Written by: Katie Gleason
These are my choices for the top 10 foundational keyboard performances of 1964-1974, a decade of keyboard greatness.
Rod Argent, “She’s Not There,” The Zombies, Begin Here, 1964
The Zombies were one of the first rock bands to feature the keyboard as the lead instrument on many of their best tracks. Rod Argent, who wrote “She’s Not There,” employs his jazz influences (he told SEM’s Paul Gleason that he’s a big Miles Davis fan) in “She’s Not There.” The result? An infectious song with a lively groove and a matchless electric piano solo.
Ray Manzarek, “Light My Fire,” The Doors, The Doors, 1967
“Light My Fire” carries on the jazz influences found in The Zombies and adds elements of classical music, such as in the iconic introduction. The long instrumental break, however, comes from Ray Mazarek’s love of McCoy Tyner’s modal piano work for John Coltrane. Manzarek and the rest of The Doors fused rock, jazz, and classical in a way not like anything that came before.
Matthew Fisher, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum, Procol Harum, 1967
A seminal moment in the history of baroque pop, Fisher’s melodic Hammond organ was based on a Bach composition and inspired the likes of Brian Wilson and John Lennon, who played the song repeatedly in his psychedelic Rolls Royce when The Beatles were making Sgt. Pepper.
Brian Jones, “2,000 Light Years from Home,” The Rolling Stones, Their Satanic Majesties Request, 1967
Even though Mick Jagger and Keith Richards technically “wrote” “2,000 Light Years from Home,” the song really belongs to Brian Jones and his mellotron, which is eerie, futuristic, and melodic. It takes the song and the listener on a drug trip gone bad. This is 2,000 light years from “Nights in White Satin” and the joyful psychedelia of The Beach Boys and The Beatles.
Steve Winwood, “Voodoo Chile,” The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland, 1968
Let’s forget about classical and jazz music and get down and dirty with some psychedelic blues rock. Listening to Jimi Hendrix and Steve Winwood is like witnessing a sonic seduction, a mating ritual between guitar and organ. This song had and continues to have implications for heavy rock and heavy metal.
Jon Lord, “Highway Star,” Deep Purple, Machine Head, 1972
Like Manzarek and Fisher, Jon Lord had a background in classical music, and you can hear its influence on “Highway Star.” But Lord’s Hammond, when it’s blended with Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar riffs and amplified through a Marshall amp, shows that the organ can compositionally contribute to a heavy anthem in a way similar to what Keith Richards calls the “string section” of guitar and bass.
Tony Banks, “Watcher of the Skies,” Genesis, Foxtrot, 1972
On “Watcher of the Skies,” Tony Banks’s introduction is chock full of orchestral grandiosity that sets a contemplative mood before his organ becomes bedrock for a driving song in which Peter Gabriel’s incomparable vocals and Phil Collins’ strident drumming come to the fore. Hallmark progressive rock.
Rick Wakeman, “Close to the Edge,” Yes, Close to the Edge, 1972
At around the 8:30 mark of this long composition, Rick Wakeman arguably invents ambient music. And he’s pretty creative on the rest of the song as well. Does a keyboard setting go untouched? If you can hear one, you’re a better listener than I.
Rick Wright, “The Great Gig in the Sky,” Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973
Rick Wright’s piano and organ and Clare Tory’s vocals increase in tension with every stoke of the keys. “The Great Gig in the Sky” is just as sexual as the earthy “Voodoo Chile” but in a more ethereal way. It’s as if Steve Winwood and Rick Wakeman conceived a love child at the climax of Side A of The Dark Side of the Moon.
Joni Mitchell, “Court and Spark,” Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark, 1974
Joni Mitchell’s piano playing is just as inventive and individualistic as her guitar playing, singing, and lyrics. The opening chords set an introspective mood that influenced the playing of Kate Bush, Tori Amos, and many others.