Jim Brickman wouldn’t play by the rules. Literally. He was 8, taking private lessons from a piano teacher down the street from his parents’ Cleveland suburb home. But little Jimmy Brickman wouldn’t conform to the rudimentary regulations of piano playing, even after he had first tried his hand on the instrument three years prior.
“There was no nuance to it, no musicality,” Brickman said of his lessons. “It was your basic lady down the street cliché. She told my mother after about a year that I just didn’t have the knack for this. She said that my rhythm was all over the place. She told my mother, ‘I don’t see the point of this.’" The Brickman matriarch stood her ground. She knew her son had a calling for the piano. She watched him sit at the keyboards for hours. This was no time to give up.
Good thinking. Jim Brickman would become the most commercially successful instrumental pop pianist of the last two decades. Four of his albums have been certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America – 1995’s By Heart, 1997’s Picture This and The Gift, and 1999’s Destiny – for sales of more than 500,000 copies. Overall, he’s sold more than 7 million albums.
He’s amassed 27 Top 40 singles on the adult contemporary charts, including 14 Top 10 smashes. His collaboration with soaring country songstress Martina McBride, the beautiful paean to love titled “Valentine,” scored at mainstream country radio in1998, peaking at No. 9. Other Brickman staples include “Simple Things” with Rebecca Lynn Howard, “Peace” and “The Gift,” both with Collin Raye and Susan Ashton, “Never Alone” with Lady Antebellum, and “Love of My Life” with Michael W. Smith.
Throughout his long career, Brickman has also shared his artistry with luminaries such as Kenny Loggins, Carly Simon, Herb Alpert, Michael Bolton, Donny Osmond, Richie McDonald of country vocal group Lonestar, smooth jazz saxophonist Dave Koz , Olivia Newton-John, and Canadian country singer Michelle Wright. Along the way he’s been rewarded for his melodically sublime style with two Grammy Award nominations, a couple of SESAC “Songwriter of the Year” Awards, a Canadian Country Music Award and a Dove Award presented by the Gospel Music Association. He’s also the author of two best-selling books, 2001’s Simple Things and 2005’s Love Notes, co-written with Cindy Pearlman.
So much for the kid who “didn’t have the knack for this.” “From a technique standpoint I am not a pianist per se,” Brickman admits. “I think of myself as a songwriter that plays the piano. I was never good at drawing inside the lines. I was always ambitious about my own creativity. I wanted to learn the craft of it but I didn’t want to learn the craft so that I could excel at the craft. I mostly wanted the vocabulary, so to speak.”
Listen to any Jim Brickman album, or better yet catch a Jim Brickman concert, and you’ll hear pop songs performed on the piano. His melodies are his lyrics. His piano speaks. Artistically he comes from the ‘70s pop songwriting school, from the era when the Carpenters, Rita Coolidge, Carly Simon, Roberta Flack, Burt Bacharach, Joni Mitchell, Olivia Newton-John and England Dan & John Ford Coley were spinning AM gold.
To that end, Brickman found his mentor when he was 12 and in the creative tutelage of a Cleveland Institute of Music graduate. As a child Brickman had studied music at the prestigious conservatory. He was honored in 2011 when the Cleveland Institute of Music established a scholarship in his name. “He changed everything for me,” Brickman said about that pivotal instructor. “I took private lessons with this gentleman, called jazz improvisation. He asked me what I wanted to do instead of telling me what I should do. He had these lesson plans that were geared toward pop songs. He would ask me, ‘What do you like?’ Then he would start showing me how these pop songs were written.”
That’s all this native of Shaker Heights, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland) needed to set his career on motion. Once upon a time Brickman had an advertising business writing commercial jingle for McDonald’s, Pontiac and Kellogg’s.
In 1994, Brickman signed his first recording contract with Windham Hill Records, a label known for specializing in new age, folk and acoustic music. Brickman isn’t and never has been a new age artist, but the pairing was symbiotic. Windham Hill had amassed a great reputation in the world of instrumental music, so Brickman only had to introduce himself to the fans of the genre. “If you liked piano music and you trusted Windham Hill you might take a chance on me,” Brickman said. “It evolved way past their narrow niche.”
At the pinnacle of Brickman’s Windham Hill years, he reached No. 30 on Billboard’s all-genre pop albums chart with Picture This. That was undoubtedly a huge commercial accomplishment for a pianist without regular mainstream pop radio airplay and whose songs had no words. “They saw my tenacity and how I felt like this music could be more mainstream,” Brickman said. “They never had a radio single and I pushed them to do that. They got what I was doing and along the way they really respected it.”
Brickman, putting his marketing skills to excellent use, found alternative ways to reach a large audience. He became an important PBS supporter, filming four TV specials for the revered television network – 2000’s My Romance: An Evening with Jim Brickman, 2002’s Love Songs and Lullabies, 2005’s Jim Brickman Live from Disney’s Magic Kingdom, and 2009’s Beautiful World.
The possibilities are truly endless for Brickman these days. In 2007 Brickman launched his own recording imprint through Toronto, Canada’s Mood Entertainment, the record label that takes Jim’s albums to department store giant Target. Walk into any Target and find the Lifescapes kiosk by the greeting cards. There you will see many of Brickman’s 10-CDs strong catalog, including 2009’s Beautiful World and 2012’s Believe.
“Target is an amazing partner when it comes to merchandising and what kind of product will sell in my brand,” Brickman said. “What they have done for me is expose my music to people who might not know it already. Everything they do is top notch and people have come to expect that I am going to have an album there. It is affordable, $9.99 per album. It gives me creative freedom.”
Plus, Brickman is a firm believer in music as part of one’s lifestyle. He wants his fans to use his music as part of everyday life, which is why he’s recorded inspirational albums, lullabies, romantic records, and of course Christmas albums. The holidays are especially important for Brickman. The year 2013 will mark his 18th annual holiday tour. Tour partners include Celestial Seasonings, John Q. Hammons Hotels & Resorts, Audio-Technica, Whole Foods, and American Greetings.
Brickman is also the host of a syndicated radio show, Your Weekend With Jim Brickman, which is currently taped in New York after a 15-year production in Los Angeles, where Brickman lived from 1988 to 2010. Your Weekend With Jim Brickman premiered in 1997 and can now be heard on 80 radio stations across North America in cities such as Milwaukee, Hartford, Portland, Honolulu, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Providence, and Nashville.
The show is recorded in advance. It is a four-hour casual lifestyle program that encompasses lots of music – think lite, adult contemporary FM tunes – as well as superstar celebrity interviews, expert tips on health, travel, beauty, conversations about pop culture, topics of the day and more. Brickman’s co-host is Cat Greenleaf, host of the Emmy Award-winning Talk Stoop With Cat Greenleaf on NBC. “Everything that I do compliments the core brand of what I do. The tone is conversational. My fans that come to the show are the ones that listen to that kind of radio.”
Music for soothing the aches of daily life and music for hanging the mistletoe, that’s the Jim Brickman way. The highest compliment you can pay this 51-year-old pop pianist is to tell him that his compositions became the soundtrack while delivery a baby, taking a bubble bath, enduring chemo therapy, lulling your little one to sleep, dancing with daddy at the wedding and falling in love again. “This is more than just ‘I love that hit song’,” Brickman said. “It’s the experience. I am more about the experimental way that people use the music more so than ever. I want the music to be a constant part of their lives.”
In Jim Brickman’s musical world, there really are no rules.
By Mario Tarradell