Johnny Costa (born John Costanza; January 18, 1922 – October 11, 1996) was an American jazz pianist. Given the title "The White Art Tatum" by jazz legend Art Tatum, Costa is best known for his work as musical director of the children's television program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
Costa learned to play accordion at age seven and was reading music three years later. Frank Oliver, Costa's high school music teacher, urged him to learn the piano after discovering that Costa had perfect pitch. Costa graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with degrees in music and in education. In case he failed as a musician, Costa prepared himself to teach. On the day of his graduation, he began work as the house pianist for a radio station in Pittsburgh. Eventually he performed the same role for KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. He provided piano and organ music for many programs, eventually teaming with Fred Rogers to arrange and perform the music heard on Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood.
Costa appeared along with guitarist Joe Negri on the 1954 Ken Griffin TV series 67 Melody Lane. Johnny and Joe played two numbers, "After You've Gone" and "Little Brown Jug", the latter with Ken Griffin at the organ. Costa's first recording was The Amazing Johnny Costa, a Savoy LP released in 1955. Savoy also released “Johnny Costa and His Trio” in 1955. Working with producer Bob Theile Costa also released three albums in 1955 on Coral Records: "Johnny Costa Plays Piano Solos", "Johnny Costa Plays for the Most Beautiful Girl in the World", and “Costa Living”. Costa continued to record releasing “A Gallery of Gershwin” on Coral (1958) and “In My Own Quiet Way" on Dot in 1959. In the early-60s he recorded two LPs on Dot Record working with Sonny Lester and Milt DeLugg. He recorded two 45s for J. Arthur Rank, one was the theme song for the movie “Conspiracy of Hearts”.
|Art Tatum with Johnny and Helen Costa|
Record producer Bob Theile got Johnny a twice-a-year gig at the Embers Room in NYC that last ed for seven year. Theile also got Johnny on Steve Allen's Tonight Show. Costa made his first appearance on the NBC Tonight Show on December 14, 1955 performing the songs “After you’re Gone” and “Froggy Day”. In 1962 Wlliam Steinberg invited Costa to perform as a soloist with the Pittsburgh Symphony. It was the first of several symphony appearances that he made over the years.
Although his increasingly lucrative career was beginning to bring him international attention, the amount of time away from his family and friends led him to live and perform only in western Pennsylvania. He stopped travelling and gave up his job as musical director of The Mike Douglas Show. He returned to Pittsburgh and remained there for the rest of his life.
|Johnny Costa with Fred Rogers|
Costa served as musical director, arranger, and keyboardist for the children's television series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood from the program's debut in 1968 until his death in 1996. The program's creator and host, Fred Rogers, regarded Costa as one of the most gifted musicians he had ever met. Rogers' choice was surprising because Costa's style was regarded as too complicated and sophisticated for a children's program. Costa accepted the job without hesitation because it wouldn't require him to travel away from Pittsburgh, and because Rogers offered him the same amount he needed to pay his son's college tuition ($5000).
Although Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was a children's program, Costa insisted on not playing "baby" music. He believed children understood good music and that he could experiment with his own musical styles and techniques, even for a children's program. Each day, Costa and his trio (Carl McVicker Jr. on bass, Bobby Rawsthorne on percussion) played live in the studio for the filming. In addition to the show's recognizable main theme, they played the trolley whistle, Mr. McFeely's frenetic Speedy Delivery piano plonks, the vibraphone flute-toots (on a synthesizer) as Fred fed his fish, dreamy celesta lines, incidental music, and Rogers' entrance and exit tunes.
In 1990, jazz pianist Dick Hyman, without Costa’s knowledge, mailed a DAT tape of a Costa recording session produced by Bill Hillman to Hank O'Neal president of Chiaroscuro Records. Chiaroscuro Records was the label that had released the recordings of Earl Hines and Mary Lou Williams. O’neal signed Costa to his label releasing the tape on CD as "Classic Costa" in 1991. Chiaroscuro Records released Costa’s "Flying Fingers" (1992) and "A Portrait of George Gershwin." (1994). Costa recorded in one session of first takes a collection of Johnny Mercer tunes entitled “Dream: Johnny Costa Plays Johnny Mercer” that was released in 1996. His final recording was “Christmas Reflections” released in 1997.
The City Theater honoured Costa as the first recipient of its Performance Award for outstanding performances from western Pennsylvania arts. Dick Hyman and Peter Nero performed at the ceremony. Costa was inducted into Pittsburgh Jazz Society Hall of Fame. Costa died of aplastic anemia in Pittsburgh on October 11, 1996 at age 74. (Edited from Wikipedia & Pittsburgh Music History)
Here’s a 1954 clip from Ken Griffin's 67 Melody Lane with Johnny Costa & Joe Negri performing "After You've Gone" + "Little Brown Jug" (with Ken.) The man chatting with Ken is Sterling Yates, who became a jazz buff radio dj at Pittsburgh's KDKA. The lady at the end was Aunt Harriet from Batman and Robin. '67 Melody Lane' was a syndicated limited-run TV show produced in Chicago.