Billy Joel

Billy Joel

Synopsis of Pop Music

“Sing us a song, you're the piano man…”

A rock superstar through the late 70’s and 80’s and a presence still, Billy Joel is an artist with a lot more than a superb catalog of albums going for him—he’s also a man of vanguard international performances, numerous charitable endeavors, tabloid marriages and many, many lawsuits.

A broken nose and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan…these are the things we can thank for Joel’s stage ambition. Raised in the unfortunately named suburb of Hicksville, Long Island, Joel played piano as a child and then split his attention between tickling the ivories and his newest passion, boxing. But inspired by the Beatles, he assembled a band called the Echoes at the ripe old age of fourteen, a band which mainly covered U.K. hits. The aforementioned nose mishap and the promise of rock and roll glory persuaded him to retire his boxing gloves. Just before graduation, he quit high school to pursue that glory and paid the bills by playing piano in recording sessions for other artists—the Shangri-La's among them, on their very catchy “Leader of the Pack.”

After the Echoes (and its several name changes) came the Long Island band, the Hassles. Joel signed a contract with United Artists, and the band released two albums. When the Hassles became just that, and his longtime girlfriend dumped him, Joel fell into a deep depression. He even checked himself into a hospital psych ward for observation, but left after three weeks after realizing the ward was no place for him. When he emerged, he formed the heavy metal group Attila with drummer friend Jon Small. From this outing, Joel gleaned one failed album and a burgeoning romantic relationship with Small’s soon-to-be ex-wife Elizabeth. To pay the bills, he worked as a rock critic and as a pianist for commercial jingles.

Back in the music saddle by 1971, Joel signed with Ripp Productions—and not looking too closely at the fine print, he inadvertently signed for life. His debut solo album was Cold Spring Harbor, which was released, in all its unintentionally sped-up, sloppily mastered anti-glory, in November.

In 1972, saddened by the failure of his debut and all the potential royalties he had signed away, Joel moved to Los Angeles and spent time playing in local piano lounges under a pseudonym (and gathering the life experience for “Piano Man” lyrics) while his girlfriend and soon-to-be wife enrolled at UCLA’s business school. Back east, a radio version of “Captain Jack” was gaining attention on the airwaves in the meantime, and eventually Columbia’s Clive Davis chased Joel down in California and singed him up. With Ripp Productions, incidentally, getting a quarter for every record sold.

Piano Man was released in 1973, and Joel hit the concert circuit, opening for acts like the J. Geils Band, the Doobie Brothers and the Beach Boys. He hired new managers and moved back to New York in 1975—a coming-home that inspired the writing of “New York State of Mind” in just minutes. The new album Turnstiles, however, was no walk in the park to make, and he fired his managers after its release. Phil Ramone produced 1997’s The Stranger, which offered up “Just the Way You Are” (covered later by Barry White, by the way), “She’s Always a Woman,” “Only the Good Die Young” (roundly criticized by Roman Catholic church figures, also by the way) and “Movin’ Out.” 52nd Street was next, with its “My Life,” “Big Shot” and “Honesty.” Then “You May Be Right,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “Don’t Ask Me Why” and “Sometimes a Fantasy” from his 1980 Glass Houses. Three consecutive albums, eleven consecutive hits.

The live album Songs in the Attic was fed to his hungry record buying fans in 1981, and Joel used the time to work diligently on The Nylon Curtain…even though formidable distractions abound. He badly injured his wrist in a motorcycle accident, and divorced wife Elizabeth. Curtain was an homage to his baby-boomer generation and the once-ebullient American experience that had lately turned grim. His next record, An Innocent Man, was also a tribute—but a more cheerful one—to the oldies music of his youth. In 1985, Joel married model Christie Brinkley, who appeared in several of his videos thereafter.

Joel performed in the U.S.S.R. in 1987—a memorable showing because he was the first U.S. musical act to go behind the Iron Curtain, and also because he dramatically pushed a piano off-stage mid-show. Maybe he's allergic to vodka. In 1989, he brought suit against former brother-in-law and accountant, Frank Weber, for fraud. Producer Phil Ramone was fired, and Foreigner’s Mick Jones was brought aboard. Joel’s twelfth studio album Storm Front was released—its first single, the historic-event rattle-off “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” On the accompanying tour, significantly, he played in Berlin the day after the German Reunification and at Yankee Stadium, for that arena’s first-ever rock show.

In terms of tours and albums, the early 90’s were generally quiet. Of course, there were things brewing on the personal front. Joel received an honorary degree from Fairfield University in Connecticut, he brought a gigantic malpractice lawsuit against his former lawyer, and he amicably divorced Brinkley. At the end of his 1997 album River of Dreams, incidentally, there is a song titled “Famous Last Words,” in which Joel bid adieu to rock and roll. The word from him at the time was, he would continue to perform and record songs written by other artists, but that his new focus was in the composition of classical tunes. In ’98, he toured with Elton John, but had to cut things short when he came down with a severe upper respiratory infection. To tie up the century that, all things considered, had treated Billy Joel very benevolently indeed, Joel performed at a sold out Madison Square Garden in New York City, still the piano man after all these years.

Artist Release History

1972 – Cold Spring Harbor
1973 – Piano Man
1976 – Turnstiles
1977 – The Stranger
1978 – 52nd Street
1980 – Glass Houses
1981 – Songs in the Attic
1982 – The Nylon Curtain
1983 – An Innocent Man
1986 – The Bridge
1987 – Kohuept
1989 – Storm Front
1993 – River of Dreams
1998 – The Bridge/Storm Front

Pop Sub Categories


Essential Music Albums

Greatest Hits, Volumes I and II (Sony)

Band Members

Billy Joel   piano, vocals

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