Pittsburgh Music Story

The stories of the musicians and musical organizations who created Pittsburgh's musical culture.

From it's beginning in 1758 Pittsburgh has been a city of music.  Among the early German and English settlers of Pittsburgh were accomplished classical musicians who taught music to the sons of and daughters of the pioneers, formed musical performance societies, opened music stores, establish music publishing companies, and composed classical works.  The Harmony Society established an orchestra, built the largest performance hall in the country, commissioned compositions, and performed the first symphony composed in America.  These pioneering music teachers, performers, composers, and music businessmen established Pittsburgh's classical music culture "fostering" the birth of American music.  

Pittsburgh has been a musical melting pot where classical European music was blended with English parlor ballads, African American blues, jazz, doo-wop, rock, world beat and hip hop to create the new sounds of the melodic ballads of Stephen Foster, the innovative Pittsburgh School of piano jazz, the Be-Bop beat of Blakey and Kenny Clarke, the string backed Doo Wop of the Skyliners, the world beat of Rusted Root, and the hip-hop pop rock mash ups of Girl Talk.  Molten hot music pours out of the blast furnace of Pittsburgh’s musical culture. 

A young Stephen Foster studied classical music with Henry Kleber, a musician and downtown Pittsburgh music store proprietor.  Enjoying the music of the early minstrel shows at Pittsburgh theatres Foster came under the spell TD Rice.   Blending Kleber’s classical music with TD Rice’s minstrel music Stephen Foster created a new American sound.  His songs gained immediate national popularity, making him America's first Pop music sensation in the 1840s.  Credited as the "Father of American music," Foster was the pre-eminent American songwriter of the 19th century.  His songs "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Old Folks at Home" remain popular today evidenced by a 2005 Grammy award for an album of his music: “Beautiful Dreamer”. 

The music culture of Pittsburgh continued to grow with the establishment of required music education, musical societies, and popular entertainment.  In 1844 Pittsburgh became the first public school district in Pennsylvania and the fifth in the country to institute required music education.  Students were taught singing, harmony, and music theory.  The talents of Pittsburgh’s students were showcased three years later in 1847 when vocal teacher D.L. Bingham led a performance of 700 students at Pittsburgh's Anthenaem Hall.  Music education was extended to the black schools in 1869 and was continued in the integrated schools.  During the 19th century classical music was performed in Pittsburgh by several music societies including the Appolonians (1807), The Pittsburgh Music Society (1817), the Harmony Society Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Philharmonic Society (1853), the Mozart Club (1878), and the Art Society of Pittsburgh (1873).  These societies were forerunners to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) that was formed in 1896.  Under the direction of Victor Herbert the PSO became a major American orchestra earning critical comparison to the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra.  The members of the PSO gave instruction to Pittsburgh’s young musicians and staffed the music facility at Carnegie Tech.

With the growth of the Steel industry and manufacturing in the 1880s Pittsburgh’s population grew rapidly making it the sixth largest city in the U.S. in 1907.  Attracted by jobs waves of Eastern Europeans, Italians, and southern African Americans migrated to the Western Pennsylvania area.  These new Pittsburghers brought new musical elements and passions to the boiling the cauldron of Pittsburgh’s musical culture.  The Eastern Europeans and Italians brought their ethnic folk music, skilled classical musicians and teachers, love of symphonies and opera, and their desire to advance.  The African Americans of the great northern migration brought their desire to advance culturally along with the roots of blues, gospel, and jazz. 

In the late 19th and early 20th century the classical music culture of Pittsburgh fostered the careers of several of the greatest classicial pianists of the great 20th century including virtuosos Earl Wild, Bryon Janis, Oscar Levant, Norman Frauenheim, Beveridge Webster, and Patricia Prattis Jennings.   Pittsburgh has produced conductors Lorin Maazel and Antonio Modarelli; oera stars Louise Homer, Florence Wickham and Andrew McKinley; composers Adolph Martin Foester, Anna Priscilla Rischer, David and David Stock..

As the Pittsburgh population grew the demand for live musical entertainment grew.  There were hundreds of venues for Pittsburgher to hear live music and to perform it.  Pittsburghers danced to the music of ragtime and jazz on the riverboat cruises of Fate Marable and Louis Deppe.  Vaudeville shows, musicals, and the big bands performed at the downtown theaters such as the Million Dollar Grand, the Nixon, and the Stanley along with the Hill District’s Roosevelt Theater and East Liberty’s Enright Theatre.  Music was performed in dozens of clubs in East Liberty and the Hill that were open 24 hours a day catering to the mill shift workers.  During the 1920s 25,000 to 30,000 people attended the entertainment venues of Pittsburgh daily.  With the birth of broadcast radio in Pittsburgh live music was performed by studio orchestras and bands on KDKA and WCAE.   The wealthy industrial elite of Pittsburgh hired local musicians to perform in their homes and at social functions.  To accommodate larger classical music audiences the Pittsburgh Symphony moved to the 3,000 seat Syria Mosque.  There was a wealth of live music to be heard in Pittsburgh.  There were many jobs for Pittsburgh musicians.

In an interview bassist John Heard and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine attributed the success of Pittsburgh musicians to several factors: the investment in music in the school system, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Carnegie Library, and the many concerts held in Pittsburgh.   Pittsburgh children were exposed to great music.  The Pittsburgh area schools required music appreciation classes and supplied students with free instruments and lessons.  The schools had excellent music teachers and the university music departments were staffed by members of the Pittsburgh Symphony.  Students learned how to perform playing in swing bands, string quartets, orchestra and bands.  Other cities did not have these endowments for the arts. 

A group of children gifted with natural musical talent was born in the Pittsburgh area or migrated to the area in the early 20th century.  Many learned to play by ear at an early age. Seeing the talent of these youngsters their parents sent them to Pittsburgh’s skilled music teachers to learn the classics.  Hearing the wealth of classical and popular music in Pittsburgh’s entertainment venues and on the Pittsburgh’s live music radio stations, these young musicians were inspired to pursue music careers.  Many became musicians to escape from grueling jobs in the mills.  During the period of the 1920s through the 1950s a wave of instrumentalists and composer/arrangers swept from Pittsburgh to international prominence in piano jazz, big swing bands, be bop ensembles, the movie and television industries, and classical music.

Ragtime and Jazz were introduced to Pittsburgh by pianist and steamboat band leader Fate Marable who performed in Pittsburgh between 1907 to the early 1920s.  Hiring a group of New Orleans musicians including a young Louis Armstrong, Fate Marble brought Jazz upriver from New Orleans to Pittsburgh with his steamboat bands.  In the off-season he played piano in the clubs of the Hill District laying the foundation for the Pittsburgh school of jazz piano.  Louis Deppe who came to Pittsburgh from Kentucky also played jazz on popular river boat cruises and in the clubs of Wylie Avenue.  He hired a young pianist Earl Hines who invented modern jazz piano while touring with Deppe’s Seranders.

Earl Hines was the first of the Pittsburgh school of jazz pianists and composer-arrangers that includes Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, Horace Parlan, Sonny Clark, Orlando DiGirolamo, Shirley Scott, and Johnny Costa.  The Pittsburgh school of jazz piano was based on a foundation of traditional European classical techniques blended with African American music,

“Pittsburgh rivaled New York City in its development of the piano in Jazz…. Pittsburgh’s involvement with the piano was a major cultural phenomenon stimulated by the Great Migration’s thirst for cultural advancement and the traditional respect accorded to harmoniums and pianos in southern black life.” – Jazz on the River William Howland Kennedy

The young pianists Earl Hines, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou William and others studied classical music with European trained teachers such as Von Holtz, Charlotte Catlin, and Sturzio. They were taught music theory and composition in the public schools.  They also heard the music of New Orleans from Fate Marable and Louis Deppe, along with blues artists like Ma Rainey and Jelly Roll Morton who played the clubs of Wylie Avenue.  Earl Hines and Billy Strayhorn aspired to be classical concert pianists.  But discrimination blocked their paths.  Classical music was a white male only club.  Instead they turned their talent to invent piano jazz and to compose jazz classics. 

Trained in the classics many talented Pittsburgh musicians became band leaders, band members and arranger/composers during the big band era.  Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Vaughn Monroe and Ted Weems led their own bands.  Three students of Herman Clements, principal bassist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, became world renowned jazz bassists: Ray Brown, Paul Chamber, and Sonny Dallas.  Song writer Jay Livingston studied with Fredrick Archer, the founder of the PSO.   Three students of the Stanley Theatre Orchestra conductor Max Adler became big band arrangers: Strayhorn (Elllington), Mancini (Benny Goodman), Jerry Fielder (Alvino Ray).  Mary Lou Williams wrote arrangements for dozens of bands.  Roy Eldridge, one of defining trumpeters of jazz came to fame with the Gene Krupa band.  Babe Russin recorded and performed with the biggest names of the Big Band era including Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, and Red Nichols.  Art Blakey and Ray Crawford were members of the ground breaking Fletcher Henderson band.  

Before the 1950 the big bands dominated popular music.  Vocalists were just members of the band.  The stars were the band leaders.  Instrumental songs “Take the A Train” and “In the Mood” were classic hits.  In July of 1942 the American Federation of Musician went on strike against the recording companies demanding that artists be paid recording royalties.  All union instrumental musicians stopped recording from 1942 through 1945.   As the strike went on the record companies releases recordings of popular vocalists singing with backup vocal groups.  Canonsburg native, Perry Como’s release several popular songs during the strike.  As a result of the strike popular music shifted from the instrumental music of big bands to the ballads of vocal stars and vocal groups.  Vocalists came to dominate popular music in the 1950s.  Billy Eckstein broke up his band and became a popular ballad singer.   Formed big band singer Perry Como, Dean Martin, and Bobby Vinton scored dozens of hits and sold over 200 million records during the 1950s and early 1960s.

The Doo Wop and vocal group craze and overtook Pittsburgh in the 1950s.  The Marcells came to fame with this 195t hit “Come Go With Me”. With their million selling hit song "Since I Don't Have You" the Skyliners became the first group to feature a string arrangement in a rock and roll song.  Phil Spector sites “Since I Don’t Have You” as an influence on his "wall of sound" style of the 1960s.  A wave of successful Pittsburgh vocal groups and performers found success including, the Del Vikings, the Four Coins, the Vogues, the Lettermen, Adam Wade, and Lou Christie. 

With the British Invasion of the early 1960s and the rise of the R&B sound of Motown and Philadelphia International Pittsburgh baby boomer musicians came under the spell of rock and R&B.  The first band of Pittsburgher to hit the rock charts was Tommy James and the Shondells with Hanky-Panky in 1966.  During 1968-69 Tommy James and The Shondells sold more singles than any other artist in the world, including The Beatles.  Starting with the Igniters in 1968 several groups signed major label contracts, toured the country, and scored hits during the late 1960s through the 1980s including The Jaggerz, Wild Cherry, Diamond Reo, the Granati Brothers, the Iron City Houserockers, the Silencers, David Werner, Billy Price, Norman Nardini. Donnie Iris, B.E. Taylor, and Pete Hewlett.  Scoring mahor hits in R&B and Pop genres were Shanice, Syretta Wright, Bob Babbit, and the Steals Brothers, and Phyllis Hyman   In the late 1980s three Pittsburgh became rock superstars; Bret Michaels of Poison, Reb Beach with Winger, and Paul Gilbert with Racer X and Mr. Big. 

In the 1990s Rusted Root and the Clarks hit the airways, charts, and national concert circuit.    Blending world beats with rock Rusted Root created the all time classic smash hit “Send Me on Mt Way.  Drummer Brian Young came to fame with the Poises and Fountains of Wayne.  Paul Doucette hit the big time with Match Box 20.  A new set of stars in emerging from Pittsburgh in the 21st century:  mash-up maestro Girl Talk, superstar rapper Wiz Khalifa , activist punk rockers Anti-Flag, and singing sensation Jackie Evancho.

Pittsburgh Exposition 1878- World's Best Music


Harmonist Society Orchestra
Stephen Foster
Growth of Steel -Hell with the Lid Off
The Nixon Theater
Earl Wild

Fate Marable Riverboat Band with Louis Armstrong

Pittsburgh School of Jazz Piano-
Ear Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner
Billy Strayhorn with Duke Ellington
Roy Eldridge
Perry Como
The Skyliners
Rusted Root