Who are the greatest rock and pop piano players of all time? The task of making a valid list led to much heated debate here at OKTAV. Scrolling through the vast amount of popular sheet music we offer, we debated the pros and cons concerning this and that artist. There are so many legends out there – some as performers, some as composers some as sound creators, and some as all of the above. We love and honor each of them!
We believe that the huge variety of sheet music we offer at OKTAV is probably our biggest tribute to any artist and his or her work anyway! However, for this article, we had to boil the list down to only the very best rock and pop pianists of all time. In order to do this, we applied a few rules as to who would go on our lists. The first one was … no, there could not be more than 13. We did start out with a top 10 list, and stretched it, and stretched it some more! Very sorry, but there had to be a limit!
The second rule was, obviously, that the very best rock and pop pianists of all times needed to be famous for their piano skills. Some legendary musicians do play the piano reasonably well but are much more famous for playing other instruments, so we excluded them. Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones, or Pete Townshend would be good examples. The third rule was:
“You have to be unique, and different, and shine in your own way!”Lady Gaga
This is why we did not include pianists/keyboarders who are best known as parts of famous bands – Jon Lord, Ray Manzarek, Freddie Mercury, we are sorry! But all of the 13 solo artists we chose for our list of 13 top rock and pop pianists of all times are available at OKTAV sheet music service!
13. Jerry Lee Lewis: Great Balls of Fire
Born to parents so poor they had to mortgage their farm to buy his first piano, Louisiana-born Jerry Lee Lewis shook, rattled, and rolled his audiences. Before his rise to fame as one of the most vigorous rock’n’roll performers ever, record company executives in Nashville suggested he’d take up guitar playing instead because that would suit his temperament better. Luckily, he did his own thing – as always. Never one to shy away from a good scandal, he was still taken up into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Play Jerry Lee Lewis right now!
12. Norah Jones: Don’t Know Why
Before she took her mother´s name, Norah Jones was originally named Geethali Shankar, she is the daughter of world-famous Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar. Starting to play the piano at age six, the gifted girl eventually studied jazz piano. Did you know that this mellow-voiced artist, best known for her soft melodious compositions, can play the trumpet as well? Debuting with an album of self-written and sparsely instrumented songs that instantly brought her five Grammy awards, she has since been collecting Grammies, bringing them up to an impressive ten. So far. Play Norah Jones right now!
11. Fats Domino: Blueberry Hill
Shy and chubby Antoine Domino was born to a french creole family in New Orleans. His brother-in-law taught him the basics of playing the piano. The man who would go on to be one of the biggest influences on Elvis, the Beatles, Elton John, and many more had to work at a factory from an early age. Aged 14, he had an accident there and almost lost the fingers of his famous walking-bass hand! Luckily, his fingers could be saved and he would go on to define the sound of the Fifties with his rock’n’roll music. Throughout his lifetime, timid and anxious Domino kept refusing to acknowledge that he had helped give birth to a new style of music: “It’s all just rhythm & blues!”. Domino achieved a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1987. Play Fats Domino right now!
10. Regina Spektor: Laughing With
Spektor started her classical piano training in Moscow where she grew up – her mother was a music professor in the Soviet Union. As the Jewish family migrated to the USA, Spektor studied classical piano at the Manhattan School of Music. Her interest in songwriting came during a visit to Israel and exposure to Joni Mitchell´s music. The first three CDs she published were self-recorded and sold by herself after gigs. From 2006 on, Spektor has been a steady force in the US charts. Probably best known for “You´ve Got Time”, the title song for the Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black” that brought her a Grammy nomination, she has, throughout her career, been nominated for – and won – several prestigious music prizes. Play Regina Spektor right now!
9. Randy Newman: You’ve Got a Friend in Me
Newman grew up in L.A. with three of his uncles already writing music for the film industry, so it probably felt like joining the family business when he started writing the music to many Disney productions, and other films – most recently, “Marriage Story”. Seven Grammys and three Emmys and a whopping 22 nominations crowned the career of the nice Jewish boy that had studied music at UCLA. Newman also wrote hits for countless other musicians, including Joe Cocker (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”), Barbra Streisand, and Dusty Springfield (it would probably be easier to compile a list of stars who have never covered a Randy Newman song!). His own career as a singer-songwriter took the back seat for a lot of his life – but he still gave us such memorable songs as “Short People” or “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”. Play Randy Newman right now!
8. Aretha Franklin: The House that Jack Built
At age ten, Aretha had already lost her mother and been abandoned by her father, a famous gospel preacher. Aretha and her siblings were raised by various friends and relatives (among them legend Mahalia Jackson), during which time she self-taught herself to play the piano. At age 12 Aretha gave birth to her first son (of four) and her father returned to manage her gospel tours. At age 16, Aretha went on tour with Dr. Martin Luther King (she would later sing at his funeral). By 1968, she was the most successful female artist in the world and would remain one of the most renowned female performers throughout her life, often accompanying herself on the piano. Her voice is registered as a “natural resource” of Michigan where she grew up. We are honoring her piano skills here. Play Aretha Franklin right now!
7. Ray Charles: “What’d I Say”
Ray lost his sight when he was seven years old and suffering from glaucoma. His mother died when Ray was 14 years old, and he dropped out of the school for the blind that he’d visited until then and concentrated on his music instead – eventually becoming one of the ground-breaking performers of R&B and selling more than 90 million records worldwide. “Rolling Stone” magazine called him the second-best singer of all times (only bowing to Aretha) and the tenth best musician of all times. Play Ray Charles right now!
6. Alicia Keys: Fallin’
Growing up as the only child of a single mother in New York, Keys “inherited” her first piano from neighbours when she was six years old. Classical piano training provided stability in her youth, Alicia claims. She signed her first record deal aged just 15. Her debut single “Fallin’” topped the Billboard charts. She received five Grammy awards for her debut album “Songs in A minor”. Since then, she has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide and collected ten more Grammy awards. Critics comment favorably on her unique mix of classical, jazz, and R&B styles. She works as a humanitarian as well, having founded an organization that cares for HIV victims in Africa and India. Play Alicia Keys right now!
5. Billy Joel: Piano Man
Seeing the Beatles live on “The Ed Sullivan Show” changed William Joel’s life forever: He decided there and then to pursue a career in music: He dropped out of High School to become a professional musician. Today, he is one of the best-selling musicians of the USA, with over 150 million albums sold worldwide – but he started out playing in tiny nightclubs in New York – literally as a “piano man”. Fun facts: #1: Billy Joel eventually graduated, 25 years after leaving High School, and he received honorary doctorates from seven universities. #2: Both his father and his Austrian half-brother are classical musicians. #3: July 18 was proclaimed “Billy Joel Day” in New York. Play Billy Joel right now!
4. Carole King: I Feel the Earth Move
The most successful female songwriter of the 20th century started taking piano lessons when she was four years old. At age 17, she married, had a baby, and started to work as a secretary. Luckily, her story did not end here: At night, the New Yorker would compose songs for other musicians. After “Will you love me tomorrow”, her first No. 1 hit performed by “The Shirelles”, she quit her day job to concentrate on writing music. She wrote her biggest hit of that era for Aretha Franklin: “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. Later, King´s massively successful solo debut album “Tapestry” would remain in the charts for six years and sell over 25 million copies worldwide. 25 more solo albums followed, and many lifetime achievement awards. King is also a political and environmental activist. Play Carole King right no
3. Stevie Wonder: You Are the Sunshine of My Life
Baby Steveland came into the world prematurely, which led to him losing his eyesight shortly after his birth. He was a child prodigy, signing his first record contract as “Little Stevie Wonder” at age 11 and having his first #1 Hit at age 13. Unlike many child stars, Wonder kept writing one successful and critically acclaimed album after another, at one time winning three consecutive “album of the year” awards – the year after, winner Paul Simon wryly thanked him for “not producing an album this year”. He won 25 Grammy awards and even one Oscar. Wonder is also a human rights activist with the United Nations. Play Stevie Wonder right now!
2. Nina Simone: Don´t Let Me Be Misunderstood
In the USA of the 1930ies, it was unthinkable that a poor African American woman could become a professional classical musician. Eunice Waymon started to play the piano at age 4. She could only continue her lessons with the help of her amazed teachers. A scholarship allowed her to study at the prestigious Juilliard music school in New York, where she excelled. But that was it. She had to resort to playing in bars and nightclubs afterward.
During her time of earning her living performing in bars, she changed her name to “Nina Simone”. Securing a fair record deal in 1963, Nina Simone went on to produce seven masterpiece albums that were – and are – milestones for the jazz/r&b-crossover genre. Her music never went out of style! It continues to be covered and remixed and to inspire artists all over the world. In the age of #blacklivesmatter, her political message sadly also remains as valiant as ever. Play Nina Simone right now!
1. Elton John: Your Song
This British legend just tops it all. Not only has he sold millions of records in a career spanning from the early sixties to the present, has had multiple albums topping the charts simultaneously as well as consecutively, won Grammy awards, Brit awards, and two Oscars, been knighted by the Queen of England, appeared in and produced movies about his life and crammed more eccentricity (and addiction!) in one lifetime than should have been possible, he is also almost constantly topping our OKTAV user charts. If you haven’t seen his autobiographical movie “Rocketman” – go see it!
How to sum up his career? The boy born Reginald Dwight seems to have had eidetic musical memory from an early age on, which, along with lessons sponsored by his grandmother, helped him win a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London where he trained as a classical pianist, but dropped out before his leaving exams. After his early years as a pub pianist, he teamed up with lyricist Bernie Taupin. At first, they had to produce easy listening music for other musicians. But once “Your Song” reached the US-Billboard Top Ten Elton John’s solo career skyrocketed – and it never stopped: Sir Elton John is Still Standing. Play Elton John right now.
Do you agree with our list? Or is an artist missing that you think needs to be included? At OKTAV, we believe in the power of music, and we love to spice up your repertoire! With thousands of pieces of sheet music to choose from, curated lists that adapt to your playing abilities, and as much variety in style as you can wish for, OKTAV simply lets you concentrate on what matters most: having fun playing your piano.