What does that song mean?

Why Does Everybody Pick On Liberace?

Posted Feb 22nd, 17:56 by Penguin Pete

I was prodded to wonder the title question while working on another project for another client. More specifically, a movie review, in fact a movie which has rock n roll for a partial motif… and which could not resist taking a monkey shot at Liberace. The movie in question was released in 1999, some 12 years after his passing. It will come up a couple movies from now over at 366 Weird Movies channel, you’ll know it when you see it.

And man, I see the nastiest insults directed at Liberace. Which is making me think, here goes another Baby Boomer pop culture legend going down the history tubes with no context. I write this for you future generations wondering “what the heck was the deal with Liberace?” Because I wanted to know too, but I think I have it figured out.

Note that a great deal of derision that Liberace attracted spouted from his homosexuality. Granted, that is a magnet, and yet I never see this level of homophobia directed at, say, Freddie Mercury of Queen fame. The two have something in common: some of the first wave of celebrities to die of AIDS in the 80s. But Liberace seemed to draw an extra share of hate. What drew so much spite against this seemingly innocuous piano player? Besides his habit of suing anyone who dared call him “gay” in the press?

Liberace was a shrewd businessman

The chief things people remember about Liberace today (other than that thing) was his loudly flaming, extravagant dress, and his outright tacky taste in everything from sparkling pianos to gaudy mansions to a collection of cars that would do a sultan proud, if the sultan wanted all his cars painted as if Batman villains drove them.

Well, how do you think he afforded all that stuff? He made a PILE of money, mostly through being in the right place at the right time. Born in 1919, having begun playing piano at age 4, he was playing at nightclubs by his teenage years – during the 1930s American Great Depression, when he was nearly supporting his family already. By the 1940s, at the height of WWII, he was playing top clubs and getting favorable view in Variety.

By “right place at the right time,” I mean that Liberace was forward-thinking as a performer, and had the luck to be among the first showmen to make it from stage to screen. Along the way, he made a lot of attention for himself by appearing in some of the first “soundies,” by playing for a while with a phonograph player onstage, and being one of the first musicians to hold a regular show schedule in Las Vegas.

By 1955, Liberace was appearing at the Riviera Hotel pulling down $55K per week! In 1955, the median cost of a house was 18K. Adjusted for modern 2024 dollars, 50K would be $574K – half a million – per week, making over twenty-five million annually. Taylor Swift, current word’s richest performer, makes $92 million annually right now.

THEN, of course, he went on to do the TV show – and got even richer! Once again in the right place at the right time, The Liberace Show (1952) was the first syndicated TV show. As far as he was concerned, syndication could not have come along soon enough.

Long story short, Liberace had the luck to be one of the world’s first music pop stars of the TV era, and was paid in a time when the US economy was now booming in the post-WWII years. And he was outrageously popular for his time, which explains some of the hate already; pure backlash, just like that directed at Taylor Swift today.

Make no mistake about it, Liberace worked harder at self-promotion than he ever did at piano. He appeared on The Muppet Show, guested on sitcoms, appeared in movies, owned restaurants, and published cookbooks with recipes like “Liberace Lasagna” and “Liberace Sticky Buns.” Which you can’t say without laughing now.

In short, Liberace was the KISS of pianists.

I don’t give concerts; I put on shows.”

So how was Liberace this popular? Did he just have golden fingers? Well, no, despite the popularity, many critics of the time would agree that Liberace just wasn’t a maestro. A critic of his Carnegie Hall concert famously dismissed his work as “almost all showmanship topped by whipped cream and cherries.” Other critics pointed out that Liberace showed no respect for the original composition, playing each piece his own way.

If you listen to Liberace now, he sounds good, yes, but… standard. A bit bland, even. You can hear him go from “Memory” from Cats to Moonlight Sonata to “How Much is That Doggy in the Window?” and he could make them all sound like Liberace music. No piece got more weight or dignity than any other.

Liberace responded to criticisms of his music skill two ways: Either by bragging that he “cried all the way to the bank” about his negative reviews (he is credited with inventing this phrase), or he’d just deflect it with “I don’t give concerts; I put on shows.”

Indeed, that was Liberace’s real innovation. You see him in the video up top doing crowd work, taking requests like a common saloon pianist, with an entire orchestra behind him sitting there awkwardly. Liberace was a gifted stage showman. He added the candelabra as a conscious trademark, dressed ever more extravagantly, produced his TV show in split-screen and mood lighting which spotlighted his exaggerated, showy hand movements – while playing a pretty pedestrian song in a basic key.

Perhaps Liberace had a bit of ego? He also later remarked “I’m a one-man Disneyland.” For a man born long before TV was invented, he glommed onto that camera like his life depended on it. That’s the thing though: Where TV was a relatively new medium, many celebrities had a hard time transitioning so quickly from radio to silent film to talking film and now to this new kind of instantly-broadcast film. Conversely, Liberace loved every camera lens he ever saw, addressing the viewers at home with the same quips and remarks as he did a live audience on stage.

You can see it in his face when he was performing live. It wasn’t so much about the music as it was The Man Who Played The Music. He really loved to put on that show, loved his fans, and sought out more new innovative stage tricks like bringing on chorus girls, riding out onto the stage in a Rolls Royce for his entrance, or descending down to the stage gliding on wires. Liberace piled more gimmicks into his act than a WWF match.

But the actual music? Never improved. He never stretched his style, never experimented. All the music he played went through a Liberace filter and came out as Liberace-music.

In short, Liberace was also the Nickelback of pianists.

Liberace left a cultural legacy

First off, despite his faults, he was still loved and admired all around. Even if his piano playing left other musicians unimpressed, Liberace was a performer first, and honestly would have been an actor or a show host if he hadn't fastened onto the piano. Look at him bake a lasagna:

See, he didn't even need the piano. As long as a camera's on him, he was in seventh heaven.

Yes, Liberace’s brother George did join him on stage a few times. A fact that Warner Brothers cartoons, especially Bugs Bunny, never want you to ever forget. Which is why they pulled that “wish my brother George was here” line whenever a character got near a piano with candelabra aboard.

Today, there is a Liberace Foundation, providing scholarships and grants to music students at UNLV. And of course, up until recently, there was the Liberace museum, which lost its long-time permanent home and is now a traveling exhibit. Check here for appearances.

Still, what a collection! The furs, the baroque piano, the car collection, the gaudy diamonds and sequins on everything. You can’t blame a guy who survived the Great Depression, now wealthy beyond his wildest dreams from sheer performance alone, to want to show off the cash a little. But Liberace set himself apart taste-wise, going all-in on the kind of tacky show-off décor, the likes of which would not be seen again until… dare I say it? Until Donald Trump.

The gay thing was just lost on most of his mostly-female audience, and really not remarked upon much during his career. But after his death, his sexual identity became an easy soft spot, low-hanging insult for bigots who couldn’t put their finger on why else not to like him.

Anyway, just doing my part as an old-timer to put history in context. Back to your Taylor Swift now.



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