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Peter Nero, Grammy-winning pianist and Philly Pops conductor, dies at 89

Peter Nero, leader of the Philly Pops, smiles during a sound check on a stage at the foot of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Peter Nero, leader of the Philly Pops, smiles during a sound check on a stage on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the Fourth of July 2005. Nero, a Grammy-winning pianist who interpreted pop songs through classical and jazz forms, died Thursday at the age of 89.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
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Peter Nero, a Grammy-winning pianist who interpreted pop songs through classical and jazz forms and served as the Philly Pops’ conductor for more than three decades, has died. He was 89.

Nero died Thursday at Home Care Assisted Living Facility in Eustis, Fla., said his daughter, Beverly Nero, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Services will be private.

Nero colored his renditions of pop songs — from Cole Porter and George Gershwin to the Beatles and Bob Dylan — with classical, swing, Broadway, blues and jazz melodies. He often called his sound “undefinable” and was not offended when others called it “middle of the road.” (He once told a newspaper, “Middle of the road and doing great business.”)

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Recruited by Philadelphia concert promoter Moe Septee, Nero started the Philly Pops orchestra in 1979, the year Arthur Fiedler died. Fiedler is credited with virtually inventing the modern version of the pops orchestra in Boston, and Nero hoped to rival it in popularity.

“I’d like to beat the pants off them,” Nero said at the time.

Nero’s orchestra wasn’t as prominent as Boston’s, but it did tout routine sellouts in Philadelphia, no doubt helped by Nero’s lively playing style and warm stage presence.

In his work as both performer and conductor, Nero returned frequently to Broadway tunes, Hollywood themes and Gershwin, the subject of the Philly Pops’ first concert. But he also dipped into Motown’s catalog and farther afield to bands such as Procol Harum and an album devoted to disco and ‘70s love songs.

In 1975, he lamented to the Washington Post: “I find it impossible to use a lot of the new material that’s coming out. There is some rock material in my repertoire ... but a lot of rock groups are selling a sound, not music. You take the tune apart and there’s nothing there to work with.”

He led the Philly Pops until 2013, exiting his leadership role when the orchestra said it could no longer afford him.

By his own admission, Nero struggled early in his career — under the name Bernie Nerow — during stints in New York and Las Vegas. But he found his stride in his late 20s playing on New York’s club circuit.

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He was signed to RCA by Stan Greeson, who saw a potential star and had him change his name to Peter Nero. A steady stream of early 1960s club shows led to regular radio and TV appearances and two dozen RCA albums over the span of a decade.

Nero earned Grammy Awards in 1961 for best new artist and in 1962 for best performance by an orchestra or instrumentalist for his record “The Colorful Peter Nero.”

A 1963 album, “Hail the Conquering Nero,” peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard pop album chart. It included versions of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and “Mack the Knife.”

He also charted with a version of “Theme from `The Summer of ‘42,’” a song written by Michel Legrand for the 1971 movie. Nero’s version hit No. 21 on the Billboard pop singles chart.

Nero also wrote the score for the 1963 Jane Fonda film “Sunday in New York” and made an appearance in the movie.

Born Bernard Nierow in 1934, Nero was raised in Brooklyn. He started taking piano lessons at age 7 and, by age 11, he was said to have been able to play Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D Major from memory. He later won a scholarship to take classes at Juilliard, won several talent contests and graduated from Brooklyn College.

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When headlining, Nero disliked having a set list and would pick songs on the spot. The idea of mixing styles and genres carried over to the Philly Pops.

“My programs for the Philly Pops may open with ‘Die Meistersinger,’ then ‘Chariots of Fire,’ then Enesco’s Rumanian Rhapsodies, then a television theme,” Nero told the New York Times in 1982. “I keep going back and forth, and the audience bought it from the beginning.”

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