“Out of the Blue”: Earliest Toy Piano Pop Recording?

As noted in the update to my original posting, it would appear that Neil Diamond has been supplanted by Tommy James & the Shondells as the new reigning champions in the pioneering use of toy piano in musical recordings with their 1967 pop hit, “Out of the Blue.”  The details – unfortunately – are a bit convoluted.

On the one hand, we know Neil Diamond recorded “Shilo” in 1967, and there even is(was) a video on the web purporting to be an early live performance of “Shilo” at The Bitter End in New York City from August 1967.  However, Tommy James and the Shondells released a string of five singles in 1967 – the final one of the year being “Out of the Blue,” which (I recently discovered) features some toy piano accompaniment.  So, two songs from 1967 – Neil would still seem to be, given the chronology noted above, the likely winner of the toy-piano-in-pop-music-contest, right?

Not so fast.  As it turns out, Bert Berns, the owner of Neil’s record label, Bang, adamantly refused to release “Shilo” as a single despite Neil’s protestations.  This was a deal-breaker for Neil, so he left the label and signed with MCA imprint, Uni.  Bang would eventually release “Shilo” as a 45 – but not until 1970 (which then prompted Neil to re-issue his 1968 debut album for Uni but then add a brand-new arrangement of “Shilo”).  Complicating matters is chart information on Wikipedia saying that “Shilo” was released as an A-side in September 1968, even though by then Neil had already signed to Uni, who had released his first album – which did not include “Shilo” (told you it was complicated).  Even if “Shilo” had been issued as a 45 in the summer of 1968, it is now clear that “Out of the Blue” by Tommy James was first on the radio airwaves – we have a new winner!

Out of the Blue – Tommy James & the Shondells

[Pssst:  Click the triangle to play “Out of the Blue” by Tommy James & the Shondells.]

Note:  This mix from the 1968 Columbia Records compilation LP – Super Stars, Super Hits #2 – features groovy outer space sound effects on the intro and outro.

Out of the Blue - Tommy James 45

“Shilo”: First Pop Use of Toy Piano?

Two songs were recorded in 1971 that featured toy piano lines:  “Butterfly” by Danyel Gerard – a big international hit – and “Only You” by NRBQ, a song from their Scraps album that was released as the B-side to “Ain’t It All Right.”Only You - NRBQ 45

For the longest time I thought 1971 might have possibly been the year in which toy piano made its first appearance on a pop record.  But then I happened to hear Neil Diamond‘s “Shilo” – written and recorded in 1967 – which features a toy piano in the song’s instrumental bridge:

“Shilo”     Neil Diamond     1967

Can anyone point to a popular musical recording prior to 1967 that includes toy piano?

Toy Piano Update (Nov. 2013):

Wow – the story has suddenly gotten really complicated.  On the one hand, we know Neil Diamond recorded “Shilo” in 1967, and there even is(was) a video on the web purporting to be an early live performance of “Shilo” at The Bitter End in New York City from August 1967.  However, Tommy James and the Shondells released a string of five singles in 1967 – the final one of the year being “Out of the Blue,” which (I recently discovered) features some toy piano accompaniment.  So, two songs from 1967 – Neil would still seem to be, given the chronology noted above, the likely winner of the toy-piano-in-pop-music-contest, right?

Not so fast.  As it turns out, Bert Berns, the owner of Neil’s record label, Bang, adamantly refused to release “Shilo” as a single despite Neil’s protestations.  This was a deal-breaker for Neil, so he left the label and signed with MCA imprint, Uni.  Bang would eventually release “Shilo” as a 45 – but not until 1970 (which then prompted Neil to re-issue his 1968 debut album for Uni but then add a brand-new arrangement of “Shilo”).  Complicating matters is chart information on Wikipedia saying that “Shilo” was released as an A-side in September 1968, even though by then Neil had already signed to Uni, who had released his first album – which did not include “Shilo” (told you it was complicated).  Even if “Shilo” had been issued as a 45 in the summer of 1968, it is now clear that “Out of the Blue” by Tommy James was first on the radio airwaves – we have a new winner!

Toy Piano as “Serious” Instrument: On Philip Glass’ website the accompanying notes to 1997’s, The Art of the Toy Piano, provide some fascinating historical background:

In Philadelphia, 1872, the German immigrant Albert Schoenhut began manufacturing toy pianos according to his own newly-invented design. Wooden mallets struck sounding bars made of metal, replacing the fragile glass sounding-pieces used in toy pianos at that time. His new instrument could better withstand a child’s rough handling and its gamelan-like timbre is the sound of the toy piano as we know it today. By 1935, the A. Schoenhut Company had produced over forty styles and sizes of the toy instrument with prices ranging from fifty cents to twenty-five dollars –“a piano for every purse and taste”, boasted its 1903 catalogue…

The toy piano was intended as an educational tool. The more expensive models stood nineteen to twenty-four inches tall, had raised black notes instead of imitation painted ones, full-width wooden keys and a range of two to three octaves. An instruction manual taught a child such American favorites as Home Sweet Home and Yankee Doodle.

In 1948, John Cage composed his whimsical Suite for Toy Piano.   Using nine consecutive white notes, this became the first “serious” piece ever written for a toy piano.