Billy Joel. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that there’s probably at least one song of his that you’ve hummed to yourself at one point in your life. For some reason, it’s often been “cool” in various rock circles to dislike the guy. His naysayers will state that he’s just fluff, that he tries to hard to be rock when he’s really just pop, etc. It hardly makes sense, considering the fact that Joel has touched on so many styles throughout his career and often making them his own. Never content to make the same album twice, Billy has always challenged himself as well as his audience to come along for the ride through his own personal tastes.
Growing up in New York as a classically trained pianist who had a taste for rock and roll, Joel became a member of such local groups as the Echoes and the Hassles. By 1970, he had formed a duo called Attila with himself on an over-amped organ and Jon Small on drums. The “band” released one self-titled album before calling it quits. Shortly thereafter, Billy found himself penning commercial jingles and finally signing on with Family Productions to record his debut album, Cold Spring Harbor, which was botched in the mastering process, leaving Joel’s voice to sound sped up.
Trying to get out of his poor relationship with Family Productions, Joel headed for California to wait it out. He became Bill Martin and started playing local piano bars. When a tape of his song “Captain Jack” surfaced on Philadelphia’s WMMR, execs from Columbia Records trotted off to sign Billy. With a new deal in place, Joel issued two albums, Piano Man and Streetlife Serenade, both recorded in California, with fair results. However, Billy wasn’t satisfied with the results and decided to head back to New York, assemble his own band, and make his music the way he wanted to. Turnstiles was the first result and included such staples as “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” and “New York State of Mind.”
Joel then hooked up with producer Phil Ramone and hit the big time. The series of albums they made, beginning with 1977’s The Stranger, would finally put Joel on the map and pave his way to superstardom. In 1980 he released Glass Houses, an attempt to shatter his image as a soft balladeer. It was a great work, but the critics started to deride Billy for his intentions, stating the album wasn’t very tough at all. Billy just kept going though, and issued his masterpiece The Nylon Curtain in 1982, scoring praise from the very same critics. Around the same time, he had wound up divorcing his first wife Elizabeth and met model Christie Brinkley, who in turn inspired the hugely successful album An Innocent Man, a nostalgic look back to Joel’s love of ‘50s and early ‘60s music. And the hits just kept coming.
However, Joel soon discovered that many of his assets had been taken by his management. With legal woes brewing, Billy examined the situation in his song “Getting Closer” on 1986’s The Bridge. After completing a hugely popular tour of Russia in 1987, Joel released Storm Front in 1989, which was a giant success thanks to such singles as “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “I Go to Extremes.” In 1993, River of Dreams was issued. It was another big hit for Billy, but his personal life was once again soured with an eventual divorce from Brinkley and more discoveries that his personal assets were being pilfered.
Since then, Joel has stopped making pop music, choosing instead to work on classical-based pieces. His first effort into this style, Fantasies and Delusions, sold respectably, though nowhere near that of his pop song titles. In 1999, Billy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. More recently, Twyla Tharp approached Joel about using his songs for a musical. Billy agreed to the project and the resulting show, Movin’ Out has been a huge success. Even if he chooses not to record another rock song in his life, Joel continues to tour, not quite ready to give it all up just yet. His shows continue to draw sold out crowds and offer proof that Billy is still as popular as ever, critics be damned.
Billy on the Web
TV Guide: Billy Joel
Billy Joel Videos, Interviews and More on TV Guide's Online Video Guide
Billy’s official site online.
A huge site for the fans, with message boards, media, and more.
From the Mouth of Billy
“I think that music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.”
On giving up the pop song form:
“Part of me is afraid to let go of this other thing, which was so hugely successful. But on the other hand, I have to move ahead, or else my feet are stuck in the cement. I feel like I’m capable of writing other kinds of music, and I’m at a transitional time in my life.”
“There’s nothing better than good sex. But bad sex? A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is better than bad sex.”
On his own chops:
“I am, as I’ve said, merely competent. But in an age of incompetence, that makes me extraordinary.”