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Bruce Hornsby Biography

Home > Music > H > Hornsby, Bruce > Biography

Born: 1954/11/23
Birth Place: Williamsburg, Virginia, U.S.
Years Active: 1984 - present
Genres: Improvisational Multi-genre, Jam Band, Rock, Heartland Rock, Jazz, Bluegrass

Bruce Hornsby (born Bruce Randall Hornsby, November 23, 1954) is an American singer, pianist, accordion player, and songwriter. Known for the spontaneity and creativity of his live performances, Hornsby draws frequently from classical, jazz, bluegrass, folk, Motown, rock, blues, and jam band musical traditions with his songwriting and the seamless improvisations contained within. Hornsby has achieved recognition for his solo albums and performances, his current live act Bruce Hornsby & the Noise Makers, his bluegrass project with Ricky Skaggs, his jazz act The Bruce Hornsby Trio, and his appearances as a session and guest musician. He also collaborated with the Grateful Dead and was a member of the band from September 1990 to March 1992.

Bruce Hornsby and the Range was formed in 1984 and included Hornsby, David Mansfield (guitar, mandolin, violin), George Marinelli (guitars and backing vocals), Joe Puerta (bass guitar and backing vocals), and John Molo (drums). They were signed to RCA Records in 1985 and in 1986 issued their debut album, “The Way It Is.” The title track was a hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles charts as well as several charts around the world. With the success of the single worldwide, the album “The Way It Is” went multi-platinum and produced another Top 5 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.

Hornsby and the Range's second album, “Scenes From The Southside” (on which Peter Harris replaced Mansfield) was released in 1988. It featured such hits as “Look Out Any Window” and “The Valley Road.” The song “Jacob's Ladder” was featured as well, having originally been written by Hornsby for musician friend Huey Lewis. Lewis' version became a #1 hit from his album “Fore!” “Scenes” was successful as an album, but it would be the group's last album to perform so well in the singles market.

In 1988, Hornsby first appeared on stage with the Grateful Dead, a recurring collaboration that would continue 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 big hit “The End of the Innocence,” and in 1991 played piano on Bonnie Raitt's popular hit “I Can't Make You Love Me.” Hornsby also appeared on albums by Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Crosby Stills and Nash, Stevie Nicks and Squeeze. Around this time he slowly began to slip 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 Hornsby 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 Grateful Dead’s 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 improvisation. Critics received the album quite well, praising it 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 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 Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Friends.

Hornsby would go on to release his first solo album, “Harbor Lights,” in 1993. This 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. “Harbor Lights” was well received by critics and fans. Hornsby would also secure 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. This album would find 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. The album featured many of the same guests as on his previous record, such as Pat Metheny and Jimmy Haslip. Béla Fleck also collaborates again on banjo. The album also boastsed a more prominent role for “Harbor Lights” alum John D'earth on trumpet and introduced Bobby Read on woodwinds and J. V. Collier on bass.

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 1999 live album release, “The Strange Remain.” Hornsby's piano and vocals factored heavily into the band's performance of classic Dead tunes “Jack Straw” and “Sugaree,” which features Hornsby on lead vocal, in 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 blends instrumental tracks with the story-telling, rock, jazz, and other musical forms Hornsby had delved into over his career.

Hornsby's own touring band line up underwent extensive changes during the period from 1998 to 2000 as well, not the least of which was the apparent end of musical collaboration with long time drummer John Molo, who then became former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh's regular drummer in his post-Dead band Phil Lesh & Friends. 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, his current band, dubbed Bruce Hornsby & 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.

“Here Come The Noise Makers” not only captured the ambience of one of Hornsby’s concerts, but it also reflects the vibrant temperament and true stylistic diversity with which he approaches his craft, treating the live performance like a journey in search of the perfect musical moment. With this album, Hornsby is determined to create a hybrid style that encompasses rock, jazz, and classical music within a jam band mentality.

His next studio album of new material was not until 2002’s “Big Swing Face.” This album marked Hornsby's most experimental effort to date. “Big Swing Face,” his 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

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.” Guests included Sting, Elton John, and Eric Clapton. The tracks “Gonna Be Some Changes Made,” “Candy Mountain Run,” “Dreamland” and “Circus On The Moon” would become quick concert staples, each showcasing the diversity of Hornsby's improvisations and the Noise Makers' live sound.

In July 2006, Hornsby released a box set titled “Intersections (1985-2005).” The discs were 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 and aforementioned collaborations and/or tribute albums and movie soundtracks. Some noteworthy collaborations include a piano-and-saxophone duet with Ornette Coleman and a performance with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd's “Comfortably Numb.” “Intersections (1985–2005)” featured the Grammy nominated track “Song H,” a composition which competed for Best Pop Instrumental at the 2007 Grammy Awards. In recent concerts, Hornsby has begun playing classical music.

Dating back to a 2000 collaboration on the track “Darlin' Cory” for “Big Mon,” a Bill Monroe bluegrass tribute album, Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs had discussed launching a project together. In March 2007, the duo, backed by Skaggs's band Kentucky Thunder, released the bluegrass album “Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby,” and set several tour dates together. “Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby” would top Billboard's Bluegrass Albums chart for several weeks after its release.

Simultaneous to the bluegrass project, Hornsby formed The Bruce Hornsby Trio and recorded a jazz album titled “Camp Meeting.” Hornsby is joined in his trio by jazz giants Christian McBride (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums). Alongside original compositions by Hornsby, the trio delivers takes on tunes by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and a previously unrecorded Ornette Coleman work titled “Questions and Answers” as well as an early Keith Jarrett composition “Death and the Flower.”

In 2009, Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers released their fourth album, to mixed reviews. The album, titled “Levitate,” featured no piano solos. Many of the songs also featured lyrical motifs of science and nature. Much like the 2004 release “Halcyon Days,” “Levitate” featured guest artists and those close to Hornsby, most notably Eric Clapton, Hornsby's twin sons Russell and Keith, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, and Hornsby's nephew R.S. Hornsby, who was killed in a car accident less than a week after recording a memorable guitar solo on “Continents Drift.” The album was dedicated to his memory.