“Although Billy Joel never was a critic’s favorite, the pianist emerged as one of the most popular singer/songwriters of the latter half of the ‘70s” (Erlewine). “His classical training and reverence for Broadway musicals” (rockhall) alongside a “flair for Tin Pan Alley” (rockhall) “have been counterpointed by his early grounding in the Long Island bar-band scene and his love of rhythm & blues, resulting in an enthusiastic yet musically sophisticated approach to rock and roll. His diverse influences include Beethoven, the Beatles, Dave Brubeck, George Gershwin, Phil Spector, Ray Charles and Fats Domino…From romantic balladry to hard-rocking material, with elements of jazz, pop and soul thrown into the mix, Joel has applied his skills in a diversity of settings” (rockhall); “he is the pop crooner of Piano Man and the jazz-tinged romantic of Just the Way You Are. Yet he’s also capable of harder-rocking fare (Glass Houses), production-heavy pop with a Sixties influence (The Nylon Curtain) and vocal-group soul and doo-wop (An Innocent Man)” (rockhall). Joel has “racked an impressive string of multi-platinum albums and hit singles” (Erlewine); his “popularity is such that he tied the Beatles for the most multi-platinum albums in the U.S.” (rockhall).
Beginnings (1949-1970): “Born in the Bronx, Joel was raised in the Long Island suburb of Hicksville, where he learned to play piano as a child” (Erlewine). “He displayed an early aptitude on the piano and began taking lessons at four” (rockhall). “As he approached his adolescence, Joel started to rebel, joining teenage street gangs and boxing as welterweight. He fought a total of 22 fights as a teenager, and during one of the fights, he broke his nose. For the early years of his adolescence, he divided his time between studying piano and fighting. Upon seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, Joel decided to pursue a full-time musical career and set about finding a local Long Island band to join. Eventually, he found the Echoes, a group that specialized in British Invasion covers. The Echoes became a popular New York attraction, convincing him to quit high school to become a professional musician” (Erlewine).
“The Echoes changed their name twice — once to the Emeralds and finally to the Lost Souls…In 1967, he left the band to join the Hassles, a local Long Island rock & roll band that had signed a contract with United Artists Records. Over the next year and a half, the Hassles” (Erlewine), with their mix of “blue-eyed soul with a twist of psychedelia” (rockhall) “released two albums [1967’s The Hassles and 1969’s Hour of the Wolf] and four singles, all of which failed commercially. In 1969, the Hassles broke up. Joel and the band’s drummer, Jon Small, formed an organ and drums duo called Attila…Epic released Attila early in 1970 and it was an immediate bomb and the duo broke up. While the group was still together, Joel began a romance with Small’s wife, Elizabeth; she would eventually leave the drummer to marry the pianist” (Erlewine) in early 1973.
“After Attila's embarrassing failure, Joel wrote rock criticism for a magazine called Changes and played on commercial jingles, including a Chubby Checker spot for Bachman Pretzels. However, Joel entered a severe bout of depression, culminating with him drinking a bottle of furniture polish in an attempt to end his life. Following his failed suicide attempt, Joel checked himself into Meadowbrook Hospital, where he received psychiatric treatment for depression” (Erlewine).
Solo (1971-1972): “Joel returned to playing music in 1971, signing a deal with Family Productions. Under the terms of the contract, Joel 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. Joel refashioned himself as a sensitive singer/songwriter” (Erlewine). “In a self-penned bio included with review copies [of 1971’s Cold Spring Harbor], Joel wrote: ‘After seven years of trying to make it as a rock star, I decided to do what I always wanted to do-write about my own experiences’” (rockhall).
“Due to an error in the mastering of the album, Cold Spring Harbor was released a couple of tape speeds too fast; the album remained in that bastardized form until 1984…Joel went on a small live tour, during which he would frequently delve into standup comedy. The tour received good reviews but Joel remained unhappy with the quality of his performance and, especially, the quality of the album. Furthermore, he lost a manager during this time and Family Productions were experiencing legal and financial difficulties, which prevented him from recording an immediate follow-up” (Erlewine).
Piano Man (1972-1976): “Early in 1972, he moved out to Los Angeles with…Elizabeth. Joel adopted the name Bill Martin and spent half a year playing lounge piano at the Executive Room. Toward the end of the year, he began touring, playing various nightclubs across the country” (Erlewine).
“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” (Erlewine).
“By the end of 1973, Billy Joel's first album for Columbia Records, Piano Man, had been released. The record slowly worked its way up the charts, peaking at number 27 in the spring of 1974. The title track – culled from experiences he had while singing at the Executive Room” (Erlewine), was “the first in a string of Top Forty hits that numbers 33, to date” (rockhall).
“At the end of the summer, Joel assembled a touring band and undertook a national tour, opening for acts like the J. Geils Band and the Doobie Brothers. By the end of 1974, he had released…Streetlife Serenade” (Erlewine), which featured “The Entertainer, a withering portrait of the music industry” (rockhall).
Next, “Joel signed a contract with…management company, Caribou, and moved from California to New York” (Erlewine). “The sessions for Turnstiles were long and filled with tension, culminating with Joel firing the album’s original producer…and producing the album himself…Joel also left Caribou, and hired his wife as his new manager” (Erlewine). On the resulting 1976 release, “the singer/pianist stretched himself as a songwriter and stylist on a varied set that ranged from the Brill Building pop of Say Goodbye to Hollywood to the cabaret-styled tribute to his home turf, New York State of Mind (rockhall).
The Breakthrough Years (1977-1981): “Turnstiles stalled on the charts, only reaching number 122. Joel’s next album would prove to be the make-or-break point for his career” (Erlewine). “With its jazzy sheen and compositional cunning, Joel hit his stride” (rockhall) “and the resulting album, The Stranger, catapulted him into superstardom” (Erlewine) on the backs of hits such as Just the Way You Are – which would win the 1978 Grammy for Record of the Year and Song of the Year – Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song), She’s Always a Woman, and Only the Good Die Young. The Stranger “surpassed Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water as the top-selling album in Columbia’s history (until Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. displaced it in the Eighties)” (rockhall).
“Joel followed…with 52nd Street…in the fall of 1978. 52nd Street spent eight weeks at number one in the U.S., selling over two millions copies within the first month of its release. The album spawned the hit singles My Life, Big Shot, and Honesty, and won the 1979 Grammy award for Album of the Year. Although he had become a genuine star, critics had not looked kindly to Joel’s music, and the pianist became a vocal opponent of rock criticism in the late ‘70s” (Erlewine).
“In the spring of 1980, Joel released Glass Houses, theoretically a harder-edged album that was a response to the punk and new wave movement” (Erlewine). This was readily apparent on Joel’s #1 hit It's Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me, which “rebutted punk and New Wave acts who’d taken potshots at perceived old-wavers like Joel” (rockhall). The album also had a top 10 hit with You May Be Right and two more top 40 hits with Don’t Ask Me Why and Sometimes a Fantasy.
As proof of his commercial might, Joel even landed top 40 hits with live versions of earlier songs Say Goodbye to Hollywood and She’s Got a Way, pulled from 1981’s Songs in the Attic, “a live album that concentrated on material written and recorded before he became a star in 1977” (Erlewine).
The Serious Artist (1982-1983): “Songs in the Attic bought Joel some time as he was completing an album he had designed as his bid to be taken seriously as a composer. Before the album was finished, he suffered a serious motorcycle accident in the spring of 1982” (Erlewine). And was “hospitalized for a month…Despite multiple fractures of the left hand, the pianist returns to work on The Nylon Curtain” (rockhall), released that fall, right after Joel and Elizabeth divorced. “The lushly produced concept album about America’s ‘diminishing horizons’” (rockhall) and the “baby boomers and their experiences” (Erlewine) “couched social themes in ornate pop productions inspired by the late-period Beatles” (rockhall). The album was a commercial disappointment when compared to the multi-platinum success of its three studio predecessors, but “did earn him some of his better reviews, as well as spawning the Top 20 hits Pressure and Allentown” (Erlewine).
Return to Another Era – And Looking Back at His Own Career (1983-1985): “Joel quickly followed…in 1983 with the oldies pastiche An Innocent Man” (Erlewine), an album which served as Joel’s “fond tribute to the doo-wop era” (rockhall). The album was a success on par with his 1977-1980 work, “eventually selling over seven million copies” (Erlewine) on the strength of six top 40 hits – Tell Her about It (#1), Uptown Girl and An Innocent Man (both top tens), and The Longest Time, Leave a Tender Moment Alone, and Keeping the Faith. “Several of the songs on the album were about model Christie Brinkley, who was engaged to Joel by the time the album was released. During 1983 and 1984, Joel became one of the first ‘70s stars to embrace MTV and music videos, shooting a number of clips for the album that were aired frequently on the network. Brinkley and Joel were married in the spring of 1985” (Erlewine).
“Joel released a double-album compilation, Greatest Hits, Vols. 1 & 2 in the summer of 1985. Two new songs – the Top Ten You’re Only Human (Second Wind) and the Top 40 The Night Is Still Young – were added to the hits collection” (Erlewine), which is one of the 100 best-selling albums worldwide.
The Established Artist (1986-1988): “In the summer of 1986, Joel returned with the Top Ten single Modern Woman, which was taken from the soundtrack of Ruthless People…[and] was also a teaser from his new album, The Bridge which was released in August” (Erlewine). The album’s place in the Billy Joel canon is similar to that of The Nylon Curtain: it was a top ten, two-million seller buoyed by a couple hits – A Matter of Trust (number ten) and This Is the Time (number 18) – but certainly not on par with Joel’s multi-million sellers of the late seventies and early eighties.
“Taking advantage of ‘Glasnost’, a new policy of cultural exchange between U.S. and the U.S.S.R., Billy Joel becomes the first American rock star to tour Russia with a fully staged show” (rockhall). “His Leningrad concert was recorded and released in the fall of 1987 as the live double album Kohuept which means ‘concert’ in Russian” (Erlewine).
“Joel was quiet for much of 1988, only appearing as the voice of Dodger in the Walt Disney animated feature Oliver and Company” (Erlewine). In August of 1989, “Joel fired his longtime manager and former brother-in-law Frank Weber… [and eventually sued him for $90 million] after an audit revealed that there were major discrepancies in Weber’s accounting” (Erlewine). He would be awarded “two million dollars in a partial judgment against Frank Weber” (Erlewine) in 1991.
Going Out on Top (1989-1993): “This turmoil didn’t prevent the release of…Storm Front in the fall of 1989” (Erlewine). On the album, Joel managed to turn “a history lesson into a hit single with his rapid-fire recitation of 20th-century names and places in We Didn’t Start the Fire…Both single and album reached #1” (rockhall). “Storm Front marked a significant change for Joel – he fired his band, keeping only Liberty DeVito, and ceased his relationship with producer Phil Ramone, hiring Mick Jones of Foreigner to produce the album” (Erlewine).
During the first couple years of the ‘90s, Joel undertook a major U.S. tour. In June 1990, Joel was “the first rock act to perform at New York’s Yankee Stadium, selling out the 100,000+ sports venue for back-to-back shows. A concert video, ‘Live at Yankee Stadium’, is culled from the shows” (rockhall).
“In the summer of 1992, Joel filed a 90 million dollar lawsuit charging his former lawyer Allen Grubman of fraud, breach of contract, and malpractice; in October of 1993, the two parties settled their differences out of court” (Erlewine).
“Joel returned in the summer of 1993 with River of Dreams which entered the charts at number one and spawned the Top Ten title track. Following the River of Dreams tour, Joel divorced Christie Brinkley” (Erlewine). Little did anyone know that Joel was closing another chapter as well.
The Post-Pop Days (1994-2007): After two #1, multi-platinum albums, Joel was done with recording studio pop albums. He would continue to tour (with Elton John on some occasions) and release live albums – including 2000 Years: The Millennium Concert, culled from a performance at the 1999 New Year's Eve Party in Times Square, and 2006’s 12 Gardens Live. A few too many compilations started cropping up as well; most notably My Lives, a box set filled with rarities. In 2001, Joel released Fantasies & Delusions, “his first album of his own classical compositions” (Erlewine).
He would also stretch out to other mediums. “Twyla Tharp choreographed and directed Movin’ Out, a Broadway musical based on Joel’s music” (Erlewine). In 2004, Joel released a children’s book – Goodnight, My Angel: A Lullaby. “The 54-year-old Joel married the 23-year-old Katie Lee that same year and was making tabloid headlines again in March of 2005 when he checked into the Betty Ford Clinic for treatment of alcohol abuse” (Erlewine).