He is a superstar around the world, but Long Islanders have long embraced Billy Joel as one of their own. He emerged in the early 1970s and quickly established himself as one of the finest balladeers of a generation. A self-proclaimed piano man who always spoke to and for the working class, his music and storytelling are in a class all their own.
Born in the Bronx, Billy Martin Joel grew up in Hicksville. His father was a classical pianist who left the family and moved to Vienna when Joel was very young. After eleven years of piano lessons, he dropped out of high school to pursue a career in music, playing in a number of local Long Island bands.
A promising songwriter, it quickly became apparent that Joel had a better shot at success as a solo artist.
His first offering, Cold Spring Harbor, was released in 1971 and received very little attention. Despite some strong songwriting, the album was mastered at the wrong speed, making the lead vocals higher in pitch and unnatural. Furthermore, the novice musician inadvertently signed over all the rights to the music on the recording (years later, the President of Columbia Records bought back these rights and presented them to Billy as a birthday present).
Somewhat disillusioned and dejected, Joel moved across the country to Los Angeles in 1972, working as a lounge singer named Bill Martin. From those gigs, he would pen his trademark song, “Piano Man.” He toured sporadically, opening for other artists around the country.
Meanwhile, a Philadelphia radio station began playing a concert recording of a song called “Captain Jack” which not only became an underground hit, but also caught the attention of Columbia Records. His first record for the new label was titled Piano Man. Released in 1973, its title track made it all the way to the #25 position on the charts. Joel took to the road again to promote the new material and dramatically increased his name recognition as an artist to keep an eye on.
His next record, Streetlife Serenade, didn’t fare much better than Piano Man, despite the standout track, “The Entertainer.” Displeased with the whole California scene, Joel packed up, moved back to New York and put together a band of local musicians that would stay by his side for many years to come.
He released Turnstiles in 1976, which featured a minor hit, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” and a song that would resonate strongly with his hometown audience for decades to come, the bluesy “New York State of Mind.”
Joel was on the verge of a breakthrough. He would achieve it thanks to the masterful producer, Phil Ramone and a 1977 album called The Stranger.
This time, Billy didn’t just hit gold; he hit platinum. The album contained four songs that would make it to the top-25 – “Movin’ Out,” “She’s Always a Woman,” “Only the Good Die Young” and the jazzy #3 hit, “Just the Way You Are.”
That little ditty took Song of the Year at the 1977 Grammy Awards, as did The Stranger for Best Album. Billy Joel was becoming a household name. The question was, could he top his success?
He proved that he could with 52nd Street. Released the following year, the album featured three hits, “Big Shot,” “Honestly” and another #3 hit called “My Life” which would soon become the theme to a hit television series called Bosom Buddies.
All of this propelled 52nd Street to the #1 position on the charts, and earned Joel two more Grammy Awards, one for Best Pop Vocals and another Record of the Year honor. As the 70s came to a close, Billy Joel toured the world and prepared for his new record, one that would start the next decade with his biggest success to date.
Released in 1980, Glass Houses was Joel’s attempt to shed his image as a balladeer, featuring material that was more energetic and rock-oriented. Thanks to hits like “You May Be Right,” the latin-flavored “Don’t Ask Me Why” and the driving “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”, Glass Houses would sit atop the charts in the #1 spot for six weeks and garner another Grammy for Best Rock Male Performance.
There would be more hit albums throughout the 80s, from the retrospective Songs in the Attic to the blue collar ode, The Nylon Curtain, to the doo-wop-inspired An Innocent Man. Each album offered its own share of hits and accolades making Joel one of the biggest-selling artists of all time. All told, he has recorded 33 Top-40 hits and sold an astounding 150 million records over his career, with as many multi-platinum albums as The Beatles.
And yet, despite all of his international fame and fortune, Billy Joel has never forgotten his Long Island roots. In many ways, he’s still that same simple piano man from Levittown whose songwriting has touched generations of music lovers from Oyster Bay to the other side of the globe. The hometown boy, as it were, done real good for himself.
If you are a fan of the music of Billy Joel, maybe even saw some of his early performances at such venues as My Father’s Place, I hope you’ll take a moment to share all your musical memories in our comments section below, as we pay tribute to perhaps the finest songwriter to ever emerge from Long Island.