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.”
For the longest time I thought (quite naively) that 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:
Neil Diamond (1967)
As noted (sadly) in the Tommy James and the Shondells piece from December 2013 —
Bert Berns, the owner of Diamond’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, who would release Diamond’s first single in April of 1968. Bang, in turn, issued “Shilo” as an A-side five months later (out of spite, one assumes), followed soon after by Diamond’s first album for Uni – Velvet Gloves and Spit – which does not include “Shilo” (told you it was complicated). Even with the release of “Shilo” 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!
*September 2021 Update:
Zero to 180’s comprehensive survey of “Toy Piano in Pop Recordings“
[Okay to ignore all prior toy piano posts]
T o y P i a n o a s ” S e r i o u s ” I n s t r u m e n t
Gold Standard in Toy Piano
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.