Zero to 180 – Three Minute Magic

Discoveries of a Pop Music Archaeologist

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Toy Piano in Pop Recordings

Background Summary

Zero to 180’s initial research into the use of toy piano in popular music* first fingered Neil Diamond’s Shilo” (1968), then Tommy James and the Shondells’ Out of the Blue” (1967), before discovering more recently that “Lovey Kravezit” (1966) by The Everly Brothers employs the use of a toy piano in the song’s instrumental bridge.

German picture sleeves — 1971 (left) and 1967 (right)

[*John Cage’s “Suite for Toy Piano” (1948), a formal composition not intended for radio, doesn’t count].

45 picture sleeve — Netherlands

Latest Research: Oldest Recording?

But wait. Toy pianos have been in existence since the mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps it might be wise to question my research methodologies from 2013, and instead undertake a fresh examination of pop music’s archives to see what this tooth cutter might have overlooked eight years ago.

the toy piano
Schoenhut — “Steinway of the toy piano

Sure enough, with very little effort I was able to locate “Smitty’s Xmas Toy Piano” (1959) by The Skunks and René Hall [hoping to cash in on The Chipmunks, who burst onto the pop scene in late 1958 with “The Chipmunk Song“], as well as that 45’s flip side, “Smitty’s Toy Piano.”

The year before, Jose Melis and His Orchestra‘s included the twinkling lullaby, “Toy Piano” on 1958 album, Christmas With Melis

In 1950, The Piccadilly Pipers found a novel way to plug into the late 40s/early 50s boogie woogie craze with their “Toy Piano Boogie.”

“Featuring Clem Moorman on the Jaymar Toy Piano

A related release by that same group – “Toy Piano Man” – is from roughly the same time period, by my reckoning:

Around this time, Stan Kenton‘s orchestra had been recorded at a “Cavalcade of Bands” event on December 19, 1950 (though not released until the 1970s), a set that includes “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” with a vocal by Teresa Brewer and Kenton on toy piano.

As it stands, Johnny Messner Orchestra‘s “Toy Piano Jump” from 1939 — included on a compilation LP of “uncollected” and previously unreleased recordings — appears to be the current contender for oldest toy piano popular recording. There are no images of the original 78 release on the web, sadly, nor can you find it listed in Discogs, 45Cat, or 78RPM. Paradoxically, one can find an image of Messner’s 1941 follow-up “Toy Piano Minueton Discogs; however no streaming audio on YouTube as of yet.

78 label credits “PROFESSOR KOLESLAW” as the toy piano player

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Toy Piano:
1960s-1990s

May 18, 1962 — UK Release

Top Piano
  • NRBQ incorporated toy piano into their freewheeling live performances and also on record, with the earliest such effort being 1971‘s “Only You,” included on the Eddie Kramer-engineered LP, Scraps, and issued as a B-side in the US (“Magnet” in 1972) and UK (“Ain’t It All Right” in 1973).
  • One of the best-selling songs to feature the toy piano, undoubtedly, is “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts, the defining (and beguiling) summertime hit of 1972.

B-Side, curiously, when released in the Netherlands

  • Some uncredited musician (perhaps keyboardist Steve Hague or possibly producer Lindsay Buckingham) plays a tuneful toy piano that slyly enters the mix around the 0:45 mark in Walter Egan‘s 1978 hit “Magnet and Steel.”
45 — Germany
  • Richard Carpenter taps out the melody on a toy piano at the beginning of the version of “Rainbow Connection” (The Muppet Movie) recorded by The Carpenters in 1980.
  • The title track “Window” of Dark Day‘s 1982 experimental synth-pop LP features interesting interplay between synthesizer and Robin Crutchfield’s toy piano. Two years earlier, Crutchfield had played toy piano on his Exterminating Angel album, released under the name ‘R.L. Crutchfield’s Dark Day.’
  • Looking Forward to Seeing You” by Golden Smog, a loosely-connected group of musicians, features vocals shared by Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) and Kraig Jarret Johnson (Jayhawks), with Jody Stephens (Big Star) holding down the drums and Tommy Merkel (Nova Mob) augmenting the lead guitar break with complementary toy piano lines — from 1998 Rykodisc release, Weird Tales.

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Calling It “Toy Piano” Doesn’t Necessarily Make It So

It is curious, in fact, how many songs include “toy piano” in their titles without incorporating the actual instrument into the mix. Such as 1951’s “Toy Piano Boogie” by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra, presumably a cover of The Piccadilly Pipers’ original that, according to the 45 label, features “Murray Arnold at the piano.” Or Horace Heidt’s version of Johnny Messner’s “Toy Piano Jump” (1941) — as with Joe Reichman’s rendition of “Toy Piano Minuet” (1941) — both mere imitations of a toy piano played on a full-sized piano. Likewise, Liberace’s arrangement of “Toy Piano” (1954).

Or The Banana Splits, whose infectious break-out single “The Tra-La-La Song” was paired with the incongruously turn-of-the-century sounding “Toy Piano Melody,” a B-side that was clearly banged out on an upright instead of a toy piano, an instrument that would have been more fitting for a show aimed at kids, don’t you think?

Record WorldDecember 21, 1968

Or Show of Hands, whose closing track on 1970’s Formerly Anthrax album, “Toy Piano and Goodbye,” merely references the instrument. Ditto for 1996’s “Toy Piano” by Dutch electronic dance musician, Sadoman.

Roosevelt Sykes, on the other hand, gets points for creativity on “Toy Piano Blues” with regard to evoking the instrument’s timbre, for as Chris Smith points out in his historical notes:

“‘Toy Piano Blues,’ on the other hand, stayed in the can for many years; it revives – probably in ignorance of the precedent – the fiddle and celeste combination used by Henry Johnson’s Boys in 1927 and is perhaps the most extreme example of the feeling one gets from this session of musicians fooling around in the studio, trying out ideas to see if they work.”

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Toy Piano Status: Uncertain

We are all eager to hear a copy of Jerry Smith’s “Toy Piano” (1970) in order to resolve the tension around the burning question of whether the veteran pianist used a toy piano on this original composition. Likewise, we note the absence of streaming audio for several songs of interest: The Unitones’ “Toy Piano Polka” (195?); Bob Lovill & Mel Fudge’s “Toy Piano” (196?); and Tex Williams’ “Toy Piano” (1967).

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  • In a related vein — Raymond Scott’s “Toy Trumpet” (1937)

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