He was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in a Milwaukee suburb in 1919 to poor parents. He was classically trained on the piano as a youth and made his concert debut as a soloist at age 11. As a teenager during the depression, he played piano in speakeasies to make money for his family.
In 1940, Liberace moved to New York and scrounged for small-time nightclub gigs. His charm and piano playing paid off, and within seven years he was touring the hotel clubs. Liberace's story might have fizzled right there, but he got in early on two gold mines--Las Vegas and TV. In the late 1940s he began playing extended runs in Las Vegas, which was just becoming an entertainment and gambling center. He would appear at the casinos in Vegas regularly for the rest of his life. And as Vegas grew, so did Liberace's fame and his paychecks.
It wasn't until Liberace was on the tube that he ascended to superstar status. In the early 1950s, Liberace had a variety show on TV, which was in its infancy. He played his fancy piano, did a little soft shoe, spoke to the audience in his hyper-sincere fashion, incessantly praised his mother Frances, who was always in attendance, and joked with his brother, George, the show's band leader. His television show was wildly successful and was carried by more stations than I Love Lucy.
In 1954 he played to capacity crowds at Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, the Hollywood Bowl, and Soldier Field in Chicago. In 1955 he opened at the Riviera in Las Vegas for $50,000 per week, becoming the city's highest paid entertainer.
He was bonafide superstar with over 200 fan clubs. He received 7,000 fan letters and 12 marriage proposals a week. He also received 25,000 Valentines each year. He bought lavish mansions, remodeled them extravagantly, and filled them with ornate pianos, antiques, and furniture. He even had a piano-shaped swimming pool installed in his backyard.
Liberace's musical repertoire included a unique mix of classical, boogie woogie, movie themes, cocktail jazz, and sentimental ballads. He knew thousands of songs and could play almost any request from the audience. He freely edited long classical pieces down to four to six minutes. "I took out the boring parts," he quipped. "I know just how many notes my audience will stand for. If there's any time left over, I fill in with a lot of runs up and down the scale."
Here's "Tea For Two" from above LP
This approach enraged serious music critics, who were mostly male. They wrote vicious reviews of Liberace's music, particularly in the beginning of his career. Liberace's pat response was, "I cried all the way to the bank." (However, Liberace did take a British tabloid and its writer to court for slander, where he won a modest settlement.)
Watching a kinescope of Liberace performing on television in the 1950s, you realize how jaded audiences have become forty years later. Resplendent in white tie and tails, with a beautiful head of wavy hair (the kind the Chordettes asked "Mr. Sandman" to bring their dream guy with) and brilliant white teeth, Liberace simply played and beamed. Once in a while he'd sing, once in a while he'd bring on his brother, George, to play along on violin. But that's all that went on, and people loved it. Down Beat magazine offered this left-handed compliment in 1955: "Let's get one thing straight! Liberace is a skilled artist. But his art is comedy, not music."
Ironically, as Liberace's television career faded, he became more and more flamboyant, on and off stage. The black grand piano became a white grand piano and, eventually, a glittering glass-tiled piano. The white tie and tails mutated into white tuxes and then full-length white mink capes, and Liberace went from walking onstage to being driven on in a chauffeured white Bentley. As early as 1961, Time Magazine was noting Liberace's lavish redecoration of his Hollywood mansion, changing, in his words, "early Gloria Swanson" into "Sunset Strip Versailles."
By the 1970s, he was a staple of the Las Vegas circuit; his museum there, filled with his ornately decorated pianos, cars, and clothes, a top tourist attraction. Although he always denied them vigorously, rumors about his homosexuality dogged Liberace throughout his career and after his death.
Liberace's final stage performance was at New York's Radio City Music Hall on November 2, 1986; it was his 18th show in 21 days, and the series grossed $2.5 million. His final television appearance was on Christmas Day that same year on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was videotaped a month earlier.
Liberace died of pneumonia caused by AIDS on February 4, 1987, age 67, at his winter home in Palm Springs, California. The cause of death differs from those—anemia, emphysema, and heart disease—attested to by Liberace's doctor on the death certificate. The Riverside County coroner who conducted the autopsy stated that there had been a deliberate attempt to hide the actual cause of death. How and when Liberace became HIV positive has never been made public. Author Darden Asbury Pyron writes that Liberace had been "HIV-positive and symptomatic" from 1985.
Liberace's body is entombed in Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. In October 2010, the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas closed after 31 years of being open to the general public. (info edited from missioncreep.com & spaceagepop & Wikipedia)