Ralph Anthony Pieroni
1932 - 2022
Ralph Pieroni, a pianist and composer. , was a gifted improvisational performer. He taught in the Seventh-day Adventist school system and was also active in the popular music scene and as a church musician.
Pieroni was born on August 14, 1932, and raised in the Bronx, one of five children born to John B. and Cosma Gebbia Pieroni. Although his mother had a beautiful soprano voice and all of the children had good voices and an innate musical ability, Ralph would be the only one to pursue formal training.
He started piano lessons at age twelve and at fifteen began playing popular music and jazz professionally at hotels in the Catskills during the summer months. At the beginning of his junior year in high school, he began study on the string bass and by the beginning of the second semester had developed enough proficiency to be able to join the school orchestra. Both his piano and string bass teachers were pivotal, and inspiring persons during these years.
Following graduation from James Monroe High School in the Bronx in 1951, he enlisted in the army, serving for three years. He married Carol Evelyn Rushton in June 1954 and they moved to Chicago, where he attended Northwestern University, which was located near her parents' home. Shortly after starting work on a music degree at NU in 1956, he was devastated by the tragic death of his wife in 1957.
He went to live with supportive family members in Las Vegas and briefly got caught up in the life it offered in an attempt to ease the trauma of what had happened. After a few months there, he returned to the East and spent the summer of 1957 in New York, living with his parents. That fall, he enrolled at Atlantic Union College as a music major.
By coincidence I was also a newly enrolled transfer student and we soon became close friends. Although his primary instrument was piano, he also played string bass in both the orchestra and band. Ralph was outgoing, with a happy-go-lucky approach to life and fun to be around. He was more sophisticated than the rest of us, given his age and past experiences; he was also intelligent, very talented, and not intimidated by the teachers. He had a wonderful sense of adventure, which led to some memorable moments for his fellow students.
Pieroni graduated from AUC in 1961 with a B.S. in music education and piano as his performance area, having studied with Margarita Dietel Merriman. For most of the next nine years, he made a living playing with a rock group called The Sole Survivors.
In 1970 he was hired to teach music and direct the band and choir at Madison Academy in Tennessee. He enjoyed the experience and was a beloved and popular teacher. His personal warmth, humor, and high standards in performance led to unusual accomplishment and high morale. Additionally, he created excitement in and support for his program with creative and spirited concerts. Pieroni later talked about one of those programs:
Starting in my second year at Madison, I presented a concert called Spring Spectacular, a fast-paced music program of around twelve numbers that featured lighter music done with different sized groups and using colorful backdrops, staging, and choreographed movements to the music. The students really got into the spirit of it, and the audience's response to the concert was wildly enthusiastic.
As we prepared for the second program the following year, we were doing a highly rhythmic number, "Another Opening, Another Show," from the musical Kiss Me, Kate that had an interlude for a small pit instrumental ensemble. I was stumped about what to do with the choir while the pit group played by itself. The girls in the choir suggested that they line up in a single row and do a kicking routine during the interlude like the Radio City Music Hall famed Rockettes might do. I was flabbergasted and asked, "Do you want to get me fired?"
They persisted, and I suggested that instead of one line perhaps they could do it in three separate groups of five girls each, at different places on the stage. They tried it and although I finally agreed, I was really concerned about how the conference president and pastors who would be attending would react. Amazingly, the audience applauded when the girls started their routine, and it was one of the hits of the night.
Although these programs were popular and drew packed houses, producing them required prodigious amounts of time and effort. That, on top of a teaching load that had me teaching at three other schools, led to my ending the Spring Spectacular after four years.
Although he had been hired by principal John Wagner, a former schoolmate at Atlantic Union College, his final years at MA were spent under the leadership of Manford Simcock, who recently talked about Pieroni's abilities and work as a music teacher:
I have a lot of respect for Ralph. He was an exceptional music teacher who attracted large numbers of students and helped them make music at a very high level. His programs were popular and always well attended.
He was a great performer himself with a natural ability to improvise on the spot. I saw him do this on many occasions. We would be at a party and someone would say, "Hey, there's Ralph, Let's have him play something." And he was always willing to do it. He'd sit down at the piano and improvise wonderful arrangements of requested tunes.
The 1976 yearbook, Cumberland Echos, was dedicated to Pieroni. While at MA, he pursued graduate work at Andrews University in the summers and completed an M.Mus. in composition and education in 1977.
Because of his improvisational gifts as a performer, it was only natural that he would enjoy the creative challenge of composing music. This had led to the writing of a vocal solo, I Will Lift up Mine Eyes Unto The Hills, with a text from Psalm 121, in 1960 for a composition class at AUC.
While doing graduate work, he wrote Starfire, a composition for piano and band, and another work, Toccata for Symphonic Band. The Southern Missionary College, now Southern Adventist University, concert band under the direction of Jack McClarty, performed both works in 1974 and 1976, respectively, with Starfire featuring Pieroni as piano soloist. A choral introit, Come Thou to This Holy Place, was also written during this time.
In 1979, after teaching at MA for nine years, Pieroni secured a position as a traveling salesman with Memorial Bibles International. He became General Manager of the company after one year, a position he held for the next five years.
He joined New York Life Insurance Company in 1985 and worked as an insurance agent, retiring in 1994. Throughout those years he continued to be active in music and in retirement continued to perform in churches and other social settings, frequently collaborating with Billy Burks, a dentist and accomplished player of the vibraphone and accordion. He was living in Old Hickory, Tennessee, when he died on March 20, 2022.
Sources: Interviews with Ralph Pieroni, 24 February 2011 and subsequent emails and conversations; Conversation with Manford Simcock, April 2011; Cook County Genealogy Records (Marriages), Chicago, Illinois; U.S. Public Records Index, Volume 1 (Ralph Pieroni); The Tennessean death notice, March 2022.
Adventures with Ralph . . .
By the beginning of my second year at Atlantic Union College, I had had the good fortune of becoming a close friend of Ralph Pieroni, a fellow transfer student who, like me, was now a member of the junior class. When it came time to announce class officers that fall, we were asked by the class to work together and find a unique way to announce their choices.
At the next school assembly, just as chapel was getting underway, Ralph entered from the stage side door, sat at the piano, and began to quietly improvise. A moment or two later, I entered through the same door with a charcoal beard painted on my face, dressed in rags and burlap like a beatnik (a societal rebel of that time). The students erupted in laughter, wild applause, and cheers as I, looking quite preoccupied, walked to the center of the stage, raised my eyes and a hand to the sky, and recited the following parody* while Ralph played matching music in the background:
Twinkle, twinkle little star,
I don't wonder what you are,
I surmised your spot in space,
When you left your missile base.
Any thinking that I do
Centers on the thought of you
And I shudder when I think
What you're costing me per twink!
Following the applause and laughter, I continued with another rhyme, accompanied by Ralph, that announced the names of the class officers, again to a noisy response. The academic dean, who was seated in the audience, angrily got up and left the room, offended by what he thought was an inappropriate glorification of beatniks and a presentation subversive of the decorum expected on a Christian college campus.
During my tenure as president of the Music Guild at Atlantic Union College in that same year, we created a melodramatic silent movie (his idea) to represent us at the college's annual fall festival. I was the studious musician wildly playing at the piano to the neglect of my girlfriend and he the villain, who, seeing an opportunity, stole her from me. All of this was done in overstated gestures and recorded on 16mm black and white film.
The film was then played at the fall festival in a darkened booth while Ralph improvised on the piano with music appropriate for a silent film. And, of course, we the actors made a grand entrance at the festival in a Volkswagen Beetle, driven through the front door of the gymnasium under the glare of a spotlight to the front of the booth, with car lights flashing and horn beeping all the way.
In a subsequent year, we were taking a voice class along with Ron Halvorsen, later a noted evangelist in the church, who, like Ralph, was from New York. Because of Ron's turbulent past in street gangs and more imposing, rough-hewn physical presence, he stood in sharp contrast to both Ralph and me, who were smaller.
Teacher Norman J. Roy did his best to make us sound respectable and wanting to get us motivated, announced that the three of us were going to sing in one of the regularly scheduled recitals in the main auditorium. More terrified than motivated, we decided with his guidance to perform "When I was a lad . . ." from the musical The HMS Pinafore.
As we prepared for the approaching performance, Ralph suggested that he and I stand on either side of Ron and that we all bob up and down alternately to the rhythm as we sang. Well, we did, and laughter ensued, as much from the sight as the inappropriateness of the spectacle during what was supposed to be a formal recital presentation. The reaction from department chair Ellsworth Judy was one of feigned dismay. I say feigned since, knowing him and his pleasure in a well-delivered joke, I suspect he thought it was funny and had enjoyed it.
In retrospect, Ralph, with his sense of humor and penchant for pranks was a therapeutic relief valve that helped ease the stresses inherent in majoring in music with its many performance demands. His quest for adventure and a good laugh, along with the genuine friendship we enjoyed then, and the sharing in life over the many years since, has made him a cherished friend.
*This parody, which appeared in the Reader's Digest in 1957 or 1958 following the launching of Russia's Sputnik missile in autumn 1957, was recited with improvisations on the piano of the famous melody from Haydn's Symphony No. 94 (the Surprise) being played by Pieroni as background music.