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Three of the Greatest Pop Pianists of Modern Times

Jul 11, 2008
It seems as though pop music sometimes gets a bad rap. A glimpse at three of modern pop's most famous pianists may dispel the myth that pop is an inferior genre. Their skill and level of musical expertise rivals that of pianists of other genres.

Sir Elton John: Born in England in 1947, his illustrious career has spanned three decades. John's talent for playing the piano became apparent before the boy even entered school. He was often overheard picking out difficult classical pieces on the piano by ear as young as four years old. In fact, he was considered a prodigy. John entered the Royal Academy of Music on a scholarship award at the age of 11 and outshone most of the other students.

His professional career began like that of many musicians. John spent several years playing in pubs. Eventually a chance opportunity led him to partner with Bernie Taupin. Taupin and John write songs together to this day. Songwriting eventually led to the release of his first album in 1970. Shortly thereafter he became known as "the father of piano rock," a title that still befits him today.

Billy Joel: Though he is often associated with his first big hit, "The Piano Man," Joel almost didn't learn to play. It was with great reluctance and upon his mother's insistence that he began piano lessons. He excelled in proficiency, despite taunts from classmates about his preference for music over sports. Joel even took up boxing in high school to quell those taunts. Though he won many boxing championships, he gave up boxing after a nose injury and focused on his musical pursuits.

Joel began playing professionally at age 14. He played with various bands from 1964 until he recorded and released his first solo album in 1971. Though that first album didn't gain much acclaim, but his second did. "The Piano Man" single was an instant success. The album "The Piano Man," which was released in 1973, went gold. To date, over 4 million copies of this recording have been sold.

Joel went on to make several more albums in his career. His works include an album of original classical piano pieces.

Jerry Lee Lewis: Much of the credit for advancing the role of rock music in society must be given to this artist. In fact, Lewis is considered a pioneer in the industry. He began playing the piano in childhood and had a clear gifting for music. Fascinated by "negro music," he began to develop his own style based on it. It was a mix of gospel, which he had grown up with, and country, R&B and boogie woogie. What emerged was the earliest form of rock and roll.

Lewis was often publicly condemned for playing in a style that had not been heard before. Even his own family denounced his work. This criticism seemed to only fuel his artistic nature even more. His fame spread, and even Elvis Presley took notice. He is quoted as saying "If I could play the piano like that, I'd quit singing."

Lewis' life, like that of many artists, was fraught with personal problems and scandals. His marriage to his 13-year-old cousin in 1953 (while still married to his first wife) nearly plummeted his career into obscurity. Soon after, his fame became limited to being the butt of jokes and public ridicule. Health problems, alcoholism, drug addiction and family tragedies nearly did him in. But after a movie about his life was released in 1989, his career made a comeback. This included another hit album in 2007, his first since 1973, and his induction into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame the same year.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular online newsletter on piano chords, available free at "Exciting Piano Chords & Chord Progressions!" where you can also watch many free piano videos.
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