Unlike so many wealthy, powerful men, Billy Joel doesn't have a lot of Long Island buildings or programs named after him. Unlike so many music superstars, including his friends Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney, Joel doesn't let a lot of people know about his thoughts on politics and social causes.
"I have my own political views, but I don't think I'm the guy to tell people what to think," Joel says. "I'm a piano player. God forbid I should influence anybody to vote for someone. What if I'm wrong?"
That's not to say that Joel is uninvolved, especially on his beloved Long Island. He just generally goes about things quietly, though his actions still generate widespread impact.
The head of a local organization, who asked not to be named because of fear of embarrassing Joel, remembers coming to Joel with a proposal of creating a scholarship to help teach music to Long Island kids who couldn't afford lessons. The plan was to name the scholarship after Joel in return for his donation that would fund the program.
"He gave us the money," the organization leader says. "He just didn't want people to know. He just wants to help."
Jim Faith, co-founder of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, remembers how supportive Joel was for the hall's first induction gala in 2006, though he wanted it to remain behind the scenes for as long as possible. "We knew he was coming, but he didn't want people to know," Faith says. "He's been so good to us. He's donated one of his pianos to the museum. He's given us a bike to auction off. He's been very, very responsive. He just doesn't want a lot of attention. He's a humble guy."
Helping out Oyster Bay
Walter Imperatore, vice president of the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Chamber of Commerce, says Joel is so influential he doesn't even need to say anything. He can let his actions speak for him.
Though 20th Century Cycles, Joel's motorcycle shop in downtown Oyster Bay, doesn't bear his name, it doesn't really have to. Whenever newcomers stop by Cruise Nights -- the tradition that draws car and motorcycle enthusiasts and plenty of spectators to downtown Oyster Bay on Tuesday nights in the summer -- the first question is usually, "Where's Billy Joel's motorcycle shop?" Imperatore says.
Joel's decision to open that shop on Audrey Avenue in 2010 has helped reshape downtown Oyster Bay. "It's been a great thing for the area," says Imperatore, adding that attendance and participation in Cruise Nights has been up since the shop has opened. "That part of the street was an inactive part of the hamlet. People sometimes wouldn't go down that street. Now that he's come into town, he's made it that much better."
HOME SWEET HOME
Joel says his Oyster Bay home has become increasingly important to him, so much so now that he still isn't sure he wants to spend long stretches away from it to do national tours. "I've become a homebody," he says. "I get very, very homesick. I miss my home. I miss my dogs. When my girlfriend's not on the road with me, I miss her. I'm only looking at touring in very small increments. Even doing gigs on the West Coast would take at least a few weeks. I don't know how I feel about that yet."
Oyster Bay has become one of the few causes Joel is willing to publicly support. He joined Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, along with the North Oyster Bay Baymen's Association and Friends of the Bay, as well as town and county officials, for the 20th annual Oyster Bay Harbor Cleanup Day in September. He also has raised millions for the East Hampton Baymen's Association, which has struggled with commercial fishing bans, and even wrote "The Downeaster 'Alexa' " about their plight.
In 2001, he publicly supported those affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, memorably performing at both "The Concert for New York City" and the "America: A Tribute to Heroes" telethon, where he transformed "New York State of Mind" into an international anthem of support. Joel also supported victims of superstorm Sandy last year by playing at the "12-12-12" benefit, where his performance was so well received it encouraged him to return to touring this year.
In preparation for his European tour, Joel began rehearsing at the Paramount in October, which led to a show at the Huntington venue to benefit Long Island Cares. "Some people were upset they couldn't get tickets, but you can't let that stop you," he says of the surprise show that marked his first Long Island concert in 11 years. "We wanted to do a fundraiser."
Perhaps no one was more surprised by the fundraiser than Paule T. Pachter, executive director of the Hauppauge-based charity founded by singer-songwriter Harry Chapin.
"He had always supported us quietly," Pachter says. "His support goes back to the late '70s, back to the 'Glass Houses' concert he did at Nassau Coliseum and gave all the proceeds to charities. He always obliged us when we needed something, but he never wanted his name put out there."
That's why when Joel said he wanted to publicly announce that proceeds from his show at the Paramount would go to Long Island Cares, Pachter says the group was thrilled but shocked. "We were used to his helping in his own way," he says. "We're still coming to terms with how much he has helped us now."
Pachter says the attention Joel brought to Long Island Cares is difficult to measure, though they do know that the earnings from the concert bought more than 113,000 meals for people in the area at a time when demand is up over previous years. "We've gotten donations from all over the country," he says. "Our online donations are up. We've gotten a lot of phone calls from people wanting to volunteer. It was absolutely amazing. We're still seeing a residual effect based on the concert."
Pachter says that even as the group distributed Thanksgiving turkeys more than a month after the concert, Joel's name kept coming up.
"People would ask me, 'Was this turkey bought by Billy Joel?' " Pachter says. "I tell them, 'A lot of turkeys were bought by Billy Joel.' He has used his status as a musical icon and really helped a lot of people."