At a nightclub in Dunedin, New Zealand, in July of 1978, we first met The Stranger. The bartender would play our choice from the albums in his stacks for one of our American dollars. We took him up on the offer and our group spent the remainder of the evening with Billy, Anthony, and Virginia. We heard insights about Italian cuisine and managed to experience a bit of Vienna, all while enjoying the company of Jonnie Walker. We listened to the album twice and, even with awesome theme music, most sailors don’t drink wine.
Billy Joel didn’t grow up in a hick town, but Hicksville, New York probably gets trainloads of disrespect. With a classical pianist father and a mother who insisted upon lessons for all, the young Joel kids were exposed to sophisticated music rather early. He took up boxing while a teenager and did it well, that is until his nose was broken and then he retired. In high school, Joel found himself in trouble due to his piano skills — he missed an important test after working late in a piano bar the night before, leaving him without the required credits for graduation. Joel decided to skip redemption at summer school. “I told them, ‘To hell with it. If I’m not going to Columbia University, I’m going to Columbia Records, and you don’t need a high school diploma over there’.”
When the Beatles made their American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show the fifteen-year-old Joel was among the 73 million viewers and he was immediately hooked. Billy was quite active through the end of the 60’s, playing in support of assorted demo recordings and studio sessions. He played on a demo version of “Leader of the Pack”, which went on to become a major hit for the Shangri-Las. He also contributed to “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, however, he remains unsure if it was a demo or master recording.
After signing a recording deal with the Family Productions label in 1971, Joel released his debut album Cold Spring Harbor. Arthur “Artie” Ripp, the owner of Family Productions, insisted that he had spent some $450,000 developing Joel. In reality, the shyster had originally structured the contract (a 10-record deal) to legally strip Joel of all of his rights to the original tapes and to the publishing and royalty rights for all current and future songs. As part of a deal with Columbia Records to release Joel from his contract, Ripp continued to collect royalties on sales of Joel’s records long after Joel’s bitter departure from Family Productions (until 1986).
After yet another example of artists getting screwed by record companies, Joel was free of Family Productions and signed with Columbia. His first effort for the label came in 1973. Piano Man managed only moderate, pedestrian sales, and gave Joel a theme song and a now-permanent nickname. In 1974 the single “You’re My Home” was recorded by Helen Reddy. That same year Billy went west and spent time in Los Angeles while recording Streetlife Serenade. The album contains “The Entertainer”, which rose to number 34 on U.S. charts. The song was written in response to the ‘cutting’ of portions of the single “Piano Man” in order to achieve more airplay. Joel complained, “If you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit, so they cut it down to 3:05.”
Joel returned to New York during 1976 and went to work recording his second Columbia album, Turnstiles. The record was first recorded at Caribou Ranch with the contributions of members of Elton John’s band. Unhappy with the project’s outcome, Joel re-recorded the songs and produced the album himself. His love for The Big Apple is resounding with style in “A New York State of Mind”, which should have become a single.
In 1977 Columbia introduced Joel to Phil Ramone, and they teamed up to write, record, and produce Joel’s best album, The Stranger. The epic release was a huge commercial success, yielding four Top-25 hits on the Billboard charts. It is Joel’s first Top Ten album, and the record was certified multi-platinum and reached number two on the charts. “Just the Way You Are” is one of the singles from the album, rumored to have been inspired by a dream, won Grammy awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Rolling Stone has ranked The Stranger as the 70th greatest album of all time.
Full of melody and with some of his best lyrics yet, The Stranger is a rich tapestry, a musical storybook. His profound artistry brings out the best in himself and his band, and that makes the album timeless. He had really come into his own by the time of this record, and the band he had backing him up only enlivens the songs. Vulnerable in places and confident in others, each song becomes a story, and the music might nudge your heart.
Anyone not familiar with this stellar album should know that it is one of the very few albums out there with not one bad song, all are A+ material. “Always A Woman” is a beautiful song about the frustrations of love in a relationship that is not always perfect, The popular “Just The Way You Are” eloquently expresses every man’s wish that the woman he loves will not get the itch to change, and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” is a great story of a couple living life too fast, resulting in inevitable disaster.
Since releasing his first hit song, “Piano Man”, in 1973, Joel has become the sixth best-selling recording artist and the third best-selling solo artist in the United States. His compilation album Greatest Hits Vol. 1 & 2 is one of the best-selling albums in the United States.
The kid from Hicksville had Top 40 hits in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, achieving 33 Top 40 hits in the U.S., all of which he wrote himself. He is also a six-time Grammy Award winner who has been nominated for 23 Grammy Awards. He has sold more than 150 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling artists of all time.
Billy Joel was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2013, Joel received the Kennedy Center Honors, the nation’s highest honor for influencing American culture through the arts.