As the pianist and music director of the Mr. Rogers Neighborhood television series Johnny Costa entertained millions of children over several generations with his gentle melodic jazz. The Mr. Rogers show opened with Costa’s jazzy four part harmony chord progression intro of the theme song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, His chiming trolley music took the children into the land of make believe, and the show ended with Fred singing "It's Such a Good Feeling" accompanied by Johnny’s piano. The talented pianist Costa left home in 1940 after graduating high school to tour with a big band. When the war came he married his sweetheart and went off to fight in the epic battle of Utah Beach. Retuning from the war he took advantage of the G.I. Bill to earn a degree in music composition from Carnegie Tech. On the day of his college graduation in 1951 he began his 46 year broadcasting career. He soon became the music director of the newly born KDKA television station. Moonlighting from his television job during the 1950s and early 60’s he toured the country with his jazz trio, recorded seven jazz albums on the Savoy, Dot, and Coral labels, and performed live on the NBC Tonight Show. He worked as the music director of the nationally syndicated Mike Douglas in Philadelphia for a short time, before he decided to give up the life of a touring musician. He wanted to stay in Pittsburgh to raise his family. Returning Pittsburgh he began working with Fred Rogers in 1967 continuing for 31 years until his last show in 1996. On the Mister Rogers show he performed with Mary Lou Williams, Wynton Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis, Yo Yo Ma, Eric Kloss and other jazz greats. Together he and Rogers have made three appearances on The Tonight Show and one on Late Night with David Letterman. During the 1990s Costa resumed his recording career releasing 4 albums on the Chiaroscuro label
Costa played most of his career in the background behind the camera’s, but his skill as a jazz pianist was greatly respected in the jazz world. Jazz legend Art Tatum dubbed him "the White Tatum." His music was lauded by jazz masters Benny Carter, Dave Brubeck, Tommy Dorsey, Dizzy Gillespie, Marion McPartland, Peter Nero, Andre Previn, Buddy Rich, and Mel Torme
“Johnny Costa, who has spent many years playing for the Mister Rogers children's television series, is a brilliant pianist” - Scott Yanow Allmusic.com
``He was a combination of a jazz musician and storyteller. He had a very fleet, elegant style, but sublimated all those things to be whatever he had to be for the show - a butterfly, someone in big boots, an elephant. Not everyone can do that.'' - McPartland, Host of National Public Radio's ``Piano Jazz'' Show
“Costa had the capabilities of performing any kind of music'' and his solo piano recording are among the most unique piano CDs in the world.'' - Tony Mowad Jazz Show Host and President and founder of the Pittsburgh Jazz Society
Beginning Accordion in Arnold
Johnny Costa was born into an Italian immigrant family on January 18, 1922 in Arnold, Pennsylvania along the Allegheny River near New Kensington. Costa began studying music at age five learning to play the violin with little enjoyment. His neighbor Fred Petri, a professional saxophonist, taught Costa the accordion at age 7. Costa learned to play songs by ear and developed a strong right hand. His left hand was poorly developed as he just used it to punch chord buttons. Johnny soon began earning money playing accordion at wedding, birthdays, and firehalls. Costa’s coal mining father, wanting to keep Johnny out the coal mines, sold the family house to buy his ten year old son a large $500 accordion. Johnny learned to read music and played his accordion at school assemblies. Upon discovering that Costa had perfect pitch, his high school music teacher and life-long friend, Frank Oliver, urged Costa to learn the piano. Costa made the switch and his father invested in piano lessons from Martin Meissler, who had been Oscar Levant’s teacher. Meissller traveled twice a week to Arnold, Pa to instruct Costa from 1938 to 1940. He introduced Costa to Bach and Chopin and taught him to practice scales religiously every day.
During his high school years Costa began to work as a professional pianist in Pittsburgh. Costa played with his neighbor’s band, the Fred Petri Orchestra from l930 to l935. He worked with the Johnny Lann Orchestra from l935 to l937. After graduation from Arnold High School in 1940 Costa started his own small band with vocalist Helen Zamerini. Joining the band of clarinetist Tommy Reynolds Costa moved to New York City. The Reynolds band played dates at Ivy League colleges and lived at the Knickerbocker Hotel. Costa toured with the band for a year until history interceded in his music career.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor Costa entered the U.S. Army. Before leaving for the war he returned to Pittsburgh to marry his sweetheart vocalist Helen Zamperini. He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day and was a medic with the 90th Division. the Tough Hombres, in France for several months until he caught rheumatic fever. After spending a year in military hospitals he was discharged from the Army. Returning to Pittsburgh in 1945 Costa studied music at Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie-Mellon University. He studied composition with Nicolai Lopatnicoff, a major European avant-gade composer. During his years at Carnegie Tech Costa's unique style began to develop with influences of classical composers, Erroll Garner, Fats Waller, and Art Tatum. After one year of study Costa took a leave of absence to work as a jazz pianist in Chicago. He returned to Carnegie Tech earning two degrees in music composition and teaching. He played Mercur’s, the William Penn Hotel and other downtown jazz clubs while going to school and did a few dates with Erroll Garner.
KDKA TV's Music Director
On his graduation day in 1951 he went to work as the studio pianist for a Pittsburgh radio station appearing on the Bill Brant Variety Show. Later in 1951 Costa became the pianist for WDTV, the forerunner of KDKA TV. After Westinghouse acquired WDTV Costa became the KDKA TV music director performing live for 15 years. Costa played background music on piano and organ for the program Meet Your Neighbor. He hosted his own semi-weekly show called “The Wonder World of Johnny Costa” on which he discussed composers and played heir compositions.
Children's Television Star on Funsville as Indian MaryFor two years Costa accompanied Josie Carey on piano on her KDKA TV morning show “Josie's Storyland”. Carey also appeared in the afternoons with Fred Rogers on “The Children’s Corner” on WQED . Josie introduced Costa to Fred when she hired Costa perform on the syndicated NET “Childern’s Corner” series. Leaving WQED in around 1961, Josie hosted a live half hour afternoon children’s show on KDKA-TV called “Funsville”. Running five days a week, Funsville was a zany after school favorite of Pittsburgh baby boomer kids. Johnny Costa performed jazzy music and played the silent character Indian Mary. Putting together his own costume in the KDKA wardrobe department, he donned a skirt, a shirt, and a wig with long braided pigtails. and a straw hat stuck with a large feather. Josie described the wise cracking piano playing Costa as being “all three Marx Brothers rolled into one”. To keep Costa from making inappropriate comments on the live show, she made him keep a big cigar in his month and keep silent. On the air Indian Mary held conversations with Josie by playing notes on a celesta keyboard. The children of Pittsburgh loved Indian Mary.
Savoy Records Recording Artist and Night Club Performer
On weekends and evenings Costa performed with his trio of bassist Jim DeJulio and drummer Chuck Spatafore. Represented by national booking agency MCA his trio performed at major clubs in Chicago, Detroit, Miami, and New York City. Costa played the top piano clubs in the country in the early 60s: Chicago 's London House, Wexler's Theatrical Bar in Cleveland, Baker's in Detroit, Miami 's Eden Rock and others.
Johnny Costa became a national recording artist in 1955 with six releases. Costa was contacted in early 1995 by a representative of Savoy Records offering him a recording session. Savoy was the same label that launched Erroll Garner with his recording of “Laura”. The session was recorded on a Steinway in producer Rudy Van Gelder's living room in Hackensack, NJ.. Savoy issued the EP “Introducing Johnny Costa” and the LP “The Amazing Johnny Costa” from that recording session. The album was reissued on CD in 1989 as “Neighborhood”. Savoy also released “Johnny Costa and His Trio” in 1955. Working with producer Bob Theile Costa also released three albums in 1955 on Coral Records: "Johnny Costa Plays Piano Solos", "Johnny Costa Plays for the Most Beautiful Girl in the World", and “Costa Living”. Costa continued to record releasing “A Gallery of Gershwin” on Coral (1958) and “In My Own Quiet Way" on Dot in 1959. In the early-60s he recorded two LPs on Dot Record working with Sonny Lester and Milt DeLugg. He recorded two 45s for J. Arthur Rank, one was the theme song for the movie “Conspiracy of Hearts”. Costa privately released the jazz LP “ohnny Costa Plays Mister Rogers' Neighborhood” in 1986 featuring original songs from the Mr. Rogers Show.
Record producer Bob Theile got Johnny a twice-a-year gig at the Embers Room in NYC that last ed for seven year. Theile also got Johnny on Steve Allen's Tonight Show. Costa made his first appearance on the NBC Tonight Show on December 14, 1955 performing the songs “After you’re Gone” and “Froggy Day”. In 1962 Wlliam Steinberg invited Costa to perform as a soloist with the Pittsburgh Symphony. It was the first of several symphony appearances that he made over the years.
Mister Rogers Neighborhood
Even though he was getting national attention and earning a good living with recordings, night club appearing, and television appearances Costa yearned to be home with his family and friends. But Costa didn't like being away from home. "I enjoyed entertaining people, but when the show was over, I'd go back to a hotel room with four walls. I missed my family." He gave up the life of a traveling musician and his recording career to return to Pittsburgh for the rest of his life. His lifelong collaboration with Fred Rogers began in 1965 when he offered Costa $5,000 to arrange, conduct, and play the music for 100 episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Needing college tuition money for his son Costa took Fred up on his offer in 1967. Costa said in interview "I believed in Fred's work. Forget your money, your fame, your ‘career' and do something good, really good. I really made a good choice.”
While working on the "Neighborhood" Costa filled in on nationally syndicated "The Mike Douglas Show" for six weeks when the music director became ill. He was offered the job as a permanent position but turned it down to remain in Pittsburgh and work with Mr. Rogers.
For 31 years Costa arranged Fred Roger’s original songs and performed with his trio of Carl McVicker Jr. on bass and Bob Rawsthorne on drum. (Carl McVicker Jr is the son of the Westinghouse High music teacher Carl McVicker Sr. who taught Billy Strayhorn, Erroll Garner, Admad Jamal, and other great Pittsburgh musicians. Guitarist Joe "Handyman" Negri frequently performed with the ensemble. Playing improvisational jazz Branford Marsalis said that the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was the best jazz show on the air anywhere." Costa and his trio released on album of the show’s music in 1984 entitled Costa Plays Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.
Costa arranged Fred Rogers ' works for symphony orchestra and conducted concerts in Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Denver, Orlando, Seattle and other cities.
Costa Returns to Recording
In 1990, jazz pianist Dick Hyman, without Costa’s knowledge, mailed a DAT tape of a Costa recording session produced by Bill Hillman to Hank O'Neal president of Chiaroscuro Records. Chiaroscuro Records was the label that had released the recordings of Earl Hines and Mary Lou Williams. O’neal signed Costa to his label releasing the tape on CD as "Classic Costa" in 1991. Chiaroscuro Records released Costa’s "Flying Fingers" (1992) and "A Portrait of George Gershwin." (1994). Costa recorded in one session of first takes a collection of Johnny Mercer tunes entitled “Dream: Johnny Costa Plays Johnny Mercer” that was released in 1996. His final recording was “Christmas Reflections” released in 1997.The City Theater honored Costa as the first recipient of its Performance Award for outstanding performances from western Pennsylvania arts. Dick Hyman and Peter Nero performed at the ceremony. Costa was inducted into Pittsburgh Jazz Society Hall of Fame. Costa died of anemia on October 11, 1996 at age 74.