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25 Piano Men (And Women)

List Of The Day

Ben Folds may never be a hero like Axl or Slash, the fellas in Metallica or even the Jonas Brothers, but he plays the piano and has a new album. And that should count for something!

At first sight, the piano comes across as the instrument for the lazy. After all, you just sit there. You don't have to stand and you can hide behind a rather large instrument. However, if you play it right and wish to be an entertainer, you have to overcome the fact that you are playing an immobile instrument. You can't wince and preen the same way you can with a guitar. We don't have a Piano Hero video game and probably never will. Pianos are for nerds. (As someone who took 11 years of piano lessons--and never got better--I attest.)

But that hasn't stopped people from being successful with the ol' piano. Nope. This next generation of kids from the Gabe Dixon Band to Frida Hyvonen sit there determinedly and hope to make a difference.

It got really tough trying to determine the top 25. After all, many of the finest keyboardists were ensemble players. Booker T. Jones is a legend. Rick Wakeman of Yes, Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Powell and Richard Wright (RIP) of Pink Floyd were equally integral to their bands. Paul McCartney and John Lennon both had hits from the piano seat. Bruce Springsteen had TWO keyboardists (Roy Bittan on piano and the late Danny Federici [RIP] on organ). Herbie Hancock busted out of the jazz world where he was a legend to connect with the mainstream with "Rockit." Who can imagine a world without Eric Carmen singing "All By Myself?" And Barry Manilow???

Thelonious Monk is arguably better than anyone on the list, but before you know it, I'd have to start taking calls from jazzbos and the classical division over at Sony. It can get pretty political out there.

Ok, maybe we should set fire to the 88-keyed monster and start over. As you see this list could've gone to 100 and we'd still be leaving worthwhile quality human beings off.

In order to be fair, I went to the math department at Yahoo! and asked if there wasn't some sort of "formula" I could use to come up with a list and they handed me this bizarre strip of paper that no matter what I did I kept coming up with the name "Kevin Cronin." As much as I'd love to think REO Speedwagon can save the universe, I'm a little uneasy with the idea that their piano player is the best of the lot. Not as long as Jerry Lee Lewis is around to holler.

Anyhow, I devised my own formula, adding points for popularity and for representing an "era," having a style that's immediately recognizable and being the kind of person you can bring home to mom. And if you think I'm playing favorites, rest assured I hate the music of at least half the people on this list. The fun is figuring out who it might be, since I've been working on my backhand in late night Y! Music sessions.

25) Andrew Gold: Aside from singing the theme to The Last Great American Hero, Gold also was the one responsible for "Lonely Boy," a song about a boy who was lonely. Childhood piano lessons alienate you from the other kids. You learn to live with the perpetual wedgie.

24) Michael McDonald: Not just the voice for Verizon, but the silver fox who redefined the Doobie Brothers in their hour of need. So, will he one day sing the phone book?

23) Joe Jackson: An ornery guy who used the "New Wave" to garner attention before spinning his wheels in a million other musical directions and losing his audience and his commercial momentum in the process. He even went so far as to write a book and a symphony. That's a lot of work.

22) Ben Folds: Ben may be single-handedly responsible for the New Wave of Sensitive Piano Men. Or he may be left to flounder in the indifferent cultural abyss that awaits the rest of us. I say we smack him.

21) Tom Waits: Everyone's noticed how Tom's voice has gotten odder and cragglier as he's grown older. Has anyone noticed how much slower his piano playing has gotten? Is that the sound of arthritis? Someone throw him some Doan's Pills!

20) Billy Preston: The only musician to ever be billed with the Beatles on one of their records. Even Eric Clapton didn't rate that. Pulling an Allen Klein, Preston also worked with the Rolling Stones and saved their career. Granted, they probably still liked Billy after all was said and done, since he didn't end up owning their recordings.

19) Sarah McLachlan: Give her credit for Lilith Fair for sure. But give her credit for loving animals. She's never resorted to cheap theatrics or cheesy novelties and remains one of those performers who no matter how many times I write about her am never sure whether it's "Mac" or "Mc." Always have to double-check.

18) Bruce Hornsby: Anyone can spot Hornsby's style. People who don't know anything about music know it's him. Is this a good thing? It means he makes an impression. You even know it's him when he's guesting on other people's albums. For a guy who specializes in a shade of bland, he can't hide.

17) Norah Jones: Not really my cup of preferred tea, but I can see how people who haven't bought an album in years would be drawn into buying hers. When I went into the local stereo shop to buy a new turntable, the audiophile hippie brought me into his sound room and made me listen to this album to better understand how there was no turntable rumble with his extremely expensive belt-driven model of the week. I told him I was half-deaf and didn't care. He thought I was kidding. I bought an $89 piece of crap instead.

16) John Ondrasik (Five For Fighting): You know that song about having 100 years to live, the one that seemed to be featured in every commercial, TV show, sporting event and news program for about a year? That was this guy. Was even more ever-present than that "Superman" song. I'd walk into the grocery store, hear his song and think "Uh, oh, a dramatic scene is about to unfold" and then I'd buy the cat litter and go home and worry.

15) Aretha Franklin: Everyone knows she can sing. But she's best when she sings and plays the piano because that's what corporate types call "synergy." It's when you take two energies and work them together for a greater return. Einstein and Wilhelm Reich agreed on this. With Aretha, she can't NOT put herself completely behind what she's doing, so when you have her coming at you double-barreled, it's like Doublemint: twice the flavor at half the price.

14) Alicia Keys: It's all right there in the last name: KEYS. She's like the Johnny Guitar of the keyboard set.

13) Stevie Winwood: At some point in the 1980s, Stevie got a little too slick. He always had so much natural talent that he was bound to end up too smooth for his own good. You can't have a voice that easy and not end up on the easy listening pile. He should probably gargle Drano before each recording session.

12) Randy Newman: No, Randy doesn't pay to get on my lists. He's simply in my rolodex of musicians whose names I can spell without having to look them up. And he does play the piano. And he is quite good. And if he wants to pay to be on my lists, he surely can make an offer.

11) Billy Joel: At this point, he gets to play it both ways. He pokes fun at himself and he plays to the largest crowds imaginable when the moment suits him--Shea Stadium, folks! He's an elder statesman who made his reputation as a young punk who could sing sensitive and wasn't afraid to be really corny if the mood struck him. His catalog is filled with songs that once they get inside your head WILL NOT LEAVE no matter how politely you ask. Think about "Uptown Girl" for just a moment. See? You're screwed for the rest of the day.

10) Jackson Browne: Jackson looks sincere no matter what he's doing, but never more so than when he's singing about death or saving the environment from behind a piano. Then he takes on the weight of being his very own public service announcement. We all must sit up straight and listen.

9) Tori Amos: I've been impressed with how she's grown over the years, trying new ideas, daring to seize new concepts and getting as weird as she wants to while still writing a decent pop song here and there just to make sure you don't completely drift off into space. Since that's where she intends to travel by herself. She'd prefer to bring back souvenirs for the rest of us to admire. Bring back something shiny, Tori!

8) Carole King: To think they used to hide Carole in a building full of songwriters. As if it might be too dangerous to expose her to the public at large. Families would be ruined as young daughters demanded pianos in their living rooms to live out their fantasies. These days we just throw an Xbox at the kid and hope he or she keeps quiet. Only to find out we're behind the times and what they really want is some video game contraption that's even more expensive. We're having a financial meltdown, kids. I'm not even sure if my bank exists. Cool your jets.

7) Joni Mitchell: Before she got political and cranky (can't blame her, it's what happens when you start paying attention), she was all about herself and she sang about herself exquisitely and did so with her guitar and at the piano where even though she couldn't twist it into an alternate tuning, she did manage to break it into some very odd spare parts.

6) Elton John: Elton had to wear those crazy glasses and outfits. How else to stand out from the crowd when you're stuck behind this big cumbersome thingamajig? That he's survived so many decades of service and been knighted and treated like royalty just goes to show what can happen if you stick around long enough and people discover you're not really trying to destroy the moral fabric of the country, but trying to help people choose better fabrics to work with.

5) Jerry Lee Lewis: Marrying your teenaged cousin isn't always the career move it's cracked up to be, but "The Killer" is one resilient soldier and his detour into country music once rock n' roll wouldn't have him turned out to be a stroke of genius. Think about that. He was too controversial for rock n' roll and had to settle for the country music crowd. Is country music filled with compassionate conservatives? Uniters not dividers? All this crap jargon is starting to sound quaint these days.

4) Little Richard: The ultimate flip-flopper. Little Richard could never decide whether he should be preaching for the Lord or seducing the souls of the masses with his piano-pumping firepower. If it turns out to be a one way trip to hell, at least it's got a decent soundtrack. No Vangelis allowed on this bus.

3) Fats Domino: While not as widely acknowledged these days, Domino recorded a voluminous amount of material that you can sample with his boxed set and hear his impeccable taste and timing. And just because an entire generation links him to freakin' Richie Cunningham and "Blueberry Hill" is no excuse to stop there. And to hell with "obesity" studies and TV shows like The Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover. They called him "Fats" out of truth and admiration. You eat a salad.

2) Stevie Wonder: Begun as a wunderkind, a youngster with prodigious talents, Stevie blossomed into a fully functional recording artist and songwriter who even managed to write an entire concept album about botanicals. Now that's genius. Or lunacy.

1) Ray Charles: Charles had a charisma that allowed him to sing anything and get away with it. He turned country music upside down just by thinking about it. Imagine if he had thought about world peace or pizza!

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