Singer, songwriter, pianist
"My music is a synthesis of all the music that I like," said Billy Joel on the occasion of the release of his 15th album, River of Dreams, In 1993. "I mix all kinds of things: classical, Broadway, rock'nroll, blues, jazz, whatever's out there... I live in a stylistic no man's land. I've always believed that the beauty of American music was its ability to transcend and cross lines." Indeed, with a career spanning more than two decades, Joel has proven his musical range to his loyal audience with a diverse collection of pop and rock hits that have become American standards. Perhaps best known for his soulful ballads, the multiplatinum-selling, Grammy-winning singer/songwriter rose to mega-stardom during the 1970s and 1980s, and continued his successes into the 1990s. His albums have been among those decade's biggest sellers: singles like "Piano Man," "Just the Way You Are," "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," "An Innocent Man," and "We Didn't Start the Fire" have garnered much commercial and critical acclaim.
Joel's place in American pop history was assured with the 1993 release of River of Dreams. "If Bruce Springsteen is the Jersey shore," wrote Richard Corliss in a review of the disc for Time, "Billy is Long Island, where the working class that fled Brooklyn stares stilettos at the moneyed folk who summer in the Hamptons." Although Corliss described Joel as "the last, finest heir to the songwriter tradition of soulful '60s pop," the singer's ability to adapt to changing musical tastes while simultaneously maintaining his individuality has contributed to his longevity in the fickle music industry.
Musical Training Began Early
William Martin Joel was born in 1949 and grew up in a comfortable Long Island suburb during the years following World War II. His German-born father, Howard Joel, who was imprisoned by the Nazis at Dachau during the war, moved to America after his release, to begin a new life in New York. That new life included adopting a new faith for his sonlthough Joel Sr. was Jewish, young Billy was raised in a predominately Catholic neighborhood and frequently attended mass and confession. One of Joel's future hits, "Only the Good Die Young," would feature lyrics about a Catholic girl's reluctance to engage in premarital sex.
Joel's father secured work as an engineer with General Electric while his mother, Rosalind, set to work raising Billy and his sister Judy. Both of Joel's parents provided early musical influences: his father was a classically trained, self-disciplined pianist, and his mother had once sung in the chorus for Gilbert and Sullivan. Billy began piano lessons at age four and continued until he was 14, though he disliked learning classical music, theory, and the endless hours of practice.
In 1957, Joel's parents divorced; his father returned to Europe, and his mother supported the family by becoming a secretary and bookkeeper. Joel's maternal grandfather, Philip Hyman, became the primary father figure in Joel's life. As a teenager, Joel began to explore his masculinity by skipping school, running with a less-than-tough street gang, and engaging in Bantam-weight boxing. Though he scored well on tests, his teachers refused to graduate him from high school due to his many absences. It was also during these years that Joel discovered the power of music.
Soul and Pop Stars Influenced Style
In 1962, Joel saw a live performance for the first time when he went with friends to hear James Brown at Harlem's Apollo Theater. Other early influences included Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles. Joel was deeply affected by the British invasion, so much so that he modeled his own budding style after the Beatles' Paul McCartney. Ironically, Joel also admired the hard-rock, psychedelic sound of Jimi Hendrix.
In 1964, Joel joined his first band, the Echos (later known as the Lost Souls), on the organ and vocals and began composing simplistic songs. His fate as a musician was sealed after the band's first paid gig at a Hicksville church. A short-term recording contract with Mercury Records was offered later, but nothing came of the demo versions of two of Joel's songs recorded by the band.
In 1967, Joel and drummer Jonathan Small left the Lost Souls to join the Hassles, another Long Island pop band with more exposure. At age 18, Joel's career was officially launched, though just barely. The group recorded two albums for United Artists that elicited a lukewarm reception from fans, 1967's The Hassles and Hour of the Wolf released in 1969. Yearning for something better than the "bubble-gum" rock produced by the group, Joel and Small left in 1969 to form the duo Attila. They released one "incredibly loud" self-titled album on the Epic label in 1970 before disbanding.
Discouraged both by the failure of his first attempts as a professional musician and the end of a serious romantic relationship, Joel slid into a depression that included a half-hearted attempt at suicide. A very brief self-imposed stay at a psychiatric hospital convinced him that his problems were minor. As he told Debbie Geller and Tom Hibbert in their 1985 biography, Billy Joel, An Illustrated Biography, "I got out and the door closed behind me and I walked down the street and said, 'Oh, I'll never get that low again.' It was one of the best things I ever did, because I've never gotten to feel sorry for myself, no matter what's happened...." Joel's 1985 song, "You're Only Human," would focus on the problem of teen suicide.
Having decided that his future lay in writing songs for others, Joel began composing material for a demo album in 1971. He was soon signed to producer Artie Ripp's Family Productions, a Los Angeles label, and Joel moved to California to record his first solo album. Cold Spring Harbor, originally intended simply as a vehicle to showcase his songs, was released in 1972. The album was technically inferior due to problems during the mastering stage of production; Joel's voice was speeded up and sounded, in his words, "like a chipmunk." His association with Ripp would prove to be financially disastrous for the singer, who unfortunately signed away all publishing rights, copyrights, and royalties to his producer/manager for a period of 15 years. This deal reportedly cost millions to break later in Joel's career.
After a six-month tour to promote the ill-fated album, Joel married Elizabeth Weber, ex-wife of fellow Attila member Small. Weber would eventually manage her husband's career and become the model for many of his songs about women.
It was "Captain Jack," one of the songs Joel had performed live while on tour to promote Cold Spring Harbor, that indirectly gave him the break he needed. After hearing the song during Joel's set at the Mary Sol Rock Festival near San Juan, Puerto Rico, and later on East Coast FM radio stations, Columbia Records executive Clive Davis tracked Joel down, helped extricate him from his contract with Ripp, and signed him to the Columbia label.
"Piano Man" Hit Top 40
Joel's first Top 40 hit single, "Piano Man," the title track from his second album released in 1973, was based on his experiences in Wilshire Boulevard's Executive Lounge. The album also contained, appropriately, "Captain Jack," Joel's song about a rich young heroin addict. Because of its mellow, narrative style, "Piano Man" was immediately compared to Harry Chapin's "Cat's In the Cradle" and Don McLean's "American Pie." By the end of the year, Joel had been named Cash Box's best new male vocalist, and the album had been named record of the year by Stereo Review. Piano Man was eventually certified platinum. Indeed, the single would become so synonymous with the singer that Joel would select it as the final song at all of his concerts for the next 20 years.
In an interview for Entertainment Weekly's Linda Sanders, Joel reflected on his music. "I was surprised the title song [iano Man"] was a hit. In a way, that's the story of any hit record I've hadhey're all bizarre, strange, novelty numbers, and not particularly definitive of my work.... My problem is that people tend to define me in terms of my hits and may not know the substantive elements of my composition."
Joel began recording Street life Serenade, his follow-up to Piano Man, in the summer of 1974. With the exception of the single, "The Entertainer," the album was not a success. "Interesting musical ideas, but nothing to say lyrically," was how Joel explained the album's weaknesses in Entertainment Weekly. "I was trying to be Debussy in the title trackt didn't work." After three years on the West Coast and the letdown following dismal sales of his third album, Joel and his wife returned to their roots in New York.
With his creative juices flowing once again, Joel began working on what would be his next album, 1976's Turnstiles. This was the first album Joel produced himself using musicians of his choosing, rather than those hired by Columbia executives. Joel recruited drummer Liberty DeVitto, bass player Doug Stegmeyer, and tenor saxophonist Richie Cannata, three men who would remain with Joel's backing band for years. Although Turnstiles, like its predecessor, was not a spectacular seller, the album contained good material, including "New York State of Mind," a standard that would later be covered by Barbra Streisand.
The Stranger Became a Bestseller
Although Joel began to feel pressure from Columbia Records to record more than one album a year and to replicate his early success with Piano Man, he refused to produce formulaic music. Fortunately, he struck much-needed gold with his next album, The Stranger, released in 1977. Produced by Phil Ramone, the album was recorded during five weeks of enthusiastic studio sessions full of improvisations by Joel and his band.
In addition to the immense appeal of the title track, The Stranger included four U.S. hit singles: "Just the Way You Are," "She's Always a Woman," "Movin" Out (Anthony's Song)," and "Only the Good Die Young." Joel's international reputation was now firmly established, and his national renown was reinforced as The Stranger won Grammy Awards for record of the year and song of the year. The album went on to become Columbia/CBS's biggest seller prior to the release of Michael Jackson's Thriller, even surpassing Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water.
With the publicf not the criticsapping up his work, Joel consolidated his reputation with the 1978 release of 52nd Street. The music was very well received, and the first single, "My Life," zoomed to Number Three on the Billboardcharts. The album became Joel's first to reach Number One in the charts and went on to sell millions of copies. Three years later, Glass Houses, Joel's second platinum album, heralded a change in the singer's image as a pop stylist. With New Wave replacing disco as the musical fad du jour, Joel jumped on the bandwagon and infused the album with more hard-hitting rock songs. His goal, apparently, was to throw figurative stones at his image. The singles "You May Be Right," and "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" did well with commercial audiences but left the critics cold.
Reviews were relentless, and Joel's attempt to be taken seriously as a modern rock performer failed. Although he supposedly scorned the critics, he had a simultaneous need for their approval and was hurt by their dismissal of Glass Houses. "I think there was a perception that I was trying to pose as a New Wave guy, and that wasn't in any way my intention," he told Entertainment Weekly. "My intention was to write bigger stuff we could play in arenas."
In 1981, Columbia released the platinum-certified Songs in the Attic, a collection of new live recordings of material written in Joel's early days. The album included songs from Cold Spring Harbor that had never been properly recorded.
Tragedies Precipitated Soul-Searching
Joel had already begun studio work on his next album when he was involved in a motorcycle accident in the spring of 1982. His left wrist was broken and his hand badly damaged. Following surgery, production of the album was temporarily shut down while Joel recovered. An additional obstacle for the singer was the breakdown of his marriage to Weber, an event partially blamed on the stress created by Weber's management of her husband's career. By the end of 1982, the couple would divorce. When she left, Joel's wife took half of the singer's assets with her.
Even without such personal tragedies, creating the music for the album that would follow Glass Houses proved to be difficult, as Joel told Geller and Hibbert in their biography: "You're always in the desert looking for the oasis and all that's out there with you is the pianohis big black beast with 88 teeth ... 50,000 packs of cigarettes later, you start getting it."
Joel's soul-searching paid off with the release of The Nylon Curtain in 1982, Joel's first combined commercial and artistic success. It contained several sobering "message" songs about society including "Allentown," the rhythmical tune about the plight of unemployed Pennsylvania steel workers, and "Goodnight Saigon," a slow, mournful look at Vietnam and its veterans. Joel called The Nylon Curtain "the album of which I'm most proud." As he told Entertainment Weekly, the album was not as fun to make as Glass Houses because it was so difficult. "It was an ambitious undertaking wanted to create a masterpiece. I remember listening to 'Allentown' and thinking, This is good,' and that I had somehow created the feelings I had when I listened to Beatles albums."
Innocent Man Reflected Romantic Life
With "Allentown," Joel made his first transition from vinyl to video to promote his music and gained an even larger following. When his next album, An Innocent Man, was released in 1983, the MTV video era was in full swing and the upbeat, platinum-certified An Innocent Man featured several studies in romance that lent themselves to an MTV format. Joel's girlfriend, super-model Christie Brinkley, appeared in the hit video "Uptown Girl," the perfect counterpart to Joel's small-time tough guy. The couple was married in 1985, and later had a daughter, Alexa Ray.
Joel scored big with the title song from his new album. But An Innocent Man was significant as more that a collection of catchy tunes. The album was Joel's tribute to and recreation of some of the sounds of America's favorite pop stylists, including Little Anthony and the Imperials and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It was also the last album on which Joel would use his tenor falsetto. "I knew it was the last time I was going to be able to hit certain notes," he told Entertainment Weekly. "I was waving goodbye to the boy voice."
In early 1984, Joel's first concert video, Billy Joel: Live From Long Island, was released. The inevitable Greatest Hits Volume I and II followed in 1985, a move by Columbia that Joel viewed as a time-stalling technique. The Bridge, his first studio album in three years, appeared in 1986 but failed to garner the huge reception from critics and fans Joel had hoped for. "Not a happy album," he told Entertainment Weekly. "I wasn't simpatico with the musicians, some of whom I'd been working with a long time. I don't think the material was good; I was pressured by management to put it out too fast. By the end, I sort of gave up caring, which for me was unusual."
In 1987, Joel performed to great acclaim in Leningrad and Moscow in what is now the former Soviet Union. His Leningrad concert was broadcast via some 300 radio outlets. Both concerts were recorded and released later that year as Kohuept, the Russian translation of "In Concert."
"We Didn't Start the Fire" Sparked Sales
Two years later, Joel worked with female musicians for the first time on 1989's Storm Front, his triple-platinum comeback album with a nautical bent. A seasoned sailor, Joel spends much of his free time aboard a 36-foot fishing boat near his home in Easthampton, New York. Storm Front's cultural critique, "We Didn't Start the Fire," quickly became a Number One Billboard hit single along with the album itself. Joel received five Grammy nominations for the album and completed a 15-month world tour to promote it. He was seen by 4.3 million fans during 174 shows in 16 countries, including a performance in Berlin the day after German reunification. He also performed in the United States at Yankee Stadium's first rock concert.
One of the reasons for Joel's frequent touring stints has been to earn money lost over the years as a result of mismanagement of his career. Indeed, Joel has endured his share of legal problems dating back to his contract with Artie Ripp in 1971. In one case, Joel fired Frank Weber, his ex-brother-in-law and manager of nine years, and sued him for $90 million in 1989, citing fraud and misappropriation of funds. Although Joel was awarded $3 million, Weber filed for bankruptcy soon after the ruling. Weber countersued Joel for libel, but the case was dismissed.
To add to his legal woes, a $10 million lawsuit was brought against Joel in 1993 by an aspiring songwriter who claimed Joel stole his material and parlayed it into three hit songs. Joel's statement on the matter was simple: "This is another example of why struggling songwriters can't get anybody, including me, to listen to their songs."
River of Dreams Ran Smoothly
Four years after the Storm Front tour de force, Joel released River of Dreams, an album that again garnered critical praise. With the cover art for the album provided by Brinkley and a song ("Lullabye [Goodnight My Angel]") dedicated to their daughter, the album appeared to be a family affair. Fans were eager for a new release from Joel and the album hit the charts at Number One in its first week. It was certified multi-platinum by the spring of 1994. The genesis of River of Dreams began in 1992 while Joel was in Southhampton with producer Danny Kortchmar recording two Elvis Presley songs for the soundtrack of the movie Honeymoon in Vegas. During that time an early version of the album was written and recorded as "The Shelter Island Sessions." Joel later re-recorded the songs in Long Island and New York studios.
"I always thought it was written in stone that you had your erand that was it," Joel told People's Jim Jerome. "Rock is a cannibalizing businesst eats its own. I was hip for about a second in the '70s. But here we are. I'm 44. It's 20 years since 'Piano Man,' and I have a No. 1 album. That's not supposed to happen."
According to 7/me's Richard Corliss, River of Dreams is "not just a cohesive concept album but also a bunch of damn fine songs with heart and hook." Including such diverse melodies as "No Man's Land," "The Great Wall of China," "Blonde Over Blue," "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)," "Shades of Grey," and "It's All About Soul," the album may be Joel's most significant artistic achievement yet. It represents a move into a more philosophical form of songwriting and a return to his early classical music influences.
As Corliss stated in his review, "To brassily assonant music, [Joel] rages at a social landscape scarred by greed, fame, mongering, obsessive lovell the strategies of self.... On Side 2, the man ponders continuity and eternity.... Joel's gem is the sleepytime title tune. Its consonant-poppin' lyric charts a land where pop merges with gospel, black embraces white, dread is absolved by beliefn God, in dreams, in the rolling sing-along cadence of a doo-wop bass line. 'We all end in the ocean /We all start in the streams /We're all carried along /By the river of dreams.'"
In the fall of 1993, Joel launched what he claimed would be his last marathon world tour to promote the new album. Then, the following spring, he and Brinkley announced their separation. Rumors that the split occurred because of Joel's constant absences while on tour surrounded the breakup.
When country artist Garth Brooks made Joel's "Shameless" a Number One hit on the country charts in 1991, it was just one of many illustrations of the musician's incredible versatility as a songwriter. After a career spanning 25 years in the recording business, Joel has expressed an interest in focusing that versatility on writing for Broadway, although he refuses to limit himself to one musical form.
In an interview with Jancee Dunn in Rolling Stone, Joel summarized his long career: "People think I'm this pop meister who just churns out these hit singles.... But I don't view myself as being frozen in cement. And the songs that are the singles do not necessarily represent the sum and substance of my work. People think that I'm 'Just the Way You Are,' and 'Uptown Girl.' OK, I did write those songs, but I wrote many, many more."
(With the Hassles) The Hassles, United Artists, 1967.
(With the Hassles) Hour of the Wolf, United Artists, 1969.
(With others) Attila, Epic, 1970.
Cold Spring Harbor (includes "She's Got a Way"), Family Productions, 1972.
Piano Man (includes "Captain Jack"), Columbia, 1973.
Street life Serenade, Columbia, 1974.
Turnstiles (includes "Angry Young Man" and "Say Goodbye to Hollywood"), Columbia, 1976.
The Stranger, Columbia, 1977.
52nd Street (includes "Big Shot," "Honesty," and "Until the Night"), Columbia, 1978.
Glass Houses, Columbia, 1980.
Songs in the Attic, Columbia, 1981.
Nylon Curtain, Columbia, 1982.
An Innocent Man (includes "The Longest Time," "Tell Her About It," "Keeping the Faith," and "Leave a Tender Moment Alone") Columbia, 1983.
Greatest Hits, Volume I and II, Columbia, 1985.
The Bridge (includes "This Is the Time," "A Matter of Trust," and "You're Only Human"), Columbia, 1986.
Kohuept (live concert), Columbia, 1987.
Storm Front (includes "We Didn't Start the Fire," "That's Not Her Style," "I Go to Extremes," "Shameless," and "The Downeaster 'Alexa'"), Columbia, 1989.
River of Dreams, Columbia, 1993.
Geller, Debbie, and Tom Hibbert, Billy Joel: An Illustrated Biography, McGraw-Hill, 1985.
Hardy, Phil, and Dave Laing, Encyclopedia of Rock, Macmillan, 1988.
McKenzie, Michael, Billy Joel, Ballantine, 1985.
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clark, Viking, 1989.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Rock and Soul, revised edition, St. Martin's, 1989.
Amusement Business, November 29, 1993.
Billboard, October 7, 1989; December 23, 1989; November 6, 1993; November 13, 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, September 10, 1993.
High Fidelity, August 1987.
Life, September 1987.
Newsweek, January 29, 1990.
New York Times, October 14, 1992; October 4, 1993.
People, December 13, 1993.
Rolling Stone, November 6, 1986; December 23, 1993-January6, 1994.
Stereo Review, February, 1990; December 1992.
Time, August 30, 1993.
Variety, July 8, 1987.
Washington Post, October 8, 1978.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Columbia Records publicity materials.
Mary Scott Dye
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