We don’t usually do birthdays on this blog, but we’ll make an exception for Liberace, who would have turned the exquisitely appropriate age of 88 today. I’m not sure that anyone who wasn’t alive during Liberace’s heyday realizes just how big a star he was—headlining his own TV show at various times throughout his career, guest-starring on every show imaginable (Batman! Kojak! The Monkees!), even venturing into movies now and again. (He’s memorably good in his one non-piano role, as the casket salesman in Tony Richardson’s The Loved One.) In the 1980s, he sold out two famous runs of shows at Radio City Music Hall, and was pulling down $300,000 a week in Vegas. For playing the piano.
Well, more than that, obviously: the outfits, the jewelry, the mirror-mosaic piano cases, the Rolls-Royce that drove him onstage—the spectacle always in effective counterpoint to his relaxed and easy stage demeanor, fully enjoying the absurdity of his flamboyance with coy self-deprecation. But the man could play. Liberace honed his technique with Florence Bettray-Kelly (herself a student of Moriz Rosenthal), and was good enough to solo with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock as a 14-year-old. This clip shows his way with Chopin—the arrangement, combining the “Minute” Waltz and the A-flat Polonaise, is an abomination, but it’s Chopin’s notes, for the most part, and Liberace shows some nice limpid fingerwork as well as a real feel for the style. (Had he not opted for glitz, Liberace probably would have been a Chopin specialist in the tradition of Paderewski, his childhood idol; family legend has the old master personally encouraging the young Liberace during a visit to Milwaukee.)
Here’s a couple more clips: this performance of “Mack the Knife,” from a 60s episode of the Dean Martin Show, is shameless and scintillating in equal measure, and you get to see just what a good time he’s having putting the tune through its paces. (The mash-up of Weill with Strauss is a superb musical pun.) And here he is in Vegas, in unusually fine technical form, spinning a surrealistically-juxtaposed medley—”As Time Goes By,” “Chopsticks,” and “Send In the Clowns.”
I sometimes wonder if, had he been born a century earlier, Liberace would have been grouped in with such Romantic virtuosi as Liszt and Alkan. I would imagine that an actual Liszt recital was probably closer to a Liberace show than we think. (Ken Russell thought so, too: his gleefully anachronistic, over-the-top version of the composer in Lisztomania [warning: NSFW backstage toplessness—concert starts at 4:28 mark] owes as much to Liberace as it does to psychedelic-rock excess.)
The image at the top is the cover of a collection I found at Bookman’s Alley a while back, and the arrangements are a cut above similar folios I have by the likes of Frankie Carle and Eddy Duchin, who tended to dilute the technical challenges of their style for the popular sheet-music market. Not Liberace: these versions are lush and tricky, with some sweet harmonic substitutions and effective use of 19th-century textures and flourishes. Here’s Liberace’s arrangement of the Jack Lawrence-Walter Gross standard “Tenderly” (click on each page to enlarge):
Here’s my rendition of it. I’m no Liberace; for one thing, he kept his pianos tuned. But, yes, it’s as much fun to play as it sounds.