Rock Through the Ages: Billy Joel 1946-


"There's nothing better than good sex. But bad sex? A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is better than bad sex" -Billy Joel

billy Joel, the piano man photo for Rock through the AgesWilliam Martin Joel is a 6-time Grammy award winner, better known as Billy Joel. He is a pianist, singer and songwriter. Joel recorded a staggering number of pop music hits from 1973, beginning with the single "Piano Man", to his retirement from recording pop music in 1993. Joel could be considered, with Elton John, the father of piano rock. He has sold well over 100 million albums worldwide and is the sixth best selling artist in the United States. Joel's induction into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1992, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 has further solidified his status as one of America's leading music icons. Billy Joel's music consistently demonstrates an affection for Beatlesque hooks and a flair for Tin Pan Alley and Broadway melodies. His fusion of two distinct eras made him a superstar in the late '70s and '80s, as he racked an impressive string of multi-platinum albums and hit singles.

Billy Joel was born William Martin Joel on May 9, 1949 in Bronx, New York. Joel's father, Howard was an accomplished classical pianist. Billy reluctantly began piano lessons at an early age, at his mother's insistence, including with the noted American pianist Morton Estrin and musician/songwriter Timothy Ford. Billy's early classical piano training provided him with a strong foundation for his future career. His interest in music, rather than sports, was the source of teasing and bullying in his early years. Joel's parents divorced in 1960, and his father moved to Vienna, Austria.Billy has a sister, Judith Joel, and a half-brother, Alexander Joel, who is an acclaimed classical conductor in Europe, currently chief musical director of the Staatstheater Braunschweig. As a young child, his family moved to Levittown, a suburban housing development on Long Island in New York State. Among his early influences, Billy lists Ray Charles, The Beatles, Dave Brubeck, Sam Cooke, the Rolling Stones, and Otis Redding. His ambition to become a professional musician began to take shape after seeing the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. At age 14, Billy joined his first band, The Echoes (later known as the Lost Souls), after noticing, among other things, that it was a foolproof way to meet girls. The Echos specialized in British Invasion covers. They became a popular New York attraction, convincing him to quit high school to become a professional musician.

While still a member of the Echoes, Joel began playing recording sessions in 1965, when he was just 16 years old. In 1968, Billy joined a well-known Long Island band called The Hassles. The Hassles recorded two albums for United Artists, "The Hassles" and "Hour of the Wolf." In 1970, Billy moved on to form Attila, a heavy metal rock duo with Hassles' drummer, Jon Small. Attila recorded one album on Epic Records. Small's wife, Elizabeth Weber, would later wed Joel, which along with the failure of the album, led to the band breaking up. Upon losing his record contract with Attila, Joel suffered severe depression, and he was admitted into Meadowbrook Hospital after ingesting furniture polish in a half-hearted suicide attempt. The note he left eventually became the lyrics to his song "Tomorrow Is Today." Taking up commercial songwriting, Joel signed with Family Productions in 1971. His solo debut, Cold Spring Harbor, demonstrated both his fondness for Long Island and the somber side of his singing/songwriting approach. Named after a village on Long Island's North Shore, it was Billy's first full album of original songs. Unfortunately the tapes were inadvertently sped up slightly in production, and Joel's voice sounded nasal and unnatural when the album was released.

Legal and managerial woes precluded an immediate follow up. Under the terms of the contract, Joel  had signed to the label, for life! The pianist was unaware of the clause at the time, but it would come back to haunt him. Family Productions received royalties from every album Joel sold until the late '80s.To avoid his contract Joel moved to L.A. and performed in West Coast piano bars under the name "Bill Martin." Toward the end of the year, he began touring, playing various nightclubs across the country. At the beginning of 1973, Joel married Elizabeth Weber, and around the same time, a radio station began playing a live version of "Captain Jack" that was recorded at a Philadelphia radio broadcast. Soon, record companies were eagerly seeking to sign the pianist, and he eventually signed with Columbia Records. In order for Joel to sign with Columbia, the major label had to agree to pay Family Productions 25 cents for each album sold, plus display the Family and Remus logos on each record Joel released. His first Top 20 single, Piano Man, was released at the end of the year.

In 1974, Billy and Michael Stewart teamed up again and recorded Streetlife Serenade. The album featured the hit single The Entertainer, and garnered Billy his first crop of music industry awards, including "Best New Male Vocalist",  "Male Artist of the Year", and "Record of the Year." Sell-out concert performances at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York City confirmed that Billy had achieved permanent headliner status.

Billy Joel, the piano Man  one of the musical artists listed in Rock through the AgesJoel moved back to New York in 1975, assembled a new band and began recording the Turnstiles album. On Turnstiles, Joel used his own hand-picked musicians in the studio for the first time, and he took a more hands-on role, producing the album himself. Although "New York State of Mind" eventually became a standard, Joel's career appeared to be in a holding pattern. Then came his breakthrough album The Stranger and a string of hit singles. For this album Columbia Records united Joel with producer Phil Ramone. The album cranked out four Top-40 hits on the Billboard Charts in the US, and was a worldwide smash. Album sales exceeded Columbia's previous top album, Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water and was certified multi-platinum. It was Joel's first Top-10 album as it rose to # 2 on the charts.

In early fall of 1978, with a fourth top 20 single from The Stranger (She's Always A Woman) still charting, Columbia Records released 52nd Street, which went on to become Billy's first #1 album. A 12 week North American tour finished dramatically with three sold-out nights at New York City's Madison Square Garden in December. In February of 1979, in a hotel room in Paris, Billy received a middle of the night transatlantic phone call informing him that Just The Way You Are had captured "Record Of The Year," and "Song of The Year," giving Billy his first two Grammy Awards. After releasing a volume of greatest hits in 1994 with three new recordings that were all cover songs (an oddity for the prolific songwriter), Joel announced he was concentrating on composing classical music for the foreseeable future. Joel's career has been marked by tumultuous business moves with a litany of litigation against various publishers, managers, lawyers, accountants and others spanning three decades. Deeply suspicious of the music business, Joel has fought for lower concert-ticket prices and attacked ticket scalping; he has contributed extensively to philanthropic causes, including many on Long Island.
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Billy Joel
Musician
"The Piano Man" "Captain Jack"