Friday, September 23, 2011


Billy Joel went from years as a struggling piano man, playing to small crowds in smoky bars to, seemingly overnight, becoming a wildly, popular international rock star, performing in large stadiums in front of millions of fans but the one thing that never changed during this evolution was his music. He has made plenty of memorable pop and rock tunes but is probably best known for his love songs, which are certainly personal and heartfelt but never feel overly sentimental.

What I love about Billy Joel is that all his songs are honest reflections and recollections from a wide variety of influences and combined with his voice of fiery passion and touching tenderness that  comes together to create powerfully, unforgettable music.

He was born William Martin Joel in 1949 in the Bronx, New York. His father, Karl was a classical pianist and Billy began to take piano lessons at a young age at his mother's insistence. By the time Billy was a teenager, he took up boxing because his interest in music instead of sports caused him to be teased and bullied. He was a good boxer, winning several bouts in the amateur circuit but Billy quickly ended his boxing career after he broke his nose during a match.

After seeing The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964, Billy had decided to wanted to become a musician. He formed a band first called, The Echoes and they performed covers of the popular British groups of the day. The band went through a few name changes before settling on The Lost Souls and they played on several recording sessions for local bands. Because Joel was out late playing piano with his band in local clubs, he overslept and missed an important test which left him a credit short to graduate. He decided that as a musician he didn't need a high school diploma and left school to pursue music full-time.

Joel left The Lost Souls and joined a Long Island band, The Hassles in 1967 and they signed with United Artists Records. The Hassles recorded two albums and released four singles but all were a commercial failure. Joel and Hassles drummer, Jon Small formed a duo, Attila and they released a self-titled album in 1970 but they disbanded shortly after.

Billy Joel signed his first solo recording contract in 1971 with Artie Ripp's label, Family Productions. His debut album, "Cold Spring Harbor" was recorded at the wrong speed which caused Joel's voice to sound too high. Joel, to say the least, was not at all happy with the album.

Joel toured around New York before deciding to relocate to Los Angeles in 1972. He attracted some buzz by playing in local bars and clubs before eventually going on to open for such acts as The J. Geils Band and The Beach Boys. An executive from Columbia Records heard Joel's music and wanted to sign him to the label, so they had to buy out his contract with Artie Ripp. However, Joel had signed a ten-record deal with Family Productions so part of the agreement allowed Ripp to collect royalties on the next ten albums on Columbia.

"Piano Man" was the first release on his new label with the title track being the biggest hit, reaching number twenty-five on the Billboard Pop Chart in 1973. The song was inspired by Joel's days of playing in bars in Los Angeles. Billy Joel released two more albums, "Streetlife Serenade" (1974) and "Turnstiles" (1976), which both sold modestly, before his major breakthrough album in 1977, "The Stranger".

"The Stranger" was the first time Joel teamed up with producer, Phil Ramone who would go on to work with him on the next six albums. This album was a commercial hit, ultimately selling over ten million copies as well as a critical success with "The Stranger" ranking number fifty-seven on Rolling Stone magazine's list of "The 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time". There were four top-forty singles with "Just The Way You Are", which was written about his first wife, Elizabeth, being the highest charting song, reaching number three. The song would go on to win Grammy Awards for "Record of the Year" and "Song of the Year".

With this album, Billy Joel became a superstar with his following albums selling millions of copies, his songs became major hits, played regularly on the radio throughout the 1980's and early 1990's and he performed sold-out concerts around the world including in 1987, being one of the first American rock acts to perform in Russia since 1961.

Following the release of his 1993 album, " River of Dreams", Joel focused on only on touring but after a performance at Madison Square Garden in 1999, he announced that this would be his final live performance. Although he would end up making occasional concert appearances afterwards, including the popular "Face to Face" tour with Elton John that they first began in 1994, Joel hasn't made another rock album. In 2001, however, Joel teamed up with pianist, Richard Joo to compose an album of classical music entitled, "Fantasies and Delusions". Twyla Tharp created a stage musical that was based on the songs of Billy Joel called, "Movin' Out" which was first staged in 2002, won two Tony Awards and has been performed across the globe.

Billy Joel has been married three times; He wed Elizabeth Small in 1973, who was his business manager and she left her husband, Jon Small, who was Joel's musical partner in their band, Attila, to marry. The couple divorced in 1982. His second marriage was to supermodel, Christie Brinkley in 1985 and they had a daughter, Alexa Ray who is now an aspiring singer/songwriter.Their marriage ended in 1994. His last marriage was to Katie Lee who was twenty-three when they married in 2004 but they recently split-up in 2009.

During his career, Billy Joel has had thirty-three top-forty hits, he has been nominated for Grammy Awards twenty-three times and wining six, he was inducted in to The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 and has sold well over one hundred and fifty million records worldwide.

Here is a small sample of some of Billy Joel's timeless songs:

"Piano Man" - Billy Joel (1973)

"Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" - Billy Joel (1977)

"Only The Good Die Young" - Billy Joel (1977)

"It's Still Rock & Roll To Me" - Billy Joel (1980)

"Keeping The Faith" - Billy Joel (1984)

This video for "Tell Her About It" touches on his own experience of watching The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show":

And finally, here is a live performance of one of his most popular songs, "Just The Way You Are":


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