Billy Joel - Biography

By Marcus Kagler

The city of Asbury Park may lay claim to Bruce Springsteen, but Billy Joel arguably belongs to the entire city of New York. During his heyday in the 70’s and 80’s, Joel effortlessly distilled the Big Apple’s distinct musical elements of Broadway grandiosity, intimate piano bar ballads, Tin Pan Alley ditties, and 50’s rockabilly into his own brand of pop rock anthems. Yet what ultimately endeared Billy Joel to the hearts of New Yorkers of all ages is his unflagging status as the city’s working class hero. Despite the fact that Billy Joel has sold over 150 million albums, his signature sound has remained almost stubbornly blue collar in its sincerity and lack of sophistication. This can arguably be attributed to Joel’s official retirement from recording pop music in 1993, leaving his catalog almost pristinely untainted from any late period embarrassments. Although his career may have taken on an aura of golden nostalgia in recent years, Billy Joel’s heyday throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s was nearly as problematic as it was successful. Multi-million dollar lawsuits, alcohol abuse, a high-profile divorce, and an 8 year gap between albums, have all threatened to topple Joel from his hard-won pedestal of success. Yet Billy Joel keeps bouncing back whether it’s with wildly successful golden oldies tours, his own Broadway show, or a top selling album of classical compositions. After nearly 40 years, Billy Joel has earned his position as New York’s most adored piano man.


            Billy Joel was born on May 9, 1949 in Bronx, New York but grew up in the nearby suburbs on Long Island. Joel learned to play the piano as a child but abandoned music for a short time in his teens to pursue life as a welterweight boxer and street gang tough. After 22 welterweight fights and a broken nose, Joel returned to music after watching The Beatles play the Ed Sullivan show on television in 1964. After joining The Echoes, a British invasion cover band, Joel also began recording studio sessions even making on appearance on the Shangri-La’s hit “Leader of the Pack”. The Echoes soon became popular on the New York rock scene but Joel subsequently left the band to join The Hassles, who released two overlooked albums before breaking up in 1969. Joel soldiered on and formed Attila with former Hassles drummer Jon Small. Characterized by a thick psychedelic rock sound, Attila only released one (notoriously awful) self-titled album, Attila (1970 Back-Trac), before breaking up after Joel ran off with Small’s wife, Elizabeth. Decades later, Joel described Attila as “psychedelic bullshit”, yet the album’s cover featuring Joel and Small dressed as barbarians in a meat locker has gone down in history as a cult classic. The utter failure of Attila sent Joel into a spiraling depression, with Joel drinking an entire bottle of furniture polish in a botched suicide attempt by late 1970. After undergoing psychiatric treatment Joel returned to music, this time taking on the persona of a piano balladeer, signing a lifelong contract with the small Family Productions label in 1971, a mistake that would become a financial thorn in Joel’s side nearly a decade later. Cold Spring Harbor (1971 Columbia) kicked off Joel’s solo career to a less than stellar start. Due to a mastering mistake the album played at a few speeds too fast and Cold Spring Harbor went belly up almost as soon as it was released. Undaunted, Joel subsequently embarked on a small yet moderately successful tour, often performing standup comedy as a part of his act.


            Joel, along with his then girlfriend Elizabeth, relocated to Los Angeles in the winter 1972 where the struggling musician took a job performing lounge standards at a nightclub called The Executive Room. After a national club tour Joel married Elizabeth in 1973 and found himself with a moderate hit when a live version of his original song, “Captain Jack,” recorded at a Philadelphia gig, began receiving radio play. Joel subsequently signed to Columbia Records later that year, completing his sophomore full length in just a few weeks.  Piano Man (1973 Columbia) enjoyed moderate chart success, although the first single, “Piano Man”, based on his experiences playing bars and nightclubs, was a Top 40 hit that put Joel on the mainstream map.


            The muddled ragtime meets synth pop follow up, Streetlife Serenade (1974 Columbia) wasn’t as successful and Joel relocated back to New York before recording his fourth album. Largely influenced by his return to the east coast, the sessions for Turnstiles (1976 Columbia) were fraught with creative tensions that resulted in Joel firing his producer/manager, James William Guercio, and hiring his wife as his manager (another decision that would come back to haunt him). Although the album featured the enduring Joel classics “New York State of Mind” and “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”, Turnstiles was a commercial flop that nearly ended Joel’s career with Columbia. In desperate need of a hit, Joel turned to producer Phil Ramone (of Simon & Garfunkel fame) to helm the sessions for his next album. Ramone convinced Joel to streamline his eclectic sound into something more immediate and radio friendly. Featuring the barnstorming rocker, “Only the Good Die Young”, the elegant blue-eyed soul ballad, “Just the Way You Are”, Joel’s ultimate ode to New York, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”, and the heart-on-sleeve ballad “She’s Always a Woman”, The Stranger (Columbia) was an instant classic upon release in the fall of 1977. Largely considered the quintessential Billy Joel release, The Stranger launched the obscure piano man into international stardom overnight, peaking at #2 on the pop charts with “Just the Way You Are” garnering Grammy wins for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.


            The follow up record, 52nd Street (1978 Columbia) threw a modern jazz influence into the mix and became even more successful than its predecessor, going double platinum in a month, debuting at #1 on the pop charts, and spawning the Top 40 hits “My Life”, “Big Shot”, and “Honesty”, with Joel winning another Grammy for Album of the Year. By the late 70’s, Joel was a legitimate superstar but the musical landscape was changing rapidly toward a harder rock sound, forcing Joel to evolve with the trends of the times. Glass Houses (1980 Columbia) exchanged the soft piano balladeering for a traditional rock edge as heard on the #1 single, “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me” and subsequent hits like the Beatles-esque “Don’t Ask Me Why” and the New Wave inspired, “Sometimes a Fantasy”. Glass House went on to win Joel another Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male. Surprisingly, Joel’s first live album, Songs in the Attic (1981 Columbia) also became a hit even though it only featured live renditions of material from his little known pre-Stranger era. Nonetheless, the album spawned more Top 40 hit singles with “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” and “She’s Got a Way”, songs initially recorded and composed nearly a decade prior. Joel spent the majority of 1981 writing and recording his eighth full length album but the sessions were brought to a halt after he broke his wrist in a motorcycle accident, with Joel’s subsequent divorce from Elizabeth later that year also taking its toll. As a loose concept album about the everyday life of baby boomers in the 80’s, The Nylon Curtain (1982 Columbia) was meant to be Billy Joel’s grand artistic statement. Instead the album was a massive commercial flop barely selling a million copies even though it was Joel’s most artistically ambitious album up to that point, spawning the Top 20 singles “Pressure” and “Allentown”.


            After spending a year meticulously crafting his biggest commercial failure, Billy Joel went back to the drawing board and quickly recorded an album based on the 1950’s golden oldies he grew up listening to. Packed with up tempo nods toward rockabilly and Motown vocal harmonies, An Innocent Man (1983 Columbia) was an instant mega-hit spawning four more Top 20 singles with “Uptown Girl”, “Tell Her About It”, “Keeping the Faith”, and “An Innocent Man”, eventually going platinum seven times over. By this point Joel was engaged to 80’s super model Kristy Brinkley, with many of An Innocent Man’s tracks based on their relationship. Brinkley’s presence in the popular music video for “Uptown Girl” also marked the beginning of Joel’s successful relationship with MTV, which was still a relatively new medium at the time. As two superstars of their era, Joel and Brinkley’s wedding in 1985 created a tabloid frenzy that only escalated throughout their rocky marriage. The double disc greatest hits compilation, Greatest Hits, Vols. 1 & 2 (1985 Columbia) was another multi-platinum success, selling well over 10 million copies and adding two more Top 40 hits with the additional new songs, “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” and “The Night Is Still Young”. Joel kept the hits rolling with the guest star studded, The Bridge (1986 Columbia), featuring contributions by Sting, Ray Charles, and Cindi Lauper, eventually going double platinum on the strength of singles like “A Matter Trust”, “This Is the Time”, and “Big Man on Mulberry Street”.


            Joel made more headlines during his landmark tour of the U.S.S.R. in early 1987 when he tossed his piano off stage in a fit of frustration over technical difficulties. Nonetheless, the tour was a resounding success with a Leningrad performance immortalized as the live album, Kohuept (1987 Columbia). After conducting a routine audit of his finances in early1989, Joel discovered his manager, Frank Weber (also his former wife’s brother), had defrauded the artist of millions of dollars leaving Joel in near financial ruin. Joel sued his now former manager for $90 million dollars before being hospitalized for kidney stones. After his manager’s dismissal, Joel decided it was time to turn a new leaf and also sacked his long time band and producer Phil Ramone, and hired former Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones as producer of his next album. The dour self-righteous Storm Front (1989 Columbia) marked Joel’s entry into more intellectualized middle aged material, and although the album was another multi-platinum success spawning the classic history-lesson-as-pop song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, fans lamented Joel’s fun loving side. In mid-1991, Joel was awarded the Grammy Living Legend award along with Johnny Cash, Quincy Jones, and Aretha Franklin.


            After taking most of 1992 off, Joel returned with what would ultimately become his final pop album. River of Dreams (1993 Columbia) continued to mine the self-conscious over intellectualized material of Storm Front but was a moderate success on the strength of the gospel tinged first single, “River of Dreams”. Shortly after the River of Dreams tour Joel and Brinkley ended their marriage in a highly publicized divorce and Joel subsequently announced his semi-retirement from composing pop music, although he continued to sporadically tour. It would be 14 years before Joel released another pop song with lyrics. Joel briefly re-emerged 7 years later for the live millennial New Years Eve album, 2000 Years: The Millennium Concert (2000 Columbia) before performing a moving rendition of “New York State of Mind” on September 21, 2001 as part of the megastar 911 telethon, America: A Tribute to Heroes (2001 Interscope).  Joel’s first album of original material in nearly a decade, Fantasies & Delusions (2001 Sony) was a double disc set of classical compositions performed by Richard Joo, debuting at #1 on the classical charts. Joel made his Broadway debut the following year with the Twyla Tharp directed Movin’ Out, featuring many of Joel’s signature pop songs from the 70’s and 80’s. Joel again made headlines in 2004 by marrying his third wife, Katie Lee, a woman 31 years his junior. Things took a turn for the worse the following year when Joel checked into the Betty Ford Clinic for alcohol abuse. In subsequent years, Joel has toured extensively with fellow 70’s pop icon Elton John before embarking on a mammoth worldwide solo tour, which included a record breaking twelve night stint at New York’s Madison Square Garden, later immortalized in the live album, 12 Gardens Live (2006 Columbia). The following year Joel released the one off single, “All My Life”, his first publically released pop song since 1993. The original holiday song, “Christmas in Fallujah”, performed by singer/songwriter Cass Dillon but composed by Joel, appeared in December of 2007.




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