A short while back, a reader named Craig contacted me to let me know he enjoyed the blog and had been reading it since I did a post on the Big Band of Brothers, a jazz tribute to the Allman Brothers (which frankly I’d forgotten about).
He was reacting to my ‘Greatest Guitar Solos’ post and sent me a clip of a live performance with a great solo by a guy with the unlikely name of Doug Derryberry. And yes it’s a great solo (I’ll add the video near the end.) But what really caught my eye was the fact that the main performer was Bruce Hornsby. And so I thought, hmmm….
Wikipedia: Bruce Hornsby is an American singer-songwriter and pianist. He draws from classical, jazz, bluegrass, folk, Motown, gospel, rock, blues, and jam band musical traditions.
Bruce and his older brother Bobby formed the band Bobby Hi-Test and the Octane Kids to play fraternity parties. The band performed covers of the Allman Brothers Band, The Band, and predominantly Grateful Dead songs. Hornsby then did his apprenticeship as the piano man in local bars around his hometown of Williamsburg, VA.
He and another of his brothers moved out to LA for a while and kicked around there seeking fame and fortune. Alas, fame and fortune did not seek them so Bruce made his way back home. Hornsby was, for a time, a touring member of a band named Ambrosia who had a hit called “Holdin’ On to Yesterday.” (Prior to Bruce joining.) Hornsby and bassist Joe Puerta toured with Sheena Easton for a while and then in 1984 formed Bruce Hornsby and the Range.
The band landed a contract with RCA and in 1986 released an album called The Way It Is. (Huey Lewis was one of the producers.) The title song became a pretty big hit and as AllMusic says, “who could have expected its heartfelt examination of racism, civil rights, and social inequality to top the charts at the height of the Reagan era?” And do we ever hear hit songs anymore that have not one, but two piano solos?
Said, ‘Hey little boy you can’t go
Where the others go
Cause you don’t look like they do’
Said, ‘Hey, old man how can you stand
To think that way
Did you really think about it
Before you made the rules?’
He said, ‘Son
That’s just the way it is
Some things’ll never change
That’s just the way it is’
Another nice tune from that album is “Mandolin Rain.” (I note that Rod Stewart has a song called “Mandolin Wind.”) Such a beautiful piano sound:
Hornsby never had a hit like those again but he is far from a one (or two)-hit wonder. His versatility as a session man and his prowess as a player meant that he could stay vital as a performer for years to come. In fact, his background in playing Grateful Dead songs years before paid off when he joined the Dead as part of their touring band for a couple of years, mostly in the early ’90s.
Even with that brief tenure, I associate him so closely with the Dead that I would be remiss if I didn’t feature him on one of their tunes. Here’s the Dead with Hornsby doing “I Know You Rider” from Madison Square Garden (Spotify only):
Hornsby’s second album was called Scenes from the Southside and it had another hit with “The Valley Road.” In an interview, he said that the song was inspired by observations he made growing up in Virginia. “Every year, some rich girl would get involved with some country guy, and they would act irresponsibly and have to deal with the ramifications.”
I leave you with something completely different. Hornsby is a Southerner and grew up with country music. In 2007, he got together with bluegrass great Ricky Skaggs for an album called Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby. There are some fun songs on this album including their cover of “Super Freak.” They turn it into a real shitkicker.
Bruce Hornsby has won a couple of Grammy albums and per his website is still very much active. Looks like he’s back on the road in June mostly touring the American South.
Oh, and that video I promised that brother Craig forwarded? Here it is. “White-wheeled limousine.” Some great playing here all the way around. Thanks, Craig. (The version on the Spotify list is pretty jazzy and features Branford Marsalis)