Billy Joel: All About the Piano Man

It's likely that you've heard a Billy Joel song before - whether you know it or not. Having achieved 33 Top 40 hits between the 1970s and the 1990s, Joel's music is widespread - across time and across the world. Of course, it didn't start out that way.

Early Music Career

Joel was born the son of a concert pianist, and reluctantly began lessons at an early age. However, after his parents' divorce, he began working playing piano in a local bar to try and help support his mother, who was left with him and his two siblings after his father moved to Austria. This eventually kept him from getting his high school diploma - at least on time with the rest of his class.

It did, however, give him the opportunity to begin a music career.

Joel’s first official musical experience came with a so-called “British Invasion” cover band in 1965. From there on, that band went through several style and name changes. He left the band in 1967 to join a band called The Hassles who released four singles and two albums over two years. In 1969, Joel once again left the band and this time formed a duo with former Hassles drummer Jon Small who released only a debut album in 1970 before they broke up due to Joel having affair with Small’s wife, eventually marrying her himself.

It wasn’t until 1971, however, that Joel began what he is known for today: his solo career.

Solo Career Throughout the Years

Joel has released thirteen full albums to date, not including his Greatest Hits volumes, which hold the spot of third best-selling album by discs shipped.

His first album, however, wasn’t so well-done. Cold Spring Harbor had been mastered incorrectly, and was a musical and technical nightmare. Joel surpassed this trouble by having his live shows recorded so that proper versions of the songs were distributed. For the next few albums, though, he had to carry the name of his first contract to fulfil deals although he had moved to Columbia Records.

The next album after Cold Spring Harbor is Piano Man, arguably Joel’s most famous work. The title track was based off of his experiences working in a piano bar, and was made his concert-closer, signature track. Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles were two other albums recorded during his early years at Columbia; although not as well-known as Piano Man.

Joel was then introduced to the man who would become his producer through 1986, Phil Ramone. Their first record together, The Stranger, went multi-platinum and hit number two on the charts, most significantly beating out Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. The last album he would release in the 1970s was 52nd Street, which was known more for its’ singles than the album itself, as with much of Joel’s work.

His first album to be released in the 1980s was a stark contrast to his previous style. Due to being piano-driven, his music was often criticized for being soft. Therefore, Glass Houses, was released. Following that, Joel produced a composition live-album of some of his lesser known and earlier works, entitled Songs in the Attic. The next part of his career took off with another type of style change – this time back a little toward his earlier, softer roots with the release of The Nylon Curtain. However the music itself may have been lighter, the themes were not, generally dealing with dark political and social issues of the time.

Next, Joel released An Innocent Man, which was one of his works more known as an album itself. This had a much lighter style and theme in contrast to The Nylon Curtain. After An Innocent Man was released, Joel was urged to release his four-sided Greatest Hits album. Following that, Joel’s least-known and self-called worst album, The Bridge, was released.

One of the most unique albums Joel released was Концерт, Russian for concert. In the middle of the cold war, Joel took a leg of his Bridge tour to the Soviet Union. The decision was very controversial, and ended up being a financial loss for Joel. He was found to have said that it was well worth it for the cultural and historical experience.

Joel’s last two albums were released subsequently; Storm Front and River of Dreams. River of Dreams is Joel’s final, original, pop record, although two more compilations were released by Columbia in the 2000s and he released a classical piano album entitled Fantasies and Delusions, where all tracks were written by Joel and performed by Richard Joo.

Currently, although Joel hasn’t released new music since the 1990s, he is still actively touring and now has residence at Madison Square Garden, where the first several shows have been sold out.

Awards and Recognitions

Joel has been inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as the Long Island Hall of Fame. He received the Johnny Mercer Award in 2001 from the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Joel has also won six Grammys. Most notably, however, is that he has received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2013; the nation’s highest honor for influencing American culture through the arts.

Personal Life

Joel eventually divorced his ex-band mate’s wife, and was remarried to Christie Brinkley for a time after she appeared in his music video for the song Uptown Girl. They were divorced but remained friends. Joel has one child, Alexa Ray Joel, who is also a vocalist.

Throughout his life, Joel has publically struggled with depression and alcoholism, including a suicide attempt that led to the lyrics of the song "Tomorrow is Today" and eventually a song about preventing teen suicide entitled "You’re Only Human".

He was born to two Jewish parents but currently claims no religious or political affiliations. Twenty-five years after he should’ve graduated, Billy Joel wrote a series of essays to the school board where he attended high school and was given a diploma at that year’s graduation. He has since earned six honorary doctorates from varying universities on a variety of subjects.

Although it wasn’t an easy road, and he continues to struggle today, Billy Joel is recognized as one of the most influential and successful musicians today, from his original songwriting to classical and pop piano skills.

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