I have mentioned John Innes recently, and today I want to dive a bit more into the history of the piano in church. Remember that we are only talking about a century. The revivalists of the early 20th Century introduced the piano and eventually made it a mainstream church instrument. (Before that, the piano was considered more appropriate for bars.)
The pianists of those revivalists were influential in creating the style that would dominate church piano for a long time. Notable names included Robert Harkness and George Schuler who developed mail order courses to teach church pianists. These men were heavily impacted by the styles of their day: ragtime and an early form of jazz called stride. In fact, to this day, traditional church pianists play a form of stride (I call it sanctified stride) where the left hand “strides” up and down the keyboard alternating intervals down low and chords up high.
Somewhere in the middle of the last century, Lillenas combined the courses of Robert Harkness into a book (picture on the right) that you can still buy on Amazon. I bought this book several years ago and actually reviewed it on the blog. In general, it is useful from a historical perspective, but it is not so useful for church pianists. Some of it is just strange if I am being honest.
Sometimes I forget to mention another huge influence on church piano especially during the middle of the last century: Moody Bible Institute. Many of those early influential pianists taught there on an occasional basis or participated in the radio programming of Moody. In fact, I often hear from readers who mention they were at Moody and worked with those musicians. A few years ago, I did a recording session with one of the radio musicians from that era (Daniel Craig’s father). The recent pianist I discussed (John Innes) did work there as well.
That brings me to Rudy Atwood. I think that Rudy Atwood is likely in the top three when you think of influential church pianists. He was on a radio show called the Old Fashioned Revival Hour for many decades and traveled doing concerts all the way to his death in the early 1990s.
I was browsing YouTube recently, and came across a few videos that I want to share. For starters, here is Rudy later in life discussing his approach to music. (If you don’t see the video below, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7x7UGmPHDs)
Now, here is a video of Rudy doing a concert. I would guess this was recorded in the 1980s. Here is the link if you don’t see the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAe3PRa_wwI
This video is sort of priceless if you, like me, value these historical things. This is classic Rudy Atwood piano which consists of stride, triadic harmony, a theme and variations approach to arranging, and of course, his trademark left hand octave runs.
Is this my kind of music? Not really. Today’s arrangers are far more sophisticated in what they do. But that is not the point. We don’t judge Henry Ford by comparing a Model T to an Acura. Rather we appreciate what Ford did to help us get to the point where an Acura is today. I would encourage you to see Atwood in the same way. Even if you don’t care for the style, his influence was great and he helped move church piano in a positive direction. To this day, 25 years after his death, YouTube is full of musicians playing Atwood arrangements. That is pretty awesome.
If you have Rudy Atwood stories, please throw them my way, especially if you worked with him. I would love to hear them.