Billy Joel is a known pianist and singer-songwriter known for the hit pop classics such as “The Piano Man”, “Just The Way You Are” and “She’s Always A Woman”. Seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 made a turning point in the life of this native New Yorker; he was inspired to do music as a calling. After playing in different bands, he began his solo career in 1971, and eventually earned minor hits such as “Say Goodbye To Hollywood”. He scored big with his song “The Piano Man” in 1974, and since then his name became household status when he recorded and released “Just The Way You Are”, which became a hit in 1977. In the 80s he scored other smashes with “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me”, “Tell Her About It”, “Uptown Girl” (which went to #1), and “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” As famous as his songs, his personal life has been very much publicized. His songs are multimillion and gold-and-platinum sellers. He is still active in the music scene today while still holding the reputation as one of the legends in pop music history.
Early life and career
The hit maker Billy Joel was born William Martin Joel on May 9, 1949 in The Bronx, New York City, New York. Shortly after his birth, his family relocated to a suburb on Long Island. He might have inherited his natural skills on the keys as his father was a classical pianist. However, his mother was the one who pushed him into studying piano, and he reluctantly began to take lessons on the instrument.
But the course of his life changed in 1964 when Joel was inspired by the Beatles who made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Because of this appearance, he decided to pursue a career in music, dropping out of high school to follow his dreams. By the time he was 16, Joel was already a professional musician, having played in several bands and as a recording artist, playing piano for Kama Sutra Records.
In 1971, Joel inked his first recording contract with Family Productions. He released his debut album Cold Spring Harbor that same year. Joel was unhappy with the album’s result; it had gone through an amateurish production. As expected, Cold Spring Harbor was an artistic, technical and commercial failure.
With his first major disappointment in trying to make it big, Joel flew to California to escape his first contract, and settled in Los Angeles for three years. During those years he got a gig as a lounge pianist under the stage name Bill Martin. This experience led him to write the song that he would be mostly associated with, “Piano Man.”
He was then signed to Columbia Records, although his contract with Family Productions was still valid, leading the bigwigs of the two labels to legally settle things. Joel released his second album and his debut under Columbia, Piano Man in 1973. Despite the title track reaching only #25 on the Hot 100, in the years that followed “Piano Man” became Billy Joel’s most identifiable song. Piano Man became his breakthrough album, selling four million copies and going multiplatinum.
However, it was 1977’s The Stranger that made Billy Joel a pop superstar and a household name. Singles from the album — “Just The Way You Are,” “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “She’s Always A Woman,” and “Only The Good Die Young” — were all Top 40 smashes, with “Just The Way You Are” making it to #3 on the Hot 100. The song was eventually awarded with two Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.
The Stranger sold ten million copies in the US alone, and five million copies in Canada. Its follow-up 52nd Street (1978) was also a best seller. The singles from the album “My Life,” “Big Shot,” and “Honesty” charted quite well on the Top 40, with “My Life” peaking at #3 on the Hot 100. 52nd Street became Joel’s first #1 album, and also won Album of the Year from the Grammy Awards.
The success of his piano-based hits provided fodder for music critics who called him either a “balladeer” or a “soft rocker.” Joel, insulted with the unfair labeling, responded to them with his next release Glass House (1980), whose style was based on the current musical genres then which were punk and new wave. Glass Houses became another certified hit, selling seven million copies in the US and five million copies in Canada. Joel won another Grammy for his work in the album in the category of Best Male Rock Vocal Performance
By the early 1980s had Joel profited greatly from his record sales, and collected many awards. In 1984, he met supermodel Christie Brinkley whom he married the following year. She had played the title role on his music video for the hit Uptown Girl.
Throughout the 1980s, Joel continued to dominate the charts. His first live albumSongs in the Attic went triple-platinum. Joel went on to make history as the first American to have performed in the then-Communist Soviet Russia. In 1986, he performed in the Soviet leg of his world tour to promote his album The Bridge. The tour also became the first-ever rock event to be broadcast in that country’s history. The tour was recorded and released as another live album Kontsert (in Cyrillic characters) in 1987; it sold a million copies and went platinum. In his historic Soviet musical sojourn Joel did a cover of the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.”
All of Joel’s other 1980s LPs The Nylon Curtain, An Innocent Man, The Bridge, andStorm Front became platinum successes. Hit singles released during that time came in bundles. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (from Glass House) became Joel’s first number 1 single. Another #1 hit “Tell Her about It” was from the album An Innocent Man (1983). Joel would score his most phenomenal hit yet with “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (from the 1989 album Storm Front), reaching #1. Joel has also performed in several benefit concerts alongside other stars as Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Mariah Carey and Jon Bon Jovi. He released River Of Dreams in 1993, which also became a #1 multiplatinum hit, spawning the top 10 single “The River Of Dreams” (at #3).
By then he had already sold records worth $150 million. His career might be flourishing but his personal life wasn’t as rosy. Joel and wife Christie divorced in 1993; he launched a series of legal proceedings against his publishers, and was struggling with his depression, substance abuse and alcohol addiction that led him in and out of rehab clinics.
Although in the later years Joel’s chart performance has gradually eased off, he continued to perform and tour, as well as branch out in other outlets, such as scoring films. To date, Joel has sold over 150 million copies worldwide. He received prestigious awards and citations including inductions into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1992) and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1999).