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Born on May 9, 1949 in the Bronx, Joel was raised in the Long Island suburb of Hicksville, where he learned to play piano as a child. As he approached his adolescence, Joel started to rebel, joining teenage street gangs and boxing as welterweight. He fought a total of 22 fights as a teenager, and during one of the fights, he broke his nose. For the early years of his adolescence, he divided his time between studying piano and fighting. Upon seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, Joel decided to pursue a full-time musical career and set about finding a local Long Island band to join. Eventually, he found the Echoes, a group that specialized in British Invasion covers. The Echoes became a popular New York attraction, convincing him to quit high school to become a professional musician.
In 1965, while still a member of the Echoes, Joel began working as a session musician. Just 16 years old at the time, he played piano on several George "Shadow" Morton productions -- including the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" -- as well as several records released through Kama Sutra Productions. Meanwhile, the Echoes began playing more late-night shows and at the end of that year changed their name twice -- once to the Emeralds and finally to the Lost Souls. In 1967, after two years of gigging with the Lost Souls, Joel left the band to join the Hassles, a local Long Island rock & roll band that had signed a contract with United Artists Records. Over a two year period the Hassles released two albums and four singles, all of which failed commercially. After the Hassles disbanded in 1969 Joel and the band's drummer, Jon Small, formed the proto-metal organ-and-drums duo Attila and signed a deal with Epic. A peculiar left turn in Joel's career, Attila achieved a heavy, psychedelic hard rock sound through the use of numerous effects pedals on Joel's organ. Bearing a cover image of the two bandmembers dressed as barbarians, Attila's eponymous 1970 debut was an immediate bomb and the duo broke up. While the band's poor sales were a factor in this decision, it was Joel's affair with Small's wife Elizabeth -- whom he later married -- that effectively ended Attila's brief run.
Over the months that followed, Joel suffered from severe depression. He drifted between jobs, working briefly as a rock critic for a magazine called Changes and doing session work on commercial jingles before attempting to end his own life by drinking a bottle of furniture polish. Following his failed suicide attempt, the singer checked himself into Meadowbrook Hospital, where he received psychiatric treatment for depression.
Joel returned to playing music in 1971, signing a deal with Family Productions. Under the terms of the contract, Joel signed to the label for life; the pianist was unaware of the clause at the time, but it would come back to haunt him -- even after he left the label Family Productions received royalties from every album Joel sold until the late '80s. Making an about face from Attila's heavy rock Joel refashioned himself as a sensitive singer/songwriter for his debut album, Cold Spring Harbor, which was released in November of 1971. Due to an error in the mastering of the album, Cold Spring Harbor was released a couple of tape speeds too fast; the album remained in that bastardized form until 1984. Following its release, Joel went on a small live tour, opening shows for established bands like the Beach Boys and Badfinger. The tour received good reviews but Joel remained unhappy with the quality of his performance and, especially, the quality of the album. Furthermore, he lost a manager during this time and Family Productions was experiencing legal and financial difficulties, which prevented him from recording an immediate follow-up.
After moving to Los Angeles in early 1972, Joel adopted the pseudonym Bill Martin and spent half a year playing lounge piano at a bar called the Executive Room. Around this time, Philadelphia radio station WMMR-FM began playing a live version of Joel's song "Captain Jack" which began to gain traction on the East Coast. Label interest quickly followed and he eventually signed with Columbia Records later that year. Because of the deal Joel had previously signed with Family Productions, Columbia had to agree to pay Family Productions 25 cents for each album sold, plus display the Family and Remus logos on each record Joel released with them.
By the end of 1973, Billy Joel's first album for Columbia Records, Piano Man, had been released. The record slowly worked its way up the charts, peaking at number 27 in the spring of 1974. Based on his experiences singing at the Executive Room the title track made it to the Top 40, becoming Joel's first hit as well as his signature song. At the end of the summer, Joel assembled a touring band and undertook a national tour, opening for acts like the J. Geils Band and the Doobie Brothers. By the end of 1974, he had released his second album, Streetlife Serenade, which reached number 35 early in 1975 and yielded the cynical, but catchy hit "The Entertainer." After its success, Joel signed a contract with James William Guercio and Larry Fitzgerald's management company, Caribou, and moved from California back to New York. Through songs like "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" and "New York State of Mind," Joel celebrated the return to his hometown 1976's. Turnstiles. The sessions for Turnstiles were long and filled with tension, culminating with Joel firing the album's original producer, Guercio, and producing the album himself. Once he fired Guercio, Joel also left Caribou, and hired his wife Elizabeth as his new manager.
Turnstiles stalled on the charts, only reaching number 122, though "New York State of Mind" has over the years become another of Joel's best known songs. Joel's next album would prove to be the make-or-break point for his career, and the resulting album, The Stranger, catapulted him into superstardom. The Stranger was released in the fall of 1977 and established a long-standing relationship with producer Phil Ramone. By the year's end, the album had peaked at number two and gone platinum, spawning the Top 40 singles "Just the Way You Are" (which would win the 1978 Grammy for Record of the Year and Song of the Year), "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," "She's Always a Woman," and "Only the Good Die Young." Joel's most enduring record, The Stranger eventually reached the RIAA's rare Diamond certification having sold over ten million copies. Joel followed The Stranger with 52nd Street, which appeared in the fall of 1978. 52nd Street spent eight weeks at number one in the U.S., selling over two million copies within the first month of its release. It's hit singles included "My Life," "Big Shot," and "Honesty," and it won the 1979 Grammy award for Album of the Year. Among his many performances in 1979 was an appearance in Cuba at the historic Havana Jam festival alongside an eclectic roster that also included Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Stills, and Weather Report.
In the spring of 1980, Joel released Glass Houses, theoretically a harder-edged album that was a response to the punk and new wave movement. Glass Houses reached number one in America, where it stayed for six weeks; the album spawned the Top 40 singles "You May Be Right," "It's Still Rock'n'Roll to Me," "Don't Ask Me Why," and "Sometimes a Fantasy" and won the 1980 Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male. In the fall of 1981, Joel released Songs in the Attic, a live album that concentrated on material written and recorded before he became a star in 1977. The album's versions "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" and "She's Got a Way" became Top 40 hits.
Songs in the Attic bought Joel some time as he was completing an album he had designed as his bid to be taken seriously as a composer. Before the album was finished, he suffered a serious motorcycle accident in the spring of 1982. He broke his wrist in the accident -- it would take major surgery to repair the wound. In July of 1982, Joel divorced his wife, Elizabeth. His new album, The Nylon Curtain, was finally released in the fall. A concept album about baby boomers and their experiences, the album was somewhat of a commercial disappointment, but it did earn him some of his better reviews, as well as yielding the Top 20 hits "Pressure" and "Allentown." Joel quickly followed the album with 1983's An Innocent Man.
A creative tribute to the doo wop, early rock, and soul music styles of Joel's youth, An Innocent Man restored the singer to multi-platinum status, going multi-platinum behind hits like "Uptown Girl," "Tell Her About It," "The Longest Time," and the title track. Several of its songs were about model Christie Brinkley, who was engaged to Joel by the time of its release. During 1983 and 1984, Joel became one of the first '70s stars to embrace MTV and music videos, shooting a number of clips for the album that were aired frequently on the network including the video for "Uptown Girl" which starred Brinkley. The two were married in the spring of 1985.
Later that summer Joel released a double-album compilation, Greatest Hits, Vols. 1-2 which, in addition to his many career hits also included two new songs, "You're Only Human (Second Wind)" and the "The Night Is Still Young," both of which made the Top 40. The album itself peaked at number six and eventually went multi-platinum in the U.S. and many other countries. In the summer of 1986, Joel returned with the Top Ten single "Modern Woman," which was taken from the soundtrack of Danny DeVito and Bette Midler comedy Ruthless People. The song also appeared along with the hard-driving hit "A Matter of Trust" on his next album, The Bridge, which was released that August. Another success for Joel, The Bridge featured a duet with Ray Charles ("Baby Grand") and was the last of his releases to have to bear the Family Productions logo.
In the spring of 1987, Joel embarked on a major tour of the U.S.S.R. Along with artists like Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor, Joel was among the first major American acts to bring a large-scale pop show to the Soviet Union. His Leningrad concert was recorded and released in the fall of 1987 as the live double-album Kohuept, which means concert in Russian. The tour was not without incident, however; during one of the shows Joel knocked over his electric piano and broke a microphone stand in a fit of anger, an incident he later apologized for. In the year following the tour, the singer remained relatively quiet aside from an appearance as the voice of Dodger in the 1988 Walt Disney animated feature Oliver & Company. Behind the scenes, trouble was brewing.
After an audit revealing major accounting discrepancies, Joel fired his longtime manager and former brother-in-law Frank Weber. Following Weber's 1989 dismissal, Joel sued Weber for 90 million dollars, claiming fraud and breach of fiduciary duty. Amid all of this turmoil was the recording and subsequent release of his 12th studio album, Storm Front, in the fall of 1989. With its fast-paced lyrics listing a series of significant world events, the album's lead single "We Didn't Start the Fire" became a huge hit, reaching number one and inspiring history students across America. Storm Front marked a significant change for Joel -- he fired his band, keeping only drummer Liberty DeVitto, and ceased his relationship with longtime producer Phil Ramone, hiring Mick Jones of Foreigner to produce the album. Despite all of the drama surrounding its creation, Storm Front kept Joel on top, reaching number one in the U.S. and once again going multi-platinum. It also yielded "The Downeaster Alexa," a maritime-themed song about the plight of Long Island fishermen that has become something of a regional anthem.
During 1990, Joel undertook a major U.S. tour, which ran well into 1991. In January of that year, the court awarded Joel two million dollars in a partial judgment against Frank Weber, and in April, the court dismissed a 30 million dollar countersuit. Later that year the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences honored Joel with a Grammy Living Legend award alongside icons like Quincy Jones, Johnny Cash, and Aretha Franklin.
The next couple of years were marked by both honors and disputes. in 1991 Joel was awarded an honorary doctorate by Fairfield University in Connecticut. In the summer of 1992, Joel filed a 90 million dollar lawsuit charging his former lawyer Allen Grubman of fraud, breach of contract, and malpractice; the dispute was later settled out of court. After receiving another honorary doctorate, this time from Berklee College of Music, Joel returned in the summer of 1993 with River of Dreams, which entered the charts at number one aided by its Top Ten title track. The album's cover featured a painting by then wife Christie Brinkley; the couple divorced amicably the following year. As the '90s wore on, Joel entered into legacy mode, pairing up with fellow piano man Elton John on a joint retrospective package tour called Face to Face. The tour was such a success that the two artists made it a recurring series. Joel spent part of 1996 giving a series of lectures at various American colleges and in 1997 released another anthology, Greatest Hits Volume III. That same year Garth Brooks made a number one country hit out of Joel's song "Shameless," and in 1999 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Ray Charles. To end the decade he performed at the 1999 New Year's Eve Party in Times Square, and 2000 Years: The Millennium Concert, a live album of this concert, was released early the following year.
Having more or less retired from making pop albums, Joel did return in 2001 with the vocal-less Fantasies & Delusions, an album of original classical compositions. A year later, Twyla Tharp choreographed and directed Movin' Out, a Broadway musical based on Joel's music. A new venture as a children's author began in 2004 with the release of his first book, Goodnight, My Angel: A Lullaby. In 2005, a career spanning box set of rarities, demos, and live cuts called My Lives was released. The four-disc set reached deep into Joel's archives ranging from early Hassles and Attila cuts to live material from the River of Dreams tour. He continued to manage his legacy with a retrospective 2006 that concluded with a record-breaking 12-night sold-out stand at New York's Madison Square Garden. The live album, 12 Gardens Live, collected a hefty 32 songs culled from various points during the 12 night run.
In 2007, following a handful of European tour stops, Joel released his first original composition since River of Dreams -- a ballad called "All My Life." He quickly followed it with "Christmas in Fallujah," a tune he wrote but did not sing; it was performed by Cass Dillon with proceeds going to the Homes For Our Troops foundation. After this brief burst of activity Joel returned to touring regularly, his most notable performance being the closing shows at the New York Mets' legendary Shea Stadium in July 2008. Featuring high profile guests like Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, and Roger Daltrey, the shows were documented in the 2011 documentary film and album Last Play at Shea.
Over the next couple of years, Joel transitioned toward performing in public frequently and, along with it, started to give more interviews. In 2013, he toured the United Kingdom and then performed at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn for his first New York solo headlining gig in five years. It wouldn't be his last: he soon announced a regular monthly residency at Madison Square Garden, performing 21 concerts in 2014 alone with an option to play there indefinitely. In addition to his New York shows, Joel also toured elsewhere in the U.S. He promoted these shows and the 2014 release of A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia -- an expanded version of his 1987 live album Kohuept, containing two CDs of live performances from that Russian tour in addition to a documentary about the whole endeavor -- with a number of interviews, highlighted by a live "town hall" radio show with Howard Stern. That year, Joel also contributed to the tribute album The Art of McCartney, which wound up being his last new studio recording in the 2010s. The rest of the decade was devoted to family life -- between 2015 and 2017, he had two daughters with his fourth wife, Alexis Roderick -- and playing regular concerts on the eastern seaboard, which he occasionally supported with promotional interviews. After being sidelined by the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, Joel resumed his ongoing residency at Madison Square Garden in November 2021. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Timothy Monger