Billy Joel Biography
Last updated: 04/02/2014 10:07:39 PM
BORN: May 9, 1949, Hicksville, Long Island, NY
Billy Joel was born William Martin Joel on May 9, 1949 in Bronx, New York. As a young child, his family moved to Levittown, a suburban housing development on Long Island in New York State. Billy discovered classical music at the age of four, a love that has stayed with him to the present day. Billy's early classical piano training provided him with a strong foundation for his future career.
Among his early influences, Billy lists Ray Charles, The Beatles, Dave Brubeck, Sam Cooke, the Rolling Stones, and Otis Redding. His ambition to become a professional musician began to take shape after seeing the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. At age 14, Billy joined his first band, The Echoes (later known as the Lost Souls), after noticing, among other things, that it was a foolproof way to meet girls.
By this time, Billy's parents had divorced and, like many single parents, his mother was struggling to make ends meet. While still in junior high school, Billy took professional music jobs at night to help supplement the family income. It was difficult to work all night and still make it to school on time. Although Billy's grades were fine, he was not allowed to graduate with his high school class as a result of too many absences.
In 1968, Billy joined a well-known Long Island band called The Hassles. The Hassles recorded two albums for United Artists, "The Hassles" and "Hour of the Wolf." In 1970, Billy moved on to form Attila, a heavy metal rock duo with Hassles' drummer, Jon Small. Attila recorded one album on Epic Records. Although Billy had an album out, he had to supplement his income during this period with various "straight" jobs such as writing rock criticism for the magazine "Changes," working in a factory, painting Piping Rock Country Club in Locust Valley, Long Island and recording a commercial with Chubby Checker.
Billy signed a solo recording contract in 1972 and released his first album, Cold Spring Harbor (Paramount Records). Named after a village on Long Island's North Shore, it was Billy's first full album of original songs. Meanwhile, a Philadelphia radio station, WMMR-FM, started playing a tape of a new song, Captain Jack, which was taken from a live concert broadcast.
Captain Jack became an underground hit on the East Coast, but legal and financial wrangles caused Billy to disappear to the West Coast in 1973, where he performed in piano bars under the name "Bill Martin." That experience was stored away, later to be retold in the song, Piano Man. Although Billy did his best to keep a low profile in Los Angeles, the notoriety of Captain Jack prompted Columbia Records to track Billy down in Los Angeles and offer him a recording contract. Billy signed with Columbia in the spring and went straight to work on an album with producer, Michael Stewart. His first Top 20 single, Piano Man, was released at the end of the year.
In 1974, Billy and Michael Stewart teamed up again and recorded Streetlife Serenade. The album featured the hit single The Entertainer, and garnered Billy his first crop of music industry awards, including "Best New Male Vocalist" (Cashbox), "Male Artist of the Year" (Music Retailer), and "Record of the Year" (Stereo Review, for Piano Man). Sell-out concert performances at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York City confirmed that Billy had achieved permanent headliner status.
Billy moved back to New York in 1975, assembled a new band and began recording the Turnstiles album. Songs such as Say Goodbye to Hollywood, Billy's tribute to Phil Spector (later covered by Ronnie Spector), the torchy New York State of Mind, and anthemic Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway) would join the ranks of Billy's already classic recordings. With the success of Turnstiles, Billy embarked on his first major concert tour. He opened in New York City with a WNEW-FM live broadcast from the Bottom Line and closed 108 SRO performances later with three nights at New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall.
Billy's next album was The Stranger. From the time of its release in 1977 until 1985, The Stranger was the biggest selling album in Columbia Records' history. Billy toured the United States and Europe in support of The Stranger, playing 54 concerts from September to December, including an appearance on "Saturday Night Live." As the New Year began, the album's popularity showed no signs of slowing down. In fact, the Billboard Hot 100 chart for May, 1978, listed three singles from The Stranger (Only the Good Die Young, Movin' Out (Anthony's song), and Just the Way You Are).
In early fall of 1978, with a fourth top 20 single from The Stranger (She's Always A Woman) still charting, Columbia Records released 52nd Street, which went on to become Billy's first #1 album. A 12 week North American tour finished dramatically with three sold-out nights at New York City's Madison Square Garden in December.
In February of 1979, in a hotel room in Paris, Billy received a middle of the night transatlantic phone call informing him that Just The Way You Are had captured "Record Of The Year," and "Song of The Year," giving Billy his first two Grammy Awards. After the European tour ended, Billy traveled to Cuba for "Havana Jam" (March), an historic three day event at the Karl Marx Theater. Spring included two months of U.S. touring, two nights at the Budokan in Tokyo, and a benefit concert for several Long Island charities. In October, with sales of The Stranger and 52nd Street totaling over nine million units, Columbia Records named Billy their biggest-selling solo artist of the 20th century.
By the time Glass Houses was released in March of 1980, Billy had already won two more Grammy Awards for 52nd Street in the categories Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male. Glass Houses quickly reached #1 on the Billboard chart and remained there for six weeks. The third single release from the album, It's Still Rock And Roll To Me, became Billy's first #1 single. Billy was honored with an American Music Award for "Album of the Year." The North American summer tour included five sold out shows at Madison Square Garden.
Glass Houses won "Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male" at the 1981 Grammy Awards, giving Billy his fifth Grammy in three years, as well as a People's Choice Award for "Favorite Male Pop Performer.
While enjoying the success of his previous studio albums, Billy recorded Songs In The Attic, an album of live concert performances. Songs In The Attic released in September, 1981, and although some of the material was not as widely known, it received a very enthusiastic response from the public. Including the songs She's Got A Way, I've Loved These Days, Captain Jack, and The Ballad Of Billy The Kid, Songs In The Attic became Billy's fourth consecutive Top 10 album.
In 1982, despite a serious motorcycle accident on Long Island, Billy completed the critically acclaimed The Nylon Curtain album. Born out of his concern with the "diminishing horizons" of the American experience, The Nylon Curtain is a hauntingly anthemic journey through the world of blue collar workers in Allentown, Pennsylvania, guilt and interpersonal relationships in Pressure, and the Vietnam experience told through the eyes of a soldier in Goodnight Saigon. The album earned a four star review in Rolling Stone, reached #7 on the BillBoard chart, and was nominated for a Grammy for "Album of the Year" in 1982. Once again, Billy toured in support of the album
After the Nylon Curtain tour ended, Billy returned home and wrote an unprecedented ten songs in seven weeks for a new album. An Innocent Man echoes the music he loved as a kid. The songs that comprise An Innocent Man are Billy's tribute to the music he loved growing up. The Motown girl group inspired Tell Her About It, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons on Uptown Girl (a #3 single and RIAA certified "Gold" single about his soon to be wife, Christie Brinkley), the great Ben E. King on An Innocent Man, the street corner doo-wop of The Longest Time, and sharkskin, shades and pompadours on Keeping the Faith. An Innocent Man reached #4 on the Billboard charts, was nominated for a Grammy Award for "Album of the Year," and generated six Top 40 singles, three of which made it to the Top 10, including Uptown Girl (which was nominated for a Grammy Award for "Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male").
In the midst of the excitement and success of An Innocent Man, Columbia Records decided to re-release Cold Spring Harbor, Billy's first solo album in November, 1983. Originally recorded for Family Productions, Cold Spring Harbor contains the original recording of She's Got A Way and Everybody Loves You Now.
In 1985, Greatest Hits Volume I and Volume II became Billy's seventh consecutive Top 10 album. In addition to containing most of the classics in his catalogue, the album also contained two new songs, The Night Is Still Young and You're Only Human (Second Wind), Billy's song of encouragement for teenage suicide prevention. Paul Grein's "Chart Beat" column in Billboard proclaimed Billy to be the "most consistent and prolific male album artist of the decade." That same week, You're Only Human (Second Wind), became Billy's eighth Top 10 single. Billy joined with fellow musicians John Mellencamp and Randy Newman for Farm Aid I, and also participated in USA For Africa.
The highlights of 1985 were Billy's marriage to Christie Brinkley and the birth of their daughter, Alexa Ray. Collaboration with Ray Charles, Steve Winwood, and Cyndi Lauper culminated in the new summer release of The Bridge. Billy recorded Baby Grand with Ray Charles, a long-time hero of Billy's and for whom Alexa Ray was named. Cyndi Lauper co-wrote and sang on Code of Silence and Steve Winwood joined Billy on Getting Closer, playing Hammond B-3 organ. The Bridge also included Modern Woman, the single from the "Ruthless People" motion picture soundtrack. Billy's first North American tour in two years opened on September 29th, and extended through December, with encore performances in many cities scheduled for January, 1986. Meanwhile, the Big Man on Mulberry Street album track was adapted for television by the producers of the hit television show "Moonlighting" (airdate November 18th).
The summer of 1987 marked a personal and professional triumph for Billy as he became the first U.S. pop star to bring a fully-staged rock production to the Soviet Union. Under the U.S.-Soviet General Exchanges Agreement of the Reagan-Gorbachev 1985 Geneva summit, this was a significant cultural breakthrough and was encouraged by the U.S. Information Agency and the Soviet Ministry of Culture. Billy performed in concert at Olympic Sports Complex (Moscow) and V.I. Lenin Sports/Concert Complex (Leningrad). Millions of Soviets saw the closing night in Moscow telecast in its entirety on tape delay. Opening night in Leningrad was the first live rock radio broadcast in Soviet history, made extra special as it was simulcast in the United States. The live double-album, Kohuept (translation: 'In Concert'), chronicled the trip and was released in October.
1989 was a year of great change for Billy, it marked a split with his long time manager, a re-vamping of his band and the first time working with producer Mick Jones (Foreigner). Storm Front was Billy's 14th Columbia album and his first new studio recording since 1986. Both the album and the first single, We Didn't Start The Fire, reached the #1 spots simultaneously on the Billboard album and singles charts on December 16, 1989. The album is suffused with the maritime imagery of The DownEaster "Alexa" and Storm Front, the personal reflections of I Go To Extremes and And So It Goes, a reminiscence of his Soviet sojourn in Leningrad and the heart-wrenching confession of passionate love in Shameless. Storm Front received two Grammy nominations for "Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male," and "Producer of the Year." We Didn't Start The Fire received nominations for "Record of the Year," "Song of the Year," and "Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male."
The Storm Front Tour opened on December 6, 1989 in Worcester, Massachusetts and ended 15 months later on March 24, 1991 with Billy's first ever concert in Mexico City. The tour reached 4.3 million fans via 174 shows in 16 countries, setting attendance records across North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Highlights were many, but never-to-be-forgotten moments occurred in Berlin, where Billy performed a day after German Reunification; in the Philippines, where he played to GI's on January 15th, the same day Operation Desert Storm began a continent away; and the Bronx, where Billy played the first ever rock concert in Yankee Stadium. Billy also performed two benefit shows at the Jones Beach Amphitheater, on Long Island, The Concerts for the Bays and Baymen. On December 5, 1990, he took a day off from the road and came home to New York to receive a Humanitarian Award from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the Grammy Legend Award
In 1991, while still on tour in support of Storm Front, Garth Brooks' recording of Shameless hit #1 on the Billboard Country Chart, another first for Billy.
In 1992, Billy recorded two Elvis Presley classics "All Shook Up" and" Heartbreak Hotel" for the "Honeymoon in Vegas" motion picture soundtrack. He also recorded "In A Sentimental Mood" for the soundtrack for "A League of Their Own."
Soon after finishing the various soundtrack recordings, Billy began working on a new studio album with producer, Danny Kortchmar. Released in August of 1993, the River of Dreams album debuted at #1 on the BillBoard Hot 100 chart where it stayed for 3 weeks. The first single, The River of Dreams, spent 12 weeks at #1 on the Contemporary Chart, setting a new record.
1994 began with four Grammy nominations for Billy - Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Pop Male Vocal for the song The River of Dreams and Album of the Year for River of Dreams (the album). Later that year, Billy took a break from his own tour to team up with Elton John for a summer stadium tour. The Face To Face Tour was an unqualified success and one of the hottest tickets around. In the fall, Billy resumed his own tour and traveled to Australia at the end of the year. 1994 also saw the end of Billy's marriage to Christie Brinkley. The two separated amicably and divorced in August of that year.
In October 1994, the RIAA certified "Songs in the Attic" and "The Nylon Curtain" for sales of 2 million units which moved Billy into a tie with the Beatles as the act with the most multiplatinum albums. The RIAA also certified "52nd Street" and "Glass Houses" septupleplatinum (7 million units) to make him the only artist to have four albums at the septupleplatinum mark. The other two are "The Stranger" and "An Innocent Man."
The River of Dreams Tour continued into early 1995 with a tour of Japan. Billy was is Osaka during the disastrous Kobe earthquake and donated proceeds of his concert to local earthquake relief. He returned to the States and reprised the Face to Face Tour with Elton John.
After a short breather, Billy hit the college lecture circuit in January, 1996 with "An Evening of Questions, Answers...and a Little Music." After speaking at 32 different schools, the lecture tour concluded in early May with a live radio broadcast at Town Hall in NYC via WPLJ. The event was a benefit to establish The Rosalind Joel Scholarship for the Performing Arts at City College in New York City.
In 1996, Billy found a way to turn his life long passion for boats into a money making venture. Along with Peter Needham of Coecles Harbor Marina & Boatyard, he formed the Long Island Boat Company, and started building the Shelter Island Runabout, a 38' classic powerboat.
In March, 1997, Billy traveled to Washington, DC to receive ASCAP's Founder's Award. Awarded for lifetime achievement, past recipients of the Founder's Award include Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Leiber and Stoller and other legends.
Having acheived worldwide sales of over 100 million units earlier this year, 1999 has also marked two other major milestones in Billy Joel's career. In January, he received the American Music Awards "Award of Merit" and in February, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Billy Joel rang in the new millenium with a sellout celebration at New York City's historic Madison Square Garden. The extraordinary concert was recorded and released on Joel's 17th album, "Billy Joel, 2000 Years - The Millenium Concert. In March, 2000, Joel traveled to Washington, D.C. where he received the Smithsonian Institution's James Smithson Bicentennial Medal. Mr. Joel also was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music from Southampton College in May, 2000.
On October 21, 2000, Billy sang the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium for Game One of the New York Yankees 2000 Baseball World Series (Subway Series) versus the New York Mets.
In the first half of 2001, Billy kicked-off a 31 date, 25 city tour of North America with Elton John that lasted from January 19 to May 16. The wildly successful shows were well received with sold out crowds.
On June 14, 2001, Billy was honored by the Songwriter's Hall of Fame with the Johnny Mercer Award, the organization's highest honor, at their annual dinner in New York City. Joel performed "New York State of Mind' on the America: A Tribute To Heroes special that aired on 31 networks simultaneously on September 21, 2001. He also performed at the Concert for New York City on October 20, 2001 playing "Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)" and "New York State of Mind" as well as performing a poignant duet of "Your Song" with Elton John and participating in the all-star finales "Let It Be" and "Freedom". The concert raised millions of dollars for the September 11th relief fund.
2001 also saw Billy release two new albums. Fantasies and Delusions, his long awaited album of solo piano compositions was released on October 2nd, along with a 36 track compilation album, The Essential Billy Joel. Fantasies and Delusions shot to the top of the classical charts and held the number one position for weeks.
In the fall of 2001, Billy Joel appeared at college campuses for a series of Master Classes. Joel answered questions from the audience and, along with pianist Richard Joo, performed selections from Fantasies and Delusions as well as songs from Joel's extensive song catalog. One of the Master Classes was recorded in Philadelphia and aired nationally on the A&E special "Billy Joel: In His Own Words".
Over the years Joel has contributed unfailingly to such philanthropic causes as "The Make a Wish Foundation" and "Save the Music". He has been awarded four honorary degrees and is a favorite of former president Bill Clinton.