BUSBY'S DANCING PIANOS
There are few images quite as iconic as John Lennon playing Imagine on his Steinway & Sons grand piano. The song itself, what it evokes in the listener—to ‘imagine’ a world at peace, without ‘possessions,’ ‘greed,’ or ‘hunger’—transmits a simple message made more universal by the symbolic nature of performing in a white room on a white piano.
The famous grand, purchased in 1971 as a birthday gift to his wife and collaborator Yoko Ono, is often confused with the Steinway upright “Model Z,” the one George Michaels purchased at auction for $2.37 Million and then donated to a Liverpool museum. Though the white grand is seen in the 1972 Imagine documentary, and was used to record the song Imagine at his home studio in Tittenhurst Park, the upright is the piano he used to actually write the song.
In 2010, Steinway & Sons—wanting to commemorate John Lennon's 70th birthday—created the “Imagine” Limited Edition Series. Each piano includes a drawing by John Lennon and a portion of the lyrics of his iconic song along with his signature.
In addition, some of the proceeds from each piano will be donated to the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, "a non-profit 501(c)(3) state-of-the-art mobile audio and HD video recording and production facility [...] dedicated to providing young people with tours of the studios and participation in free songwriting and multimedia production workshops."
With the assistance of three on-board engineers, students learn how to write, perform, record, and produce original songs, produce and shoot music videos and documentaries and complete a broadcast quality music video – all in one day!About from The John Lennon Educational Tour Bus
In his formative years, before rock 'n' roll surged through his legs and hips on the Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis Aaron Presley sat in the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis Tennessee, watching Jack Marshall play soulfully on the house piano—a Wm. Knabe & Co. grand.
A poor young teenager living in public housing, Elvis often attended the Gospel "Sings" that took place there. He and his mother both loved that type of music; they attended the First Assembly of God Church where the Blackwood Brothers were based. On the nights that Elvis couldn't get a job selling sodas at Ellis to earn admittance and didn't have the pocket change, he could usually count on the Blackwoods to let him sneak in through the back door. He would sit in the audience [...] and dream of the day he might perform on that very stage.Description from Heritage Auctions
As fate would have it, Elvis went on to perform at Ellis himself.
The Knabe remained in use as the auditorium’s house piano from the 1930s until 1957; at which point Jack Marshall of Marshall Music purchased it. Shortly thereafter, it came into the hands of Elvis who had the Memphis man refurbish and customize the piano. Marshall painted it white with gold trim with a matching bench made of a vinyl cushion and gold-colored metal legs. The instrument remained in Elvis’ music room at Graceland from 1957 to 1969, until his wife Priscilla bought him a new gold piano as an anniversary present.
The piano was then stored until 1976, before Elvis’s father Vernon Presley sold it to Ted Sturges, a local recording studio owner. For five years, the Knabe served to record some 50 albums until 1981 when it was sold to Jimmy Velvet, a close friend of Elvis. Velvet had opened a museum dedicated to Elvis memorabilia and displayed the piano there until 1990, after which it was sold to a private collector.
In 2003, Michael Muzio of Blue Moon Group Inc. acquired the piano for $685,000, which had, in the hands of C.B. Coltharp, undergone a year and a half’s work of restorations.
In 2010 this piano went up for auction by Heritage Auctions and was thought to fetch upwards of a million dollars—but the piano did not sell.
In March of 2014, The Dina Collection posted a blog offering the piano for sale.
Currently, attempts at finding a suitable home for the piano have remained either unrealized or unpublicized.
It is ironic, and perhaps even more tragic, that a woman so objectified by the world found such solace in possessing an object that held such deep memories associated with it.
Her rather unassuming white lacquered piano, produced in the early part of the 20th century (original manufacturer unknown), is recounted in Marilyn Monroe’s posthumously published autobiography:
“One day a grand piano arrived at my home. It was out of condition. My mother had bought it secondhand. It was for me. I was going to be given piano lessons on it. It was a very important piano, despite being a little banged up. It had belonged to the movie star Fredric March.
“‘You’ll play the piano over here, by the windows,’ my mother said, ‘and here on each side of the fireplace there’ll be a love seat. And we can sit listening to you. As soon as I pay off a few other things I’ll get the love seats, and we’ll all sit in them at night and listen to you play the piano.’”
Sometime later, Monroe’s mother was sadly taken to the Norwalk Mental Hospital, and Monroe was sent to an orphanage. All of their belongings including the piano were taken away.
“I never forgot the white painted house and its furniture. Years later when I was beginning to earn some money from modeling [,] I started looking for the Fredric March piano. After about a year I found it in an old auction room and bought it.
“’I have it in my home now in Hollywood. It’s been painted a lovely white, and it has new strings and plays as wonderfully as any piano in the world.”
Marilyn’s piano was auctioned in October of 1999.
The collaboration between Elton John and Bernie Taupin is legendary, lasting from 1967 to the present day. And yet, little attention is given to their stalwart silent partner—the c.1910 A-Day Birdcage upright piano.
It is believed that the famous songwriting duo wrote over 100 tunes on this white piano, spanning the years of their first five albums. In the documentary “Elton John and Bernie Taupin Two Rooms,” Elton can be seen composing the song “Tiny Dancer” on it.
The British filmmaker, Bryan Forbes, who in 1972 produced “Elton John and Bernie Taupin Say Goodbye to Norma Jean and Other Things,” developed a close friendship between the two songwriters. In appreciation for his dedication to the documentary (it took over a year to make), John and Taupin gave him their white piano, with the following inscription:
To Bryan and Nanette, Sarah and Emma, with love—Elton John.Description from Heritage Auctions
Within this piano lays the ghost of a hundred songs, take care of them, they love you. God Bless from the one who writes the words, Bernie Taupin.Description from Heritage Auctions
Some twenty years later, Elton revisited the piano and added another inscription to the inside lift:
May 1991 - 19 years later - 3 children - 1 hysterectomy - 25 lawsuits - 1 Marriage - 751 cats and Countless Boyfriends … Send you both my Love, Elton John.Description from Heritage Auctions
Forbes donated the piano to an auction house and it eventually ended up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.
In 2004 it was sold at auction, and again more recently in April 2014 at the “Icons of 20th Century Music” Auction for $164,500.
Known for his elaborate production numbers, (“Busby”) Berkeley William Enos was given carte blanche by Warner Brothers to delight audiences with the magnitude of his visions. In America, moviegoers would wait in anticipation for the story to take a backseat while the extravagant fantasies took over the senses.
Unfortunately, even Hitler was among those influenced by Berkeley’s style, instructing Joseph Goebbels & Leni Riefenstahl to adopt its usage for their wartime propaganda.
In Gold Diggers of 1935, a group of 54 white grand pianos took center stage for the melody of ‘The Words Are In My Heart:’
The rotating baby grand pianos were actually made of hollow and easily moveable plywood, placed on casters, and with a man draped in black beneath each one to conceal him from the camera as they swirled about the glossy poured glass floor.From The Hollywood Art — Busby Berkeley
...the creative impetus for the scene lived for years in his head before it danced on screen. As Berkeley recalled, "one day in New York I was watching an act at the Palace with four men playing grand pianos. I thought to myself then, 'someday I'll do that with fifty pianos,' and when it came time to think of something for this song, the thought came to mind.Gold Diggers of 1935 from TCM-Turner Classic Movies
Linda Perry is a singer-songwriter, producer and record label owner, formally of the band 4 Non Blondes. She is best known for the song “What’s Up,” released in 1993.
Her 1929 white Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano, which she owned for many years, was used to write music for such artists as Pink, Gwen Stefani, Julia Iglesias, Juliette and the Licks, and many more. This piano is decorated with the signatures of 24 musicians and actors using an art decal application.
In 2014, she auctioned it off at a fundraiser for L.A.’s Gay & Lesbian Center’s “An Evening with Women.” The winning bid was $15,000 and went to Aussie actress, model and singer Ruby Rose. Ruby, known for her look-alike Justin Bieber haircut, made the piano famous by posting a photo of herself sitting at the piano with six Bieber plates leaning against the stand.
In June 2015, Ruby Rose placed the piano for auction on eBay with the winning bid going for $13,000.00.