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.
[*John Cage’s “Suite for Toy Piano” (1948), a formal composition not intended for radio, doesn’t count].
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.
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.”
“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 Minuet” on Discogs; however no streaming audio on YouTube as of yet.
78 label credits “PROFESSOR KOLESLAW” as the toy piano player
- 1963’s “Toy Piano Bossa Nova” by Gliss Anders (his follow-up to 1962’s “Toy Piano“) brought a bit of British-Brazilian sophistication to an instrument widely viewed as a novelty.
May 18, 1962 — UK Release
- 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).
- Muscle Shoals session singer, Jeanie Greene, plays the disarming (and uplifting) toy piano solo on “Grand Illusion,” the opening track from Marlin Greene‘s lone album, Tiptoe Past the Dragon, released on Elektra in 1972.
- 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
- Jean Jacques Birgé‘s haunting toy piano easily overpowers the deep synth bed of foreboding on “Le Réveil” [starting at the 22:52 mark] from 1975’s Défense De.
- Dr. John’s toy piano is central to the success of “Ol’ Ben Lucas” from Kinky Friedman‘s 1976 album, Lasso From El Paso.
- 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.”
- For 1979’s Musique Mecanique album, Carla Bley took command of the toy piano, while NRBQ’s Terry Adams worked the pump organ on “Musique Mecanique I.”
- Fred Schneider’s toy piano can be heard on “Dance This Mess Around” from the 1979 debut album by The B-52’s.
- 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.
- All but one of the tracks of the 1980 debut EP by all-female No Wave NYC trio Y Pants include toy piano played by Gail Vachon, as on “Beautiful Food” & “Favorite Sweater.”
- Both sides of Vivien Goldman‘s dub-influenced “Launderette” / “Private Armies” single from 1981 include the use of toy piano played by Steve Beresford (who is said to have contributed in similar fashion to Prince Far I‘s 1980 album, Jamaican Heroes, on which Goldman served as a backing vocalist).
- Fay Lovsky makes subtle use of the toy piano on “Walk Don’t Walk” — B-side of her playfully skanking “Automatic Pilot” single from 1982 that saw release in the Netherlands, as well as Germany.
- 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.’
- French avant-garde musician, Pascal Comelade, has incorporated toy piano (and other “toy” gear) early into his extensive recording career going back to 1982’s Sentimientos.
- “Genetic Engineering” from Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark‘s 1983 album Dazzle Ships begins with typewriter and toy piano (along with kick drum) underpinning the song’s intro.
- Japan’s Frost released “Tambouring Soul” — with its prominent toy piano lines plucked by Yumehiko Hirra — as a single-sided flex-disc in promotion of their sole long-play effort, Birthdie Memorial Collection from 1984.
- Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers‘ 1985 Twin Tone release Rockin’ and Romance includes an ode to Boston’s storied ballpark “The Fenway” that would not have the same jaunty, old-timey appeal without Andy Paley’s tasteful toy piano lines.
- If you listen closely to obscure 1988 B-side “Bill” by Talking Heads, you can hear a minimalist toy piano being played by David Byrne.
- The 24-second composition “Sathington Willoughby” — from Primus‘ 1990 album, Frizzle Fry — includes toy piano played by Exxon (i.e., Matt Winegar).
- Frank Orrall’s toy piano kicks off “Big Walk” on Poi Dog Pondering‘s 1990 album Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea.
- The lead-off track on Elvis Costello‘s 1991 album Mighty Like a Rose — “The Other Side of Summer” — features Mitchell Froom and Larry Knechtel both playing toy piano [not unlike John Cage’s “Music for Amplified Toy Pianos” (1960) — a composition intended for three toy pianos]. Froom would later insert a few well-placed toy piano notes on his own composition “Watery Eyes” [0:49 mark] from 1998 album Dopamine.
- Most amusing is the 34-second “Symphony for Toy Piano in G Major” by E(4) — i.e., Eels‘ frontman, Mark Oliver Everett — from 1991’s A Man Called (E).
- Producer Jon Brion works toy piano into the mix on “Way Back When,” the closing track from Aimee Mann‘s 1993 album Whatever.
- While classical and other ‘serious’ musics are outside the scope of this piece, I would be remiss not to mention Neue Musik Für Kinderklavier (New Music for Toy Piano) — Bernd Wiesemann‘s 1994 album that includes the original composition “Sieben Miniaturen Für Toy Piano.”
- Yann Tiersen‘s 1995 debut album La Valse Des Monstres includes a number of tracks that feature the toy piano, such as “Frida“; “Ballendaï“; “Cléo Au Trapèze” & “Hanako.” Tiersen has incorporated toy piano into other albums, as well.
- “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.
- Terry Manning’s throbbing metronomic toy piano anchors “I Belong to You” — a single release from Lenny Kravitz‘s 1998 album, 5.
- Chris James integrates the toy piano’s distinct ringing tone into Self‘s charging power pop sound on “Suzie Q Sailaway” from 1999 album Breakfast With Girls.
- Robert Schneider closes out the ’90s with his toy piano tinkling on a 60-second composition — “IV. From Outside, In Floats A Music Box” — that serves as part four of an eight-part series of interstitial instrumental passages on The Apples in Stereo‘s 1999 album, Her Wallpaper Reverie.
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 World — December 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.
“‘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.”
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).
- In a related vein — Raymond Scott’s “Toy Trumpet” (1937)