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William Martin Joel (born May 9, 1949 in The Bronx, New York), better known as Billy Joel, is a pianist, singer and songwriter. He recorded a large number of pop music hits from 1973 (beginning with the single "Piano Man") to his retirement from the genre in 1993. Joel could be considered, with Elton John, as being the father of piano rock. He has sold well over 100 million albums worldwide and is the sixth best selling artist in the United States. Joel's induction into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame (Class of 1992), and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Class of 1999) has further solidified his status as one of America's leading music icons. He has continued to tour occasionally (usually with Elton John) in addition to writing and recording classical music.
From an early age, Joel had an intense interest in music, especially classical music.
His influences included:
Joel denies any influence of Elton John on his music, but there is still a similarity between his early music and John's. He joined his first band, The Echoes, at age fourteen. In the late 1960s, he formed the prog-rock band Attila with drummer Jon Small and then The Hassles. He later started an affair with Small's wife Elizabeth and married her in 1971.
Early albums 1970’Äì1976
Joel signed his first solo record contract with Artie Ripp of Family Productions and subsequently recorded his first solo album. Cold Spring Harbor (a reference to the Long Island town of the same name), was released in 1971. However, the masters to the album were recorded at the wrong speed, and the album was initially released with this error. Combined with the onerous terms of the contract that guaranteed him very little money from the sales of his albums, Joel fled to Los Angeles, California with Elizabeth and played in the "Executive Lounge" under the name Bill Martin. Cold Spring Harbor was remastered and rereleased after The Stranger met with significant success.
His experiences in Los Angeles connected him with executives from Columbia Records, who bought out his poor contract with Ripp, with the condition that the "Family Productions" logo be displayed alongside the Columbia logo for the next five albums. The experience also yielded his signature song "Piano Man." The album Piano Man was released in 1974 and sold roughly four million copies. However, due to the large sums of money attributed to the legal tangles related to the contract buyout, Joel netted less than $7,000 in profit from his Gold Certified record.
Becoming a superstar 1977’Äì1981
For his album The Stranger, Columbia Records united Joel with producer Phil Ramone. The album cranked out four Top-40 hits on the Billboard Charts in the US, and was a worldwide smash. Album sales exceeded Columbia's previous top album, Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water and was certified multi-platinum. Phil Ramone eventually produced every Billy Joel studio release until 1989's Storm Front.
The Stranger netted Joel Grammy nominations for Album of the Year and Song of the Year, for "Just The Way You Are," which was written as a gift to his wife Elizabeth and became his highest charting song to date in the United States.
With his star power soaring, Joel was faced with meeting high expectations on his next album. 52nd Street was conceived as a day in Manhattan, and was named after the block where Columbia Records' office was located. The album did not disappoint, as fans purchased over seven million copies on the strength of songs "My Life" and "Big Shot." "My Life" eventually became the theme song for a new US television sitcom, "Bosom Buddies," which featured actor Tom Hanks in one of his earliest roles.
After 52nd Street Joel took a break from recording. His next release, Songs In The Attic, was comprised of live performances over previous tours, including previously obscure songs from Cold Spring Harbor.
Joel stated that his next album would be more of a hard-rock record, as he was trying to prove that he would not turn into a crooner. Glass Houses was released in 1980, and the first thing heard after taking the album out of its sleeve was the sound of breaking glass introducing the guitar-driven "You May Be Right." However, its first single, "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me", was more of a toe-tapper. It eventually became Joel's first Billboard Number 1 song. His second single, "Don't Ask Me Why", incorporated a Latin rather than rock beat. Although it became a ubiquitous AM radio staple during the summer of 1980, his critics were disappointed at his choice of singles. Glass Houses was Joel's biggest hit since The Stranger in terms of the number of records sold.
Building on success 1982’Äì1986
The Nylon Curtain was considered by many Joel's most ambitious album, but it came with a high physical and emotional price tag. He had begun work on it in the spring of 1982 when he was involved in a motorcycle accident; a woman in a car ran a red light and hit Billy on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. His left wrist was broken and his hand badly damaged. When Joel tells the story he says that the police officer on the scene read his license as "William Joel," put two and two together, and said, "Hey lady, you just ran over Billy Joel!" After the woman learned who she hit, she asked for his autograph. He offered to use his bleeding wrists to write her an autograph. Due to surgery (which included the temporary insertion of five pins into his wrist) and a month in the hospital, production of the album was temporarily shut down while Joel recovered. An additional obstacle for the singer was the breakdown of his marriage to Weber, an event partially blamed on the stress created by Weber's management of her husband's career.
By the end of 1982 the couple divorced. When she left, Joel's ex-wife took half of the singer's assets. Even with such personal tragedies, creating the music for the album proved to be difficult. "You're always in the desert looking for the oasis and all that's out there with you is the piano ’Äî this big black beast with 88 teeth ... 50,000 packs of cigarettes later, you start getting it."
Following his tour supporting Nylon Curtain, Joel retreated to the island of St. Bart's for rest and relaxation. At the hotel's bar, he met supermodel Christie Brinkley, who had been widowed from her husband Jean-Franˆßois Allaux. They eventually became a couple, and married in May, 1985.
The song "Uptown Girl" was one of the first songs written when Joel returned from vacation. "Uptown Girl" was conceived as Joel wondered aloud how the gorgeous Christie Brinkley could wind up with such a guy like himself. It became a worldwide hit upon its release. The resulting album, An Innocent Man was compiled as a tribute to the Doo-Wop music of the 1960s, and also resulted in Joel's second Billboard #1 hit, "Tell Her About It." The album boasted six top-30 singles, the most of any album in Joel's catalog.
The Russia period 1987’Äì1989
Throughout his tour supporting The Bridge, Joel and his handlers started planning a trip to the Soviet Union over the summer of 1987. He would be the first rock act to play there since the Berlin Wall went up, a fact not lost on history buff Joel. There would be six live performances, three each at indoor arenas in Moscow and Leningrad. Joel and his family (including young daughter Alexa) and his full touring band made the trip in June, 1987. The entourage was filmed for television and video to eventually offset the cost of the trip, and the concerts were simulcast on radio around the world.
The audience in at least the first couple 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.
The album öûù¶ïÝ¢, Russian for "In Concert," was released in the fall of 1987. As a live album, it captures the energy of a Billy Joel show during this period, however it became painfully obvious that his voice had lost some of its youthful timbre. In one particularly difficult section during an energetic "Uptown Girl" he has trouble catching his breath and the vocals of backup singer George Simms, specifically brought to hit the high notes in his vocally challenging songs, become more prominent.
It has been estimated that Joel lost over US$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.
Later albums 1989’Äì1994
September 1989 brought the release of "We Didn't Start The Fire," the first single from the album Storm Front. The song was meant to convey the fact that the world has never been stable, and nostalgia for "good old days" glossed over difficult times as well. Conceived as a rap or a more rhythmic song than anything in Joel's career previously, the lyrics of the song were also made up of names and phrases relating to newsmaking events of the 40 year span of Billy Joel's life to date. Critics assailed Joel for this approach, but the song generated significant buzz and quickly became Joel's third US Number 1 hit after its release. The song has spawned a number of web sites that hyperlink the words of the song to historical news articles on the internet (including Wikipedia's entry). Joel has stated on numerous occasions that the song stands on its own, and he does not feel the need to update or rewrite the song to take news since 1989 into account. Storm Front was released in October, and it eventually became Joel's first Number 1 album since Glass Houses, nine years previously.
In the 1990s, Joel sued former manager and ex-brother-in-law Frank Weber (ex-wife Elizabeth's brother) for $95 million after accounting irregularities were discovered.
Joel has toured with Elton John; during the tours the two have played each other's songs and performed duets.
Joel's songwriting cannot be separated from the life that inspired so much of his work. Joel "was born in '49, a Cold War kid in McCarthy time," as he wrote in his song "Leningrad." Joel first lived in the modern-day South Bronx, an ethnically white neighborhood at the time. His family then moved to Long Island, to Levittown and then to Hicksville, both working class towns in Nassau County . His father, Howard Joel, was a Jewish refugee from Germany and his mother, Rosalind Hyman, was born in England, to an agnostic Jewish family. His parents later divorced, and his father moved back to Eastern Europe. His half-brother Alexander Joel is a musician.
Joel was not raised very religiously, and in fact attended Roman Catholic mass with his Catholic friends, inspiring some of his religion-themed lyrics. He has made many references in his lyrics to locations in the New York City metropolitan area, particularly the Island, in his songs. For example, the Miracle Mile line in "It's Still Rock & Roll to Me" refers to the affluent shopping district located on Northern Boulevard in the community of Manhasset. Also, in his early song Billy the Kid, he describes a certain "Billy" as being from the Town of Oyster Bay, the municipality in which the hamlet of Levittown is located.
Joel has always relied heavily on his own experiences in writing his songs; perhaps the best examples are "Piano Man", which he wrote out of his experience of regularly playing at a Los Angeles piano bar in the early 1970s, and "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," purportedly written about either the Syosset mainstay Christiano's or a similar eatery in New York City's Little Italy. His song "New York State of Mind" ’Äî a track from 1976's Turnstiles album that has since become a standard ’Äî also demonstrated his affinity for his home state.
Joel paid tribute to life in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania in one of his most popular songs, "Allentown," released in 1982. The song depicts living in industrial Allentown, Pennsylvania during the economic recession in the early 1980s. His song "Vienna" was supposedly written based on a visit to his father in Europe. And his song "Big Shot" is based on a bad date with Mick Jagger's ex-wife Bianca.
Joel's daughter Alexa has also been a motivation for lyrical content; he penned "Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)" for her after she asked what happens when people die. Similarly, his song "The Downeaster Alexa" combined his love for his daughter with a depiction of the plight of boat captains in the offshore fishing industry. "Uptown Girl" was a love song about the seemingly mismatched romance between himself and Christie Brinkley, Alexa's mother and his second wife. Alexa's middle name is Ray after the late Ray Charles.
Joel has always had a trusting, open attitude in both his business and personal relationships. This attitude was manifested as advice in the song "Tell Her About It", as well as in an expression of his own needs in "Honesty" and "And So It Goes." It can also be found in his description of the elements needed to make a relationship work in "A Matter of Trust."
The song "We Didn't Start the Fire" lists historical events from his birth in 1949 through the mid-1980s ’Äî the first thirty-five years of Joel's life, reflecting his fascination with culture and history. The song "Leningrad" shows Joel's appreciation for the history of the Soviet Union and his feelings about the Cold War in which he was raised. Before Joel went into the music business, he always wanted to become a history teacher; later in his career, he earned a New York state teaching license.
In addition, having attempted suicide earlier in his life, Joel composed a song on request called "You're Only Human (Second Wind)" specifically to strengthen those contemplating suicide to choose life instead.
Joel has recently been returning to his fascination with classical music and has been experimenting in that area. Fantasies and Delusions, his first album of classical pieces, got a tepid response from critics but went to #1 on the classical charts.
Joel married his business manager, Elizabeth Weber, in May of 1971. The marriage ended in divorce in July of 1982.
Joel went on to marry supermodel Christie Brinkley in March of 1985. Their marriage produced one child, daughter Alexa Ray Joel, born December 30, 1985. This marriage ended with divorce in August of 1994.
In 2004, Joel married 23 year-old Katie Lee. Lee is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. At the time of the wedding, Joel was 54. Joel's daughter, Alexa Ray, 18, served as maid of honor. Joel's ex-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!.
Joel entered the Betty Ford Center in March of 2005 for treatment of alcohol abuse after what his publicist called "a recent bout of severe gastrointestinal distress". He checked out of the center in April of 2005. A friend who saw him after he checked out said that Joel has completely sworn off all alcohol. Joel was treated previously for alcohol abuse in 2002 when he spent two weeks at Silver Hill Hospital in Connecticut.
Joel has a history of car accidents, including several that occurred while he allegedly was under the influence of alcohol.
As a result of his love of teaching and music, Joel has been passing on his hard-learned experience with the music industry and as an artist to a new generation. Some of these have been recorded and are available, such as the fourth CD in his Greatest Hits Box Set. The classes are structured as a question-and-answer session with the audience in a small amphitheatre or collegiate lecture hall. Joel appears alone with a piano and without the benefit of his full band for the roughly two-hour program. He speaks candidly about his life and his music, with interspersed musical requests from the audience. Some of the most entertaining segments of his program are when he explains the inception and development of his songs from the genesis of the initial idea. Joel brought some of this material to James Lipton's "Inside the Actors' Studio" for a two-hour episode in 1999.
- Cold Spring Harbor (1971) #158 US
- Piano Man (1973) #27 US, US sales: 4,000,000
- Streetlife Serenade (1974) #35 US, US sales: 1,000,000
- Turnstiles (1976) #122 US, US sales: 1,000,000
- The Stranger (1977) #2 US, #25 UK, US sales: 10,000,000
- 52nd Street (1978) #1 US, #10 UK, US sales: 7,000,000
- Glass Houses (1980) #1 US, #9 UK, US sales: 7,000,000
- Songs in the Attic (Live) (1981) #8 US, US sales: 3,000,000
- The Nylon Curtain (1982) #7 US, #27 UK, US sales: 2,000,000
- An Innocent Man (1983) #4 US, #2 UK, US sales: 7,000,000
- Greatest Hits, Vols. 1 & 2 (1973-1985) (1985) (compilation) #6 US, #7 UK, US sales: 21,000,000 (5th best selling album of all time)
- The Bridge (1986) #7 US, #38 UK, US sales: 1,000,000
- öûù¶ïÝ¢ (Live) (1987) #38 US, US sales: 1,000,000
- Storm Front (1989) #1 US, #5 UK, US sales: 4,000,000
- River of Dreams (1993) #1 US, #3 UK, US sales: 5,000,000
- Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (1997) (compilation) #9 US, #23 UK, US sales: 1,000,000
- The Complete Hits Collection: 1973-1997 (1997) (compilation) US sales: 1,000,000
- 2000 Years: The Millennium Concert (Live) (2000) #40 US, US sales: 500,000
- Fantasies & Delusions (2001) (performed by Richard Joo) #83 US
- Ultimate Collection (2001) (compilation) #4 UK
- Essential Billy Joel (2001) (compilation) #29 US
- Movin' Out Original Broadway Cast Recording (2002) (performed by the cast of Movin' Out)
- Piano Man: The Very Best Of (2004) (compilation)
- My Lives (2005) (compilation)
- from Piano Man
- from Streetlife Serenade
- 1975 "The Entertainer" #34 US
- from The Stranger
- from 52nd Street
- 1978 "My Life" #3 US (1979 release), #12 UK
- 1979 "Big Shot" #19 US
- 1979 "Honesty" #24 US
- from Glass Houses
- 1980 "All for Leyna" #40 UK
- 1980 "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" #1 US, #14 UK
- 1980 "Don't Ask Me Why" #19 US
- 1980 "Sometimes a Fantasy" #36 US
- 1980 "You May Be Right" #7 US
- from Songs in the Attic (LIVE)
- 1981 "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" #17 US (originally released on Turnstiles May 1976)
- 1982 "She's Got a Way" #23 US (originally released on Cold Spring Harbor 1971, re-released on Columbia 1983)
- from The Nylon Curtain
- 1982 "Pressure" #20 US
- 1983 "Allentown" #17 US
- from An Innocent Man
- 1983 "Uptown Girl" #3 US, #1 UK
- 1983 "Tell Her About It" #1 US, #4 UK
- 1983 "An Innocent Man" #10 US, #8 UK (1984 release)
- 1984 "The Longest Time" #14 US, #25 UK
- 1984 "Leave a Tender Moment Alone" #27 US, #29 UK (double A-side with Goodnight Saigon in the UK)
- 1985 "Keeping the Faith" #18 US
- from Greatest Hits, Vols. 1 & 2 (1973-1985)
- from The Bridge
- 1986 "Modern Woman" #10 US
- 1986 "A Matter Of Trust" #10 US
- 1987 "Baby Grand" #75 US
- 1987 "This Is The Time" #18 US
- from Storm Front
- 1989 "We Didn't Start the Fire" #1 US, #7 UK
- 1990 "I Go to Extremes" #6 US
- 1990 "And So It Goes" #37 US
- 1990 "That's Not Her Style" #77 US
- 1990 "The Downeaster 'Alexa'" #57 US
- from Honeymoon in Vegas soundtrack
- 1992 "All Shook Up" #27 UK
- from River of Dreams
- 1993 "The River of Dreams" #3 US, #3 UK
- 1993 "All About Soul" #29 US, #32 UK
- 1994 "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)" #77 US
- from Greatest Hits Vol. 3
- 1997 "To Make You Feel My Love" #50 US
Credits on Broadway