Who was Liberace, really?

Who comes to mind when I say over-the-top performance style, glitzy costumes, and Vegas-style glamor?  If you said Cher, you are accurate, but incorrect.

How about Liberace?

While most of us think of bling in more modern terms, Władziu Valentino Liberace was, as one writer put it, the King of Bling before anyone had coined the term.  

He had a taste for furs and jewels, a fashion sense which would have made Lady Gaga look like Margaret Thatcher. A new biographical film which recently debuted on HBO focuses mostly on his personal life, but Liberace’s life began the same way as the lives of many other musically gifted youngsters did in the early 1900s.

Musically speaking there was much more to Liberace than candelabras and cabaret songs.  When he was 20, he played the 2nd Piano Concerto by Franz Liszt with the Chicago Symphony.  According to New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini, the reviews were positive, with the critic in The Milwaukee Sentinel writing that Liberace “kept Liszt’s bombastic passages within reason” and “did not miss some of the piano’s most liquid conversations with the woodwinds.”

At one time, Liberace aspired to follow in the footsteps of Ignacy Paderewski, who would become a family friend, studying his technique and practicing with a vengeance. When the depression hit, however, Liberace did what many young people of his generation had to do, went to work to help put food on his family’s table.  

Though his parents did not approve, he earned a great amount of money playing the popular music of the day in theaters and on local radio.  He played for dance classes, as well as in clubs, cabarets and strip clubs.  The concert hall disappeared in the rearview mirror.  During the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Liberace would become the highest-paid entertainer in the world.

While what we remember today is the over-the-top persona he adopted, it is intriguing to think of what might have been.

Read more: The music behind Liberace’s capes, jewels, and candelabra (NY Times)

Watch Ron Reagan’s conversation with Liberace