#687: Piano Man by Billy Joel
William Martin Joel was born in 1949 in The Bronx. His father, Helmut “Howard” Joel, was born in Nuremberg, Germany, and sold his textile business at a fraction of its value to be able to move to Switzerland. From there his father traveled to Cuba and was able to enter the United States from the Caribbean. Billy Joel’s mother, Rosalind Nyman, was born in Brooklyn, also to Jewish parents. Young William was coerced by his mother to take piano lessons at the age of four. He kept taking piano lessons until he was sixteen. His parents divorced when he was eight, and in his later years in high school Billy Joel played at a piano bar to make some extra income to support his single mother, his sister and himself. Though his parents were Jewish, Billy Joel did not identify as Jewish and began to attend a Roman Catholic parish at age eleven. In 1964, at the age of 15, Joel was the pianist on the recording of “Remember (Walking In The Sand)” for the Shangri-Las. Later, he played piano on the demo for “Leader Of The Pack”, which the Shangri-Las later recorded and became a number-one hit in November 1964. He took up boxing and was in the Golden Gloves, winning 22 fights, but quit after he got his nose broken.
In late 1965, Billy Joel joined a band called the Echoes. For day jobs, Joel became a rock critic for a magazine called Changes, and got $25 an article. However, he wasn’t comfortable being a critical of other performers. He also worked for awhile as a house painter, and later mowed lawns. His other daytime work included a job at a typewriter factory. He also worked on an oyster dredge. But, as he kept trying to make the rent, Billy Joel kept pursuing his dream of becoming a successful musician. In 1967, as he was playing in a piano bar Billy Joel missed an English exam and didn’t graduate from high school. The occasion was a catalyst for his determination to pursue a career in music. He joined a rock band from Long Island called the Hassles, after being offer $250 per week ($1,948 in 2020 dollars). This was much better money than his other laboring jobs. The Hassles appeared on The Clay Cole Show.
And in 1969 he and another member of the Hassles formed a duo named Attila. In 1970 Joel went solo and started playing at venues in Manhattan like The Bitter End, The Gaslight and the Village Gate. The gigs paid little.
In 1971 Billy Joel released his debut album Cold Spring Harbor. One track from the album, “She’s Got A Way”, later became a Top 30 hit in a live recording in 1982. In 1971 Billy Joel gave four concerts at a venue called My Father’s Place in the northwest Long Island town of Roslyn. And in February 1972, Billy Joel gave five performances at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. In November he released his first album with Columbia Records titled Piano Man. And on November 4, 1973, Billy Joel was the opening act for the Beach Boys in concert at the UBC War Memorial Gymnasium.
In the spring of 1974 the title track from his album, “Piano Man” was a Top 30 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
Billy Joel wrote “Piano Man”, as was the case for all the tracks on the album. Over the course of twelve studio albums, Joel has written all his songs, and had one credit to Cyndi Lauper who co-wrote one song, and a second song with co-writing credits to Ludwig von Beethoven for “The Night”.
“Piano Man” is a song drawn from Billy Joel’s observations working at piano bars from the mid-sixties. The song is set on a Saturday night. He sings “there’s an old man sitting next to me, making love to his tonic and gin.” As Billy Joel would later be admitted to several hospital clinics for alcohol abuse, it is an interesting lyric – perhaps a prescient sense of his one day being like that old man himself. Another man at the piano bar is a friend of his called John, who gets the piano man drinks for free.
Alberta lounge singer, Barbara Myers, recalls her years playing at piano bars. At the Caravan Hotel in Edmonton – as with other piano lounges – it was the policy that the piano player would get free soft drinks or juices. But if the piano player wanted to have an alcoholic drink, they had to pay for it. Consequently, for some piano players who did want to get stiff drinks, their bar bill could exceed their remuneration for playing at the bar. Myers recalls how one customer, who was drinking alone and requesting songs all night, would buy her a drink for each song she played for him. Myers had an arrangement with the bartender. If the customer bought her a rum and Coke, the bartender would charge the customer for the highball, but only serve the lounge singer a Coke. At the end of the night, Myers and the bartender split the difference in the proceeds from the extra charges of rum and Coke, above the price for a Coke. And on this one night the customer had bought her twelve rum and Cokes. After she polished off her twelfth Coke, the customer – who was hammered – staggered up to her and complimented her on her ability to hold her liquor. Myers recalls there was always a lot of politics in handling customers who wanted to buy the piano player a drink. If you didn’t accept their offer, the customer might feel affronted and complain that the piano player thought they were too good for them.
In addition to John at the bar – who believes he could be a movie star, we meet other characters in “Piano Man”. These include Paul – a real estate novelist “who never had time for a wife,” and Davy who will probably be serving in the Navy for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, the waitress is negotiating her orders and flirtations from the customers, and the “businessmen slowly get stoned.” Billy Joel likens the sound of the piano to “a carnival” and the “microphone smells like a beer.” Everyone who gives the piano man tips wonders why he’s still working at this piano bar, instead of being more famous.
When Billy Joel moved in Los Angeles in 1972, he worked for six months at a piano bar called the Executive Room. His experience of working there under the billing William Martin, resulted in his composition of “Piano Man”.
“Piano Man” climbed to #3 in Sudbury (ON) and Stockton (CA), #4 in Decatur (AL), Lewiston (ME) and Waterbury (CT), #5 in Vancouver (BC), Sioux Falls (SD) and Hartford (CT), #7 in Toronto, #8 in Salt Lake City, Philadelphia and Duluth (MN), and #9 in Easton (PA). In about 15 states in the USA the song got hardly any airplay. On the Billboard Hot 100 it stalled at #25, spending only four weeks in the nations’ Top 40.
Billy Joel’s next two albums, Streetlight Serenade and Turnstiles, underwhelmed music critics and Columbia Records considered dropping him from the label.
His fifth studio album The Stranger, became his commercial breakthrough. The lead single, “Just The Way You Are”, climbed to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was ranked by Billboard at #17 for the Top 100 songs of 1978. The single won a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1979, and also for Song of the Year. Though less successful in the USA, “Only The Good Die Young” was a #4 hit in Vancouver (BC) in 1978. And “She’s Always A Woman” peaked at #2 in Vancouver, though it barely made the Top 20 in the USA. While Billy Joel had a breakthrough with The Stranger, record buyers in Vancouver continued to send his singles much higher on the local pop charts in the 1970s than he managed on the national record surveys in America.
In 1978 Billy Joel released his sixth studio album, 52nd Street. In January 1979, the lead single “My Life”, climbed to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #1 in Vancouver. Another track from the album, “Honesty”, made the Top 20 in Vancouver in May ’79, and was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Song of the Year category. But he was beaten out by the Doobie Brothers for “What A Fool Believes”. However, he won the Grammy Award for Album Of The Year and for Best Pop Vocal Performance – both for 52nd Street.
In March 1980, Billy Joel released his album Glass Houses. It won him the Grammy Award nomination for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. In the spring of 1980, “You May Be Right” spent ten weeks in the Top Ten on CFUN, including three weeks at number-one. “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” spent 15 weeks in the Top Ten on CKLG in Vancouver. This included six weeks in the number-one spot. Next up, “Don’t Ask Me Why” made the Top Ten in Vancouver, and a fourth track from the album “Sometimes A Fantasy”, peaking at #3 in December 1980. Starting with “You May Be Right”, Billy Joel had a charting song on the pop charts in Vancouver all but two weeks between March 15 and January 17, 1981.
In 1981 Joel released a live album titled Songs in the Attic. On April 15, 1982, The Piano Man was riding his motorcycle when he crashed into car that ran a red light on West Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. In the collision Joel crushed his left thumb and his right wrist was pulled out of its socket. Rushed to Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan, Billy Joel spent a month in hospital in recovery, but he did recover. The accident delayed the release of his next album into the summer – the Grammy nominated Best Album of the Year, The Nylon Curtain. It featured “Allentown”, a single that spent nearly six months on the Billboard Hot 100, stalled at #17 for six weeks. It ended up at #43 for the Year-End Top 100 of 1983. He was given the keys to Allentown, Pennsylvania, by the mayor of the city after the song about working class struggles became a hit. Also from the album, “Goodnight Saigon” became a number-one hit in the Netherlands.
In 1983 Billy Joel released what would become another Grammy nominated Best Album of the Year, An Innocent Man. The album lost out to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. From the album came six hit singles including “Tell Her About It”, “Uptown Girl”, “An Innocent Man” and “The Longest Time”. “Tell Her About It” became Billy Joel’s second number-one hit on the Billboard Hot 100, after “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me”. Joel was nominated for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for “Uptown Girl”, but lost out to Michael Jackson.
In 1985 a greatest hits album was released which included a new single “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)”. The song was written to prevent teen suicide. Billy Joel himself had attempted suicide and left a suicide note in 1970, after concussing furniture polish. He had been suffering from depression. But he was rushed to a hospital by a bandmate and survived. A track from his 1971 album, Cold Spring Harbor, “Tomorrow Is Today”, referred to this incident. In 1985, “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” was a Top Ten hit across Canada and in the USA.
In 1986 The Bridge, Billy Joel’s tenth studio album, spawned two Top Ten hits: “Modern Woman” and “A Matter Of Trust”. At the end of the decade, Storm Front was released. The album received Grammy Award nominations for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, which was won by Michael Bolton for “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You”; And for Producer of the Year (Non-Classical), which was won by Quincy Jones. The lead single from the album, “We Didn’t Start The Fire”, became Billy Joel’s third and final chart topper on the Billboard Hot 100. It was nominated for both Record of the Year and Song of the Year. But, in both cases lost out to “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler.
In 1993 Billy Joel released his twelfth studio album, River of Dreams. It received a Grammy Award nomination for Album of the Year, but lost to The Bodyguard – Original Soundtrack Album. Also, at the 1994 Grammy ceremonies, “River of Dreams” was nominated for Song of the Year. But it lost out to “A Whole New World” by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle. And in the Record of the Year category “River of Dreams” lost the Grammy to “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. Billy Joel received a third Grammy nomination for “River of Dreams” in the category of Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, but lost out to Sting who won for “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You”.
On and off, between 1994 and 2009, Billy Joel and Elton John toured together in a series of “Face to Face” tours that became the most successful pairing of pop music soloists to go on tour in contemporary music history. During their “Face to Face” tour, January 22, 2001, Billy Joel appeared in concert with Elton John at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver (BC).
In 2002, the entertainer was admitted to the substance abuse and psychiatric center at the Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut. And in 2005 he was admitted to the Betty Ford Center for a month to be treated for alcohol abuse.
Meanwhile, on Broadway there was a musical made about the music of Billy Joel called Movin’ Out. It ran at the Richard Rodgers Theatre at 226 W. 46th Street from October 24, 2002, to December 11, 2005. The Broadway production of Movin’ Out received ten Tony Award nominations, and won two of these for Best Choreography and Best Orchestration – the latter for which Billy Joel shared the Tony Award. The musical also went on tour to 82 cities in the USA and across Canada, between January 2004 and January 2007. The North American tour of Movin’ Out lasted 1,111 performances.
In 2006 Billy Joel played Madison Square Gardens in concert in New York City on 17 occasions. On October 30, 2007, Billy Joel returned to Vancouver to perform at the Rogers Arena. Between January 2014 and February 2020, Billy Joel has performed in sold-out concerts at Madison Square Gardens on 73 occasions. His February 20, 2020, concert was his 120th concert that he’s given at Madison Square Gardens. On July 18, 2018, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo proclaimed the date Billy Joel Day in New York State to commemorate the entertainers 100th performance at Madison Square Gardens. Billy Joel is tentatively scheduled to return for six concert dates at Madison Square Gardens between November 2021 and April 2022 – depending on the coronavirus pandemic subsiding.
November 7, 2020
Larry Getlen, “How Billy Joel Became The Piano Man,” New York Post, January 26, 2014.
Bryan Wawzenek, “When Billy Joel Injured Both Hands in a Motorcycle Accident,” Ultimate Classic Rock, April 15, 2017.
Nick Paumgarten, “Thirty-Three Hit Wonder: Billy Joel Still Lives on Long Island, Still Rules the Garden,” New Yorker, October 20, 2014.
“Billy Joel Leave US Rehab Clinic,” BBC, April 13, 2005.
“Movin’ Out,” The Guide to Musical Theatre, London, UK, July 2006.
Terry Tallmer, “Billy Joel Grapples With the Past,” The Villager, New York, July 16, 2003.
“Album #70 – Billy Joel: The Stranger,” 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Rolling Stone, July 18, 2012.
Fred Schruers, Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography, (Three Rivers Press, 2015).
“CKLG Thirty,” CKLG 730 AM, Vancouver, BC May 10, 1974.
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