L.A. Studio Legends: Ralph Grierson

Legendary pianist and keyboardist recollects his impressive career as a studio musician performing on thousands of film scores in Hollywood and his many collaborations with John Williams from 1969 until 2001, including Jaws and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Listen on
Podbean | Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | TuneIn | Stitcher

Very few musicians can compare to the versatile and incredibly prolific career of Ralph Grierson. A legend among studio musicians, Grierson has graced a great number of performances and recordings (including thousands of film soundtracks) thanks to his talent on a wide variety of keyboard instruments, from traditional piano and harpsichord to the most advanced synthesizers, playing across genres and styles including classical music, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, contemporary and avant-garde.

Born near Vancouver, Canada, Grierson began studying music since a very young age. During his teen years, he paid for his piano lessons by playing in chorus line rehearsals, live radio and television shows for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and in clubs. At the age of 20, Grierson left Vancouver to go to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California on a scholarship, where he studied with teachers John Crown and Ingolf Dahl, receiving a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. While at the USC, Ralph became friend with Michael Tilson Thomas, with whom he would later work on the very first recording of Stravinsky’s four-hand piano reduction of The Rite of Spring.

Michael Tilson Thomas and Ralph Grierson in 1968

After graduating, Grierson started to become very active on the Los Angeles contemporary music scene, performing music by composers such as Pierre Boulez, Steve Reich and Morton Subotnick. Grierson was frequently a soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, playing in Pierre Boulez’ Éclat multiple (under the composer’s baton), Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, and works by Bach, Gershwin, and Gottschalk. He performed also under esteemed composers, conductors and musicians such as Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss and Pinchas Zuckermann. He appeared at several chamber music festivals and events, often with Tilson Thomas, including the prestigious Monday Evening Concerts series and the Ojai Music Festival, in programs that have included music by Bartók, Cage, Copland, Mozart, and Subotnick

Steve Reich and Ralph Grierson

Grierson also appeared on a handful of Grammy-nominated albums: Palm Leaf Rag, and the follow-up album, Magnetic Rag, both with the Southland Stingers (a group formed by some of the finest Hollywood studio musicians conducted by) and both containing music by Scott Joplin; and ‘S Wonderful, a collection of George Gershwin’s tunes for piano duet performed together with Artie Kane (a legendary studio musician himself who often performed for John Williams).

Pianists Artie Kane and Ralph Grierson recording two-piano arrangements of Gershwin’s classic tunes in 1975

At the same time, Grierson started to become very active as studio musician. Thanks to his incredible ability to perform in virtually any style, he soon became one of the first call keyboardists in town to perform on film and television recordings, working with top composers such as Lalo Schifrin, Henry Mancini, Michel Legrand, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams.

Ralph Grierson recording a duet with the legendary Michel Legrand for an unknown film score (photo courtesy of Ralph Grierson)

He first worked with John Williams on The Reivers (1969), a score that would then became the Maestro’s first Academy Award nomination as Best Original Score—and the work that would pick the attention of a then-very young up-and-coming director named Steven Spielberg. From that moment, Grierson worked on almost every John Williams score recorded in Los Angeles until 2001, a total number of 46 scores. He can be heard playing in iconic scores such as Jaws and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial—he’s the pianist performing the unforgettable solo heard both on the soundtrack album (“Over the Moon”) and in the film’s end credits.

Grierson performed piano, synthesizer and keyboards in many other classic scores by the Maestro including The Cowboys, The Towering Inferno, Family Plot, 1941, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Witches of Eastwick, The Accidental Tourist, Always, Stanley and Iris, Home Alone, just to name a few (often performing in a keyboard section that included other legendary talents such as Artie Kane, Mike Lang, Clare Fischer, Chet Swiatkowski and Ian Underwood).

John Williams greeting Ralph Grierson backstage at the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles (photo courtesy of Ralph Grierson)

Over the course of his 30+ years career as studio musician, Grierson performed on literally thousands of film and television scores, playing for every top Hollywood film composers: Jerry Goldsmith, Maurice Jarre, John Barry, James Horner, Elmer Bernstein, Randy Newman, Thomas Newman, Danny Elfman, Basil Poledouris, Marvin Hamlisch, James Newton Howard, Alan Silvestri, Michael Kamen, Bruce Broughton—his impressive credit list reads like a history of Hollywood movies of the last 40 years and includes some of cinema’s biggest hits such as E.T., Titanic, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future. Other movies where his playing can be admired include The Matrix (1999, music by Don Davis), The Horse Whisperer (1998, music by Thomas Newman) and Monsters, Inc. (2001, music by Randy Newman).

He was a regular collaborator of the late James Horner and has performed piano and synth parts on scores such as Field of Dreams, Sneakers, The Pelican Brief, Jumanji and A Beautiful Mind among others.

His prolific work for television includes many historic tv shows from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s such as Hawaii Five-O, Dynasty, Dallas, Columbo, The Incredible Hulk, The Waltons, Magnum P.I., L.A. Law, Tales From the Crypt, and many others.

Studio musician peers have honored Grierson frequently, and most recently he was presented with an Emeritus Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which is presented only after being awarded three Most Valuable Player Awards.

Ralph Grierson on his massive synthesizers rig during a recording session in Hollywood (1996)

Among his many highlights as a performer, he can be heard playing an exquisite reading of Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune as featured on the soundtrack of the film Frankie & Johnny (1990) arranged by Marvin Hamlisch. He recalls the experience as “one of the most frightening moments of my career”, as he never performed the piece before.

Another career highlight happened in 2000, Ralph appeared as the piano soloist (both on screen and on the soundtrack recording) in the segment of Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin in Disney’s Fantasia 2000. For that occasion, he also toured worldwide with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra appearing in live-to-picture performances of the film. Reviewing the soundtrack album, Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed wrote “…I can’t think of a soloist that I would rather hear play Rhapsody in Blue.”. The recording got a Grammy Award nomination as Best Soundtrack Album.

Ralph Grierson at London’s AIR Lyndhurst Studios, where he recorded the “Rhapsody in Blue” segment as heard on the soundtrack of Disney’s Fantasia 2000

Grierson has delved extensively into experimental electronic music (including several years spent working with the Los Angeles-based group Ishtar). This interest, plus that in classical music, motivated him to compose such works as Sometimes… Not Always, a forty-five minute video performance piece that premiered at the L.A. Theater Center. He has composed music for three television movies: To Find My Son (1980) and Red Earth, White Earth (1989) for CBS Television, and The Hired Heart (1997) for Lifetime cable.

Ralph Grierson seated in front of his massive synth rig during a recording session at Todd-AO Studio in Hollywood (mid-1990s, photo courtesy of Ralph Grierson)

In 2002, Ralph’s career came to an abrupt halt: after an accident where he injured his wrist, he stopped playing professionally and quit his activity as studio musician and live performer. Since then, Ralph has renovated his home studio and started developing his own voice as a composer. Together with his wife Caroline (a certified neurofeedback therapist), he formed the company Music & Health, nurturing projects that would combine the respective disciplines. Despite not playing publicly anymore since 2002, Grierson recently released a video on YouTube where he can be seen performing Erik Satie’s Vexations on the occasion of the composer’s 154th birthday:

In this wide-ranging, in-depth candid conversation, Ralph talks about his incredible life and career as studio musician in Hollywood and his collaborations with John Williams on many film scores as pianist and keyboardist, recalling his work on Jaws and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, while also reflecting on how he shifted from piano to synthesizers and how Williams’s keyboard personnel changed throughout the years. Ralph also recalls some of his other career’s highlights, including his work with the late James Horner, the performance of Debussy’s Claire de lune for the soundtrack of Frankie & Johnny and his soloist work for Disney’s Fantasia 2000. He also opens up about his career-altering injury and how his life changed since then.

A warm thank you to Ralph Grierson for his immense kindness and generosity.

Visit his website Music & Health to learn more about his activity and his current projects: http://www.musicandhealth.com/

Illustration by Gianmaria Caschetto © 2020

List of music excerpts featured in the episode:

. John Williams, “Over the Moon”, from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
. George Gershwin, “Prelude No.1 in B Flat”, from the album ‘S Wonderful (1975) – Ralph Grierson & Artie Kane, pianists
. John Williams, “Blown to Bits”, from Jaws (1975)
. John Williams, “The Mystery Woman”, from Family Plot (1976)
. Claude Bolling, “Beverly Hills”, from California Suite (1978) – Ralph Grierson, piano; Hubert Laws, flute; Tommy Tedesco, guitar; Chuck Domanico, bass; Shelly Manne, drums
. Scott Joplin, “Elite Syncopations” from the album The Red Back Book / Elite Syncopations (1974) – Ralph Grierson with the Southland Stingers, arranged and conducted by George Sponhaltz
. Igor Stravinsky, Le sacre du printempsAct II: Danse sacrale, four-hands piano version transcribed by the composer; Ralph Grierson & Michael Tilson Thomas, pianists; recorded in 1968
. John Williams, “Main Title / First Introduction”, from The Reivers (1969)
. Henry Mancini, “Dreamsville”, from Peter Gunn (1959) – John Williams, solo piano
. John Williams, “Great Chase”, from Jaws (1975)
. John Williams, “Main Title”, from Jaws (1975)
. John Williams, “Prologue and Main Title”, from Midway (1976) – Ralph Grierson, piano
. John Williams, “The Township of Eastwick”, from The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
. John Williams, “End Credits”, from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
. John Williams, “The Underwater Siege”, from Jaws – Original Soundtrack Recording (1975)
. John Williams, “Back with Sarah”, from The Accidental Tourist (1988)
. John Williams, “Dennis Steals the Embryo”, from Jurassic Park (1993)
. John Williams, “Reading Lessons”, from Stanley & Iris (1990)
. John Williams, “The Magic of Halloween”, from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
. John Williams, “Pete in Heaven”, from Always (1989)
. John Williams, “E.T. is Alive”, from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
. James Horner, “…Too Many Secrets”, from Sneakers (1992)
. James Horner, “End Titles”, from Field of Dreams (1989)
. Claude Debussy, arr. Marvin Hamlisch “Claire de lune” from Frankie & Johnny (1990) – Ralph Grierson, solo piano
. George Gershwin, “Rhapsody in Blue” from Disney’s Fantasia 2000 original soundtrack recording (Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by James Levine; Ralph Grierson, solo piano)
. John Williams, “End Credits”, from Stanley & Iris (1990) – Ralph Grierson, piano