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Unsung Heroes of Rock Piano

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The Great Session and Side Pianists of Rock and Roll

Although piano players were largely responsible for the early sounds of Rock and Roll, the genre evolved into more of a guitar-based sound. Nevertheless, many of the all-time great guitar-rock songs had piano inserted into the mix, adding rhythmic and melodic flavor. In this article we are going to talk about several innovative pianists who, largely behind-the-scenes, contributed to many of the greatest songs in rock.

Johnnie Johnson

In 1952, Johnnie Johnson moved to St Louis and formed the Sir John Trio, a Blues and Jazz group. On New Year’s Eve of that year, he had to make an emergency replacement for his guitarist, who had suffered a stroke. The replacement was a then-unknown Chuck Berry. A few years later, Berry had a solo contract, and Johnson decided to cast his lot with Chuck. He contributed tasteful, playful piano licks to many of Chuck’s biggest hits, including “Maybelline,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “School Days.” They worked together on the arrangements, as well. Despite a disagreement over authorship of several songs, Johnson continued to play frequently with Berry until his death in 2005.

Nicky Hopkins

Although The Beatles boasted accomplished piano players in their ranks, it was Hopkins who played the memorable piano line on their explosive single “Revolution.” By then he’d already amassed an enviable track record playing on songs by The Who, The Kinks, and Australian legends The Easybeats. He appeared on numerous albums by The Rolling Stones, including EXILE ON MAIN STREET and EMOTIONAL RESCUE. He was an early member of The Jeff Beck Group, along with Beck, Rod Stewart, and Ron Wood. His credits also include work with Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller Band, and Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Ian Stewart

Even many longtime Rolling Stones fans who are familiar with Stewart’s work don’t realize that he was, in fact, a founding member of the group. He was demoted to road manager and sideman early on by the band’s then-manager who felt he didn’t fit in with the band’s image. Still, he toured frequently with the band and appeared on many of their singles and albums, up through 1986’s DIRTY WORK. He died during recording of that album and the record was dedicated to him.

Roy Bittan

Roy Bittan is most well-known as the piano player for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, which he joined in 1974. He has appeared on most of Bruce’s albums, beginning with the classic BORN TO RUN. He is the one member of the E street band to appear on Bruce’s non-E Street albums. He has also contributed background vocals to many Springsteen songs.

In addition to his work with The Boss, he has performed as a session player with artists as diverse as Chicago (CHICAGO XXV: THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM and CHICAGO XXVI: THE LIVE ALBUM, both of which he also produced), Dire Straits (MAKING MOVIES), Meat Loaf (BAT OUT OF HELL I and II, among others), Bonnie Tyler (TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE HEART) and Stevie Nicks (BELLA DONNA).

Conclusion

This article has shed the light on but four of the many piano players who made an indelible contribution to Rock. Check the liner notes to some of your favorite albums, and you will find many other great names.

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