Billy Joel Biography

William Martin Joel, 9 May 1949, the Bronx, New York City, New York, USA. Joel, a classically-trained pianist who grew up in Long Island, joined his first group, the Echoes, in 1964. Three years later he left them in favour of the Hassels, a popular Long Island act signed to United Artists Records. Joel appeared on both of their albums, The Hassels and Hour Of The Wolf, before breaking away with drummer Jon Small to form Attila. The duo completed a self-titled album before moving in separate directions. A demo of Joel’s original compositions led to the release of his 1971 debut, Cold Spring Harbor, but its progress was marred by insufficient promotion. However, when ‘Captain Jack’, a new song recorded for a radio broadcast, became an ‘underground’ hit, Columbia Records traced Joel to California and signed him to a long-term contract. The title track to Piano Man, became a US Top 30 single in 1973 and sowed the seeds of a highly successful recording career.

Joel refused to bow to corporate demands for commercially-minded material and despite enjoying hits with two subsequent albums, Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles, it was not until 1977 that his fortunes flourished with the release of The Stranger, which eventually surpassed Simon And Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water as Columbia’s bestselling album. Its best-known track, the US Top 5 hit ‘Just The Way You Are’, later won two Grammy Awards for Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year. This romantic ballad has since become a standard, and was a major UK hit for Barry White in 1978. Joel’s 1979 album, 52nd Street, spawned another smash single, ‘My Life’ while the singer’s first US number 1, ‘It’s Still Rock ‘N’ Roll To Me’ came from a subsequent release, Glass Houses. Joel’s image as a popular, uncontroversial figure was shaken with The Nylon Curtain, which featured two notable ‘protest’ compositions, ‘Allentown’ and ‘Goodnight Saigon’. However he returned to simpler matters in 1984 with An Innocent Man, which included the US number 1 ‘Tell Her About It’ and the effervescent bestseller ‘Uptown Girl’, a tribute to his then wife, model Christie Brinkley. This memorable single topped the UK charts and confirmed the artist’s status as an international performer. Further transatlantic hits from the album included the title track, ‘The Longest Time’, ‘Leave A Tender Moment Alone’, and ‘Keeping The Faith’.

Although his output from the mid-80s onwards has been less prolific, Joel has continued to score the occasional hit single, maintaining his standing in the pop world. Most notable of these were the US Top 10 hits ‘You’re Only Human (Second Wind)’, ‘Modern Woman’ and ‘A Matter Of Trust’, 1989’s US chart-topper ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’, and 1993’s ‘River Of Dreams’. In 1990 he won the Grammy’s Living Legends Award, and the following year was awarded an honorary doctorate at Fairfield University, Connecticut. Further awards included Billboard’s Century Award in 1994 and induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1999.

Joel’s back catalogue continues to sell in thousands and by the turn of the new millennium many had reached multi-platinum status in the USA. He is also the third bestselling solo artist in US recording history, behind Garth Brooks and Elton John. A perfectionist by nature, he also indicated a desire to pursue a wider musical style, and in 1997 announced that he would not be writing any pop songs in the foreseeable future, concentrating instead on classical scores. His first classical release, Fantasies & Delusions, was performed by pianist Richard Joo. In 2002, Emmy Award-winning director Twyla Tharp conceived, choreographed and directed Movin’ Out, a dance-theatre production based on 24 Joel songs. The show moved to Broadway in October.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.