Piano virtuoso Bruce Hornsby first became acquainted with American Top 40 music by what he calls a “fluke.”
The year was 1986. It was the height of the Reagan era, more than two decades after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Mr. Hornsby still saw racism and civil inequality everywhere he turned.
He wanted to move people to take a stand in this country. So he wrote the song “The Way It Is,” propelling the 32-year-old musician to the top of the charts with memorable piano hooks and an improvisational style that stood out from the rest of the pack.
“Musically, it had nothing to do with what was on the radio,” Mr. Hornsby laughed during a telephone interview last week, before hopping a flight to California. “It was very rare for the radio, completely rare. That was just the typecasting based on where it was heard.”
Semantics aside, the hits kept coming—“Mandolin Rain” and “Valley Road,” among them. And on Saturday, May 18, the musician will give them a modern twist with the classical, rock, pop, bluegrass and blues influences he has picked up over the last 40 years during an intimate solo show on piano at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. The concert will showcase his many talents, including those loved by fans of his time headlining The Range and playing piano and accordion for the Grateful Dead.
“My left hand is the band,” the Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter said, referring to playing the piano. “I think the softcore fan, the person who just knows me from the radio, will most likely be very surprised. I’m a lifelong student. I’m always working at this. So I’m really, to be honest, twice the musician I was when I was sort of ‘popular.’”
Mr. Hornsby does not limit himself to one genre, either. Running the stylistic gamut from jazz to bluegrass, he didn’t pick up keyboard until age 17—though he and his brothers, Bobby and John, did take lessons for about a year when he was 7.
However, the lesson locale inside a funeral home in their Virginia hometown turned the boys off. Mr. Hornsby, who eventually grew into his 6-foot-6-inches frame, decided he would rather be outside playing basketball.
Until music won out.
“I got really interested in the piano and just started dealing with it. And I was a jock at the time,” he said. “It was just about being inspired by music. I didn’t want to say anything about it because I didn’t think I was good. I thought people would laugh at me. It was pretty clear to me early on, pretty clear I was totally mad for it. Totally interested.”
In college, he and his older brother, Bobby, formed a band in 1974 called the Octane Kids, which performed at fraternity parties doing covers of songs by the Grateful Dead, The Band and the Allman Brothers. Ten years later, the musician jumped headfirst into his career with Bruce Hornsby and the Range, whose debut album “The Way It Is” caught the attention of Jerry Garcia, frontman for the psychedelic rock group Mr. Hornsby had covered a decade prior.
“It was pretty classic for the old people who heard us play in 1984 to come in 1990 to Madison Square Garden to see me winging it with them with no rehearsal,” Mr. Hornsby said of his first Dead show. “It was a great experience. They asked me to keep playing with them and it just grew and grew. Garcia and I became friends.”
Mr. Hornsby played at more than 100 shows with the band until Garcia’s death in 1995. After Mr. Garcia died, Mr. Hornsby made the decision to take his career solo for the next five years.
“I was influenced by them mostly as a songwriter, because I was always interested in improvisation, stretching out a little bit on the instrument,” he said. “I loved their songs and sometimes I would hear a song of theirs and think, ‘I want a song like that,’ and ripped the idea from them,” he laughed, “and turned it into something of my own.”
Today, the musician—who now plays solo and with a band—is concentrating on his five “S’s,” he said: continuing his solo work; composing his third Spike Lee film, “Old Boy;” a musical play called “SCKBSTD;” a second album with bluegrass player Ricky Skaggs; and summer concerts with his band, Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers, who last played the PAC in 2008.
“My approach is very loose in any musical situation, but here’s the difference. You can really hear the words, so it’s really a storyteller’s night for the audience,” he said of his solo shows. “I don’t just write songs that are lyrically about ‘baby, baby.’ I’m a little more odd than that.”
Bruce Hornsby will play the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, May 18, at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $75. For more information, call the box office at 288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.