Three Piano Players We Lost in 2022
In 2022 I was devastated by the deaths of three of my childhood piano playing idols: Jerry Lee Lewis, Christine McVie and Ramsey Lewis. And while they may seem to have nothing in common, each of them were maestros in their own way whom I admired and loved for their unique relationships with the piano.
I remember one exchange during my weekly Undergraduate piano lesson. My professor recommended that for the Bach piece I was learning that I needed to work on my staccato.
“Staccato? “ I asked. “You mean like Jerry Lee?”
She pulled back in surprise trying to wrap her head around my comment. “The comedian?”
“No, No!” I laughed. “Jerry Lee Lewis.”
“That is not staccato,” she recoiled, “that is machine gun!”
Her opinion of Jerry Lee Lewis mattered little to me, I’d loved him since I first heard back when I was a kid. There was something about the emotion that he tore out of that piano that thrilled me. I learned all of his hits before I’d even learned to read music. At that time, I saw in Jerry Lee Lewis, a fellow southerner who was crusading against the white conservative religious establishment trying to play rock and roll and maybe to give them a little mischief at the same time. I learned from him to play with everything that I had no matter what those around me thought. Whole Lotta Shakin, Wild One, and Great Balls of Fire are still three of my favorite songs and I regularly end my performances with them.
After a particularly angsty performance in our living room one summer, my grandfather asked if I knew any soft and quiet songs. I did know quieter songs, of course, because Christine McVie was also one of my idols. I feel in love with her work listening to vinyl records in college my dorm with my best friensd. The first time I saw her in concert with Fleetwood Mac, I was so taken with her performance of Songbird that during a lull in the roar of the crowd, my quieter countenance was shattered when I screamed out, “We love you Christine!” I was so enraptured in her performance that this completed surprised me and my best friend who still laughs about that time I became such a fan boy. Christine’s first albums had been pure English Blues. There was something about her songs and the way that she played them, they were simple, honest and beautiful. She taught me that it was more important to support a song with your licks rather than overplay on a it
My Mom and I shared a mutual love of the jazz pianist, Ramsey Lewis. I’d listened to her vinyl collection that included several of his late sixties albums as I was growing. We were lucky enough to see him in Chicago one Christmas at a small club show. I was absolutely mesmerized by his voicings. No matter what genre he played, always created the best chords and had the most groove of any piano player I’d ever seen. I followed Ramsey for years, we both lived in Chicago and had a he had a great program, The Legends of Jazz. He taught me that you had to learn your craft through years of hard work and daily piano practice, and that no matter how hard you worked, there was always someone who worked harder.
Maybe these piano players really did have nothing in common other that there was at least one young listener out there who idolized their recordings and absorbed aspects of their performance styles. Whether they were pulling me from my seat, lifting me up, or allowing me to float on a groove they laid bare my existential thoughts in ways that I never could match with words alone.
I’m going to miss these artists, but I know that every time I play piano, a little bit of what I took from them still comes through in my playing.
Here’s a couple of my favorite clips of all three artists:
Jerry Lee Lewis Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On - Live Roma, Italia 1989
Christine McVie 1975 - You Make Lovin Fun (in all of it’s analog glory)
Ramsey Lewis Trio – The “In” Crowd – Live 1990