[One of many Billy Joel stories in the Newsday archives, this article originally appeared in the Aug. 13, 2006 edition.]
Unlike his dozen Madison Square Garden dates earlier this year, Billy Joel's appearance on stage Friday night wasn't sold-out. That's because there were no tickets sold for the evening of piano at Heckscher Park in Huntington, New York. The headline soloist? That was Richard Joo, a British-Korean virtuoso and composer playing "The Classical Music of Billy Joel."
During the second half of the free concert, Joel unexpectedly strolled onto the Harry Chapin Rainbow Stage. He had hand-picked Joo to arrange and record his classical pieces for "Fantasies & Delusions," an album that topped the Billboard charts for 18 weeks in 2001. Several of the pieces were performed by Joo during the show.
Joel quickly tried to let the audience know that Joo, although impressing the crowd, deserved better than the baby grand piano in the center of the stage.
"I'm known for my philanthropy," Joel told the crowd, ticking off a few small organizations, "and I'm going to buy them a new piano." Then he smiled about his gift for the Huntington Arts Council. "I guess I'm on the hook for this now."
Diana Cherryholmes, executive director of the co-sponsoring arts council, was surprised by Joel's announcement. "I didn't know anything about it," she said.
After introducing a medley of Joo's arrangements, Joel interspersed amusing commentary during a romantic song, explaining his thoughts while writing the music about love won and lost.
Exclusive subscription offer
Newsday covers the stories that matter most to Long Islanders. We dig deep to uncover the facts, hold the powerful in check and keep a watchful eye on Long Island.
Your digital subscription, starting at $1, supports local journalism vital to the community.SUBSCRIBE NOW
Joel then thrilled the crowd of about 300 when he walked across the stage and sat on a stool behind a small electronic keyboard facing Joo, who has toured with Joel.
"Here he is, the great composer Billy Joel, the "Piano Man" - he lets me play this baby grand while he just plays that little keyboard," Joo said. "I am humbled."
After a classical duet, Joel's poignant rendition of "Baby Grand" was a big hit with the audience, which included Joel's mother, Rosalind, and John Lennon's son Sean.
Joel and Joo had discreetly rehearsed and performed sound checks during the afternoon. "It was a well-guarded secret," said an arts council spokesman.
In the 41 years that the arts council has been coordinating free summer entertainment, this is the first time Joel has performed at Heckscher, Cherryholmes said. "We didn't know until today that he would play here," she said. "We had been talking about it."
And after the concert, so was everyone else.