"You really know who I am?" queried a shocked Billy Joel as he stepped on stage to cheers late last fall at the Shubert Theater. Opening for the Doobie Brothers in other cities had garnered Billy little recognition, but in Philadelphia the reaction was quite different. A few weeks later he was back at the Bijou Cafe playing to SRO audiences.
The Billy Joel phenomenon is well under way -- fantastic album sales, constant radio requests and airplay, and sold out concert appearances. First here in Philadelphia, then Memphis and Miami, and now the whole nation
Overnight success for a "new" artist? Well, not quite. For while this talented troubadour has been making music for years, an obstacle-strewn road has kept this super talent from the eyes of most music listeners until very recently.
Billy grew up on Long Island. Like many affluent suburban youths, his parents provided him with extensive piano lessons. But unlike most of us, with this young man the talent was there and by his teens he was quite adept at the instrument.
Taking the usual route he started playing with some local rock bands. The "Long Island Circuit" had produced successful groups such as the Rascals and the Vanilla Fudge. Two of Joel's local efforts -- Attila and the Hassles – even cut and released records. Billy comments, "Obviously those efforts weren't too successful, in fact they were really duds and didn't really show anyone's talents, let alone my own... The whole scene got to be a drag -- one band after another, all the same thing with nothing really happening."
After a period of failures and disappointments with the rock group trip, the young musician decided to forget the rock band route. He tried factory work, odd jobs, and even did some writing as a rock critic.
During this time he was preparing himself for a career as a solo singer/songwriter. He signed a contract with Family Productions and in late 1971 recorded his first album, Cold Spring Harbor (Family FPS 2700). Critically acclaimed by the music industry's internal press, the album received almost no national recognition, and was relegated to 99 cent bins in supermarkets.
In Philadelphia the story was a bit different. WMMR had discovered the album Cold Spring Harbor -- a discovery that led them to feature Billy Joel in a live radio concert in the spring of 1972 -- almost exactly two years ago. Out of this radio concert came the first recording of the classic "Captain Jack". "Philadelphia has always been really good to me, something I can't say about many other cities," says Joel
The Philadelphia music community was sure that this was the auspicious beginning of a new Super-star. But it turns out that Billy Joel would have to wait another two long years for his deserved applause.
For the novice artist had gotten into a bad business situation. A situation that was destroying his art, and one that he wanted out of very badly. "Traveling across the country on the first promotional tour (in the spring of 1972). I felt that there was something very wrong!"
"I didn't see the album in any stores, or hear it getting airplay. And what little press promotion there was, was all wrong. It compared me to this person and that, things that I am not. I didn't want to be labeled, categorized , or molded. I just wanted to play my music and be me. Everything then was just all wrong!," he says as he reflects on the traumas surrounding the first album.
"By late that spring things had become intolerable, the whole promotional tour was a rip-off, no one was getting paid, everything was just getting worse and worse. So I decided to split and disappear," he recalls.
And that is exactly what Billy Joel did -- he completely disappeared from the music scene. Telling only his closest friends where he was going, he went to Los Angeles to sort the whole complicated mess out. "I needed money, so I got a job in a dingy piano bar in downtown L.A., under the assumed name of Bill Martin; pretty corny, huh?" In doing this, Billy did something others only give lip service to -- he preserved his artistic integrity, at the expense of hardship, poverty and the temporary loss of his long sought career.
"The whole thing was really weird, and I had to get myself out of the first mess before l could go beck and do what I wanted to do. There have been lawyers, this one and that one, everybody with something to say. And that's what I did for almost a year and a half -- get this whole mess cleared up," he says.
Thanks to some good legal advice, determination, and an agreement with his first record company, things finally got cleared up to the point that the artist was ready to move ahead again. Signing with Columbia Records, he quickly pushed ahead and recorded his present masterpiece Piano Man.
Released late last year, the album fulfills the promise of Joel's first work, and goes even further. It recounts his feelings and experiences of his self-imposed hiatus in the title cut "Piano Man". And it presents the incredible ballad of the "lost" affluent suburban youth "Captain Jack", for all to hear. About "Captain Jack" he comments, "It's about coming out of the New York suburbs, but in my travels I have seen a lot of the same suburb all over the country. The song is sort of brutal, but sometimes it is good to be brutal and offend people -- it keeps them on their toes."
And with much of the music press, Joel does just that -- keeps them on their toes. In fact, in some of his earlier days, Billy sometimes spoke before he thought, and made some enemies among the music media. That is why you haven't seen many articles about Billy. But now the misunderstandings are being corrected, and the road is clear for Joel to speak his mind.
"My first love is songwriting. I love to write all kinds of music -- country, rock, classical, ballads... I guess I have written over 400 pieces of music, but I only use maybe 20 or 30 of them", he explains.
Billy has also become somewhat of a "piano addict". "I love to play the piano -- I play everywhere I get the chance. People ask me if I do any exercises to be able to play so hard and so fast. I really don't, but I do play every chance I get."
All the signs are right for his emergence as one of the major artists of 1974. But no matter how successful he may become, Billy Joel wants to remain just Billy Joel. "My music is the thing that is important, not my image. I don't think of myself as the rock star type of guy. I can't get into the theatrics trip. That is why I don't do all of my impersonations anymore. It is a distraction from the music. (Joel used to sprinkle his act with uncanny mimicking of John Lennon, Elton John, Joe Cocker, and many others.) I am just a singer/songwriter who wants his music to give people enjoyment and make them think", he says.
And that sums it up perfectly. For Billy Joel is not an actor, or a clown, or a business man, or a lawyer, but a musician -- and a great one at that!
Article by: John David Kalodner
Date: April 1974
© www.johnkalodner.com. All rights reserved.