Liberace Biography

Wladziu Valentino Liberace, 16 May 1919, West Allis, Wisconsin, USA, d. 4 February 1987, Palm Springs, Florida, USA. This larger-than-life pianist had no major chart hits - but had an indefinable charm and talent that gave delight to multitudes of fans across the globe. Of Polish-Italian extraction, he was raised in a household where there was always music - particularly from father Salvatore who played French horn in both John Philip Sousa’s Concert Band and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Young Wladziu was eager to become a professional player and his piano skills were praised by no less than Paderewski, and he won a place at Wisconsin College of Music at the age of seven.

During his 17-year scholarship - the longest ever awarded by the academy - he made his concert debut as a soloist at the age of 11 and was fronting renowned symphony orchestras while still an adolescent. A fulfilling career of classical recitals and university master classes might have beckoned but for the artist’s innate sense of humour and flair for self-promotion. After service in an overseas entertainments unit during World War II, he played and sang in club dance bands and it was during a residency at the Wunderbar in Warsaw, Wisconsin, that he was first introduced as ‘Liberace’. At New York’s Persian Rooms, an experiment whereby he performed counterpoints to records - including his own one-shot single for the Signature label - played on the venue’s sound system, was curtailed by a Musicians Union ban. A happier season in a Californian hotel resulted in a Decca Records contract, for which he was visualized as a second Frankie Carle. However, wishing to develop a more personal style, he moved to Columbia Records where, supervised by Mitch Miller, he recorded a flamboyant version of ‘September Song’ which, supplemented by an in-concert album, brought Liberace to the attention of a national audience.

By the early 50s, his repertoire embraced George Gershwin favourites, cocktail jazz, film themes (‘Unchained Melody’), boogie-woogie and self-composed pieces (‘Rhapsody By Candlelight’), as well as adaptations of light classics such as ‘The Story Of Three Loves’ - borrowed from a Rachmaninov variation on a tune by Paganini. Nevertheless, Liberace struck the most popular chord with his encores, in which doggerel such as ‘Maizy Doats’ or ‘Three Little Fishies’ were dressed in arrangements littered with twee arpeggios and trills. He also started garbing himself from a wardrobe that stretched to rhinestone, white mink, sequins, gold lamé and similar razzle-dazzle. Crowned with a carefully waved coiffeur, he oozed charm and extravagant gesture, with a candelabra-lit piano as the focal point of the epic vulgarity that was The Liberace Show, televised coast-to-coast from Los Angeles; the show established a public image that he later tried in vain to modify. His fame was such that he was name-checked in ‘Mr. Sandman’, a 1954 million-seller by the Chordettes, and a year later, starred (as a deaf concert pianist) in a film, Sincerely Yours, with brother George (future administrator of the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas) as musical director. Another spin-off was the publication of a Liberace cookbook.

Following the celebration of his quarter century in showbusiness with a Hollywood Bowl spectacular in 1956, Liberace crossed to England (where a vocal outing, ‘I Don’t Care’, was lodged in the Top 30) for the first of three Royal Command Performances. While in the UK, he instigated a High Court action, successfully suing the Daily Mirror, whose waspish columnist Cassandra had written an article on the star laced with sexual innuendo. During the next decade, a cameo in the film satire The Loved One was reviewed not unfavourably, as was one of his early albums for RCA Records in which he aimed more directly at the contemporary market. This, however, was a rare excursion, as his work generally maintained a certain steady consistency - or ‘squareness’, in the words of his detractors - that deviated little from the commercial blueprint wrought in the 50s. Nonetheless, Liberace’s mode of presentation left its mark on stars such as Gary Glitter, Elton John and Queen. Although attendant publicity boosted box office takings on a world tour, embarrassing tabloid newspaper allegations by a former employee placed his career in a darker perspective. When the singer died on 4 February 1987 at his Palm Springs mansion, the words ‘kidney complaint’ were assumed to be a euphemism for an AIDS-related illness. For a 75th Birthday Celebration in 1994, fans from all over America gathered to pay their respects at Liberace Plaza in Las Vegas.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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