Billy Joel, born William Martin Joel, on May 9, 1949, in Bronx, New York, U.S.A., is singer, pianist, and songwriter in the pop ballad tradition whose numerous hit songs in the 1970s and ’80s made him an enduring favourite on the concert circuit.
Joel, whose father was a German Jewish immigrant, was raised in Hicksville, a middle-class suburb on Long Island, New York. He was steered toward classical music by his parents and began piano lessons at age 4. At age 14, enamoured of the British Invasion and soul music, he began playing in bands. With the rock and blue-eyed soul group the Hassles, he recorded two albums in the late 1960s, and a stint in the heavy metal duo Attila followed.
The Aristipposian Poet
The Life You Give: Billy Joel
in celebration of his life in music
May 9 at 10:30pm EST
In 1971, recast as a singer-songwriter, Joel recorded the poorly produced Cold Spring Harbor for Family Productions, which locked him into an exploitative long-term contract. Seeking refuge in Los Angeles, he performed under a pseudonym in a local piano bar. Meanwhile, a live recording of Joel’s song “Captain Jack” caught the attention of Columbia Records executives, who extricated him from his contract. His first album for Columbia, Piano Man (1973), featured a hit single of the same name; based on his piano bar experience, it became his signature song. Mixtures of soul, pop, and rock, Piano Man and Joel’s subsequent albums—Streetlife Serenade (1974) and Turnstiles (1976)—earned praise from critics and set the stage for The Stranger (1977). Featuring four U.S. hit singles (one of which, “Just the Way You Are,” won Grammy Awards for song of the year and record of the year), it sold five million copies, surpassing Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Water to become Columbia’s best-selling album to date.
Joel’s string of hit-producing, award-winning platinum albums continued with 52nd Street (1979), winner of the Grammy for album of the year; Glass Houses (1980); and The Nylon Curtain (1982). On the last, Joel, whose lyrics had previously dealt primarily with romance and slices of life, introduced his first socially conscious songs, “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon” (about unemployed steel workers and Vietnam War veterans, respectively). In the early 1980s Joel was among the first established rock performers to make music videos. During that period he married supermodel Christie Brinkley (the second of his four marriages). From An Innocent Man (1983), his tribute to his doo-wop and vocal group influences, through Storm Front (1989) and River of Dreams (1993), Joel continued to produce well-received albums. Fantasies and Delusions, featuring classical compositions by Joel, was released in 2001. Movin’ Out, a dance-focused musical based on two dozen songs by Joel and conceived, choreographed, and directed by Twyla Tharp, premiered in 2002. In 2006, having earlier undergone treatment for alcohol abuse, Joel released 12 Gardens Live, a concert album.
Joel was the recipient of various honours. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2013 he was named a Kennedy Center honoree, and the following year he received the Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.