For the early years of his adolescence, he divided his time between studying piano and fighting. When the spirit of the British invasion blew across the country in the early sixties, Joel became convinced that he too, could achieve coolness by performing in a band; suddenly, the pansy piano lessons his father and mother made him take as a youngster seemed pardonable. Never having taken to his parents' musical predilections (his father was a classically trained pianist), Billy fancied boogie-woogie, rock and roll, and early soul.
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 met the Echoes, a group that specialized in British Invasion covers. Bedecked with blue jackets and velvet collars in knock-off Beatles fashion, they played at the Holy Family Church teenclub on a regular basis. The Echoes saw a couple of name changes - the Emerald Lords, the Lost Souls - but no change in status or recognition. Joel, still struggling against his shabby economic and social circumstances, was denied his high school diploma due to excessive absenteeism, ran away from home, and was arrested on suspicion of burglary. The charges were dropped, but a terrifying night in jail did little to build a happy outlook on life.
In 1965, when he was just 16 years old, Billy began to do some studio work. He played piano on several recordings that George "Shadow" Morton produced -- including the Shangri-La's' "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 and Billy's musical commitments occupied all of his time. 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.
The group cut two forgettable albums in the late sixties, "The Hassles" and "Hour Of The Wolf", before breaking up. Joel fell back onto hard times after the dissolution of the Hassles: his long-time girlfriend broke up with him, and the distraught young man attempted suicide by drinking furniture polish. When that didn't solve the problem, he committed himself to the mental ward at Meadowbrook Hospital for three weeks observation and quickly discovered that he was quite sane. The hospital visit steeled his resolve to make it in rock and roll, and after checking himself out of the ward, he formed a two-man psychedelic band, called Attila, with Hassles' drummer Jon Small.
In Attila , Joel played his organ through a variety of effects pedals, creating a heavy psychedelic hard-rock album completely without guitars. Epic Records released an album called simply "Attila" early in 1970, which 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 be with 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.
Having decided that his future lay in writing songs for others, Joel began composing material for a demo album in 1971. He was soon signed to producer Artie Ripp's Family Productions, a Los Angeles label, and moved to California to record his first solo album. "Cold Spring Harbor", originally intended simply as a vehicle to showcase his songs, was released in 1972. The collection was technically inferior due to problems during the mastering stage of production; Joel's voice was speeded up and sounded, in his words, "like a chipmunk." His association with Ripp would prove to be financially disastrous for the singer, who unfortunately signed away all publishing rights, copyrights, and royalties to his producer/manager for a period of 15 years. This deal reportedly cost millions to break later in Joel's career.
After a six-month tour to promote the ill-fated album, Joel married Elizabeth Weber, who would eventually manage her husband's career and become the model for many of his songs about women.
It was "Captain Jack," one of the songs that Billy had performed live while on tour to promote Cold Spring Harbor, that indirectly gave him the break he needed. After hearing the song during Joel's set at the Mary Sol Rock Festival near San Juan, Puerto Rico, and later on East Coast FM radio stations, Columbia Records executive Clive Davis tracked Joel down, helped extricate him from his contract with Ripp, and signed him to the Columbia label. 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. By 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 three years on the West Coast, Billy and his wife returned to their roots in New York. With his creative juices flowing once again, he began working on what would be his next album, 1976's "Turnstiles". This was the first album Joel produced himself using musicians of his choosing, rather than those hired by Columbia executives. Joel recruited drummer Liberty DeVitto, bass player Doug Stegmeyer, and tenor saxophonist Richie Cannata, three men who would remain with Joel's backing band for many years. Although Turnstiles, like its predecessor, was not a spectacular seller, the album contained good material, including "New York State of Mind," a standard that would later be covered by Barbra Streisand. The sessions for Turnstiles were long and filled with tension, culminating with Joel firing the album's original producer, James William Guercio, and producing the album himself. Once he fired Guercio, Joel hired his wife as his new manager.
Turnstiles stalled on the charts, only reaching number 122. Billy's next album would prove to be the make-or-break point for his career and the resulting LP, "The Stranger", catapulted him into super-stardom. The Stranger was released in the fall of 1977 and by the end of the year, it had reached number two and had gone platinum. 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 million copies within the first month. 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 Billy 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 the LP "Glass Houses", theoretically a harder-edged album that was a response to the punk and new wave movement. By the summer, 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 '81, 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 mishap and it would take major surgery to repair the wound. In July of 1982, Joel split with 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 influenced "An Innocent Man".
The Innocent Man album was filled with songs inspired by Billy's new girl friend, super-model Christie Brinkley, who was engaged to Joel by the time the disc was released. The album 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 10), and "Keeping The Faith" (number eighteen). 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 and the pair were married in the spring of 1985.
Billy 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, peaking at number seven, selling over two million copies, and spawning the Top 40 hits "A Matter of Trust" (number 10) 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 Moonlighting.
In the spring of 1987, Billy embarked on a major tour of the USSR, during which he had an onstage temper-tantrum and shoved a piano off the stage. His Leningrad concert was recorded and released in the fall of 1987 as the double-live 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 Company.
Billy fired his long-time 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 twelfth studio album, "Storm Front", in the fall of 1989. It was preceded by the single "We Didn't Start The Fire," whose lyrics were 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 Billy Joel -- he fired his band, keeping only drummer Liberty DeVito, and ceased his relationship with producer Phil Ramone, hiring Mick Jones of Foreigner to produce the album. Storm Front was another hit, reaching number one in the U.S. and selling over three million albums.
During 1990, Joel undertook a major U.S. tour that ran well into 1991. In January, the court awarded Joel two million dollars in a partial judgement 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 honoured Billy Joel with a Grammy 'Living Legend' award; that same year, Quincy Jones, Johnny Cash, and Aretha Franklin were also given the honour.
Following the Storm Front world tour, Billy 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 with fraud, breach of contract, and malpractice. The two parties settled their differences out of court.
In the spring of 1993, Billy and Christy Brinkley announced their separation after she became involved with real estate developer Rick Taubman. The two survived a close brush with death in a helicopter crash and eventually married. Joel returned to the air waves in that summer with "River of Dreams", which entered the charts at number one and spawned the Top Ten title track.
In 1996, Billy took a break from touring and recording to give a series of lectures at a variety of American colleges and to explore his interest in classical music.
A throat ailment forced him to cancel several American and European tour dates early in 1998, and he spent the summer recuperating at his home on Long Island. Billy was eager to get back on the road and resume his tour, however, under the advisement of his physician, his September and October concerts were rescheduled for November and December.
His tour continued into 2000, and even though he said it would be his last for quite some time, more dates with Elton John were scheduled into 2001. A live album of his New Year’s concert was released in the form of the two CD package, entitled "The Millennium Concert".
In November, 2005, Billy announced that he was returning to touring as a solo, headlining artist. The 2006 tour marked the first time he had done so in nearly eight years. He was also in the spotlight when he sang the U.S. National Anthem during the Super Bowl 41 pregame show at Dolphin Stadium in South Florida on February 4th, 2007. Another treat for his fans came later the same week when he released a song called "All My Life", his new first Pop single in fifteen years as he kicked off a 15 show, U.S. tour.
On December 1st, 2007, Joel premiered his new song "Christmas in Fallujah", which was performed by newcomer Cass Dillon, a Long Island based musician, as Billy felt it should be sung by someone in a soldier's age range. The track was dedicated to servicemen based in Iraq. Joel wrote it after reading numerous letters sent to him from American soldiers. Proceeds from the song benefitted the Homes For Our Troops foundation.
On January 26th, 2008, Billy performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra celebrating the 151st anniversary of the Academy of Music. He premiered his new classical piece titled, "Waltz Number 2 (Steinway Hall)". He also played many of his lesser known pieces with full orchestral backing, including the rarely performed "Nylon Curtain" songs "Scandinavian Skies" and "Where's the Orchestra?". On March 10th of that year, Billy inducted his friend John Mellencamp into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. On July 16th and 18th, Joel played the final concerts at Shea Stadium before its demolition. Also on the show were Tony Bennett, Don Henley, John Mayer, John Mellencamp, Steven Tyler, Roger Daltrey, Garth Brooks, and Paul McCartney. The former Beatle ended the show with a reference to his own performance there with The Fab Four in 1965, the first major stadium concert in Rock 'n' Roll history. The concerts were shown in the 2010 documentary film Last Play at Shea, issued on DVD on February 8th, 2011. The CD and DVD of the show, "Live at Shea Stadium" were released on March 8th. 2011 also marked the 40th anniversary of the release of Joel's first album, "Cold Spring Harbor". The 1973 album "Piano Man" was re-released in a 2-disc Legacy edition in November 2011.
In the Spring of 2013, Billy told ABC News Radio that he was considering retiring from Rock concerts, and might opt to concentrate on Classical endeavors after shows in Sydney, Australia and New Orleans. In September of that same year, Joel also promised to publish his long awaited biography by mid-2014. A year later he was still touring and singing his hits across North America. In late March of 2014, SiriusXM officially announced the launch of The Billy Joel Channel, featuring music and interviews from the singer's 50-year career. The channel was slated to run through June 25th via satellite on channel 4.
In July, 2014, The Library of Congress announced that it would award Joel its Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, which, each year, honors the career of one musician and their dedication to "promoting the genre of song as a vehicle of cultural understanding; entertaining and informing audiences; and inspiring new generations." Fans looking for a new album will be disappointed to hear that Billy has no plans to issue new material any time soon. In an interview with Billboard.com in October, 2014, he was quoted as saying "Some people think it's because I'm lazy or I'm just being contrary. But no, I think it's just, I've had my say."
Billy was in the news again when he wed Alexis Roderick in an intimate ceremony on Saturday, July 4, 2015, at his estate in Long Island, N.Y. The couple, who have been together since 2009, were expecting their first child together later that Summer. In mid-December, news came that Billy had sold out his 30th consecutive show at the 18,666 seat Madison Square Garden, set for June 17, 2016. On March 26 2016, Joel's iconic 1974 hit "Piano Man" was selected as one of 25 sound recordings to be preserved by the Library of Congress National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." For 2017, Billy and his band were still booked into Madison Square Garden for a monthly show and were also slated to appear at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on May 13th.
Although Billy Joel never was a critic's favorite, the pianist emerged as one of the most popular singer / songwriters of the latter half of the '70s. His music consistently demonstrates an affection for Beatlesque hooks and a flair for Tin Pan Alley and Broadway melodies. His fusion of two distinct eras made him a superstar in the late '70s, '80s and 90s as he racked an impressive string of multi-platinum albums and hit singles.
For more, be sure to read Gary James' interviews with Billy Joel band members David Rosenthal, Carl Fischer and Chuck Burgi.