As previously noted, while I’ve listened to Billy Joel on and off for more than 40 years and occasionally included him or one of his songs in some previous pieces, I had not dedicated a post to him. After more than five years of writing this blog, it’s about time to change that. It was all seeded by this recent post from fellow blogger Graham at Aphoristic Album Reviews. In turn, this led me to include the piano man in that post, which then triggered the idea to do this profile and playlist.
Billy Joel was born William Martin Joel on May 9, 1949 in The Bronx, New York, and grew up on Long Island where he has one of his residences to this day. Ironically, Joel wasn’t into the piano initially and only took it up reluctantly after his mother insisted. To be fair, he was only four years old at the time. During his teenage years, Joel got into boxing but decided to stop after he had suffered a broken nose in his 24th boxing match.
While attending high school, Joel was playing piano at a bar to help support himself, as well as his mother and his sister. His parents had divorced when he was eight years old. When he found himself with an insufficient amount of credits to graduate, he decided to forgo his high school diploma. After he had seen The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, Joel knew he wasn’t going to Columbia University but to Columbia Records, according to the 2006 biography Billy Joel: The Life and Times of an Angry Young Man, by Hank Bordowitz.
In 1965, Joel joined British Invasion cover band The Echoes and played on some of their recordings. By the time he left the group in 1967, they had gone through a couple of name changes and were called Lost Souls. Joel’s new band, The Hassles, had a deal with United Artists Records, and over the next two years released two albums and a few singles, none of which were commercially successful.
In 1969, Joel and Lost Souls’ drummer Jon Small departed, formed the duo Attila and released an eponymous debut album in July 1970. Things unraveled after Joel had started an affair with Small’s wife Elizabeth Weber Small who eventually became Joel’s first wife in 1973 and manager. Making music and getting into relationships oftentimes don’t mix well!
Joel subsequently signed with Family Productions and launched his solo career with the album Cold Spring Harbor, which appeared in November 1971. It was the first of 12 pop albums Joel released between 1971 and 1993. In September 2001, Joel came out with a classical music album, Fantasies & Delusions, his last to date and I guess by now we can safely assume is his final release of original music.
This shall suffice for background. Let’s get to some music. Following, I’ll highlight six songs that are included in a Spotify playlist, together with some additional tunes. Here’s She’s Got a Way, a sweet love song that most likely is about Joel’s above-mentioned wife Elizabeth.
In October 1974, Joel released his third studio album Streetlife Serenade. In The Entertainer, he gets cynical about the music business and being subject to changing public taste where one day an artist is in only to find themselves out the next day.
After a series of only marginally successful records, Joel scored his breakthrough in September 1977 with the release of his fifth studio album The Stranger. It was the first of four records produced by Phil Ramone who worked with the likes of Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon. Here’s Only the Good Die Young. Wikipedia notes the song’s lyrics about a young man’s determination to have premarital sex with a Catholic girl stirred controversy. Pressure from religious groups to have the tune banned from radio stations turned a relatively obscure single into a highly demanded tune overnight and a top 30 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
Joel followed up his breakthrough album The Stranger with 52nd Street in October 1978, his first of four records to reach the top of the Billboard 200. It also earned him two Grammys. Here’s the catchy uptempo song My Life, which became the lead single. Reaching no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, it also was one of Joel’s highest-charting songs at the time.
If you’d ask me to name my favorite Billy Joel album, I’d go with The Nylon Curtain from September 1982. Joel’s eighth studio album isn’t among the four previously mentioned no. 1 records, though it did pretty well, reaching no. 7 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200. The opener Allentown, about the plight of American steelworkers following Bethlehem Steel’s decline and eventual closure, is one of my favorite Joel songs.
The last tune I’d like to highlight is from Joel’s most recent and likely final pop album River of Dreams, released in August 1993. At that time, I was a grad student, on Long Island of all places, and frequently listened to the album’s title track on the radio. I also got the record on CD when it was released. The song became Joel’s biggest hit of the ’80s, reaching no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, his last top 10 single. I’ve always loved the tune’s combination of pop and gospel elements.
Here’s the above-mentioned Spotify playlist, which includes the previously featured songs, as well as additional tunes from each of Joel’s 12 pop albums.
Billy Joel is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, with over 160 million records sold worldwide. During his 22-year pop recording career, he had 33 top 40 hits in the U.S., including three that topped the Billboard Hot 100. Joel was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1992), Rock and Rock Hall of Fame (1999) and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame (2006). Frankly, I had no idea the latter existed – always nice to learn something new when putting together posts.
While the above accomplishments are very impressive, what I find most amazing is that the piano man continues to sell out one show after the other as part of his monthly residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden. That’s about 20,000 tickets each time. And all of that despite not having released any new pop music in close to 30 years!
Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify