It wasn’t always guaranteed that the guitar would be the instrument associated with rock ‘n’ roll. At the birth of the rock era, piano men such as Little Richard and Ray Charles were making hips shake and hearts ache by hollering while tickling ivories instead of plucking strings. Elvis even had a piano-playing rival for the title of “king of rock and roll” in Jerry Lee Lewis, who did the most rock-star thing ever in 1958 when he set his piano on fire and played “Great Balls of Fire” while it burned. That was a full decade before Jimi Hendrix torched his electric guitar.
It’s kind of obvious why the piano lost. It’s a tad unwieldy to move from city-to-city, and it requires a good deal of effort to dance while playing. But for nearly five decades, Elton John tried his damnedest to keep the piano in the rock conversation. Now, one of the last rock ‘n’ roll piano icons is calling it quits with his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, set to stop in South Florida for two shows during Thanksgiving weekend.
Elton John, like his piano peers Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder, grew up in the ’50s. They witnessed the early days of rock, when the piano still had a chance to be the genre’s sound-maker. John, born Reginald Dwight, was a prodigy who purportedly began playing piano at the age of 3. He had classical training, but it was Jerry Lee Lewis he chose to imitate at any school function he had a chance to play. Though performing and composing music came easily to John, it took meeting Bernie Taupin to complete him. Taupin wrote the lyrics to almost all of the songs John performed, from “Tiny Dancer” to “Crocodile Rock” to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.”
John rose to prominence in 1970, at the dawn of the glam-rock era, perfect timing for a performer with an outrageous sense of fashion and flamboyant stage presence. While David Bowie, the New York Dolls, and T. Rex were battling to see who could outrage the masses most by looking the most androgynous, John took his stage presence into another dimension. As if to rebel against the stodgy reputation of a piano man, he made everyone in the crowd stare at his outfits even in the outré era of bellbottoms and platform shoes. One night he was dressed like Amadeus, another night like Ronald McDonald, and the next like a Dr. Seuss character come to life.
And the music also had a flair that listeners who know John from only The Lion King or “Candle in the Wind” might be surprised to hear. There was the heartbreakingly soulful ballad “Tiny Dancer” and the bombastic drunken joy of “Benny and the Jets,” but it’s also worth listening to slightly lesser-known songs, such as the almost-country of “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” and the glam boogie of “Honky Cat.”
So although the piano might be used as only an occasional prop in most arena shows when Paul McCartney wants to play “Hey Jude” or Axl Rose wishes to sing “November Rain,” Elton John is giving fans a final chance to see what could have been if the piano had won the war with the guitar.