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.
While still a member of the Echoes, Joel
began playing recording sessions in 1965, when he was just 16 years old.
Joel played piano on several recordings George "Shadow" Morton
produced -- including the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" --
as well as several records released through Kama Sutra Productions. During
this time, the Echoes started to play numerous late-night shows. Soon, his
musical commitments occupied all of his time and Joel dropped out of high
school, just a few months shy of his graduation.
Later in 1965, the Echoes changed their
name twice -- once to the Emeralds and finally to the Lost Souls. For two
years, he played sessions and performed with the Lost Souls. In 1967, he
left the band to join the Hassles, a local Long Island rock & roll
band that had signed a contract with United Artists Records. Over the next
year and a half, the Hassles released two albums and four singles, all of
which failed commercially. In 1969, the Hassles broke up. Joel and the
band's drummer, Jon Small, formed an organ and drums duo called Attila. In
Attila, Joel played his organ through a variety of effects pedals,
creating a heavy psychedelic hard rock album completely without guitars.
On the cover of the band's eponymous album, both Joel and Small were
dressed as barbarians; in an interview on the back of the album, Joel
claimed to forget the name of his previous band and stated that he only
"sweated" two things -- perfecting his sound and the war in
Southeast Asia. Epic released Attila early in 1970 and it was an immediate
bomb and the duo broke up. While the group was still together, Joel began
a romance with Small's wife, Elizabeth; she would eventually leave the
drummer to marry the pianist.
After Attila's embarrassing failure, Joel
wrote rock criticism for a magazine called Changes and played on
commercial jingles, including a Chubby Checker spot for Bachman Pretzels.
However, Joel entered a severe bout of depression, culminating with him
drinking a bottle of furniture polish in an attempt to end his life.
Following his failed suicide attempt, Joel checked himself into
Meadowbrook Hospital, where he received psychiatric treatment for
Joel returned to playing music in 1971,
signing a deal with Family Productions. Under the terms of the contract,
Joel signed to the label's parent company, Ripp, for life; the pianist was
unaware of the clause at the time, but it would come back to haunt him --
Ripp received royalties from every album Joel sold until the late '80s.
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 the release of the album, Joel went on a small
live tour, during which he would frequently delve into standup comedy. 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 were experiencing
legal and financial difficulties, which prevented him from recording an
Early in 1972, he moved out to Los Angeles
with his girlfriend Elizabeth. Joel adopted the name Bill Martin and spent
half a year playing lounge piano at the Executive Room. Toward the end of
the year, he began touring, playing various nightclubs across the country.
At the beginning of 1973, Joel married Elizabeth Weber and she enrolled at
UCLA's Graduate School of Management. Around the same time, a radio
station began playing a live version of "Captain Jack" that was
recorded at a Philadelphia radio broadcast. Soon, record companies were
eagerly seeking to sign the pianist, and he eventually signed with
Columbia Records. In order for Joel to sign with Columbia, the major label
had to agree to pay Ripp Productions 25 cents for each album sold, plus
display the Family and Remus logos on each record Joel released.
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. The title track -- culled from experiences he had while singing at
the Executive Room -- became a Top 40 hit single. 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. After its success, Joel signed a contract
with James William Guercio and Larry Fitzgerald's management company,
Caribou, and moved from California to their hometown of New York. Through
songs like "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" and "New York State
of Mind," Joel celebrated the move his 1976 album 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 as his new manager.
Turnstiles stalled on the charts, only
reaching number 122. 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. By
the end of the year, it peaked at number two and had gone platinum, and
within the course of a year, it would spawn the Top 40 singles "Just
the Way You Are" -- which would win Record of the Year and Song of
the Year at the 1979 Grammys -- "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song),"
"She's Always a Woman," and "Only the Good Die Young."
Over the next two decades, the album would sell over seven million copies.
Joel followed The Stranger with 52nd Street, which was released in the
fall of 1978. 52nd Street spent eight weeks at number one in the U.S.,
selling over two millions copies within the first month of its release.
The album spawned the hit singles "My Life," "Big
Shot," and "Honesty," and won the Grammy award for Album of
the Year in 1980. Although he had become a genuine star, critics had not
looked kindly to Joel's music, and the pianist became a vocal opponent of
rock criticism in the late '70s; he was known to have denounced Village
Voice pundit Robert Christgau on-stage and then, as a form of protest, had
torn up Christgau's reviews.
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. By the summer of 1980, Glass Houses had reached
number one in America, where it stayed for six weeks; the album spawned
the Top 40 singles "You May Be Right" (number seven), "It's
Still Rock'n'Roll to Me" (number one), "Don't Ask Me Why"
(number 19), and "Sometimes a Fantasy" (number 36) and won the
Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male in 1981. 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
"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 a commercial disappointment,
only selling a million copies, but it did earn him some of his better
reviews, as well as spawning the Top 20 hits "Pressure" and
"Allentown." Joel quickly followed the album in 1983 with the
oldies pastiche An Innocent Man.
An Innocent Man restored Joel to his
multi-platinum status, eventually selling over five million copies and
spawning the hit singles "Uptown Girl" (number three),
"Tell Her About It" (number one), "An Innocent Man"
(number ten), and "Keeping the Faith" (number 18). Several of
the songs on the album were about model Christie Brinkley, who was engaged
to Joel by the time the album was released. 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 which were aired frequently on
the network. The videos usually starred Brinkley, as well as Joel.
Brinkley and Joel were married in the spring of 1985.
Joel released a double-album compilation,
Greatest Hits, Vols. 1 & 2 in the summer of 1985. Two new songs -- the
Top Ten "You're Only Human (Second Wind)" and the Top 40
"The Night Is Still Young" -- were added to the hits collection;
the album itself peaked at number six and would eventually sell over four
million copies. In the summer of 1986, Joel returned with the Top Ten
single "Modern Woman," which was taken from the soundtrack of
Ruthless People. "Modern Woman" was also a teaser from his new
album, The Bridge, which was released in August. The Bridge was another
success for Joel, peaking at number seven, selling over two million
copies, and spawning the Top 40 hits "A Matter of Trust" (number
ten) and "This Is the Time" (number 18), as well as "Big
Man on Mulberry Street," which was used as the basis for an episode
of the popular Bruce Willis/Cybill Shepherd television series
In the spring of 1987, Joel embarked on a
major tour of the U.S.S.R., during which he had an on-stage temper tantrum
and shoved a piano off the stage. His Leningrad concert was recorded and
released in the fall of 1987 as the live double album Kohuept, which means
concert in Russian. Joel was quiet for much of 1988, only appearing
as the voice of Dodger in the Walt Disney animated feature Oliver and
Joel fired his longtime manager and former
brother-in-law Frank Weber in August of 1989, after an audit revealed that
there were major discrepancies in Weber's accounting. Following Weber's
dismissal, Joel sued Weber for 90 million dollars, claiming fraud and
breach of fiduciary duty. Immediately after filing suit, Joel was
hospitalized with kidney stones. All of this turmoil didn't prevent the
release of his 12th studio album, Storm Front, in the fall of 1989. It was
preceded by the single "We Didn't Start the Fire," whose lyrics
were just a string of historical facts. The single 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 Liberty DeVito, and ceased his relationship with producer Phil Ramone,
hiring Mick Jones of Foreigner to produce the album. Storm Front was
another hit for Joel, reaching number one in the U.S. and selling over
three million albums.
During 1990, Joel undertook a major U.S.
tour, which ran well into 1991. In January, 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. At the end of the
year, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences honored Joel
with a Grammy Living Legend award; that same year, Quincy Jones, Johnny
Cash, and Aretha Franklin were also given the honor.
Following the Storm Front world tour, Joel
spent the next few years quietly. In 1991, he 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; in October of 1993,
the two parties settled their differences out of court. Joel returned in
the summer of 1993 with River of Dreams, which entered the charts at
number one and spawned the Top Ten title track. Following the River of
Dreams tour, Joel divorced Christie Brinkley. In 1996, he gave a series of
lectures at a variety of American colleges. 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. His
next studio record, Fantasies & Delusions, arrived in 2001. ~ Stephen
Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide