One of the world's greatest pianists, Johnny Costa is best known for his work as the musical director of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, a beloved PBS television program that aired during 1965-2001. Costa was much more than a pianist for children. A musician's musician, his work was applauded by jazz masters such as Benny Carter, Dave Brubeck, Tommy Dorsey, Dizzy Gillespie, Marion McPartland, Peter Nero, Andre Previn, Buddy Rich, Mel Torme, and Art Tatum, the latter musician being Costa's most significant influence.
Costa's first recording was The Amazing Johnny Costa, a Savoy LP released in 1955 and reissued on CD in 1989 as Neighborhood. During the 1950s, Costa cut short a career that would have brought him international recognition as a pianist and recording artist. Long road trips and concerts far from home, although lucrative, did not compensate for the loss of companionship of his friends and family, the latter which included his wife, daughter and son (Helen, Debbie and John Junior). Costa stopped traveling, ended a promising recording career, relinguished his job as the first musical director of the Mike Douglas Show, and returned to Pittsburgh, never again venturing far from its city limits.
Graduating with two degrees in music from Carnegie-Mellon University, Costa began work as a musician on a Pittsburgh television station the same day he graduated. He provided piano and organ music for many programs, eventually teaming with Fred Rogers to create the most successful children's program on television. Even after his death in 1996, Costa's piano still resounded throughout Neighborhood programs.
Thanks to Dick Hyman, who contacted Hank O'Neal at Chiaroscuro Records, Costa resumed his recording career in 1992 with Classic Costa. Costa's three other recordings for Chiaroscuro—Flying Fingers, A Portrait of George Gershwin, and Dream—serve as a permanent legacy of this extraordinary musician.
Costa's last recording, Christmas Reflections of holiday and religious songs on the L&M label, was produced by Len Meledandri. Costa was also a superb arranger. Referring to his chart of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, Larry Rosenthal, a pianist with Gus Arnheim, said, "It's as good as Chopin."
No pianist ever played beautiful tunes better than Johnny Costa, and like George Gershwin, Costa was a man of the heart whose inner qualities were clearly revealed in his music. Helen Costa, Johnny's wife of 55 years told me the day I met her, "Johnny is as beautiful a person as the music he plays." And that he was.
A nonpareil talent, Johnny Costa is a member of the Hall of Fame of the Pittsburgh Jazz Society.
Hugh Glenn, Webmaster