In honour of the late, great Leon Russell we reveal the other masters of their craft
Harley Cassidy

18:12 14th November 2016

Following the death of the legendary Leon Russell yesterday (13 Nov), we compiled a list of what could potentially be the best, rock'n'roll pianists ever, including the long-haired one himself.


We see plenty of speculation over the best frontmen or guitarists of all time, so why are the pianist lists so thin on the ground? Far from being a civilised bunch, these heavyweights spin the meaning and sophistication of rock on its head, because let's be honest, the keys were defining rock music way before someone played a solo on a guitar. From genre-defining raconteurs to soulful underdogs through to progressive keyboard titans, the following list displays the best of the best.

  • Leon Russell: A dynamic performer, Russell was at the heart of some the biggest pop moments in history following his brief stint in the 70s. The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame native recorded more than 35 albums, penned a range of songs for artists including The Carpenters and George Benson and was at the root of historical music events including George Harrison's Concert For Bangladesh. Referred to as the "master of space and time", his top-hatted image was as synonymous with him as was his reckless, passionate piano playing. RIP.

  • Elton John: What would a piano-based list be without Elton John? Regarded as one of the best performers of all time and certainly the most with superstar status on this list, Elton John is a powerhouse in his own right. His understated intelligence and rhythmic, syncopated style matched with a back catalogue of some of the greatest pop music in history has allowed him to withhold a career spanning over 50 years. It's a fool who takes Elton John at pint-sized, sequin-adorned face value, because his mastery of improvisation and pure passion is non-withstanding. Bow down to Sir Elton.

  • Allen Touissant: Described by the Grammy‚Äôs, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and musicians across the world as one of the most important figures in New Orleans music, Toussaint was known as being humble and always happy to remain behind the scenes to mould and countless number of musicians. The list of those who benefited from Toussaint's influence as a producer and arranger is pretty phenomenal.

  • Dr John: Malcom Rebbenack, or as he's better known, Dr John, is perhaps the only person on this list we could call a master of "voodoo funk". Fuelled by a loving penchant for the blues, the long-term session musician is perhaps more of an icon than some of his counterparts, adopting the solo persona "The Night Tripper", in the late 60s. His elaborate stage shows included religious ceremonies and feathered headresses - groovy, baby. Listen to Such A Night to understand his power.

  • Billy Preston: Best known for his association with The Beatles including his work on Let It Be, the Abbey Road sessions and that London rooftop concert, Billy Preston's talent can sometimes by downplayed by his megastar collaborations. His soulful presence and Southern-rock style had him personally requested by The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis to name a few.

  • Stevie Wonder: Imagine watching little Stevie Wonder, aged 13, performing Fingertips Part 2 on The Ed Sullivan Show, not realising you were witnessing the genesis of one of the most talented, musical icons to bless our generation. As outspoken as he is gifted, Stevie Wonder's ascent, from Motown prodigy to one of the world's most revered icons is bound by his remarkable piano playing, made even more astounding by the fact he is famously blind. Very few find it hard to not be moved by a man whose pores seep with the love of music.

  • Ray Manzarek: If you just listen to Morrison Hotel alone, it holds testament to how versatile of a player Ray Manzarek was. His creative ability to transport any listener to a seductive, far off world gave him as much of a heavyweight position in The Doors as Jim Morrison had.

  • Little Richard: Pretty much an architect of rock and roll music, the image of Little Richard, pounding along to his own raucous style of pulsating doo-wop, is one that's cemented in any music fan's psych. A true innovator when it came to bringing flamboyance to the keys, he embodied the true notion of rock and roll music and proved that anyone who was risque, weird or simply too monomaniac for their own good, would have their time to shine.

  • Ray Charles: In an elite class of his own, Ray Charles simply defined an entire era. The gritty root of soul-tinged blues in 1960s America gave him a bittersweet backdrop to rev up the passion of teenagers looking for something new and true to their heart. Not only did he showcase an unnerving talent on the keys, bringing emotion from his own painstaking tribulations in life but he was an expressive voice for black people far and wide.

  • Rick Wakeman: Remember in School Of Rock when Jack Black's character tells Lawrence that the keyboard solo on Yes' Roundabout would "blow the classical music out of his butt?" Well, that's all thanks to the incredible talent of Rick Wakeman. Widely regarded as the greatest single individual to take to the keys, Wakeman's fluid technique, flawless style and all-round sophistication saw him work with a plethora of musicians including David Bowie. Still as absurd and charismatic as ever, it's nice to see that he still wears that cape.

  • Jerry Lee Lewis: A man who put so much emotion and enthusiasm into his playing that it's pretty much impossible not to dance along to, Jerry Lee Lewis single-handedly made his piano as much of a character as himself. Wild, candid and at times, dangerous, they didn't call him The Killer for nothing.

  • Keith Emerson: Extravagant, prolific and an uninhibited virtuouso, Keith Emerson started his career in The Nice yet the peak of his success lay in the early 70s with Emerson, Lake and Palmer where he defined himself as one of the key piano players of any genre throughout the 20th Century, re-defining the term "prog-rock piano". A pioneer of the Moog synthesiser, Emerson's stage presence and youthful aggression served as a catalyst for any other young, rock keyboardist who wanted to make an impact on the stage.

  • Richard Wright: He may have been perceived as the "quiet member" in Pink Floyd but Richard Wright's subtle, textured playing lay the creative foundations for one of the best rock bands in the world. Listen to Echoes or Shine On and Wright's understated, ethereal sound takes the band to its other dimension.

  • Billy Joel: If you take into account that he's sold 150 million records and won six Grammy's, Billy Joel is something of a heavyweight artist alongside being an exceptional piano player. You only have to listen to "Prelude/Angry Young Man", to understand the depth of Joel's talent but he is at his best when he's most heartfelt.

  • Jon Lord: Jon Lord Deep Purple's Jon Lord once famously declared, "we're as valid as anything by Beethoven", believing that his band's cultural impact in the 70s was perhaps the next symphonic statement after classical music. Lord himself was taught in the ways of classical piano and brought flashings of it into his professional life with grandiose contributions for The Kinks, The Artwoods and Whitesnake among others.

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Photo: Still