Bruce Hornsby at 65- Revisiting The Pianist/Vocalist’s Greatest Covers & Non-Hit Classics

Relevancy is an ambition that countless artists strive for, yet so few actually achieve. Iconic pianist Bruce Hornsby can proudly count himself among those fortunate few. With a storied musical career that has spanned 45 years, the Williamsburg, VA native continues to be a prominent influence on many modern artists – from Spike Lee to Bon Iver – that seemingly encompasses nearly all aspects and genres of the music industry.

Starting in 1974, when he formed the Grateful Dead cover band “Bobby Hi-Test and the Octane Kids” with his older brother Bobby Hornsby, it wasn’t long before other musicians started to take notice of Bruce’s remarkably impressive playing & songwriting skills. By 1980, Bruce and his younger brother John Hornsby moved to Los Angeles, where they spent the next three years writing songs together for 20th Century Fox. In 1986, Bruce, along with his newly-formed backing band The Range, released the multi-platinum album The Way It Is for RCA Records. It was that album’s eponymous chart-topping title track that propelled the group towards receiving their first Grammy Award, for Best New Artist, in 1987.

The following summer, Bruce’s relationship with The Grateful Dead officially began on 6/25/88, when he sat in on accordion during their show at central Ohio’s Buckeye Lake Music Center for sublime takes on the Dead’s “Sugaree” and Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”. Bruce would ultimately sit-in on keyboards & accordion a half-dozen times prior to the untimely passing of uniquely gifted Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland in 1990. After Brent’s death, Bruce joined the band as a “semi-official” member for the 1990 Fall Tour to help ease the overwhelming transition that new keyboardist (and Brent’s full-time replacement) Vince Welnick faced. Hornsby’s time with the Dead had an obvious effect on the band and particularly lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, who could often be seen widely grinning at Bruce as they inspired each other to help take the music to new & dizzying heights. While Bruce’s semi-official tenure ended in the Spring of 1992, he continued to make guest appearances with the band – nine of them, for those counting along at home – with his final cameo occurring at Washington DC’s RFK Stadium during the Dead’s final tour in June of 1995.

Since then, Bruce has done a remarkable job of carefully striking a balance between paying homage to his Grateful Dead cohorts while forging ahead with his own unique sound and style of songwriting. In between being a featured player for many post-Garcia Grateful Dead projects – from the experimental Furthur Festivals of the mid to late 90s to the historic Fare Thee Well shows in 2015 – Bruce has gone on to release dozens of commercially successful and critically acclaimed live & studio albums, including his latest release, “Absolute Zero“.

Perhaps most impressive, however, are the myriad collaborations that Bruce has been involved with throughout his career. Beginning in the 80s & 90s, Bruce’s influence could be heard all over FM radio, whether it was writing songs for Don Henley (“The End of the Innocence”) or recording with Bonnie Raitt (“I Can’t Make You Love Me”). Since then, Bruce has been a key figure in many unique musical projects, including a trio with jazz legends Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette as well as a 2007 studio album featuring bluegrass mainstay Ricky Skaggs. His wide array of collaborations continue to this day, with his most recent musical unions occurring with the likes of Indie-rock stalwarts The National and singer-songwriter Justin Vernon.

To celebrate Mr. Hornsby’s 65th birthday this week (11/23 to be exact), Glide takes a look at ten memorable cover songs from the pianist’s remarkable career along with ten originals that you may not be familiar with but rank up there amongst “Mandolin Rain”..

1)Scarlet Begonias” – The Grateful Dead – One of the more popular and energetic Dead covers that Bruce performs, his band’s talented horn section gives this Garcia/Hunter classic a decidedly Caribbean vibe. This version was recorded at the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Concert in Cleveland, OH, just weeks after Jerry Garcia’s death, in September 1995.

2) “Madman Across The Water” – Elton John – This Elton John/Bernie Taupin composition was originally recorded for John’s 1971 album of the same name. Regarding a rumor at the time that the lyrics were a not-so-subtle dig at then U.S. President Richard Nixon, lyricist Bernie Taupin stated: “Back in the seventies, when people were saying that “Madman Across the Water” was about Richard Nixon, I thought, That is genius. I could never have thought of that.”

Bruce contributed this cover, which he transformed into a piano tour-de-force compared to the studio album’s acoustic guitar-driven version, to the 1991 Elton John tribute album “Two Rooms“.

3)I Can’t Make You Love Me” – Bonnie Raitt – One of Raitt’s most commercially successful songs, she recorded this tender ballad for her 1991 studio album “Luck of the Draw“. Lending a hand for that recording session was Mr. Hornsby, whose signature piano sound is immediately recognizable and fits the song’s mood like a glove. This hauntingly beautiful solo version does justice to Raitt’s serene original recording.

4)Comfortably Numb” – Pink Floyd – This classic-rock radio mainstay has been a part of Bruce’s setlists since the mid-nineties, most notably as part of a powerful medley with his own composition “Fortunate Son”. This version features Bruce sitting in with the song’s author, Roger Waters, on piano & vocals at a 1992 concert from Seville, Spain.

5)Super Freak” – Rick James – One of the highlights from the 2007 collaboration & studio album featuring Bruce and bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs is undoubtedly their grass-fed version of Rick James’ 1981 pop-funk hit “Super Freak”. Few artists could pull off such a brazen feat, but Messrs. Hornsby & Skaggs do it with such ease that it almost sounds like this track was written 100 years ago in the rolling hills of Kentucky. Almost…

6) “Black Muddy River” – The Grateful Dead – Bruce joins musicians Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Aron Dressner (The National) and Brad Cook (Hiss Golden Messenger, Megafun) at 2016’s Eaux Claire Festival in Wisconsin for a somber take on this Garcia/Hunter ballad. Thankfully, Bruce and Justin have continued their highly successful partnership, releasing a co-written track, “U (Man Like)”, in 2019.

7)The End Of The Innocence” – Don Henley – While this wildly successful pop-hit is often solely associated with Don Henley, it was actually co-written by Henley and Hornsby in 1987. Ultimately released on Henley’s 1989 album by the same name, “End Of The Innocence” went on to achieve tremendous commercial success, reaching the top 10 on three different Billboard Music charts that year.

8)Twelve Tone Tune” – Bill Evans,  “Mystery Train” – Junior Parker – Bruce loves his medleys, and this is a great example why. This performance features a fiery trio of songs that spans multiple musical genres, from rockabilly to jazz. Starting with Hornsby’s hard-driving original track “King Of The Hill”, the band flawlessly segues into Bill Evans’ jazz standard “Twelve Tone Tune” before reprising “King”. The trifecta is then capped by a blistering version of Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train”, which was popularized by Elvis Presley when he recorded this influential blues number in 1955.

9)Standing On The Moon” – The Grateful Dead – Bruce is joined by long-time friends Branford Marsalis and Bob Weir for an emotional take on this late-era Garcia/Hunter love song.

10)Giant Steps” – John Coltrane – In 2007, Bruce teamed up with jazz icons Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette to record an album of mostly jazz standards, Camp Meeting. This track, written by one of the forefathers of modern jazz, John Coltrane, is considered to be among his most influential and continues to be required listening for any serious jazz aficionado.


Ten Under The Radar Must Hear Originals

“Cyclone” – Levitate – Bruce co-wrote this track, from 2009’s Levitate, with the late-Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Hornsby discussed the song’s lyrical origins with The Express Night Out:  “I’ve always loved [Hunter’s] writing. I’ve loved so many of the [Jerry] Garcia/Hunter songs – they’re just timeless sounding to me, could have been written hundreds of years ago. I had this song that had the same feeling as, say, ‘Brokedown Palace.’ It’s always been in the air, the possibility of working with Hunter. He said, ‘Yes, send me the track.’ In this case, he wanted to write to a track. We cut the track and scatted the melody on the track. Two weeks later, he sent back these lyrics syllable-by-syllable to my melody. It hit me right away. I got chills singing it, and chills reading it. Didn’t even see him – he was never in the same room.”

“Great Divide” – Spirit Trail – This upbeat number, featuring Bruce’s trademark pop-influenced sound, received significant FM Radio airplay during its 1998 release.

“Stander On The Mountain” – A Night On The Town – This self-reflective anthem, recorded in 1990 for Bruce’s third and final album with his band The Range, was coincidentally one of only two Hornsby-penned compositions performed by The Grateful Dead during his brief tenure as keyboardist (“Valley Road” being the other).

“Hot House Ball” – Hot House – This rollicking rocker pays musical homage to the eras of big-band and be-bop while lyrically addressing the serious environmental risks posed by nuclear power. Even so, Bruce still manages to insert his unique sense of humor with lines such as “Temper’s hot, better pray for rain. Better watch out now for the gamma rays. Party time at the government gate”

“Barcelona Mona” – Intersections – One of the highlights from the longstanding musical partnership between Bruce and saxophone legend Branford Marsalis, this catchy instrumental number was originally composed in honor of the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. The duo ultimately received the 1994 Grammy Award for “Best Pop Instrumental Performance” as a result of this recording.

“The Dreaded Spoon” – Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby – The opening track from the 2008 collaboration between Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby deals with a very serious dilemma that all children must endure at some point: parents stealing their ice cream, one spoonful at a time…

“Resting Place” – Spirit Trail – One common theme in Bruce’s songwriting is his keen ability to take on the mindset of the downtrodden and neglected, and “Resting Place,” from 1998’s Spirit Trail, is no exception. Sung from the point of view of an overweight person, Bruce aptly deals with the ridicule and shame that is seemingly a constant in their everyday lives: ““Ever feel like a side-show attraction / ever feel like a walking infraction / Some people call me Tarzan in my big, big sweats…I get by being a funny talker / all those funny jokes sting, so keep walkin’”

“Over The Rise” – Rehab Reunion – Bruce takes to his trusty dulcimer on this Celtic-influenced track from 2016’s Rehab Reunion. Notably, background vocals for this recording session were provided by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.

“What The Hell Happened” – Halcyon Days – Self-deprecating humor has always been a hallmark of Bruce’s lyrics, and the polytonal “What The Hell Happened” might be his greatest example. With lines like “Got a big-ass nose, fat gaps in my teeth, hair coming out of my ears, and big old stinky feet. I swear the girl at the gate just gagged when I gave her my I.D. What the hell happened to me?“, Bruce deftly takes on the “joys” of aging in this Randy Newman-esque solo piece.

“Cast-Off” – Absolute Zero – Another gem from the powerful partnership between Bruce and Vernon (Bon Hornsby anyone?), this gentle track features instrumental contributions from a number of musicians, including Brad Cook (Hiss Golden Messenger, Megafun) and Jeremy Ylvisaker (Alpha Consumer, The Cloak Ox). While recording with Vernon, Hornsby said the song is “about acceptance and even gratitude in the face of rejection, egolessness, patience, and humility.”


As an added bonus, here are two lesser-known appearances from Bruce’s early days that we couldn’t help but throw in for a “because we love him” laugh…

How Can You Love Me – Ambrosia – Before “The Way It Is“, The Range or John Molo, Bruce was a successful session musician in the early-80s pop-music scene. One notable example is this timeless music video with the legendary American band ‘Ambrosia’, from 1982. Come for the deep & meaningful lyrics; stay for the sleeveless t-shirts – check Bruce at the 2:17 mark…

Sugar Walls – Sheena Easton – Using the pseudonym “Alexander Nevermind”, musical icon Prince composed this 1984 Billboard chart-topper for UK artist Sheena Easton. Fearing that it was a thinly-veiled allegory of the female anatomy, this song was banned by some broadcasters and publicly criticized by televangelist Jimmy Swaggart and Tipper Gore’s “Parents Music Resource Center”. Thankfully, those protests did not hinder the production of this outstanding and well-lit music video, featuring Bruce on synthesizers and wrap-around sunglasses – check Bruce again at the 0:11 mark…

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6 Responses

  1. Hornsby is talented for sure but he was an abomination w the Grateful Dead.
    You state he played “sublime” versions of Sugaree and Memphis Blues in his debut?

    Excuse me, but I have yet to hear a “sublime” accordion.

    He was heavy handed and pounded away during quiet sections of songs.
    Some examples:

    1) The end of He’s Gone – see the 6-9-91 Buckeye video.
    2) What A Wonderful world encore w JGB: 11-09-91. what is supposed to be a bittersweet, tender song is destroyed by Bruce playing a HONKY TONK style slamming solo to “show off” his “chops”
    WHOLLY INAPPROPRIATE for the music/song/moment.
    3) Shining Star: 11-09-91 1 JGB. At the end of the song when Jerry brings it down to “moan” the ending. Again, a heartbreaking yearning..Bruce destroys a tender moment w his incessant pounding. Watch the video. Jerry has to actually turn to Hornsby and motion w his arm to settle down.
    4) Morning Dew: Again, during the ending when Jerry is singing quietly. Bruce would tinkle away and echo Jerry’s vocals. So Jerry would sing a phrase and Bruce would echo it respond w a trill of his own. Again, inappropriate. Like a bull in a china shop !
    5) Loose Lucy: 6-17-91. Again watch the vid on YouTube. People have commented on it.
    At the end Jerry is singing and Bruce barges in like a barbarian and POUNDS the hell out of they keys for absolutely no reason.

    ** watch the JGB show in 91. He is often sitting there not even playing at all.
    I understand he may not have known all the material but he was just clueless.
    Look at his face in the videos. Look at him during that Eyes Of The World from 6-17-91.
    He is making a constipated look, all puzzled and confused as he tries to figure out what Jerry is doing and how to fit in.

    And that’s the problem = fitting in. He NEVER fit in. He stuck out like a sore thumb.
    He played as if HE WAS THE LEAD !
    Sorry Bruce. We want to hear JERRY GARCIA’S guitar lead.
    Not you on an accordion or bashing your way to prominence on the piano.

    Jerry may have enjoyed playing w him, but that doesn’t mean it was good for Garcia fans or GD fans. Jerry was tired of playing the same old songs for the 200th time.
    As a result, he played LESS. Bruce played MORE.
    Again, I want JERRY …NOT the guy who sang MANDOLIN RAIN!

    This can be likened to Jorma who for many years added multi instrumentalist BARRY MITTERHOFF to Hot Tuna and his solo shows.
    Jorma had a grand old time playing with him. But that is because he had to do less.
    As Jorma aged and had played the same songs for hundreds of times, he let Barry take lengthy mandolin solos.
    Like w Jerry fans, OLD SCHOOL Jorma fans were generally disgusted w Barry.
    People PRAYED for the gigs he would NOT be there or for the DUO JACK & JORMA TUNA sans BARRY !

    Likewise, every DEADHEAD friend *I* know detested Bruce’s presence.

    Bruce is only liked by later era fans in my experience.

    After Jerry’s coma and In The Dark were released, The GD established a classic rock BIG stadium sound.
    They played more classic rock covers: The Weight, Watchtower, Gimme Some Lovin etc etc
    Jerry played fewer songs per show. Shorter shows w shorter Jerry solos.

    One writer on PT said at that time the dead had an “AOR sheen” which was a great description.
    Even then with GD being sanitized and watered down for the Touch Masses in what the band would call “MEGA DEAD”, Bruce still stood out as being out of place.

    Even Phil wrote that Bruce “did not get” “Dead music.”

    Lastly, I just heard a version of BIODTL the other day on Sirius.
    When they are supposed to end the song, Bruce keeps going !
    The rest of the band stopped on a dime as they do/should and Bruce kept going !
    Poor Lemieux, either covering for Bruce or clueless (probably the latter) said
    “Bruce just wanted to keep the jam going!”
    LOL. Um, no Dave, nice try.

    How about at the Fare Thee Well shows when as the band starts to ease into Fire On The Mountain, it is time for Anastasio to play the SIGNATURE FIRE lick.
    The lick that IS the song.
    Right as he is ready to lay into the Fire lick, Hornsby comes in and starts singing!!!
    50k phish fans groaned. Phil just sort of shook his head and continued on.

    So while I can certainly appreciate Bruce’s talent as a pianist and a song write, he was an ill fit for the Dead.

  2. Guy is just a Dead fan. He utterly fails to catch all brilliant that is Bruce Hornsby who everytime I see him puts on an entirely new show. He is so musical I cry every time whether he is alone or together with his many musicians as they traverse along so many varied paths.

    Thank you to the writer for this wonderfully written article supplemented with brilliant and obscure videos!!! And,

    Happy Birthday to Bruce, and so many wonderful years ahead. Please come to SoCal alot more!

  3. I personally saw Bruce Hornsby’s relationship with the GD as a very natural one because of musical synergy shared by all involved. The members of the GD can spot a talented musician with “ears” right from the get go and certainly Garcia was exceptionally adept at that.

    Don’t forget that Bruce started his relationship with the GD while Brent Mydland was still alive and playing at the top of his game which certainly says something about the substance of his musicality and how the members of the GD all viewed it/him. He like them were always game for a great nights of “moments” on stage.

    His work with The Range, Noisemakers and all his solo stuff speaks for itself. At the end of the day he falls into the category of a “musicians musician” with huge chops.

  4. Hornsby is no doubt a master at his craft. All his material and his work with The Dead, etc…is masterful….he truly adds color to all the music he plays. Every show, every night is different with Hornsby. You never get the same version of the song, always the unexpected. At his age, he is still evolving, as any great artist. Happy Birth day Mr two handed independence!! Can’t wait for more new music!

  5. The above list should have included “Love me still” by Chaka Khan, written – you may have guessed – by Bruce Hornsby.

    Wonderful piece of music.

  6. You know!!!! I agree with all u guys ‘ except that guy person? im sorry but i don’t see any of that in my experience, i love GD w/th. Bruce, he is a very humble musician
    He can show off if he pleased, but i did not see that, what i see is him doing what Jerry wanted him to do, and he did it expert ly
    Ok! None of the guys ever complained about his body of work!! — or he would have not been invited. Period.

    With much love and RESPECT??????????

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