Ebony And Ivory Celebration

The GRAMMY National Piano Month playlist
  • Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage.com
    Billy Joel and Paul McCartney
  • Photo: Steve Jennings/WireImage.com
    Queen's Freddie Mercury
  • Photo: Rick Diamond/WireImage.com
    Earl Wild performs at the 2008 GRAMMY Salute To Classical Music
  • Photo: Matt Kent/WireImage.com
    The Fray's Isaac Slade
  • Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage.com
    Alicia Keys performs at the 50th Annual GRAMMY Awards in 2008
  • Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
    Elton John performs at the 2010 MusiCares Person of the Year gala
  • Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
    The Eagles' Glenn Frey
September 21, 2010 -- 7:00 am PDT

Where would music as we know it be without the piano? The sound and versatile range of the instrument is unparalleled, evidenced by the instrument's prevalence in nearly every genre of music, including rock, pop, jazz, classical, R&B, blues, country, and even polka.

In 2009 the National Piano Foundation celebrated the 10th anniversary of National Piano Month, a 30-day celebration of all things piano. While news regarding a 2010 celebration has been scarce, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to help celebrate arguably the most important instrument in the history of music. On that note, here are a few randomly fun tidbits sure to augment your piano knowledge:

  • Johann Behrent built the first piano in the United States in Philadelphia in 1775
  • The term "pianist" during World War II implied a clandestine spy using radio or wireless telegraphy
  • In addition to musicians, many celebrities have been known to tickle the ivories including actors Clint Eastwood, Jeff Goldblum, Dustin Hoffman, and Dudley Moore. Telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell and Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein also played the piano. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a classically trained pianist
  • A concert grand piano may have a combined string tension of up to 30 tons. (The total string tension resulting from the Pocket Piano iTunes app does not compute.)
  • The first note on a standard 88-note keyboard is A. The last note on the keyboard is C
  • Beethoven devotee Schroeder of "Peanuts" fame played "Für Elise" in "A Charlie Brown Christmas"
  • With the benefit of YouTube, one can find lessons on an infinite number of popular piano songs. Here you can view a brief tutorial on how to play the classic piano part for Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'"

In recognizing that music and the piano live together in perfect harmony, we present our piano-themed GRAMMY playlist featuring not only talented pianists, but recordings that would likely sound naked without the benefit of sounds emanating from black-and-white keys, strings and slabs of wood.

"Let It Be"
The Beatles, Best Original Score Written For A Motion Picture Or A Television Special, 1970

A tried-and-true Lennon/McCartney classic, McCartney has said the theme of the song came to him following a dream about his mother during a tense period surrounding the sessions for The Beatles (aka "White Album.") Macca was able to get over his tension enough to supply both piano and vocals on the track. "Let It Be" ranked No. 8 on Rolling Stone magazine's recent top 10 Beatles songs list and remains a McCartney solo concert favorite.

"How To Save A Life" (iTunes>)
The Fray, Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal nominee, 2006

Perhaps an anomaly in the alternative rock genre, the Fray utilize the piano as a centerpiece to their sound, courtesy of lead singer Isaac Slade. Slade has described the lyrics for "How To Save A Life" as being inspired by a mentor experience he had with a teen musician. The song peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has been certified triple-platinum by the RIAA.

The Romantic Master — Works Of Saint-Saens, Handel
Earl Wild, Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (Without Orchestra), 1996

Virtuoso pianist Wild is considered a true legend in the grand tradition of Romantic pianists. A prodigy at a young age, he also possessed the rare skill of perfect pitch. Among his many career highlights, in 1986 Wild was honored with the Liszt Medal by the People's Republic of Hungary on the 100th anniversary of the death of Franz Liszt. In addition to his GRAMMY win, The Recording Academy honored Wild at the 2008 GRAMMY Salute To Classical Music. Unfortunately, two years later Wild died at his home in Palm Springs, Calif.

Alone (iTunes>)
Bill Evans, Best Jazz Performance — Small Group Or Soloist With Small Group, 1970

One of jazz's preeminent pianists, Evans' playing was marked by an unparalleled combination of harmonic sophistication, skillfully articulated improvisations, complex rhythms, and soaring melodies. Fellow jazz pianists such as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, among others, have cited him as an influence. Alone was an album true to its title, consisting of just Evans and his piano.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" (iTunes>)
Queen, Best Pop Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus nominee, 1976; GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, 2004

While discussion regarding this Queen classic typically centers around its lyrical meaning, beautifully layered vocals, fandangos, or air-guitar-worthy instrumental break, it's hard to forget the piano stylings of Freddie Mercury. As a young boy, Mercury studied piano formally, which served him well in his exploits in Queen. Mercury was said to have utilized the piano in writing his songs, and he played the instrument on other notable Queen tracks such as "Killer Queen," "Somebody To Love" and "We Are The Champions."

"Imagine" (iTunes>)
John Lennon Plastic Ono Band, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, 1999

Arguably his most popular post-Beatles composition, "Imagine" is the title-track off Lennon's 1971 album of the same name. Written and performed by Lennon, the song not only became his signature, but a hymn for worldwide peace. The piano Lennon used to write the song is currently on display at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.

"If I Ain't Got You" (iTunes>)
Alicia Keys, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, 2004

At an early age, Keys took piano lessons and studied the works of renowned composers such as Beethoven, Mozart and her personal favorite, Chopin. ("I love Chopin.... He's my dawg," Keys said in an interview with The Guardian.) By the time she was a teenager, she was writing her own songs. Keys parlayed her passion for the piano into a successful recording career, evidenced by her impressive 12 GRAMMY Awards.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas (32) (iTunes>)
Artur Schnabel, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, 1975

Despite being deaf, Beethoven was not only a prolific composer, but a virtuoso pianist and a dedicated student of the instrument. Spanning the length of his career, Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas provide a captivating look at not only his musical development and proclivity for experimentation, but also a window into some of his timeless works, including the elegant "Moonlight Sonata." Schnabel, considered to be one of the 20th century's finest classical pianists, was heralded for not only his interpretations of the works of Beethoven, but also Liszt, Chopin and Schubert. 

Chopin: Mazurkas (Complete) (iTunes>)
Artur Rubinstein, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, 2003 

Born in Poland, Rubinstein is considered to be one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. At the age of 3, he developed perfect pitch and was soon recognized as a piano prodigy. The New York Times has described Rubinstein's recordings of Chopin's 51 mazurkas, a Polish folk dance in triple meter, as unrivaled: "Chopin was his specialty...it was as a Chopinist that he was considered by many without peer."

"Ain't Misbehavin'" (Piano Solo) (iTunes>)
Thomas "Fats" Waller, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, 1984

Born Thomas Wright Waller, "Fats" began playing piano at the tender age of 6 and would go on to be renowned for his mastery of the jazz stride piano style. Written by Waller, along with Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf, "Ain't Misbehavin'" was covered by luminaries such as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and fellow jazz pianist Art Tatum. The popular jazz standard also featured rock and roll and country treatments, courtesy of Bill Haley & His Comets and Hank Williams Jr., respectively.

Gerswhin: "Rhapsody In Blue"
George Gershwin With Paul Whiteman, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, 1974

Written by master songwriter and pianist Gerswhin, "Rhapsody In Blue" uniquely incorporated elements of classical and jazz music. The piece received its premiere in 1924 in New York, featuring Whiteman and his band with Gershwin playing piano. Those flying the friendly skies with United Airlines may recognize the song as it has been featured in the airline's ad campaigns dating back to the mid-'70s.

"Desperado" (iTunes>)
The Eagles, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, 2000

Despite never being released as a single, "Desperado" is a favorite among Eagles fans, no doubt due to the dynamic combination of Don Henley's somber vocal with tasteful instrumentation marked by a memorable piano introduction. The song proved to be an early glimpse into the successful Henley/Glenn Frey Eagles songwriting partnership. "Glenn leapt right on it — filled in the blanks and brought structure," said Henley. "And that was the beginning of our songwriting partnership — that's when we became a team."

"Candle In The Wind 1997" (iTunes>)
Elton John, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, 1997

Sir Elton began playing the piano at the age of 3 and soon after started formal lessons. Eventually he would go on to craft a piano style incorporating elements of classical, soul and pop music, and John has sustained a career spanning more than four decades. Re-recorded as a tribute to Princess Diana, "Candle In The Wind 1997" debuted at No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic and he performed a heartfelt rendition at Princess Diana's memorial service on Sept. 6, 1997.

"Piano Man" (iTunes>)
Billy Joel, as featured on Piano Man, 1973

Though this song did not yield a GRAMMY Award for Joel, we'd be hard-pressed to not include a song describing the travails of a struggling lounge piano player on our playlist. (Besides, Joel is a five-time GRAMMY winner.)

Who are some of your favorite pianists and what are some of your favorite piano-based songs? Drop us a comment.


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