The Value of a Piano Player

From time to time, we’ve had lively and insightful discussions here about the value of live instrument players in Southern Gospel performances. But it seems that I may have left the wrong impression.

You see, I framed the discussion in the context of live bands. Live bands are great, if you can afford them. A good piano player, bass player, drummer, and utility musician can create some downright incredible music. But amidst the flurry of discussion over whether groups can afford three or four extra salaries, the point I actually wanted to make got obscured: My point isn’t the necessity of live bands—it’s the value of live music.

 The roots of this genre are in three or four vocalists accompanied by a piano player. We could debate what Southern Gospel’s greatest decade or era was until the cows come home, but there’s little question that the 1950s and 1960s were the golden decades that moved Southern Gospel to the forefront position in the Christian music scene. From Southern Gospel’s founding through those golden decades, three or four voices and a piano player was enough. Done right, it’s still enough.

Over the last few years, I’ve heard concerts by several prominent artists with and without piano players. Our genre’s finest can pull through the challenge of a soundtrack-only program to put together a decent experience, just like they can pull through other challenges (like 90 degrees, rain, or an early Sunday morning service!) But, almost invariably, there is a noticeable improvement in spontaneity, excitement, and flexibility in those concerts where there is a live piano player.

One more clarification: Tracks aren’t bad. The Cathedrals’ mix of mostly live music with a few tracks worked so well that they’re the gold standard of live Southern Gospel experiences in the modern era.

Give a Southern Gospel group the right piano player, the right vocalists, and the right songs, and that is all most groups need. Additional instrument players are nice, but, as countless group owners point out, they’re simply not feasible in this economy. But a live piano player adds so much that a pianist should not be counted as a luxury.

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19 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. How much I owe you for this one? Great post.

    • Thanks, and you’re welcome! 🙂

      • I had the privilege of seeing Tim Parton with the Liberty Quartet at the Great Western Fan Festival. He was great as are all of the Liberty Quartet members. I think Tim is one of the sweetest, nicest guys in the world. He has been one of my very favorite pianists for a long time. Being from Florida, I don’t get to see him very often, but he always greets me as if I am his most favorite fan!

  2. Great Post Daneil!

    One thing i appreciate with Greater Vision is that although they use tracks for a lot of their songs they have the flexibility to go the piano. Usually that flexibility makes for an extra special moment. In my opinion also having the piano flexibility would make it easier to follow the spirits leading…I know I have seen George Younce change it up, at the spirits leading, many times mid-concert.

    Not sure if i verbalized what i was trying to say good enough! LOL 🙂

    Keep up the good work Daniel!

    • No, I do get the point you’re making, and I agree. Greater Vision is a great Exhibit A for the point I’ve actually been trying to make. It doesn’t bother me that they do a fair portion of their program with tracks. I’ve never seen their live program suffer for it, because they have one of the finest piano players in our genre, and he can slip over to the bench whenever the flow of the program calls for it.

      • What about Josh Singletary with Tribute Quartet? I have not been to any of their concerts, but in videos I have seen him both at the piano and also standing out front with the other guys. I would agree that the flexibility of having a singer who plays piano is better than having no pianist at all. On a side note, doesn’t Jeremy Peace sometimes play piano with the Old Paths?

      • Yes, Josh Singletary and Jeremy Peace would be two more excellent illustrations of my point.

  3. Really enjoyed this post! I would love to see more groups with full bands, but it is true that that may not be the most economical route. I do believe that a pianist is very necessary to add that little bit of excitement. There are a few groups out there that used to have live piano (at the least) and now they do not. While I love to go to see them, to me, there is something missing.

    Case in point: “I know it was the blood” by the Perrys with Matthew Holt.

    There is a different excitement!

  4. Another good example of tracks and piano is Soul’dOut. I saw them over the weekend. Michael is amazing when it comes to playing along with the track and yet adding to it, but without taking away from the voices.

    • Agreed. And they have the flexibility to do a piano-only song (like, I think, “Maker of the Rain”), when it’s appropriate.

  5. I sing Tenor in an SG group, 4 The Cause, based out of our church. We use tracks when we minister, but we also do songs with me playing piano and our bass singer, playing sax. We have seen services changed when we did songs live as opposed to with tracks. Don’t get me wrong, tracks are a great way to go, but the element of being able to follow after God’s spirit in a service/concert to be able to reach people is very effective. It just allows you to be more free in your choice of songs that can literally be the difference in just singing or going deeper and really ministering.

  6. Good post today, Daniel. I agree. A pianist, does add spontaneity to the program and add energy and interest. I read your comment about Gerald’s ability to “slip over to the piano” with a grin, because when I saw this topic, I was going to make the point that when I’ve seen Tribute in concert, many times I don’t even realize it when Josh has made the transition from the standing line-up to the piano bench. He’s very smooth at that, subtle and yet very effective. So, if I may borrow your words “sllip over,” I think they apply to Josh, as well. When he’s called on to do his solos, there is certainly nothing subtle about him, much to the crowd’s delight, but other times, I find I discover he’s over at the piano and I didn’t even realize he shifted to that position. Maybe I’m just caught up in the song or focused on whomever happens to be delivering the solo and I don’t realize he’s making his move. I have noticed he has, at times, transitioned during the audience applause before an encore. But either what he does is seamless for the most part or perhaps I just need to pay more attention. LOL But I like that it’s subtle and not distracting or a big production made when he goes back and forth.

    • Yes, Josh is excellent at slipping over and not making it a distraction.

  7. I am a piano player, but don’t forget the bass players. It really helps when a group member (Trammell, Fowler, Griffin etc.) can play bass along with the piano.

  8. Thank you for your excellent article about piano players!! It is wonderful that you have once again called attention to the importance of the piano and the pianist. I was a pianist for a Southern Gospel quartet in Southern California at the
    age of 15. My favorite pianist was Beverly De La Bretonne of the Jubilaires from San Diego, CA. Years later, my #1
    favorite pianist was Anthony Burger. He was extremely talented and versatile. He is missed greatly but it is a blessing
    to have his CD’s and DVD’s so that he is not forgotten. Thanks again, Daniel, for your article about Gospel pianists. A
    Southern Gospel Quartet and a piano—that’s all we need!

    • You are welcome!

      As long as there is a Southern Gospel music genre, I think it is safe to say that Anthony will not be forgotten!

  9. It’s been a while, but I seem to remember the good old days when SG music was done right … and it is an honor to have been a part of that time … and those days. I suppose I’m just an old fogey now … almost can’t tell one so called “artist” from another … and we pickers seem to have gone out of style … but we had our day. It was a good run.

    • It is an honor that you would stop by! I sure hope the days of the pickers come back into style one of these days!

    • Uncle Tommy, There are so many people who still have the truest of love in their hearts for the “good old days”. And you, Sir, are the one of the pillars of that love. It seems to me, now, that most everything you old timers sang or played was far beyond todays abilities. There are lots of performers but very few pickers and artists left. So don’t worry about being an old fogey, besides not many performers have a Grammy or a Dove in their house. But my uncle does!!!!

      Love you,