Pianist, conductor, arranger, composer
Pianist Peter Nero’s virtuoso musical skills and warm stage presence have won him a loyal and enthusiastic following around the world. “There are hundreds of pianists who have extraordinary technical abilities, but Peter has a rare combination: a fantastic technique, a unique touch, and a penetrating musical intelligence. You can hear his knowledge of orchestration when he plays,” wrote Swedish conductor Sixteen Ehrling in Keyboard Classics. Nero is also a much-in-demand arranger and conductor, holding regular posts with the Philly (Philadelphia) Pops, the Tulsa Philharmonic, and Florida Philharmonic. Since 1961, he has made dozens of recordings and had a Top-40 hit with the theme from the film The Summer of ’42 in 1971.
Peter Nero was born Bernard Nierow in Brooklyn, New York, in 1934. Though his family was non-musical, Nero began piano lessons at age seven and from the start showed a remarkable natural ability. By age eleven, he could play Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D Major from memory; in his early teens he was performing at small, local engagements. While attending New York’s High
Born Bernard Nierow on May 22, 1934 in New York, NY; the son of Julius Nierow and Mary Menasche; married Marcia Dunner, 1956 (divorced); married Peggy Altaian, 1977; children: (from first marriage), Jedd and Beverly. Education: Attended High School of Music and Arts; New York City; Brooklyn College, B.A., 1956; also attended Juilliard School of Music, and studied music privately with Constance Keene, 1951-1957.
Since the early 1950s has made numerous appearances as a pianist in concert halls, theatres, and night clubs and on television throughout North America and Europe; has also appeared as a guest artist with various orchestras, including the Boston Pops. Conductor and music director for the Philly Pops since 1979; pop music director and conductor for the Florida Philharmonic since 1981, and for the Tulsa Philharmonic since 1987; has been guest conductor for dozens of other orchestras. Composer of Sunday in New York (film score); Blue Fantasy and Improvisations; His World; 70 & Suite in Four Movements; The Diary.
Awards: Grammy Award for Best New Artist, 1961; Grammy Award for Best Performance by an Orchestra or Instrumentalist with Orchestra (not Jazz or Dancing) for The Colorful Peter Nero, 1962. Other awards include a Gold Album for The Summer of ’42, 1972; Best Pop Pianist award, Contemporary Keyboard magazine, 1980; International Society of Performing Arts Administrators Presenters Award for “Excellence in the Arts,” 1986; induction into the Philadelphia Walk-of-Fame, 1996; World’s Number One Instrumentalist, Cashbo. magazine; Brooklyn College, honorary doctorate.
Addresses: Office —Gurtman and Murtha Associates, 450 Seventh Ave., #603, New York, NY, 10123.
School of Music and Art, he won a scholarshp to study part-time at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan. At this point, his extraordinary natural talent began to be something of a liability since it led him to disdain the long hours of practice necessary to hone his skills. “My facility had helped in the beginning, but I hadn’t built on it. I was told I was lazy,” Nero told High Fidelity Magazine.
In 1951, Nero participated in a contest run by the New York radio station WQXR called “Musical Talent in Our Schools.” The contest’s jury consisted of top names in the classical musical world, including pianist Vladimir Horowitz. The seventeen-year old Nero’s piano skills deeply impressed the illustrious jury, especially Horowitz who became a dedicated Nero fan. Abram Chasins, WQXR music director, was in charge of the contest and he listened to Nero warming up just before going on the air. “What I heard was an improvisation that disclosed a strong poetic musical individuality. A remarkable blend of the classical, romantic, impressionistic and popular idioms,” Chasins wrote in the liner notes to the album Neroing in on the Hits. After winning the WQXR contest, Nero asked Chasins for advice on how to become a professional concert pianist. Chasins arranged for him to study with piano Constance Keene, and composition, harmony, and orchestration with Joe Cacciola, a top Broadway musician.
Nero went on to win several other talent contests, including Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and Paul White-man’s TV Teen Club, both nationally broadcast programs. For each contest Nero played his own piano transcription of La Virgen de la Macarena. He knew the piece only as the theme from The Brave Bulls, a then-current movie starring Anthony Quinn. Whiteman asked Nero to appear on his 1952 TV special. Nero played piano with Whiteman leading the orchestra on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Nero recognized his problems with jazz and thought that performing in a trio, with a bassist and drummer, would improve his sound. In 1957, Nero moved to Las Vegas, accepting an opportunity to lead a trio at the newly opened Tropicana Hotel. While in Las Vegas he dropped the i from his last name and became known as Bernie Nerow. “Every night was torture. I had a sound in my ear, but I couldn’t reproduce the feeling of a phrase on the piano,” Nero said of his Las Vegas stint to High Fidelity. “I had become hip in the sense that I knew the hip rules--no interpolation of classics, no use of counterpoint-but I was trying to work in groove that was foreign to me.”
After two years in Las Vegas, Nero returned to New York and his old job the Hickory House. He also began playing at a musician’s hangout called Jily’s. His jazz technique began to improve but he was becoming dissatisfied with the genre, especially with its tendency towards musical repetition and the ultra-hip attitudes of jazz denizens.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, RCA Victor records was in search of a popular pianist to add to its roster of recording artists. RCA Victor talent scout Stan Greeson heard about young “Bernie Nerow” and went to Jilly’s to have a listen. Greeson was pleased with Nero’s superb keyboard skills, and with his good looks, but wondered if his jazz-oriented playing was in keeping with the more mainstream performer RCA had in mind. Later, in a private session, Nero showed he had a solid background in classical music. A blend of jazz and classical was exactly what RCA was looking for to create a “popular” sound and the company signed Nero to a contract. RCA changed its new artist’s first name from Bernie to the more elegant sounding Peter and dropped the w from his last name.
Nero’s first album, Piano Forte, debuted in April 1961. “On the first album I did for RCA, there must have been twelve tunes with eight different approaches. One was Mozartean, the next one was in the style of Rachmaninoff, the next was a straight ballad and another was a jazz approach. The idea was to see what came out of this and the response was that everybody liked something different. In other words, the material dictates the approach,” Nero told the Daily Oklahoman in an article reproduced on the Peter Nero website.
The sales and reviews of Piano Forte exceeded expectations and RCA feared that Nero might be a “flash in pan” who could not follow up on his initial success. This proved not to be the case and sales figures went up on subsequent albums, such as New Piano in Town. Nero began touring with a trio in night clubs and made frequent concert appearances. In 1961, he won the Grammy Award for best new artist, beating a hodgepodge roster of nominees, including actress/singer Ann-Margaret, comedian Dick Gregory, and the singing quartet The Lettermen. Nero was nominated for another Grammy in his debut year of 1961, for Best Arrangement for New Piano in Town. The blow of losing was softened somewhat by the fact that the winner was the great Henry Mancini’s Moon River which contained the now-classic theme song from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
In 1963, Nero composed the score for the film Sunday in New York, a romantic comedy starring Jane Fonda as a naive single girl in the big city. “Peter Nero’s score is perky,” wrote Leonard Maltin in his Video and Movie Guide. Nero made a brief appearance as himself in the film.
Nero stayed with RCA Victor until the late 1960s, recording over twenty albums for the company and picking up a second Grammy Award in 1962 for Best Performance by an Orchestra or Instrumentalist with an Orchestra for The Colorful Peter Nero. He earned several Grammy nominations, including a nod in 1964 for Best Instrumental Performance, Non-Jazz, for “For As Long As He Needs Me,” a ballad from the musical Oliver!. He lost the 1964 award again to Henry Mancini, who won this time for the theme from the film The Pink Panther. Despite their Grammy rivalry, Nero was a fan and friend of Mancini and participated in a tribute to the late composer/conductor at the Hollywood Bowl in 1996.
Leaving RCA, Nero moved to Columbia Records and had a million-selling single record and album with an instrumental version of the theme from the movie The Summer of ’42, a nostalgic tale of two teenage boys enjoying their last days of adolescence as the United States enters World War II. The wistful, melancholic tune, composed by Michel Legrand, with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, won the Oscar for best song. In recent years Nero has recorded for both Intrasound and Concord Records.
Nero’s thorough musical knowledge and versatility led him to conducting and serving as musical director for orchestras. Since 1977, he has been conductor and musical director of the Philly Pops. “There’s always a problem reviewing a performance of Peter Nero and the Philly Pops. You want to single out the best number, or maybe two or three best, and you can’t, because there are so many,” wrote Leonard W. Boasberg of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Nero is also conductor and director of popular music for the Tulsa Philharmonic and the Florida Philharmonic. A typical Nero concert features a mix of Broadway tunes, popular music, and some classical works. “With pops concerts, you’re dealing with people who are exposed to everything in the media. That makes them a tough audience. They don’t want just to be entertained, they have to be moved,” Nero told the Daily Oklahoman.
Throughout his career, Nero has avoided categorization. Finding connections between different types of music is a Nero trademark. An example of Nero’s approach is his picking up on a Mozart-like sound in Richard Rodgers’ snappy showtune Mountain Greenery. “This is strictly an expression of myself, an expression of my impatience with both jazz and classical music,” he told High Fidelity.
Nero has long been interested in electrical gadgetry and electronics. At agefifteen, he designed and built an electric baseball game using a battery and flashlight bulbs. Although he does not use an electronic synthesizer on stage, considering it an entirely different instrument from the acoustic piano, he is a computer aficionado off-stage. He has written software programs to help him forecast the profitability of performing engagements, and to aid him in putting together imaginative concert selections. He has also designed a program to keep track of airline bonus miles which, since he is on the road half the year, can add up to a significant savings. Nero told Personal Computing, “The reason I got into programming, aside from my passion for electronics, is that I was bogged down in paperwork. The amount of time I actually spend with music is about 10 percent of my time. The other 90 percent is business. I have a lot of people who perform services for me… but somebody has to watch the store. I ’ve found that unless the artist himself is really on top of everything and knows what’s going on things don’t quite get done the way they should.”
In addition to performing over one hundred recital and symphony concerts each season, Nero also tours with a trio. The Peter Nero Trio has appeared in Atlantic City, Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, and with Frank Sinatra at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Primary among Nero compositions is The Diary, based on the writings of Anne Frank. In keeping with Nero’s eclectic style, the work includes original songs combining rock and traditional music. Producer Sheldon Saltman is developing The Diary for Broadway.
Nero has been married to Peggy Altman since 1977. His previous marriage ended in divorce. He has two children from his first marriage, Jedd, a New York real estate entrepreneur, and Beverly, an aspiring actress in California.
“Ultimately, audiences want you to make them want to come back again,” is how Nero summed up his attitude toward performing and conducting to the Daily Oklahoman. “So I tell the players they can’t just play the notes. They have to approach the music the same way as if they were playing a Beethoven symphony. You’ve got to have the same attention to detail and dynamics. When that happens, it makes everything worthwhile. You can look out into the hall and see that people smiling. Then you know they’re having a good time.”
Piano Forte, RCA, 1961.
New Piano in Town, RCA, 1961.
Young and Warm and Wonderful, RCA, 1962.
For the Nero Minded, RCA, 1962.
The Colorful Peter Nero, RCA, 1962.
Hail the Conquering Nero, RCA, 1963.
Three Great Piano (with Frankie Carle and Floyd Cramer), RCA, 1963.
Peter Nero in Person, RCA, 1963.
Sunday in New York, RCA, 1964.
Reflections, RCA, 1964.
Peter Nero Plays Songs You Won’t Forget, RCA, 1964.
The Best of Peter Nero, RCA, 1965. Career Girls, RCA, 1965.
Nero Goes Pops (with the Boston Pops), RCA, 1965.
Peter Nero Up Close, RCA, 1966.
Music to Paint By, RCA, 1996.
Peter Nero on Tour, RCA, 1966.
The Screen Scene, RCA, 1966.
Nero-ing in on the Hits, RCA, 1967.
Peter Nero Plays a Salute to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, RCA, 1967.
Tender is the Night, RCA, 1967.
Xochimilco, RCA, 1967.
Peter Nero Plays “Born Free” and Others, RCA, 1967.
Peter Nero Plays “Love is Blue” and Ten Other Great Songs, RCA, 1968.
Fantasy and Improvisations (Blue Fantasy), RCA, 1968.
If Ever I Would Leave You, RCA, 1968.
Gershwin’s Concerto in F, RCA, 1968./
mpressions. The Great Songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, RCA, 1968.
Love Trip, RCA, 1969.
Music Festival of Hits, RCA, 1969.
From “Hair” to Hollywood, Columbia, 1969.
I’ve Gotta Be Me, Columbia, 1969.
I’ll Never Fall in Love Again: Peter Nero Plays the Great Love Songs of Today, Columbia, 1970. Love Story, Columbia, 1970.
Peter Nero!, RCA, 1970.
Fiedler and His Friends (with the Boston Pops), RCA, 1971.
This is Broadway, RCA, 1971.
The Summer of ’42, Columbia, 1971.
Peter Nero Plays Music from Great Motion Pictures, RCA, 1972.
This is Peter Nero, RCA, 1972.
The World’s Favorite Gershwin, RCA, 1972.
The First Time Ever (I Saw Your Face), Columbia, 1972.
’S Wonderful, ’S Marvelous, ’S Gershwin, Daybreak, 1972.
Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose, Columbia, 1973.
The World of Peter Nero, Columbia, 1973.
A Quadraphonic Concert!’ (with Andre Kostelanetz), Columbia, 1973.
Peter Nero’s Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1974.
The Best of Burt Bacharach, RCA, 1975.
Disco, Dance, and Love Themes of the 70s, Arista, 1975.
Wives and Lovers, Pickwick, 1976.
The Wiz, Crystal Clear Records, 1977.
Peter Nero Now, Concord, 1977.
Peter Goes Pop, Allegiance, 1987.
The Sounds of Love, Bainbridge, 1987.
Peter Nero Plays Great Songs from the Movies, Sony, 1990.
Anything But Lonely, Intersound, 1990.
(With the Rochester Philharmonic) Classic Connections, Intersound, 1991.
Peter Nero Plays the Hits, Intersound, 1993.
It Had to Be You, Intersound, 1994.
Maltin, Leonard. Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide. New York: Signet, 1996.
American Record Guide, May 1969, p.782.
Computers & Electronics, November 1983, p.62-66.
High Fidelity Magazine, February 1963, p.57-59, 122.
Keyboard Classics, September/October 1991, p.8-9.
New York Times, April 11, 1994, p.C16
Personal Computing, December 1984, p.49-50.
Information also obtained from Gurtman and Murtha Associates.
—Mary C. Kalfatovic
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