Art Ferrante played the piano six days a week, every day but Sunday. If he went two or three days without touching the black-and-white keys, his hands would flutter. He couldn’t sleep. As his health declined in recent months, he continued to practice scales every day on the piano.
Arthur “Art” Ferrante, of Longboat Key, died Sept. 19. He was 88.
He and his friend Lou Teicher were the legendary piano duo Ferrante & Teicher that sold more than 90 million copies of more than 150 albums and recorded hit themes for movies such as “Exodus,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “The Apartment,” along with “Tonight” from “West Side Story.”
Born Sept. 7, 1921, in New York City, Ferrante was 3 when he reached up to the keyboard of the piano in his family’s Eastside Manhattan apartment and picked out a melody. His father exclaimed that they had the next Mozart. Later, his mother protested when a private piano teacher suggested he audition for the Juilliard School, because the family couldn’t afford tuition. But on his eighth birthday, Ferrante auditioned and wowed the faculty, earning a scholarship that would take him through 13 years of training. There, he met Lou Teicher, who had also earned a scholarship. They were the youngest members of their curriculum and began performing as a piano duo. They wowed teachers with the fastest performance of “Flight of the Bumblebee” that they had ever heard.
In 1947, Ferrante & Teicher debuted as a classical duo at New York City’s Town Hall. They bought a truck to haul their pianos, because most concert venues didn’t have two pianos.
According to Scott W. Smith, the pair’s long-time personal manager, they had an almost telepathic synergy when performing, one that stemmed from the two playing piano together since childhood.
“One would do melody, one would do rhythm, then they would switch,” Smith said. “The two pianos sounded like one.”
Ferrante played with such speed and energy that he could lift his hands up to 2 feet above the keyboard during a performance, something Smith said he has never seen another pianist do.
The pair recorded 20 albums of popular and classical music in the 1950s. Then, they became famous for preparing their pianos with items such as strips of metal, cotton balls and rubber mutes to achieve an unusual, avant-garde sound for a series of Space Age pop albums.
In 1960, Ferrante & Teicher scored its first gold single with the theme from “The Apartment.” They performed as a duo for more than 40 years, performing more than 5,200 concerts.
According to Smith, the duo succeeded in creating hits on the piano in an era of rock ’n’ roll. While Elvis Presley was swiveling his hips, and Bryan Hyland sang about an “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini,” Ferrante & Teicher pounded out hit after hit on pianos.
“How on Earth in 1960 did they get on the Billboard music charts?” Smith asked. “They were at the top of their game.”
In the 1980s, their success continued, as the duo’s concerts ranked in the top 20 each year — along with ZZ Top and The Rolling Stones.
Smith said that both men remained humble, despite performing 160 concerts a year that were usually booked two to three years in advance. Other performers of that caliber often made extravagant backstage requests, demanding pricy bottles of champagne. Ferrante asked for a banana before performing; Teicher requested a cup of black coffee.
In 1989, Teicher retired. Ferrante toured for three years on his own before retiring on Longboat.
“He did not enjoy being a solo performer,” Smith said. “He said, ‘I was born a duo pianist.’”
In retirement, Ferrante enjoyed going on cruises with his wife, Jena. Although he had given up performing, he always made sure that the cruise had a piano so that he could practice. He remained close to Teicher, who moved to Siesta Key. The two often met up for lunch. Then, they would walk to a Sarasota piano dealer and play together — as a duo.
Teicher died in August 2008. Ferrante thought it was ironic that they both retired to keys after so many years behind piano keys. And, in the months before his death, he told family members and friends that he must live to be 88 — one year for every note on the piano. He died 12 days after his 88th birthday.
Ferrante is survived by his wife, Jena; daughter, Brenda Eberhardt; and twin granddaughters. A memorial service will take place at 11 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 24, at St. Mary, Star of the Sea, Catholic Church, 4280 Gulf of Mexico Drive.
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