Back in March, we put together a Top 9 List of Rock Keyboardists, excluding those of whom are primarily piano players knowing we would be putting together a dedicated list for these outstanding musicians. Well, today we have delivered on that promise with the Top 9 rock musicians who are, in our opinion, the best pure pianists in the history of the genre.
#9. Dennis DeYoung
Admittedly, our #9 selection on this list as Dennis DeYoung does play other forms of keyboards as well as other instruments. However, there is little doubt that the is at the heart of Styx’s softer edge as DeYoung composed and sang the bulk of the group’s top hits. These include the group’s 1973 breakthrough “Lady” and a string of subsequent hits through the late seventies and early eighties such as “Come Sail Away”, “Babe”, “Show Me The Way”, “The Best of Times” and “Don’t Let It End”. This Chicago native is self-taught on piano and composed the group’s sole chart-topper “Babe” after his very first encounter with a Rhodes electric piano.
“Come Sail Away” by Styx
#8. Dr. John
Malcolm John Rebennack landed his first job in the music industry as a 16-year-old producer and A&R man in the mid 1950s. By this point he was already playing in night clubs in his native New Orleans and chose to leave high school to focus entirely on music, as portrayed in his later classic song “Right Place, Wrong Time”. Eventually Rebeennack relocated to California and adopted the stage name “Dr. John”. Through the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. John was a high demand session musician in the prolific LA studio scene as part of the famed “Wrecking Crew” while also breaking out as a recording and performing act with his highly acclaimed 1968 debut album Gris-Gris. 1972’s Dr. John’s Gumbo is considered a staple of New Orleans style music fused with modern rock n’ roll where Dr. John established his distinct “funknology” on piano.
“Iko Iko” by Dr. John
#7. Billy Powell
During the earliest days of Lynard Skynard, Billy Powell worked as a roadie for the group. During a break at a high school prom gig, Powell sat down at the auditorium’s piano and played an original piece which caught the ear of vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and soon the two sat down to convert the piece into what would become the group’s most indelible song, “Free Bird”. Powell was promoted to being the band’s permanent keyboardist in time for their impressive 1973 debut album. Powell provided a classically trained element to the group’s rich Southern rock approach which gave Skynard a unique and appealing sound. With several group members losing their lives to tragic circumstances, Powell would go on to be one of the few group members to play on all their classic 1970s albums and remain with the various reunions through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s up until his death in 2009.
#6. Jerry Lee Lewis
Riding in the vanguard of the earliest wave of rock n’ roll, Jerry Lee Lewis (a.k.a “The Killer”) emerged from the classic Sun Records lineup which also brought us Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. However, it was his wild piano style that distinguished Lewis from his peers. The Killer’s rise and fall from fame was meteoric as his indelible hits and worldwide fame lasted barely a year before it all came crashing down when he married his 13-year-old cousin in 1958. Although Jerry Lee Lewis would have little commercial success beyond this point, his influence would ripple through the rock world for the next half century.
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”
#5. Roy Bittan
Roy Bittan was nicknamed “The Professor” because he was allegedly the only member of Bruce Spingsteen’s E Street Band with a high school diploma. Starting with his masterful work on 1975’s Born to Run, Bittan played piano on the majority of Springsteen albums through the modern day as well as consistently touring with him. In addition, Bittan was in high demand as a session musician and provided piano for such classic albums as Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell and Stevie Nick’s Bella Donna as well as albums by Patti Smith, Peter Gabriel and David Bowie.
#4. Nicky Hopkins
Although Nicky Hopkins spent much of his distinguished career behind the scenes as a session man, his style of signature piano is indelible on scores of rock classics. For many years, Nicky was the go to guy for many artists who wanted a distinct piano edge on their songs and he left his mark on tunes by The Kinks, Jefferson Airplane, Steve Miller, John Lennon and Led Zeppelin among others. But it was with the Rolling Stones where Hopkins made his biggest splash, filling the void left by the demise of Brian Jones and shepherding the group through their period of highest quality output in the late sixties and early seventies. Hopkins’ frail health kept him from ever doing serious touring or joining any of these bands and he died at the relatively young age of 50 in 1994.
“She’s a Rainbow”
#3. Elton John
Sir Elton John brought both piano and voice styles to a whole new level when he arrived at the beginning of the 1970s. Composed along with lyricist Bernie Taupin, the songs of Elton John have a multi-genre hyper-style and sonic intelligence unlike many before or since. Drawing great influence for predecessors like Little Richard and the previously mentioned Jerry Lee Lewis, Elton John adapted rock piano for the progressive music age, culminating with his 1973 double album masterpiece, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Elton John’s career extended for decades to come, constantly adapting to changing trends while consistently using his trusted piano to guide the songs along.
#2. Ray Charles
From a very young age, Raymond Charles Robinson proved that being blind could not inhibit one’s true talent and soul. He started by going to music halls and monopolizing the piano for hours on end, since he did not have one at home. Soon his reputation began to build and he got his first paying gig writing arrangements for a sixteen-piece pop music band in the late 1940s. Under the name Ray Charles, he soon started his own R&B band and recorded and released his first big hit, “Confession Blues”, in 1949. By the early 1950s, Charles was with the fledgling Atlantic Records label and began to make music history as he fused blues, Gospel and boogie-woogie into an early form of rock n’ roll. At the same time, Ray Charles had a parallel instrumental jazz career and would later venture into Country music, showing that he had a versatility like none other.
“What’d I Say”
#1. Billy Joel
Billy Joel bestowed upon himself the title “Piano Man” with the release of that famous song and album in 1973. However, no one would ever dispute this title as Joel would prove over the subsequent decades that he could master any style or musical genre while appealing to a mass audience which always seemed to bend to his sonic will. The musical journey of Billy Joel brought through the pop-oriented sub genres phases of prog rock (Turnstiles), jazz (The Stranger and 52nd Street), new wave (Glass Houses and The Nylon Curtain), retro pop/rock (An Innocent Man), slick adult contemporary (The Bridge and Storm Front) and revival soul (River of Dreams). The music was built on Joel’s expert piano skills and fit nicely into the radio playlist of the day. Then, just for good measure, Billy Joel retired from composing pop songs and started composing classical piano pieces. Ultimately, he returned to touring and still plays his plethora of musical masterpieces for audiences to this day.
“Angry Young Man”
There are plenty of outstanding piano players who would have easily landed on a list that was a bit less exclusive:
With this subjective list we’ve doubtlessly left out scores of artists who may have deserved consideration for this list. Please give us your comments below and tell us where you agree and disagree.
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