Bruce Randall Hornsby (born November 23, 1954) is an American singer and keyboardist known for the spontaneity and creativity of his live performances. Hornsby draws frequently from classical, jazz, bluegrass, folk, Motown, gospel, rock, blues, and jam band musical traditions with his songwriting and the seamless improvisations contained within.
Hornsby's recordings have been recognized on a number of occasions with industry awards, including the 1987 Grammy Award for Best New Artist with Bruce Hornsby and the Range, the 1990 Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album, and the 1994 Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
Hornsby has also achieved recognition for his solo albums and performances, his touring band Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers, his bluegrass project with Ricky Skaggs and his appearances as a session- and guest-musician. He also collaborated with Grateful Dead and was an unofficial member of the band from September 1990 to March 1992, playing at over 100 shows during that period.
Bruce Randall Hornsby was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, a son of Robert Stanley Hornsby (1920-1998), an attorney, real-estate developer and former musician, and his wife, née Lois Saunier. Raised a Christian Scientist, he has two siblings: Robert Saunier "Bobby" Hornsby, a prominent local attorney with Hornsby Realty and locally-known musician, and Jonathan Bigelow Hornsby, an engineer who has collaborated in songwriting.
He graduated from James Blair High School in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1973, where he played on the basketball team. He studied music at the University of Richmond, as well as Berklee College of Music and the University of Miami, from which he graduated in 1977.
In the spring of 1974 Hornsby's older brother Bobby, who attended the University of Virginia, formed the band "Bobby Hi-Test and the Octane Kids" to play fraternity parties, featuring Bruce on Fender Rhodes and vocals. The band, which is listed in Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads, performed covers of Allman Brothers Band, The Band, and predominantly Grateful Dead songs. Although Hornsby's collaboration with Bobby Hornsby would be relatively short-lived, Bobby's son R.S. was a recurring guest-guitarist with Hornsby's band and periodically toured with his uncle. His performances were often looked forward to by fans. R.S. Hornsby died on January 15, 2009 in a car accident near Crozet, Virginia. He was 28.
Following his graduation from the University of Miami, in 1977, Hornsby returned to his hometown of Williamsburg, and played in local clubs and hotel bars. In 1980, he and his younger brother (and songwriting partner) John Hornsby moved to Los Angeles, where they spent three years writing for 20th Century Fox. Hornsby also spent time in Los Angeles as a session musician and touring with Sheena Easton's band before moving back to his native southeastern Virginia. Hornsby can clearly be seen in Easton's music video for 1984's "Strut".
In 1984 he formed Bruce Hornsby and the Range, who were signed to RCA Records in 1985. Besides Hornsby, Range members were David Mansfield (guitar, mandolin, violin), George Marinelli (guitars and backing vocals), Joe Puerta, former Ambrosia member (bass guitar and backing vocals), and John Molo (drums).
Hornsby's recording career started with the biggest hit he has had to date, "The Way It Is". It topped the American music charts in 1986. With a propulsive yet contemplative piano riff and the refrain, That's just the way it is / Some things will never change / That's just the way it is / But don't you believe them, the song described aspects of the American Civil Rights movement and institutional racism. It has since been sampled by at least six rap artists, including Tupac Shakur, E-40, and Mase. In the annual 1986-87 this hit became also part of the soundtrack in the Japanese serie manga-cartoon known as City Hunter.
With the success of the single worldwide, the album The Way It Is went multi-platinum and produced another top five hit with "Mandolin Rain" (co-written, as many of Hornsby's early songs were, with his brother John Hornsby). "Every Little Kiss" also did respectably well. Other tracks on the album helped establish what some labeled the "Virginia sound", a mixture of rock, jazz, and bluegrass with an observational Southern feel. Bruce Hornsby and the Range went on to win the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1987, beating out Glass Tiger, Nu Shooz, Simply Red and Timbuk3.
Hornsby and the Range's sound was distinctive for its consistent use of syncopation in his piano solos, a bright piano sound and an extensive use of synthesizers as background for Hornsby's solos, most notable on the tracks "The Show Goes On" and "The Road Not Taken". John Molo's drumbeats were often looped throughout the recorded versions of songs. They are typical double-time beats, which allowed Hornsby and the rest of the band to do more with their solos.
Hornsby and the Range's second album, Scenes From The Southside (on which Peter Harris replaced Mansfield) was released in 1988. It included "Look Out Any Window" and "The Valley Road" which many critics noted for their "more spacious" musical arrangements, allowing for "more expressive" piano solos from Hornsby. It also included "Jacob's Ladder," which the Hornsby brothers wrote for musician friend Huey Lewis; Lewis' version became a number one hit from his album Fore!.Scenes offered further slices of "Americana" and "small-town nostalgia," but it was the band's last album to perform well in the singles market.
In 1988, Hornsby first appeared on stage with the Grateful Dead, a recurring collaboration that continued until the band's dissolution. Hornsby went on to appear on stage frequently as a guest before becoming a regular fixture in the touring lineup for the Dead a few years later. During the late 1980s and early 1990s Hornsby worked extensively as a producer and sideman, notably producing a comeback album for Leon Russell, an idol of Hornsby's. In 1989 Hornsby co-wrote and played piano on Don Henley's hit "The End of the Innocence", and in 1991 played piano on Bonnie Raitt's hit "I Can't Make You Love Me". Bruce continues to feature both of these songs in his own concerts. He also appeared on albums by Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Crosby Stills and Nash, Stevie Nicks and Squeeze.
During this era he slowly began to introduce jazz and bluegrass elements into his music, first in live performance settings and later on studio work. In 1989, he first performed at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He also reworked his hit "The Valley Road" with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for their album Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two. The song won at the 1990 Grammy Awards for Best Bluegrass Recording.
A Night On The Town was released in 1990, on which he teamed up with jazz musicians Wayne Shorter and Charlie Haden as well as bluegrass pioneer Bela Fleck. A change in style became apparent as the album was much more rock- and guitar-driven, making use of Jerry Garcia's guitar work on a number of tracks, perhaps most prominently on the single "Across the River". In concert, Hornsby and the Range began to stretch out their songs, incorporating more and more "freewheeling musical exchanges." Critics praised the album for its production, its political relevance, and Hornsby's gestures toward expanding out of a strictly pop sound by incorporating jazz and bluegrass. Ultimately, though, the core "rock band" sound of the Range limited Hornsby's aspirations, and after a final three-week tour in 1991, Hornsby disbanded the outfit to enter a new phase of his career. Drummer John Molo continued to perform regularly with Hornsby for another few years, although other members pursued separate musical endeavors. Following Hornsby's and Molo's involvement with The Other Ones, Molo left Hornsby to become the primary drummer with Phil Lesh and Friends.
Hornsby played more than 100 shows with the Grateful Dead from 1988 until Jerry Garcia's death in 1995. He played piano (and frequently accordion) at many gigs following the death of Grateful Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland in July 1990; Mydland's place was filled in September 1990 by Vince Welnick, who became the sole keyboardist by March 1992, although Hornsby still sat in with the band on occasion.
Hornsby's own music evolved significantly during this time period. Critics have suggested that the Dead's vibrant tradition of melding folk music and the blues with psychedelic rock in "loose-knit expressions" and extended jamming "further pushed Hornsby outside the confines of mainstream pop." Critics have also commented upon the "close musical connection" formed between Hornsby and Jerry Garcia, suggesting that Hornsby's particular style of jazz-fueled improvisation added to the band's repertoire, and helped to revitalize and refocus Jerry Garcia's guitar solos in the band's sound. Hornsby's friendship with Garcia continued, both inside and outside the band, as the two "challenged" each other to expand their musicianship through several other album and live collaborations. Above all, Hornsby's musical versatility and ability to slip in and out of extended freeform jams won over longtime Grateful Dead fans.
Since his first involvement with the Grateful Dead, Hornsby's live shows have drawn Deadheads and Hornsby has commented: "I've always liked the group of fans that we've drawn from the Grateful Dead time, because those fans are often adventurous music listeners." He has performed a number of their songs at his concerts and as homages on studio and live albums, while Hornsby originals "The Valley Road" and "Stander on the Mountain" have appeared several times in the Dead's setlists. Hornsby also co-performed the improvisation "Silver Apples of the Moon" for the Grateful Dead's Infrared Roses.
Hornsby was the presenter when the Grateful Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and in 2005 he participated in "Comes a Time", a tribute concert to Jerry Garcia. He continues to work with Dead-related projects, such as Bob Weir's Ratdog, Mickey Hart's solo projects, and has sat in with The Other Ones and The Dead. Hornsby continues to be involved in the Grateful Dead and Furthur community, having opened All Good Music Festival in 2012 featured with Bob Weir on rhythm guitar. In mid-2013, Hornsby performed with Grateful Dead-influenced bluegrass group Railroad Earth. Hornsby is scheduled to reunite with surviving members of the Grateful Dead along with Trey Anastasio from Phish and Jeff Chimenti at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL in July 2015.
Hornsby released his first solo album, Harbor Lights, in 1993. The record showcased him in a more jazz-oriented setting and featured an all-star lineup, including Pat Metheny, Branford Marsalis, Jerry Garcia, Phil Collins and Bonnie Raitt. Hornsby secured his third Grammy in 1993 for Best Pop Instrumental for "Barcelona Mona" (composed with Branford Marsalis for the Barcelona Olympics).
In 1995, Hot House was released with its cover art, featuring an imagined jam session between bluegrass legend Bill Monroe and jazz legend Charlie Parker, serving as an apt metaphor for the rich fusion of musical styles Hornsby was currently developing and expanding. The album found Hornsby expanding upon the foray into jazz sound from Harbor Lights, this time reintroducing elements of bluegrass from A Night on the Town and his earlier collaborations.
During this time period, "even his concerts conveyed a looser, more playful mood, and Hornsby began taking requests from the audience." Hornsby's concerts became "departure points" for his album compositions, which would be blended with and reworked into "lengthy spontaneous medleys". Both in terms of audience requests and in terms of spontaneous on-stage decisions, Hornsby's performances became opportunities for him to challenge himself by trying to "find a way to seamlessly thread these seemingly disparate elements together."
Hornsby next worked with several Grateful Dead reformation projects, including several Furthur Festivals and the ultimate formation of The Other Ones, which resulted in the release a live album, The Strange Remain. Hornsby's piano and vocals factor heavily into the band's performance of classic Dead tunes "Jack Straw" and "Sugaree" (which features Hornsby on lead vocal, in Jerry Garcia's absence), and Hornsby-originals "White-Wheeled Limousine" and "Rainbow's Cadillac" receive reworkings in the hands of The Other Ones.
Three years after Hot House, Hornsby released a double album, Spirit Trail. Featuring a decidedly goofy picture of his uncle on the cover, the collection blended instrumental tracks with the story-telling, rock, jazz, and other musical forms Hornsby had delved into over his career. The album considered "very Southern" themes with "songs about race, religion, judgment and tolerance" and "struggles with these issues."--notably on "Sneaking Up on Boo Radley," which referenced the character from Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
Throughout the sequence of Harbor Lights, Hot House, and Spirit Trail, Hornsby's piano playing steadily gained further complexity, taking on a more varied array of musical styles and incorporating more and more difficult techniques, as evidenced by his two-hand-independence on Spirit Trail's "King of the Hill." During this same span of solo album years, Hornsby made several mini-tours playing solo piano gigs for the first time in his career. The shows allowed Hornsby limitless possibilities for seguing songs into other songs, often blurring lines between classical compositions, jazz standards, traditional bluegrass, folk, and fiddle tunes, Grateful Dead songs, as well as reworkings of Hornsby originals. Hornsby reflected on these periods of intensive solo performances, stating that the solo tours helped him "recommit himself to the study of piano" and "take his playing to a whole new level", explorations and improvisations that would not be possible in a band setting. He finally released his first entirely live solo album, simply titled Solo Concerts, in August 2014.
Hornsby's touring band lineup underwent extensive changes between 1998 and 2000 as well, with longtime drummer John Molo joining former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh in his band Phil Lesh & Friends. A set of twenty consecutive shows performed by Hornsby and his band at Yoshi's Jazz Club in Oakland, California marked a particularly innovative period of evolution for his live shows; there Hornsby and his band were "able to explore songs in a completely spontaneous fashion". Since that time Hornsby has avoided even planning set lists for his shows, preferring to choose songs on the spot based mainly on audience requests. As Hornsby experimented with a different sound, ushering in frequent collaborations with such musicians as Steve Kimock on guitar and Bobby Read on heavily effects-driven electronic woodwinds, a new band, dubbed the Noisemakers, took shape. In 2000, Hornsby chronicled this journey with a compilation live album entitled Here Come The Noise Makers, and did extensive touring with his new band featuring John "J. T." Thomas (keyboards, organ), Bobby Read (saxophones, woodwinds, flute), J. V. Collier (bass), Doug Derryberry (guitar, mandolin), and several different drummers before Sonny Emory took over full-time.
His next studio album of new material was not until 2002: Big Swing Face. The album was Hornsby's most experimental effort to date; Big Swing Face, the only album on which Hornsby barely plays any piano, relied heavily on post-electronica beats, drum loops, Pro Tools editing, and dense synthesizer arrangements. The album also boasts a "stream-of-consciousness wordplay" of lyrics that are in many ways more eccentric and humorous than previous work.Big Swing Face received mixed reviews, ranging from "a new and improved Bruce Hornsby" to being called one of the "strangest records of 2002".
In 2004, after 19 successful years on RCA Records, Hornsby returned to a more acoustic, piano-driven sound on his Columbia Records debut Halcyon Days, which reviewers described as "pure Hornsby". Guests included Sting, Elton John and Eric Clapton.
Throughout tours following the album's release, both with the Noisemakers and in solo performances, Hornsby continued to demonstrate his desire to "grow" as a singer and performer and to expand the instrumental possibilities of the piano in various genres. He also began to offer CD sets and digital downloads of digitally mastered soundboard recordings of live concerts via the Bruce Hornsby Live website; selected concerts have been offered since 2002.
In July 2006, Hornsby released a four-CD/DVD box set titled Intersections (1985-2005). The discs are thematically broken into three categories: "Top 90 Time," "Solo Piano, Tribute Records, Country-Bluegrass, Movie Scores," and "By Request (Favorites and Best Songs)". A full third of the music is previously unreleased; many familiar tracks are presented as unreleased live versions rather than the original studio recordings, and the majority of the remaining tracks are from single b-sides, collaborations and/or tribute albums and movie soundtracks. One song, "Song H," a new composition, was nominated for Best Pop Instrumental at the 2007 Grammy Awards.
In 2007 Hornsby began playing classical music: at a concert in Saint Louis, Missouri, during Hornsby's improvisational session in "The Way It Is", he began playing J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations along with the drums. In a different city he played five straight Goldberg Variations over the drum intro of "Gonna Be Some Changes Made."
On September 15, 2009, Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers released their fourth album, Levitate, to mixed reviews; it mixed new solo material with several songs co-written with Chip DiMatteo for the Broadway play SCKBSTD. May 2011 saw the release of the band's latest live album, Bride of the Noisemakers.
Skaggs & Hornsby/The Bruce Hornsby Trio (2007-present):
In March 2007 Hornsby teamed with bluegrass player Ricky Skaggs to produce a bluegrass album, Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby, and played several tour dates together. The seeds for the album had been sown in 2000 when the pair collaborated on "Darlin' Cory", a track on the Big Mon Bill Monroe bluegrass tribute album and then proposed recording an album together.Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby, featuring the duo backed by Skaggs's band Kentucky Thunder, combined bluegrass, traditional country, "a tinge of Hornsby's jazzy piano and a splash of humor" on a spectrum of songs from the traditional to new compositions such as the opening track "The Dreaded Spoon," "a humorous tale of a youthful ice cream heist." The pair also reinvented Hornsby's hit "Mandolin Rain" as a minor key acoustic ballad and "give his cautionary tale of backwoods violence", "A Night On the Town," a treatment highlighting the "Appalachian storytelling tradition that was always at the song's heart." The album ended with a surprise cover of Rick James's funk hit "Super Freak" in a bluegrass arrangement. Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby topped Billboard's bluegrass charts for several weeks. The album showed Hornsby carving out a place for piano within traditional bluegrass, disproving the notion that the piano is not compatible with "string-oriented" bluegrass. The duo released the live album Cluck Ol' Hen in 2013, and continue to play live when schedules permit.
Concurrently with the bluegrass project, Hornsby recorded a jazz album, Camp Meeting. with Christian McBride (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums). Alongside original compositions by Hornsby, the trio delivered "newly reharmonized versions" of tunes by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, a previously unrecorded Ornette Coleman work ("Questions and Answers") and an early Keith Jarrett composition ("Death and the Flower.") The trio made a series of appearances in the summer of 2007, including the Playboy Jazz Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival and at the Hollywood Bowl.
On January 4, 2007, former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart reunited along with Hornsby, Mike Gordon (of Phish and the Rhythm Devils) and Warren Haynes to play two sets, including Dead classics, at a post-inauguration fundraising party for Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House in the United States Congress.
Hornsby wrote songs for a Broadway Musical, titled "SCKBSTD"; one song from this project, a playful biographical tune about real-estate tycoon Donald Trump titled "The Don of Dons," made several appearances in setlists during his early-2007 solo piano performances. He also composed the score for Spike Lee's ESPN documentary, Kobe Doin' Work, about NBA star Kobe Bryant and his MVP season.
Outside of music composition and performance, Hornsby has taken an ownership interest in Williamsburg area radio station "The Tide," WTYD 92.3 FM, and he has endowed the Bruce Hornsby Creative American Music Program at University of Miami's Frost School of Music, encouraging the study of songwriting broadly across traditional genres. Hornsby played himself in a cameo role in the Robin Williams movie World's Greatest Dad, in which Williams' character is a Bruce Hornsby fan.
In 2014, Hornsby toured selected dates with Pat Metheny Unity Group. Hornsby will be a part of the Grateful Dead's farewell and reunion shows in 2015 alongside the original four members and Trey Anastasio of Phish.
Hornsby currently uses a Steinway & Sons concert grand piano. He bought the piano in Zurich, Switzerland, while on a solo show tour in Europe in 1995. With the Range and up until 1995, he used a Baldwin concert grand piano. He currently uses a Korg M1 synthesizer. With the Range, Hornsby used an Oberheim OB-X synthesizer.
He has also been honored by piano makers Steinway & Sons with their Limited Edition Signature Piano Series. Hornsby selected ten Model B Steinway Grands to be featured in this collection, each one personalized with his signature. Hornsby owns three 9-foot Model D Steinway Grands himself.
Outside the realm of music, Hornsby is a regular basketball player and an avid fan of the sport. As such, he can frequently be seen at college basketball games around the state of Virginia. He is also a friend of former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, and attends games in St. Louis whenever he can. Their friendship led to La Russa introducing Hornsby to jazz bassist Christian McBride, which then led to the formation of The Bruce Hornsby Trio (along with drummer Jack DeJohnette) and their first album, Camp Meeting.
Hornsby and his wife Kathy have twin sons: Russell, who runs Division I track at the University of Oregon, and Keith, who played Division I basketball for the UNC Asheville Bulldogs from 2011 to 2013, transferred to Louisiana State University following the 2012-13 season, and will play his second and final season for the Tigers in 2015-16. They were named after musicians Leon Russell and Keith Jarrett, respectively.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license