Born May 16, 1919, Wladziu (or Vładziu) Valentino Liberace, known to his adoring fans everywhere simply as Liberace, was one of the world's most distinctive and glamorous musicians, an artist who was as concerned with his wildly flamboyant image as he was about his art.
"I'm a one-man Disneyland," he once boasted, later adding, "I don't give concerts; I put on a show." Indeed, his creative efforts embraced live performances, film, television, and an unabashed role as a pitch man for various consumer products. And when the critics lambasted him for his over-the-top excess, he invented the phrase used so often by those whose commercial success is tempered by critical disdain: "I cried all the way to the bank," he'd insist. He later amended that phrase to better reflect not only his success, but also his indifference to those who voiced their disapproval. "I used to cry all the way to the bank," he chuckled, "but now I own the bank."
Known to his friends and family simply as "Lee" and "Walter," Liberace was a Midwestern boy, born and raised in Wisconsin. Yet despite his unassuming origins, he would go on to become an early pop icon who set a precedent for other entertainers who came after.
He began playing piano at age 4, although he was often taunted by his schoolmates for his lack of interest in sports and his early attraction to art, fashion, and cooking. Nevertheless, by the age of 20, he was performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and his penchant for showmanship was already earning him a burgeoning reputation.
By the early '40s, he had gone solo and had begun playing pop music, eventually graduating to the nation's major nightclubs. He also developed a particular shtick, playing piano along with a record player, and gradually bringing his audiences into his act. In this way, he became more of a populist performer, developing a rapport with his fans that was much like the early rock 'n' rollers of the 1950s. He also foresaw the arrival of music videos with what were then called "soundies," re-creations of his nightclub act that were eventually released to the home movie market.
As Liberace's reputation grew, he made the segue to Las Vegas and added other elements to his act. This included a large candelabra that graced his grand piano, even as the instrument itself became more elaborate and spectacular. His costumes became more imaginative as well, and his live appearances found him befitted with jewels, glitzy attire, and a lavish look that reflected his over-the-top indulgence.
He performed at the White House for President Truman, appeared on the major television shows of the time, and watched his fees increase to the point where he was earning more than $1 million a year, an extraordinary amount in the early 1950s. While the critics still weren't kind, especially when it came to his musical technique and the way he besotted classical compositions, he was nevertheless revered by his fans. In short order, he started living like a rock star, buying a lavish L.A. mansion to call his crib and adding a large white Cadilac as an accoutrement to his gilded persona.
In 1950, Liberace began starring in his own television program, The Liberace Show, which soon became successful in syndication. Heavy on personality and humor, not to mention his penchant for schmaltz and corny conversation, the program attracted weekly audiences of over 30 million viewers before it was eventually exported to England. There it was seen by a young Reginald Dwight, who later changed his name to Elton John. It's little wonder then that Elton would eventually emulate Liberace's extravagant trappings and make them part of his own signature style.
Other music-oriented shows would follow in the years and decades to come -- Lawrence Welk, Dick Clark's American Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Don Kirschner's Rock Concert, but it was The Liberace Show that created the blueprint for a television program that had popular music as its main focus.
As his theatrical trappings became more outrageous and extravagant, Liberace showed that a larger than life image were all but essential elements when it came to fame and fortune. Early rock 'n' rollers like Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis apparently took those lessons to heart and integrated that outrageous imagery into their own acts. Liberace also dabbled in film and became a staple on other popular television shows, a tack that would later be imitated by other artists. For example, in 1966, he appeared in a pair of episodes of the popular Batman TV series, playing an evil concert pianist named, appropriately enough, "Fingers." According to the Official Batman Batbook, the shows were the series' highest rated episodes of all time. He made guest appearances on Lucille Ball's The Lucy Show in 1970 and later became among the first of many musical stars to pay a visit to The Muppet Show. He was also a guest on Saturday Night Live in 1980, playing a key role in that program's ongoing tradition of spotlighting influential musical artists. He even made a guest appearance on the first Wrestlemania broadcast in 1985, acting as the guest timekeeper for the program's main event. In addition, a pair of television specials -- Leapin' Lizards It's Liberace and Liberace: A Valentine Special -- captured Liberace's shows at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1978 and 1979, respectively, and were broadcast on CBS.
Naturally, all this exposure had a huge effect on his record sales. He released ten albums between 1947 and 1951, and by 1954, his recorded catalog had jumped to nearly 70. Columbia Records released his best-selling LP Liberace by Candlelight, and its combined sales topped 400,000 copies by mid-1954. He also had a hit single with "Ave Maria," which sold more than 300,000 copies. Over the course of his lifetime he accumulated six gold records, not an overwhelming number by later popular music standards, but impressive nevertheless.
Like many pop idols, Liberace was no stranger to scandal and misfortune. Although he wasn't known to indulge in excess -- other than that of the material variety -- he nearly died in November 1963 when he accidentally inhaled an excessive amount of cleaning fluid. It would not have been the most glamorous way to go, but it did cause renal failure.
Likewise, long before a president came out with support for gay marriage, Liberace was haunted by persistent rumors as to his sexual persuasion, which found him continually denying that he was in fact a homosexual. In 2011, his good friend Betty White told an interviewer that he was indeed gay and that she was often his escort to counter innuendos. However, his most damning controversy erupted in 1982, when Scott Thorson, a 24-year-old bodyguard, limo driver, and alleged live-in boyfriend, sued him for $113 million in palimony after the two bitterly parted ways.
Liberace died on February 4, 1987, at the age of 67 from what the coroner termed "immunodeficiency virus disease." But as with any great pop star, his legend still lingers. An HBO movie entitled Behind the Candelabra is scheduled to begin filming this summer with Michael Douglas in the lead role and Matt Damon playing the part of Scott Thorson. The score will be performed by Marvin Hamlisch, a musician who may lack the flash and verve of the film's subject, but who knows a little about attaining fame from playing the piano regardless.
Even so, it would be most telling if Elton offered his endorsement.