Nothing adds more elegance to a party than a cocktail pianist tinkling away gently in the background. These days you can flip through the phone book to find a good cocktail pianist to play at your wedding, engagement party or gala dinner. Most of them sing too, and they definitely take special requests. Modern cocktail pianists follow in the style of greats like Eddy Duchin, Liberace and Carman Cavallero, among others.
Eddy Duchin was relatively young when he died at age 40, but in his short life he managed to carve a legacy as a truly unique and standout cocktail pianist. He left his career as a pharmacist to concentrate on his love for music, particularly the piano. Despite having no formal training, his engaging personality, good looks and charm helped him achieve popularity at the Central Park Casino. It was a swanky nightclub more than a casino, and eventually Eddy took the lead in the orchestra.
Eddy Duchin was a household name by the mid-30's, and today he's known as one of the first pianists to lead an entire orchestra. His son, Peter Duchin, followed in his father's footsteps. Peter became an accomplished pianist in his own right and is actively involved in the American arts and culture scene.
Carmen Cavallero earned himself the nickname "Poet of the Piano" for the way he played. His style was typical of what many contemporary cocktail pianists aim to sound like: tinkling, rippling melodies, classic mixed up with a little pop. He also experimented with Latin music and jazz. He quickly became the lead solo pianist in a group he joined, but then left to form his own five-piece band in 1939. It proved so successful that the group was expanded in the early 1940's.
Carmen and his band toured across America, finding a favorite spot at San Francisco's Mark Hopkins Hotel. Carmen's popularity skyrocketed with the release of Sukiyaki, a song first made popular by Japanese singer Kyo Sakamoto. A few years before he died in 1989, Carmen Cavallero's band was one of the most listened-to groups in San Francisco.
Duchin and Cavallero's style of cocktail piano influenced many young pianists. One of them was a young Polish-Italian called Wladziu Valentino Liberace, better known as simply Liberace. Quite early on it was clear that the young Liberace would be a phenomenon. He learned the piano at age four. By seven he was memorizing and replaying complicated pieces. He was a lonely teen teased by his peers, so he threw himself into his music. He played at every event that would pay, even strip clubs and cabaret bars.
Liberace developed his signature showman style slowly. He moved away from playing competitions to putting on his own shows. He started by tentatively mixing classics with the pop music of the moment. Then he started adding dialogue, interacting with his audience and even taking requests. By the mid-1940's, Liberace was the talk of show business. His act became more flamboyant and entertaining. His costumes and custom-made pianos with sequins were fantastic, but he never allowed his showiness to overshadow his music. Even after his death in 1987, music critics still describe him as a potent, extraordinarily talented performer.
The first cocktail pianists were interesting because they were different. They broke away from playing stilted classics to halls of stuffy aristocrats. Cocktail pianists made the music their own, using their creative talent to produce something original and entertaining. They communicated with their audiences, making them feel like part of the performance rather than removed from it. The first cocktail pianists like Duchin, Cavallero and Liberace did us a favor when they set piano music free.
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