Gary James' Interview With
Billy Joel's Musical Director And Keyboard Player
David Rosenthal has toured or recorded with some of the biggest names in Rock music. We're talking Bruce Springsteen, Robert Palmer, Rainbow, Cyndi Lauper, and now Billy Joel. He's been with Billy Joel since 1993 and serves as Billy's Musical Director and keyboard player.
Q - I watched Billy Joel dong a benefit some years back. He was followed by The Rolling Stones. What an amazing performance Billy gave!
A - That was the 12-12-12 Concert, Benefit For Hurricane Sandy. It was an incredible event.
Q - Billy Joel blew The Stones off the stage!
A - (laughs)
Q - Billy Joel's words, his melodies, his performance was certainly better than The Stones'.
A - Wow! We hadn't played in nearly 3 years and it was great to be back. We all really enjoyed that gig.
Q - I just wanted to let you know you're working for one of the greats.
A - Oh, thanks man. I couldn't agree more.
Q - Are you the guy in Billy Joel's band with the most seniority?
A - In terms of years, no. I'm Musical Director, so I'm the leader of the band, but I haven't been there the longest of anybody, no.
Q - Is it harder to be a keyboardist for Billy Joel as opposed to some of the other artists you've worked with?
A - Actually, no. Every artist's music has a unique set of challenges and the role of keyboard player is different for each. I work with and adapt to what each artist's musical needs are and I apply it to the keyboard department. With Billy's music there are tons and tons of really cool parts to cover. Everything from synths, organ, string parts, brass parts and all kinds of little quirky parts here and there. Sometimes I play piano when he gets up and sings, and sometimes we play dual pianos. There's really a vast array of different parts to cover with his music. It's a lot of fun actually.
Q - Growing up, did you ever want to play any other instrument than keyboards? I ask only because guitar was so popular when you were growing up.
A - I always thought keyboards were cool. Guitar has been a very popular instrument all along, but I didn't start playing because one or the other was popular. When I was six years old I asked my parents for a piano and I have absolutely no idea why. I just wanted to play piano so I asked them a bunch of times and eventually they got me one and I started taking lessons when I was seven. It's my instrument. It's very, very comfortable. I played guitar also for quite a number of years. All through my high school cover bands I doubled on guitar as well as keyboards. I have a very functional working knowledge of all the instruments in the band and all the instruments of an orchestra as a matter of fact, because I'm an orchestrator too. So I know a lot about all instruments, but keyboards and piano is definitely home base for me.
Q - What are your job duties as a Musical Director? Are you hiring and firing the musicians? Are you arranging the music?
A - It's a little bit of all those things. As Musical Director for Billy I'm the liaison between he and the band. If he wants something to be played a certain way or work on this song or work on that song or make a change here or there, it's one phone call for him and then I take care of it with the band. I run rehearsals in his absence. I'm the band leader when he's not there. I run the sound checks and I tighten up all the arrangements. If somebody's playing a wrong note or a wrong chord here or there, I work it out or schedule extra rehearsals if need be. Those kinds of things. The hiring and firing happens occasionally, but it's not something that happens very often and Billy is the one that makes those final decisions, although obviously he's not the one that carries them out.
Q - It's you that carries them out?
A - It's not only me. It's different people. Since there's no manager there are a lot of different ways somebody could come into or leave the organization, but as the musical director there are a lot responsibilities that fall on my shoulders when it's needed.
Q - Billy Joel has no manager?
A - That's correct.
Q - He knows more about the music business than anybody that's around today, that's for sure.
A - Right. He had some bad experiences with his previous managers which have been well-documented. After that he decided that he was going to continue without a manager and he would make any of the important decisions that need to be made. Of course there is a business manager, a tour director, a road manager and production manager and all kinds of different managerial people, but there's no actual manager per se.
Q - Did you tour or record with Bruce Springsteen, or both?
A - I programmed synths for him on the Wrecking Ball Tour. I designed and programmed new keyboard rigs for both keyboardists and modernized their set-ups. I helped get all the sounds they needed and trained their keyboard techs to run the systems for the tour. I was there all through rehearsals and then stayed with them through the first couple of weeks of the tour to make sure everything was cool with all the new gear. After that I just checked in periodically when they came through the area to make sure everything was working and I would take care of any edits or issues that may have arisen along the way. Sometimes they would call from the road with a technical question, so I was on call for that too. I also did synth programming for The Rising Tour.
Q - Are you mentioned in his new autobiography Born To Run?
A - I have no idea.
Q - How did you come to the attention of Billy Joel?
A - Well, I had done a lot of gigs prior to Billy - Robert Palmer, Cyndi Lauper, Rainbow and many others. So my name gets passed around in circles when people talk about keyboard players. When this position opened up he wanted somebody with experience, so my name popped up and I pursued it and that's how it started.