakeman unique among his peers. Whether sharing the stage with Yes or going solo to create musical extravaganzas about H.G. Wells' Journey to the Center of the Earth and the six wives of Englands's King Henry VIII, Wakeman's flowing blonde locks, capes, and wizardly persona left no doubt as to who commanded the keys.
True, Liberace was never prone to rock 'n' roll, but it can't be denied that his extravagant wardrobe, pumped-up pompadour, and over-the-top personality made him a supreme showman, one who could easily rival any rocker before or since. Just watch the film Behind the Candelabra if further proof is needed. But beware the hot tub scene.
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8. Dr. John
While the good doctor, otherwise known as Mac Rebennack, has become a serious jazz and blues musician, he portrayed himself, early in his career, as a New Orleans homeboy and master of the gris-gris who tapped into tradition and vamped with voodoo. He regularly mixed with other superstar sidemen, but his stage shows were all about spectacle and showmanship. Also known as the Night Tripper, he mixed rock, blues, zydeco, and zaniness with skill and savvy.
7. Warren Zevon
The late Warren Zevon didn't need wild costumes or a faux persona to affirm his rock star status. Whether howlin' like the "Werewolves of London," demanding "Lawyers, Guns, and Money," or relating tales of a character named "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," Zevon was a tireless showmen with an innate ability to electrify an audience. He is a sorely missed superstar. Aaaaahhhhoooooo!
6. Billy Joel
These days, Billy looks a lot like someone's benign granddad, as opposed to a stage-worthy showman. But boy, the guy still puts on a great concert! Besides, he started out as a real rocker courtesy of early outfits like Attila and the Hassles. Give Billy his due; this Piano Man brought the keyboards to center stage.
5. Billy Preston
With his oversized Afro and shit-eatin' grin, Billy Preston was a piano-playing dynamo throughout the '60s and '70s, both on his own and as a seasoned sideman with the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. His solo hits like "That's the Way God Planned It" (produced by George Harrison), "Outa-Space," "Nothing From Nothing," and "Will It Go Round in Circles" were equally effusive, one of many reasons why this former protégé of the great Ray Charles became such a sensation.
4. Keith Emerson
Everyone knows Emerson from his namesake trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer. But prior to that band, he was the super-showman in a similarly oriented outfit dubbed the Nice. However, it was anything but nice, thanks to Emerson's penchant for tossing knives in his piano, wrestling it into submission, and occasionally burning American flags. Oddly enough, the song "America" (from the score of West Side Story) was a mainstay of the group's set list.
3. Jerry Lee Lewis
As rock 'n' roll's original bad boy, Jerry Lee showed you didn't have to twitch and twerk, like his rival Elvis Presley, with a guitar slung over your shoulder. The fact that one of Lewis' cousins was TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart suggests that showmanship was in his DNA. But later, when he married another of his cousins, the 13-year-old Myra Gale Brown, Jerry Lee became a target for the tabloids and his career prospects suffered. However, he remained a master of the stage, kicking the piano bench over, playing keyboards with his heel, and jumping atop the baby grand, all while shaking his arms, bobbing his head, and throwing his unruly locks all over. Goodness, gracious, he was a great ball of fire.
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2. Little Richard
Along with Chuck Berry, LIttle Richard was the original rock and roll icon, a man whose flamboyant persona and outlandish behavior shocked the adults, drove the kids crazy and influenced every true rocker -- the Beatles included -- ever since. Sixty years on, there's no one who comes close to duplicating his outrageous antics. He later became a preacher, an appropriate career choice considering the way he made early converts to the cause of rock and roll.
1. Elton John
As indicated above, Elton took craziness and creativity to an extreme, suspending himself from his keyboards while garbed in all kinds of wild costumes. Whether dressed like Mozart, an oversized Donald Duck, or showing off his signature giant sunglasses, EJ's wacky wardrobe helped compensate for his somewhat dumpy demeanor and, truth be told, otherwise unassuming appearance. Even now, the one-of-a-kind, million-dollar piano that he plays for his Caesars Palace residency in Las Vegas provides ample insight into Sir Elton's penchant for fabulous excess and flair for rock showmanship. He will forever be the king of the keys.
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Elton John's All the Hits Tour. Friday, March 6. American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets cost $36 to $156 plus fees via ticketmaster.com. All ages. Call 786-777-1000, or visit aaarena.com.
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