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#askNat – concerning John Lennon and the piano

This week on #askNat I have pulled up another inquiry from Stacia Marlett from Minneapolis who says:

Your John Lennon harmonica #askNat sparked one for me: What about John Lennon and the piano? Did Paul McCartney teach him some basic stuff in Hamburg? He didn’t seem comfortable with it until after The Beatles broke up.

Stacia is referring to the #askNat from a few months back where someone asked who taught John how to play the harmonica (addressed here). Good question Stacia and I’ll admit that I recruited a little help to come up with an answer since there is not much info out there about this. You’ll see what I mean as you read on.

John, primarily a rhythm guitarist, did play piano or organ in numerous songs during his stint with The Beatles and afterwards during his solo/Plastic Ono Band years to include “I’m Down,” “We Can Work It Out,” “You Like Me Too Much,” “Baby, You’re A Rich Man,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Cry Baby Cry,” “God,” “Imagine,” and “Oh My Love” just to name very few. On October 18th, 1964, The Beatles recorded Chuck Berry’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll Music” for their Beatles For Sale album in only one take during which time John, Paul McCartney and producer George Martin all banged on the keys of the studio Steinway piano simultaneously trying to recreate Johnnie Johnston’s original piano part. George Martin incidentally played a considerable bit of piano on early Beatles recordings.

John Lennon & Paul McCartney mess about on the house piano at the George V Hotel in Paris, France. Jan. 1964.

John Lennon & Paul McCartney mess about on the house piano at the George V Hotel in Paris, France. Jan. 1964.

 

Yet John did not have a piano in his home when he was growing up. Reading through Hunter Davies’ recent John Lennon Letters we learn that John’s Aunt Mimi, who raised him, felt that pianos were “too common” to have in a home. John’s mother Julia didn’t have one in her home either. However, Paul McCartney had a piano at home that John must have been around from time to time after they met in 1957 but this was during a time when he was still mainly learning how to master his guitar. My friend/John Lennon-expert and author Jude Southerland Kessler who has already written two (almost three, as of this writing) of a nine volume Lennon biopic series pointed out to me that The Beatles first manager Allan Williams opened up a Liverpool coffee bar in September 1958 called the Jacaranda Club, which had an old piano that John likely banged around on. By May of 1960, John’s band The Silver Beetles were booked as the entertainment at the establishment for a short while.

As far as John picking up piano tips from Paul, I would not doubt it for a minute as The Beatles were always helping each other with their instrument skills – John honing his piano talent with the help of Paul, George Martin or others would be a safe bet.

Thank you Jude for helping me with this one (for more about Jude’s incredibly informative books visit here) and thank you Stacia for a great question! If anyone reading has anything to add, feel free to do just that in the comments section below.


Thank you to everyone who has sent in their questions! Keep #askNat going by sending your questions to me in any of the following ways:

1) There is a designated form that you fill out right on the website where you can give your name, location, email address and submit your question. The form is right here and is the same form used to submit requests for BROWs (Beatles Rarity Of The Weeks), but modfied to do both BROW requests and #askNat questions.

2) If you are a Facebook user, you can submit your question right on TheBeatlesRarity FB wall at www.facebook.com/beatlesrarity. If you think about it, try to remember to flag your question with “#askNat”.

3) Similarly, if you are a Google+ user, you can submit your question on TheBeatlesRarity Google+ page at www.gplus.to/beatlesrarity. Google+ supports hashtag searchability so it will be helpful if you preface your question with “#askNat” here too.

4) For you Twitter users, www.twitter.com/beatlesrarity gets you to the right place. Post your question and be sure to add “#askNat” somewhere in the tweet.


Here are some Amazon links to read more on, or purchase music related to this post:

Book: The John Lennon Letters – a fascinating and enlightening compilation of letters written by John Lennon to others throughout his lifetime that includes much of his artwork (available as hardback or paperback).

Beatles/Beatles-related Music: The Beatles, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

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6 Comments

  • ODIrony says:

    I seem to remember reading a biography or article a few years ago that did mention piano lessons when John was a child. I recall it because I had always pondered the question of John’s (and Paul’s) introduction to the instrument since it was usually not mentioned. I’m racking my brain trying to recall where exactly I read it, but I distinctly remember the “Aha! So that’s where he picked it up” moment.

  • Lennonista says:

    John’s cousin Stanley has said that John, from about the age of 12, would just tinker on any piano he would find. When Stanley asked him how he knew to play, John told him that he didn’t know how it happened, that it just came naturally. Julia played piano, so whether she had one at home or not, I’m sure she must have shown him a thing or two. But John would be the first to admit he was not exactly a virtuoso on the instrument. I know there’s a quote out there somewhere where John said that he played with only two fingers. I think it had to do with how Julia had taught him the banjo or something. I’ll try to find that source.

  • Huck says:

    Minor point, but Nicky “Woof Woof” Hopkins played piano on “Jealous Guy” while John strummed one of the many acoustic guitars. JL simply didn’t have the keyboard chops to play anything nearly as detailed as what Nicky chose of make of JG’s chord progression.

    As always, terrific site and yet another fun Q&A. Thanks!

  • who taught john how to play guitar. I read that George. in the ray coleman book john never practiced the harmonica or guitar it just came by naturally. thanks billy

  • Stacia says:

    Thanks for researching my question, Nat! I mentioned Hamburg in my question because I know there was a piano on stage sometimes. There’s photos of Paul playing, but maybe not John. It certainly does seem like it took him until at least the mid-60s to be able to play on stage. For whatever reason.

  • Elliott Marx says:

    John had many virtues, but discipline was not one of them. It seems that, if a skill did not come easily of naturally, it was unlikely that he was going to spend too much time working on it. I do not think practice or craft was a priority for Lennon. His piano playing is pedantic and often simply serves to provide harmonic outline. This is not to say that it was not effective or even sublime, it was.

    When McCartney plays the complicated parts in Martha my Dear or Lady Madonna, he approaches it like a pianist – providing independent melody and counterpoint. John on the other hand, seemingly approached piano as though it were a strummy rhythm guitar.
    This however has been more influential to developing songwriters and therefore, while less sophisticated than McCartney’s ability, more important overall. I cringe to state this, but I feel it accurate.

    The level of mastery that John showed when playing piano could easily have been picked up by anyone with a sensitivity toward music who spent the hours that Lennon did in musical environments. He played root position triads and arpeggios based off of that general shape. Nothing too tricky at all.

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