William Martin Joel (born May 9, 1949) is an American pianist and singer-songwriter. He released his first hit song, "Piano Man", in 1973. According to the RIAA, he is the sixth best-selling recording artist in the United States.
Joel had Top 10 hits in the '70s, '80s, and '90s; is a six-time Grammy Award winner, and has sold in excess of 150 million albums worldwide. He was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame (Class of 1992), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Class of 1999), and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame (Class of 2006). Joel "retired" from recording pop music in 1993 but continued to tour (sometimes with Elton John). In 2001 he subsequently released Fantasies & Delusions, a CD of classical compositions for piano. In 2007 he returned to recording with a single entitled "All My Life," followed by an extensive world tour from 2006-2008, covering many of the major world cities.
Joel's father 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. His interest in music, rather than sports, was the source of teasing and bullying in his early years. (He has said in interviews that his piano instructor also taught ballet. Her name was Frances Neiman and she was a Juilliard trained musician. She gave both classic piano and ballet lessons in the studio attached to the rear of her house, leading neighborhood bullies to mistakenly think he was learning to dance.) As a teenager, Joel took up boxing so that he would be able to defend himself. He boxed successfully on the amateur Golden Gloves circuit for a short time, winning twenty-two bouts, but abandoned the sport shortly after having his nose broken in his twenty-fourth boxing match.
Joel attended Hicksville High School, and was expected to graduate in 1967. However, he was one English credit short of the graduation requirement; he overslept on the day of an important exam, owing to his late-night musician's lifestyle. Faced with a summer at school to complete this requirement, he decided not to continue. He left high school without a diploma to begin a career in music. Despite the Vietnam War and the draft, Joel performed no military service — because he was the sole provider for his mother and sister, the selective service gave him a draft exemption. In 1992, the English credit requirement was waived by the Hicksville School Board, and he received his diploma at Hicksville High's graduation ceremony 25 years after he left the school.
Joel began playing recording sessions with the Echoes in 1965, when he was 16 years old. Joel played piano on several recordings produced by Shadow Morton, including (as claimed by Joel, but denied by songwriter Ellie Greenwich) the Shangri-Las' Leader of the Pack, as well as several records released through Kama Sutra Productions. During this time, the Echoes started to play numerous late-night shows.
Later, in 1965, the Echoes changed their name to the Emeralds and then to the Lost Souls. For two years, he played sessions and performed with the Lost Souls. In 1967, he left that band to join the Hassles, a Long Island band that had signed a contract with United Artists Records. Over the next year and a half, they released The Hassles in 1967, Hour of the Wolf in 1968, and four singles, all of which failed commercially. Following The Hassles' demise in 1969, he formed the duo Attila with Hassles drummer Jon Small. Attila released their eponymous debut album in July 1970, and disbanded the following October.
In late 1975, he played piano and organ on several tracks on Bo Diddley's The 20th Anniversary of Rock 'n' Roll all-star album.
Whereas most records are owned by the recording company, Billy Joel is one of a number of performers — including Paul Simon, Johnny Rivers, Pink Floyd, Queen, Genesis, and Neil Diamond — who have their own name as the copyright owner on their recordings.
Hits such as "She's Got a Way" and "Everybody Loves You Now" were originally released on this album, although they did not gain much attention until released as live performances in 1981 on Songs in the Attic. Since then, they have become big concert numbers. Cold Spring Harbor gained a second chance on the charts in 1983, when Columbia reissued the album after slowing it down to the correct speed. The album reached #158 in the US and #95 in the UK nearly a year later. Cold Spring Harbor caught the attention of Merrilee Rush ("Angel of the Morning") and she recorded a femme version of "She’s Got a Way (He’s Got a Way)" for Scepter Records in 1971.
In addition, a Philadelphia radio station, WMMR-FM, started playing a tape of a new song of Joel's, "Captain Jack", taken from a live concert. It became an underground hit on the East Coast. Herb Gordon, an executive of Columbia Records, heard Joel's music and made his company aware of Joel's talent. Joel signed a recording contract with Columbia in 1972 and moved to Los Angeles. He lived there for three years (and has since declared that those three years were a big mistake), returning to New York City in 1975. While in California, he had a paid job in a piano bar, The Executive Room on Wilshire Blvd, (using the name Bill Martin), so his superhit "Piano Man" is seen as autobiographical.
The Stranger netted Joel Grammy nominations, for Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Record of the Year, for "Just the Way You Are," which was written as a gift to his wife Elizabeth. He won for the latter two.
Despite all the cover art for the album showing Joel holding a trumpet, he does not play the instrument on the album, though two tracks on the album do feature trumpets. Freddie Hubbard plays two solos in "Zanzibar" and joins Jon Faddis in the horn section for "Half a Mile Away."
The next wave of Joel's career commenced with the recording of The Nylon Curtain. Considered his most audacious and ambitious album, Joel took more than a page or two from the Lennon-McCartney songwriting style on this heavily Beatles-influenced album.
Work began on The Nylon Curtain in the spring of 1982. However, Joel was sidelined when he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident. Because of the ensuing surgery, production of the album was shut down temporarily while Joel recovered.
Once The Nylon Curtain was finished, Joel embarked on a brief tour in support of the album, during which his first video special, Live from Long Island, was recorded at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, on December 30, 1982.
The Nylon Curtain went to #7 on the charts, partially due to heavy airplay on MTV for the videos of "Allentown" and "Pressure", supported by the popular singles "Allentown," "Goodnight Saigon," and "Pressure." "Allentown" rose to #17 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it one of the most-played radio songs of 1982 and the most successful song from The Nylon Curtain album, besting "Pressure," which peaked at #19 and "Goodnight Saigon" which reached #56.
Greatest Hits was highly successful, selling over 20 million copies worldwide and becoming the top-selling double album of all time by a solo artist (and second overall after The Wall by Pink Floyd). It has since been certified diamond by the RIAA for over 20 million albums sold. To date it is the 6th best selling album in American music history according to the RIAA.
Coinciding with the Greatest Hits album release, Joel released a 2-volume Video Album that was a compilation of the promotional videos he had recorded from 1977 to the present time. Along with videos for the new singles off the Greatest Hits album, Joel also recorded a video for his first hit, "Piano Man," for this project.
Two versions of Greatest Hits were released on CD: the initial release on double CD in 1985, and a re-released Enhanced CD version in 1998. While both are the same basic album in general, there are a number of subtle differences between the two:
Though it broke into the Top Ten, The Bridge was not a success in relation to some of Joel's other albums, but it yielded the hit "A Matter of Trust" (#10). In a departure from his "piano man" persona, Joel is shown in its video playing a Les Paul-autographed Gibson guitar. The ballad "This is the Time" also charted, peaking at #18, and has been a favorite on the prom circuit ever since. "Modern Woman" was also released as a single and was quite successful, but Joel has since said in interviews he doesn't care for the song, and subsequently it has been left off most of his compilation sets (the exception appears to be My Lives).
On November 18, 1986 an extended version of the song "Big Man On Mulberry Street" was used on a season three episode of Moonlighting. The episode itself was also titled "Big Man on Mulberry Street." In a dream sequence, Maddie Hayes envisions David Addison with his ex-wife. An extra horn solo was added to the song.
It was also the last Billy Joel album to carry the "Family Productions" logo.
At around this time, Joel completed voice work on Disney's Oliver & Company, released in 1988, a loose adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. Joel brought both his acting and musical talents to the film as Dodger. For the film, Joel recorded a song titled "Why Should I Worry?" Critics were generally positive toward the film, and pointed to Billy's acting contribution as one of its highlights, despite its being his first acting job. In interviews, Billy explained that he took the job due to his love of Disney cartoons as a child.
Joel has also stated in many interviews, most recently in a 2008 interview in Performing Songwriter magazine, that he does not think The Bridge is a good album.
The audience in at least the first Moscow shows was filled with members of the Communist Party, who received tickets from the government as a perk. Most of that audience took a long while to warm up to Joel's energetic show, something that never had happened in other countries he had performed in. As a result of that, a minor international incident occurred when he famously flipped over an electric keyboard during the second Moscow show as a show of frustration that the lighting engineers would not turn down the house lights. The lighting engineers were more concerned with the amount of light being adequate for filming, as a documentary film crew was filming the concert. According to Joel, each time the fans were hit with the bright lights, anybody who seemed to be enjoying themselves froze. In addition, people who were "overreacting" were removed by security.
It has been estimated that Joel lost more than $1 million of his own money on the trip and concerts, but he has said the goodwill he was shown there was well worth it.
Storm Front was released in October, and it eventually became Joel's first Number 1 album since Glass Houses, 9 years earlier. Storm Front was Joel's first album since Turnstiles to be recorded without Phil Ramone as producer. For this album, he wanted a new sound, and worked with Mick Jones of Foreigner fame. Joel also revamped his backing band, firing everyone, save drummer Liberty DeVitto, guitarist David Brown, and saxophone player Mark Rivera; and bringing in new faces, including talented multi-instrumentalist Crystal Taliefero, who would go on to become Joel's musical director and architect of his live sound. After "We Didn't Start the Fire," Storm Front also produced the top ten hit "I Go To Extremes" (#6). The album was also notable for its song "Leningrad," written after Joel met a clown in the Soviet city of that name during his tour in 1987, and "The Downeaster Alexa," written to underscore the plight of fishermen on Long Island who are barely able to make ends meet. Another well-known single from the album is the ballad "And So It Goes" (#37 in late 1990). Billy Joel became the first-ever performer to hold a rock concert at Yankee Stadium, packing the house for two sold-out nights in a row in June of 1990.
On December 31, 1999, Joel performed at New York's Madison Square Garden, which at the time was considered to be Joel's last solo concert. The concert (dubbed The Night of the 2000 Years) ran for close to four hours and was later released as 2000 Years: The Millennium Concert.
In 2001, Joel released Fantasies & Delusions, a collection of classical piano pieces. All were composed by Joel and performed by Richard Joo. Joel often uses bits of these songs as interludes in live performances, and some of them are part of the score for the hit show Movin' Out. The album topped the classical charts at #1. Joel performed "New York State of Mind" live on September 21, 2001, as part of the America: A Tribute to Heroes benefit concert, and on October 20, 2001, along with "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)," at the Concert for New York City in Madison Square Garden. That night, he also performed "Your Song" with Elton John.
Joel has toured extensively with Elton John on a series of "Face to Face" tours. During these shows, the two have played each other's songs and performed duets. They grossed over US$46 million in just 24 dates.
In 2005, Columbia released a box set, My Lives, which is largely a compilation of demos, b-sides, live/alternate versions and even a few Top 40 hits. The compilation also includes the Umixit software, in which people can remix "Zanzibar," "Only the Good Die Young," "Keepin' The Faith," and live versions of "I Go to Extremes" and "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" with their PC. Also, a DVD of a show from the River of Dreams tour is included.
On January 7, 2006, Joel began a tour across the United States. Having not written, or at least released, any new songs in 13 years, he featured a sampling of songs from throughout his career, including major hits as well as obscure tunes like "Zanzibar" and "All for Leyna." His tour included an unprecedented 12 sold-out concerts over several months at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The singer's stint of 12 shows at Madison Square Garden broke a previous record set by New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen when he played 10 sold-out shows at the same arena. The record earned Joel the first retired number (12) in the arena owned by a non-athlete. This honor has also been given to Joel at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia where a banner in the colors of the Philadelphia Flyers is hung honoring Joel's 46 Philadelphia sold-out shows. He also had a banner raised in his honor for being the highest grossing act in the history of the Times Union Center (formerly the Knickerbocker Arena and Pepsi Arena) in Albany, New York. This honor was given to him as part of the April 17, 2007 show he did there. On June 13, 2006, Columbia released 12 Gardens Live, a double album containing 32 live recordings from a collection of the 12 different shows at Madison Square Garden during Joel's 2006 tour.
2006 also saw Billy Joel visit the United Kingdom and Ireland (as part of the European leg of his 2006 tour) for the first time in many years, playing to capacity crowds in Birmingham, Sheffield, Southampton, Manchester, Glasgow, London and Dublin. On July 31, 2006, Joel performed a free concert in Rome, Italy with the Colosseum as the backdrop, and performed classic hits for hundreds of thousands of fans. Joel performed favorites such as "New York State of Mind," "Honesty," and "Just the Way You Are." While introducing one song, the 57-year-old singer joked in shaky Italian, "This song is as old as the Colosseum." Organizers estimated 500,000 people turned out for the show. The concert was opened by Canadian pop-rocker and songwriter Bryan Adams.
Billy Joel toured South Africa, Australia, Japan, and Hawaii in late 2006, and subsequently toured the Southeastern United States in February and March 2007 before hitting the Midwest in the spring of '07.
On January 3, 2007, news was leaked to the New York Post that Billy had recorded a new song with lyrics -- this being the first new song with lyrics he'd written in almost 14 years. The song, entitled "All My Life," was Joel's newest single (with second track "You're My Home" Live from Madison Square Garden 2006 tour) and was released into stores on February 27, 2007.
On April 17, 2007, Joel was honored in Albany, NY, for his 9th concert at Times Union Center. He is now holding the highest box office attendance of any artist to play at the arena. With his daughter Alexa Ray Joel in attendance, a banner was raised in his honor marking this achievement.
On December 1, 2007, Joel premiered his new song "Christmas in Fallujah. It is performed by Cass Dillon, a new Long Island based musician, as Joel felt it should be sung by someone in a soldier's age range. This song is dedicated to the troops in Iraq. "Christmas In Fallujah" became available to purchase on iTunes December 4, 2007 with the proceeds benefiting the Homes For Our Troops foundation.
On January 26, 2008, Joel performed with the world famous Philadelphia Orchestra celebrating the 151st anniversary of the Academy of Music. Joel premiered his new classical piece entitled, "Waltz No. 2 (Steinway Hall)", whilst playing many of his more obscure pieces with full orchestral backing. Highlights of this were the rarely-performed Nylon Curtain songs "Scandinavian Skies" and "Where's the Orchestra?". The concert also marked the first live performance of "All My Life."
On February 7, 2008, Joel released the news at a Mets press conference that he will be playing the last concert at Shea Stadium, which will be demolished at the end of the 2008 Mets baseball season. Originally there was only one show planned at Shea, but when 50,000 tickets for Joel's July 16 concert sold out in just 48 minutes, a second concert was added for July 18, and it sold out in just 46 minutes. There are no more shows expected to be added to Joel's Shea Stadium stand.
On March 10, 2008, Joel inducted his friend John Mellencamp into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a ceremony that took place at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. During his induction speech for Mellencamp, Joel said:
From May to July, 2008, Billy Joel sold out 10 concerts at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut. Mohegan Sun honored him with a banner displaying his name and the number ten to hang in the arena.
On June 19, 2008, Billy Joel played a concert at the grand re-opening of Caesars Windsor (formerly Casino Windsor) in Windsor, Ontario, Canada to an invite-only crowd for Casino VIPs. His mood was light, and joke-filled, even introducing himself as "Billy Joel's dad" and stating "you guys overpaid to see a fat bald guy". At the concert, he also admitted that Canadian folk-pop musician Gordon Lightfoot was the inspiration for his song She's Always A Woman.
On July 16 and July 18, 2008, Billy Joel played the final concerts at Shea Stadium before its demolition. His guests included Tony Bennett on both nights, Don Henley, John Mayer, and John Mellencamp on the 16th, and Steven Tyler, Roger Daltrey, Garth Brooks, and Paul McCartney on the 18th. McCartney ended the show with a poignant reference to his own performance there with the Beatles in 1965, the first major stadium concert of the rock and roll industry. The "Last Play at Shea" shows by Joel on July 16th and July 18th were performed to nearly 125,000 people
Joel mentioned in a television interview that he had dated Elle Macpherson in the 1980s ("I was dating Elle Macpherson at the time") prior to his marriage to Christie Brinkley. Joel has also said in interviews that the songs "This Night" and "And So It Goes" were written about his relationship with Macpherson.
Joel married Christie Brinkley on March 23, 1985. Their daughter, Alexa Ray Joel, was born December 29, 1985. Alexa was given the middle name of Ray after Ray Charles, one of Joel's musical idols. Joel and Brinkley's marriage ended in divorce on August 25, 1994, although the couple remains quite friendly.
On October 2, 2004, Joel married 23 year-old culinary artist Katie Lee. At the time of the wedding, Joel was 55. Joel's daughter, Alexa Ray, then 18, served as maid of honor. Joel's second wife, Christie Brinkley, attended the union and gave the couple her blessing. Lee works as a restaurant correspondent for the PBS show, George Hirsch: Living it Up!. In 2006, Katie Lee hosted Bravo's Top Chef. She did not return for a 2nd season, but rather went on tour with her husband. She now has a weekly column in Hamptons Magazine, and is a field correspondent for the entertainment television show Extra.
Several of Joel's songs have grown out of specific personal experiences, including "Piano Man," which he wrote describing his regular job playing at a Los Angeles piano bar in the early 1970s, and "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," written about Angelo's, an eatery on Mulberry Street in New York City's Little Italy. However, in a documentary that will be released as part of the 30th anniversary special box set for The Stranger, Joel says that the restaurant that inspired the song is called Fontana di Trevi (a segment showing Joel explaining this can be found on his official YouTube channel). Joel goes on to say that Fontana di Trevi was across the street from Carnegie Hall (Joel says that the restaurant is no longer there). He adds that Fontana's proprietor recognized Joel from a poster related to his appearance at Carnegie Hall on July 2, 1977. "There was a line around the block. The owner looks at the poster and then he looks at me and says, 'Hey! You're that-a guy!' From then on, I never had trouble getting a good spot. People wonder where 'Scenes From An Italian Restaurant' was. Well, that was the place." His song "Vienna" was supposedly written about a visit to his father in Europe during which he watched an old lady sweeping the street. At first he was shocked that people had this little respect for the elderly, but then realized that allowing them to stay useful to society was the greatest show of respect and knowing that "Vienna waits for you" calmed many of his fears about aging.
"Only the Good Die Young" created a bit of a stir within the religious community when it was first released in 1977. Some radio stations even refused to give the song any airtime. Joel has said about the song that "the point of the song wasn't so much anti-Catholic as pro-lust.
These various influences have in part led to his broad success over a long period of time but have also made him difficult to categorize in popular music today.
In the mid 1970s, the touring and studio lineup of Joel's band stabilized. The main lineup consisted of:
This was also the lineup for Joel's first live album, Songs in the Attic.
The 1980s and 1990s saw significant changes to Joel's band. By the River of Dreams tour, the only remaining long-standing member of the band was DeVitto. T-Bone Wolk joined playing bass guitar, as well as other instruments, including accordion. Multi-instrumentalists Crystal Taliefero and Mark Rivera joined and remain in his band to this day. Rivera had taken over the prominent saxophone solo in the song "New York State of Mind" that had previously been performed by Cannata (and was re-recorded by Phil Woods for the Greatest Hits version of the song). The 1993 River of Dreams tour saw the addition of David Rosenthal on keyboards who also remains with the band. Tommy Byrnes has become a frequent band member on guitar and was both a musical consultant and band member in the Movin' Out musical. For the 2006 tour, Joel did not invite DeVitto back as drummer. Chuck Burgi (from the Broadway production of Movin' Out) replaced DeVitto. Cannata returns on saxophones, along with Rivera and Taliefero, with Cannata again performing the "New York State of Mind" solo. Carl Fischer plays trumpet and trombone when needed, most notably in the classic song, "Zanzibar."
Billy Joel's current lineup for the 2006-2008 tour was also featured on one of his newest albums 12 Gardens Live. They include:
In August 1995, Billy Joel's long-time bassist Doug Stegmeyer committed suicide in his Long Island home. Stegmeyer had played on every one of Joel's albums from Turnstiles through The Bridge. Stegmeyer also performed as bassist on Joel's live album KOHЦEPT.
Despite having never graduated from high school because of a missed exam, Joel has been presented with multiple honorary doctorates:
Joel was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio in 1999. Billy Joel was the tie breaker in the battle of which city would get the hall. Seven of Joel's fellow artists favored San Francisco, while seven other artists favored Cleveland. Joel was asked to be the tie breaker. He voted in favor of Cleveland. On his tours, Cleveland is one of his favorite cities to play and perform in.
Joel was also named MusiCares Person of the Year for 2002 , an award given each year at the same time as the Grammy Awards. At the dinner honoring Joel, various artists performed versions of his songs including Nelly Furtado, Stevie Wonder, Jon Bon Jovi, Diana Krall, Rob Thomas, and Natalie Cole. He was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame on Oct. 15, 2006. In 2005, Joel was put in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Joel has banners in the rafters of the Times Union Center, Nassau Coliseum, Madison Square Garden, Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, and Hartford Civic Center in Hartford. (Joel is erroneously cited as the first artist to perform a concert at Yankee Stadium in New York City; The Isley Brothers first performed there in 1968, and the Latin supergroup, The Fania All-Stars played and recorded live albums at the stadium during the 1970s.)
He has also sponsored the Billy Joel Visiting Composer Series at Syracuse University.
Joel is the only performing artist to have played both Yankee and Shea Stadiums.