Book Review: Earl Wild’s Walk on the Wild Side

'A Walk on the Wild Side' by Earl Wild.(Photo: Ivory Classics Foundation)
'A Walk on the Wild Side' by Earl Wild.(Photo: Ivory Classics Foundation)

American pianist Earl Wild (1915-2010) lived in Columbus for several years while teaching at The Ohio State University. No offense, but his OSU tenure was probably the least of his accomplishments.

Wild was also a member of the WOSU family in the mid -1990s as host of “Earl Wild’s Grande Piano”.  WOSU engineer Kevin Petrilla and I produced twenty one-hour programs with Mr. Wild introducing great pianists going back eighty years. He included himself, but not too much.

How that series was put together and the day to day travails will be in my book. Was it difficult? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Earl spent the brief time I knew him talking and threatening about his impending autobiography. It had been in preparation for many years. Now, over a year after his death, A Walk on the Wild Side is in print from the Ivory Classics Foundation.

Wild Side? You don’t know the half of it. Earl Wild knew EVERYBODY. From Rachmaninoff to Rubinstein, from Stokowski to Sid Caesar. Earl was Toscanini’s pianist with the NBC Symphony, and was resident pianist for NBC and ABC in the late days of radio and in the great days of television.

Not only did Earl know everybody,  he had opinions about everybody and everything. And he is not shy.

This is a 900 page book. It sorely needs editing, but yes, Earl’s ‘voice’ as I knew him resonates on every page. Drag balls, night life, skewering enemies and praising friends – I suspect publication was delayed until everyone was dead.

You’ll never listen to Isaac Stern’s recordings the same way after reading this book and you’ll have new appreciation for great artists of the past like Grygory Ginzburg and Lily Pons.

Refreshingly, Earl Wild describes his past vividly but he didn’t live there. Plenty of current pianist are admired, and a few are…well…read the book.

New York, Columbus, Florida, Palm Springs, Europe – Earl lived in many places and played – in all senses of the word, one surmises – with people of every conceivable sexuality, gender and walk of life.

The book is long on minutiae (did we need to know what the five year old Wild overheard in his parents’ bedroom in 1920?), but here’s what stays with you: after all the gossip and the cattiness and the laughs, it is very clear that Earl Wild was an extraordinary artist.

He does not brag. He doesn’t have to. The facts support themselves: perfect pitch, childhood precociousness, raw nerve and talent, talent, talent.

It does seem to have come easily to him. One never gets the sense of struggle or torturous work during his quick ascent to fame. Earl Wild stayed famous - for his musicianship – for eighty years. This artist fully exploited his gifts, he had fun and he was fun.

This book is a box of fudge for any music lover. At the last, A Walk on the Wild Side has me reaching for one of Earl’s many recordings – and brings me back to the music.

The book includes a CD of Earl’s 2003 interview with our own Boyce Lancaster. It’s nice as well to read several raves about local recording guru Ed  Thompson. Yours truly gets a mention, not a rave, too!

Watch: Earl Wild plays Un Sospiro by Franz Liszt.

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