Cliburn, born Harvey Lavan Cliburn, first gained attention in 1958—when, still in his early 20s, he won the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow during the height of the Cold War. (He received a standing ovation that lasted eight minutes.) Cliburn appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and was the first classical recording artist to have an album, his recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, sell more than 1 million copies.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Cliburn began taking piano lessons from his mom at the age of 3. At 12, he won a statewide piano competition that allowed him to debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. He enrolled in Juilliardand made his Carnegie Hall debut at 20. Through a career that spanned more than a half-century, Cliburn played for every U.S. President from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama, and received the Kennedy Center Honors, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Russian Order of Friendship, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Cliburn was gay, but shy about discussing his sexuality—and an observant Baptist who attended church every week. In 1998, he was sued by mortician Thomas Zaremba, his partner of 17 year, for a portion of his assets. Zaremba lost, mainly because Texas does not recognize palimony suits unless they are based on a written agreement.
He is survived by his current partner, Thomas L. Smith.
Rest in peace, piano man.