The recent Rifftides review of pianist Sullivan Fortner’s new album mentions Johnny Costa (pictured) as an influence. The influence came early. Like millions of other American children, Fortner grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He was captivated by the music Costa played with his trio on the television show. Costa was Rogers’ musical director from the birth of the program in 1968 to Costa’s death in 1996 at the age of 74. Mr. Rogers made this very short documentary about his friend.
Costa’s virtuosity led Art Tatum to call him “The white Tatum.” There is plenty of virtuosity in his solo version of Victor Young’s “Stella By Starlight,” but the principal factor here is the sensitivity that Fred Rogers pointed out.
In order to devote himself to his family, Costa confined his career to Pittsburgh and nearby parts of western Pennsylvania. Consequently, considering the size of his talent he recorded relatively little. The albums he did make are timeless. A few of them are available here.
(Costa photo ©Rollo Phlecks)