Maybe you love him, maybe you hate him or maybe you just don’t care. I wouldn't mention him in the same breath as Bob Dylan or anything but there’s no denying the impact that Billy Joel has had on popular music during his career.
From a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island
Rode a boy with a six pack in his hand,
Excerpt from Billy Joel’s song The Ballad of Billy The Kid
Okay, he wasn’t originally from Oyster Bay, Long Island. In fact, he was born in none other than the Bronx, New York on May 9, 1949. It wasn’t long afterwards though that his parents packed up for greener pastures and moved the family to Levittown Long Island, a mecca for servicemen returning home from the war and at the time, the largest housing development in the country.
I guess music was in his blood because he started playing classical piano at the tender of age of four but that would all change once he saw The Beatles historic performance on the Ed Sullivan show. Like many kids his age, he turned his back on the classics and decided to pursue a future in rock and roll. By the time he turned fourteen, he founded his first band called “The Echoes”. He would later claim that his desire to play rock and roll was greatly influenced by his desire to meet girls.
Soon afterwards, Joel’s parents divorced and Billy was soon found paying professional gigs at the local clubs in order to make ends meet and to help support his family. The only trouble with that was that he was still in high school and the late night lifestyle caused him to miss too much time from school. So much time in fact that he wasn’t allowed to graduate.
Saturday night and you're still hangin' around
Tired of livin' in your one-horse town
Like to find a little hole in the ground
For a while
Excerpt From Billy Joel’s tune “Captain Jack”
By the time 1968 rolled around, Billy had landed a spot in a local Long Island band that went by the name of “The Hassles”. The band managed to record two albums but Joel felt restless and decided to form a heavy metal band called “Attila”. They managed to cut one record for Epic Records before calling it quits and Joel decided to strike out on his own in 1972.
Going solo in the record business must be a tough road to hoe. While he was recording his first album “Cold Spring Harbor”, Joel was forced to take many side jobs including rock critic, painter and doing work on television commercials.
At first, the album didn’t get much airplay but then a radio station in Philadelphia managed to get their hands on a live recording of “Captain Jack” and it became a huge hit on the East Coast. (For what it’s worth, I still to this day sometimes hear drunks botching the lyrics every now and then when last call comes around.) It’s too bad Joel didn’t stay around to enjoy its success. It seems he had gotten himself into some legal and financial troubles that made him pack his bags and head to the West Coast where he played in relative anonymity under the name of “Billy Martin".
Sing us a song, you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, were all in the mood for a melody
And youve got us feelin alright
Excerpt from Billy Joel’s classic song “Piano Man”
Record companies seem to have a way of sniffing out talent. As “Captain Jack” gained in popularity Columbia Records tracked Joel down in Los Angeles and offered him a recording deal. It was about a year later that his classic album “Piano Man” was released on topped the charts.
Fresh on the heels of his success, Joel recorded “Streetlife Serenade” in 1974. While the album itself didn’t sell as well as “Piano Man” it marked Joel’s first shot at his critics. In the song “The Entertainer” Joel laments having to trim down the scope of his songs to three minutes or so in order to garner much needed airplay. Still, he embarked on a tour that brought him back to New York city and sold out performances at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.
I've seen the lights go out on Broadway-
I saw the ruins at my feet,
You know we almost didn't notice it-
We'd see it all the time on Forty-Second Street.
Excerpt from Billy Joel’s song Miami 2017
Joel headed back home to his roots in New York City and recorded “Turnstiles”. The release of the album also coincided with his first major tour (108 dates) and he found himself playing in front of standing room only crowds. Not bad for what many people considered a lounge act”
Well we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and
When everyone has gone
Some are satin some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They're the faces of the stranger
But we love to try them on
Excerpt from Billy Joel’s tour de force “The Stranger”
By the time 1977 rolled around, Joel was back in the studio recording what was to become his best and largest selling album to date. It was called “The Stranger” and from the time it was released in 1977 up until 1985 it was the biggest selling album in Columbia Records history. Not bad for a guy who didn’t even graduate high school.
Some folks like to get away
Take a holiday from the neighborhood
Hop a flight to Miami Beach
Or to Hollywood
But I'm taking a Greyhound
On the Hudson River Line
I'm in a New York state of mind
Excerpt from Billy Joel’s tune “New York State Of Mind”
In 1978, Joel was in creative frenzy. He released “52nd Street” and it was his first album that climbed all the way to the top of the charts. In a bit of trivia, 52nd Street also has the distinction of being the first album to ever be released on compact disc in 1980
Although the coming years would see Billy Joel continue his success, none of his future releases quite grabbed my attention the way his earlier works did. Sure, there were some great songs he wrote and sang but after 1980 or so it all began to sound too bubble gum for me. That’s not to say I don’t admire his work or his choice in women but somehow his star seemed to fade after I heard “Uptown Girl”. At least it did in my eye.
Oh, one last thing, Joel’s old high school finally awarded him an honorary diploma back in 1992. I guess he has it hanging on his wall alongside the other five honorary doctorates he’s received up to now.