My Playlist: Billy Joel

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.

Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden, New York, in 2014

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

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: February 15

Today in my recurring music history feature I’d like to take a look at select events that happened on February 15. And, as oftentimes is the case, it all starts with this band from Liverpool, England.

1965: The Beatles released Eight Days a Week as a single in the U.S., backed by I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party. The song had first appeared on the UK album Beatles for Sale that had come out on December 4, 1964. It was also included on the U.S. album Beatles VI released on June 14, 1965. According to Songfacts, most of the tune was written by Paul McCartney, though as usual, it was credited to John Lennon and him. Unlike the usual arrangement where whoever of the two wrote most of the song would sing lead, John ended up taking over lead vocals here. Songfacts also maintains Eight Days a Week was the first pop song that fades up from silence. The tune became the seventh no. 1 Beatles single on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Here’s a clip with footage around their legendary August 1965 performance at New York City’s Shea Stadium.

1969: Sly and the Family Stone hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with Everyday People, their first of three chart-topping hits on the U.S. mainstream chart. Written by Sly Stone, the song had first appeared as a single in November 1968. It was also included on the psychedelic soul and funk group’s fourth studio album Stand!, released in May 1969. Songfacts notes the tune is about how everyone is essentially the same, regardless of race or background, adding, Sly & the Family Stone was a mash-up of musical styles, with band members of different genders and ethnic backgrounds. It also states Billy Preston played keyboards on the recording.

1975: Linda Ronstadt reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with You’re No Good. While between 1967 and 2006 she scored 20 top 40 hits on the U.S. mainstream chart, You’re No Good was her only no. 1. Written by Clint Ballard Jr., the tune was first recorded and released in 1963 by American soul singer Dee Dee Warwick, the sister of Dionne Warwick. You’re No Good has been covered by numerous other very different artists like The Swinging Blue Jeans, Elvis Costello, Ike & Tina Turner and Van Halen. Remarkably, You’re No Good’s chart-topping position coincided with Heart Like a Wheel, the album on which the tune appeared, hitting no. 1 on the Billboard 200. It became the first of three no. 1 records for Ronstadt on that chart.

1979: The Bee Gees ruled the 21st Annual Grammy Awards held in Los Angeles. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack won Album of the Year, and the Bee Gees won Best Vocal Pop Performance by a Duo or Group for Saturday Night Fever and Best Arrangement for Voices for Stayin’ Alive. Billy Joel and Donna Summer had a good night as well. The piano man scored Record of the Year and Song of the Year for Just the Way You Are. The tune is from Joel’s fifth studio album The Stranger that came out in September 1977 and also appeared separately as a single at that time. Summer won two Grammys for Last Dance: Best R&B Vocal and Best R&B Song.

1980: Elvis Costello released his fourth studio album Get Happy!!, the third with his backing band The Attractions. Wikipedia notes the record marked “a dramatic break in tone from Costello’s three previous albums, and for being heavily influenced by┬áR&B, ska and soul music.” Apparently, that change didn’t have much of an impact on the record’s chart performance. Like predecessor Armed Forces it reached no. 2 in the UK on the Official Albums Chart, while in the U.S. it climbed to no. 11 on the Billboard 200, just a notch below no. 10 for Armed Forces. Get Happy!! was ranked at no. 11 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the Eighties, published in November 1989. Here’s I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down. Co-written by Homer Banks and Allen Jones, the tune was first recorded in 1967 by soul duo Sam & Dave.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Songfacts; Songfacts Music History Calendar; This Day in Music; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

I can’t believe it’s already been another week since the last Best of What’s New and that we’re at the end of July. This installment of my recurring new music feature includes an English goth punk-influenced rock group, a South African-turned-U.S. post grunge band, as well as an Americana singer-songwriter and a British retro soul artist who are both based in Nashville. All songs appeared on releases that came out yesterday (July 30).

Creeper/Midnight

Creeper are an English rock band from Southampton. Apple Music describes them as a versatile English goth-punk unit that draws inspiration from a deep well of post-punk, emo, and glam rock…Creeper was founded in 2014 by vocalist Will Gould, guitarists Ian Miles and Oliver Burdett, bassist Sean Scott, drummer Dan Bratton, and keyboardist Hannah Greenwood. They issued their eponymous debut EP shortly after formation, and in 2015 they inked a deal with Roadrunner Records and put out a second EP, The Callous Heart…A third EP, The Stranger, dropped the following year, and in 2017, Creeper unleashed their full-length debut, the well-received Eternity, In Your Arms. After seemingly announcing their breakup in 2018, the band unexpectedly returned a year later. In 2020 they unleashed their second album, the grandiosely titled Sex, Death & The Infinite Void. Yesterday, Creeper’s fourth EP American Noir appeared. Here’s Midnight, a melodic rocker co-written by Greenwood, Miles and Gould.

Parker McCollum/Wait Outside

Next up is Parker McCollum, a Nashville-based Americana singer-songwriter. While growing up in the Houston area, McCollum listened to artists like Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. At age 13, he started playing the guitar and began writing his own songs. When he was 16, McCollum was performing at local venues. After his high school graduation, he moved to Austin. While starting to attend college there, he continued to perform. In June 2013, McCollum released his debut single Highway. His debut album Limestone Kid followed in February 2015. In June 2019, he signed with MCA Nashville. That label just issued his third and new album Gold Chain Cowboy. Here’s the opener Wait Outside co-written by him, Randy Rogers and producer Jon Randall – great sound and check out that slide guitar!

Yola/Barely Alive

British singer-songwriter Yola, born Yolanda Quartey, first entered my radar screen last October when I included her then-latest single Hold On in a previous Best of What’s New installment. Her powerful voice immediately grabbed my attention and subsequently led to the review of her compelling first full-length solo album Walk Through Fire from February 2019. Following a tough childhood characterized by poverty, and a period during which she was homeless, Yola managed to establish herself as a session singer in England. In 2005, she co-founded country-soul band Phantom Limb and recorded two studio albums and a live record with them. After the group dissolved and a hiatus, Yola launched her solo career and released a well received debut solo EP, Orphan Offering. Eventually, she came to the U.S. and met Dan Auerbach who produced her above noted first full length album. Barely Alive is the opener of Yola’s new sophomore release Stand For Myself that was produced by Auerbach as well. Together with Joy Oladokun, he also co-wrote the tune with her. If you’re new to Yola and like retro ’70s style soul, check her out. I can hear a bit of Roberta Flack in her voice.

Seether/Wasteland

Seether are a post-grunge rock band founded as Saron Gas in Pretoria, South Africa in 1999. Their debut album Fragile came out in October 2000 on Johannesburg-based independent label Musketeer Records. After it came to the attention of American label Wind-up Records, they signed them, and the band relocated to the U.S. Due to the similarity to sarin gas, they were told to change their name, so they decided to call themselves Seether, after the song by American alternative rock band Veruca Salt, one of their influences. Another one is Nirvana. Their first U.S. album Disclaimer was released in August 2002. Seven additional albums and six EPs have since appeared, including their new EP Wasteland-The Purgatory. Seether’s current line-up includes original member Shaun Morgan (lead vocals, guitar, piano), together with Corey Lowery (lead guitar, backing vocals), Dale Stewart (bass, guitar, backing vocals) and John Humphrey (drums, percussion). Here’s Wasteland written by Morgan.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube