“I remember what it was like to work nine-to-five in a factory. It makes me thankful, no matter how much I bitch about the music business, that I’m not doing that. I have tremendous empathy for people who look forward to Friday night.”
The Piano Man
At a small dinner party this past summer, Billy Joel and Paul McCartney met for the first time.
“I feel like a jerk saying this,” Joel told his boyhood hero, “but I just want you to know that if you guys hadn’t done what you did, I wouldn’t be what I am today. In fact, the Beatles probably saved my life.”
“That’s all right,” McCartney assured him. “I said the same thing to Phil Everly, and I felt like a jerk, too.”
Like the Beatles, Billy Joel’s music transcends pop-music barriers. His audiences cross over into all ages, races, classes. He seems to articulate and exalt the intense feelings and experiences that people have in common: joy, despair, guilt, and love. According to Billboard magazine, Joel has become the “most consistent and prolific male album artist of the last decade.”
Yes, it has been ten years since “Piano Man” brought him national attention, but to Joel rock stardom remains “an abstraction … a ball of gas.”
He was born William Joseph Martin Joel, in Hicksville, New York, on May 9, 1949. His father, an engineer for General Electric, left home when Joel was seven. His mother, Rosalind, worked a number of low-paying office jobs to support Billy and his older sister. Somehow she managed to pay for her son’s piano lessons. The classically trained pianist loved rock ‘n’ roll, though, and seeing the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was an epiphany. Here were four average-looking, working-class kids like himself, who were playing their own instruments and writing their own music. If they could do it, so could he.
When his senior year of high school ended-sans diploma (good grades, poor attendance)-Joel continued playing in the bar bands he’d joined. With an established local “blue-eyed soul” group, the Hassles, he recorded two albums and learned to play Hammond organ before the group broke up in the late 1960s. He then formed a new group, Attila, with the Hassles’ drummer, Jon Small. It was an experiment that didn’t work. Over a year was spent writing and recording an album for Epic Records, but they disbanded after a handful of live dates.
It was in the early seventies that Joel saw his dream of recording his own music come true. In 1972, Cold Spring Harbor was released for Artie Ripp’s Family Productions. It was a collection of touchingly naive, promisingly well-crafted songs. It was also horribly produced, and was the beginning of Joel’s legal problems with Ripp and Family which continue to this day. Realizing he was in less than capable hands, but signed to an ironclad contract, Joel simply “disappeared,” moving to Los Angeles with the woman who would later become his wife, Elizabeth, and her son Sean. Joel played piano in white-collar bars under the name Billy Martin. It took Columbia Records to bring him out of his self-imposed 18- month exile and put him on the Top 40 with “Piano Man.” It was his first hit, but it also pegged him as a balladeer, a label that would haunt him as his work took other tracks.
Two years later, Streetlight Serenade followed. After a turn at producing himself on Turnstiles, Joel joined forces with producer Phil Ramone. That happy combination resulted in The Stranger (1977), which moved Joel into coliseum-size arenas and went on to sell six million copies. The equally successful 52nd Street was next, a collection of jazz-influenced urban rock. Glass Houses, released in 1980, gave Joel his third platinum album and served to further confuse rock critics, who were having trouble pinning him down.
Critics be damned, the people seemed to love Joel. Yet as his star continued to rise, his personal life was falling apart. After a separation and several attempts at reconciliation, Joel and Elizabeth divorced. Ironically, that painful episode coincided with his most critical breakthrough, The Nylon Curtain. It was a powerful album, described by Joel as containing “four songs about, respectively, unemployment. guilt. pressure, and war the four horsemen of the apocalyptic American landscape.”
After his Nylon Curtain tour ended, Joel took a vacation in the Caribbean, where his life turned another corner. One night while at the piano in the hotel, a beautiful woman sat down beside him. Her name was Christie Brinkley and their courtship inspired Joel’s next big commercial and critical hit album, An Innocent Man.
Articles about musicians that are mostly about the music they're best known for are very rewarding indeed.
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