Billy Joel’s career had a rough start. Unhappy with the recording of his first album, “Cold Spring Harbor,” the singer-songwriter from Hicksville sought a redo with his sophomore effort, “Piano Man,” which celebrates its 50th anniversary next week. The 10-track album would be the key to breaking Joel into the music business with the title track that stemmed from real-life experience giving him the hit he so desperately needed.
“I was doing this gig while living in L.A. It was a loser bar on Wilshire Boulevard. Everybody would go to this bar after they lost at the track and I had to go entertain these people,” said Joel at a 2001 master class at the University of Pennsylvania about the origin of the song, “Piano Man.” “I got free drinks and was paid union scale, but they put tips in a brandy glass. I said, ‘I’m gonna get a song out of this’ and by God I did.”
After performing in bands The Hassles and Attila in New York, Joel moved to the West Coast in 1971 when he was signed to manager Artie Ripp’s label, Family Productions. His debut, “Cold Spring Harbor,” was considered a disappointment because it was mastered at the wrong speed making Joel sound like a chipmunk.
“This album really didn’t get distributed really well,” says Joel on the 2011 promotional video for “The Complete Album Collection” while holding up the record. “You don’t have to pay a lot of attention to this one. It’s the embryonic Billy Joel, I suppose.”
While touring to promote the record, Joel played a live radio gig for WMMR in Philadelphia at Sigma Sound Studios in April 1972. During the set, he added a new song called “Captain Jack.” DJ Ed Sciaky made a tape of the recording and started incorporating it into his playlist eventually becoming the most requested song in the station’s history.
“The local promotion guy went back to the folks at Columbia Records and said, ‘There’s this guy out there who has the most requested song in the Philadelphia radio station’s history and nobody knows where he is or who he is. We should track him down’ and they did,” says Joel in the 2011 promo video. “Then I got signed to Columbia Records after that.”
Legendary record executive Clive Davis pursued Joel, who received a second chance at restarting his solo career. The first album for Columbia was “Piano Man” released Nov. 9, 1973.
“The way I saw it, this was his official release,” says saxophonist Richie Cannata, 74, of Glen Cove, who played in Joel’s band from 1975 to 1981. “The songs sounded good, the packaging was right and you could tell this guy was for real. Billy was a blend of Beatles influence mixed with classical and jazz. In addition to his singing and songwriting, his piano playing was amazing.”
INFLUENCE ON LOCAL MUSICIANS
Ray J. Luisi, 62, of Hicksville was turned onto the “Piano Man” album by Joel’s own high school piano teacher Chuck Arnold, who Luisi took private lessons with in 1976.
“Mr. Arnold said, ‘You remind me of Billy. Keep up what you are doing and never stop playing,’ ” says Luisi, who fronts his own band the Shoobies. “To this day, I thank him for that encouragement. Because of Mr. Arnold I continued playing.”
Singer-pianist Larry Eisner of Oyster Bay loved the diversity on the record.
“The ‘Piano Man’ album had a little bit of everything that I was looking for,” says Eisner, 55. “The album was like a drug for me. It taught me about different genres of music. It’s so much more than just the title track.”
Coming from Joel’s beloved second hometown, Eisner felt close to him.
“His music localized everything for me. Billy made playing the piano cool,” says Eisner. “Everybody loves Billy. He’s the hometown kid.”
The “Piano Man” album has several legendary cuts on it that are considered to be Joel classics. Here are four that he keeps in the set list rotation and fans still clamor for.
Aside from being the song that got him his record deal, “Captain Jack” is known as an epic classic rock track that painted a vivid picture of life in the suburbs for a young adult grappling with sex, drugs, immaturity and depression in the ‘70s.
“Billy has always been a storyteller,” says guitarist Tommy Byrnes, 62, who has played in Joel’s band for 34 years and grew up in Lynbrook. “He could hold your attention for seven minutes and still keep it interesting. People always wanted to see what happened next in the song.”
Drummer Rhys Clark, who came from Auckland, New Zealand, and moved to Huntington Beach, California, played on the WMMR live recording from 1972 as well as the studio recording of “Captain Jack.” He marveled at the way Joel wove the song’s lyrical emotion into the notes.
“I loved the song’s honest intensity,” says Clark, 77. “The verses are very intimate and keep you listening. Then it goes into this chorus that swells up because it represents the high the main character gets from the drug he has just taken. By the time you get to the next verse, you are coming down again and reality sets in. Billy was huge into dynamics.”
The song pushed boundaries lyrically, drawing some attention for being rather controversial.
“I had grown up in a strict Italian household where there was absolutely no swearing or talking about drugs, sex or anything else of that nature. I couldn’t figure out why my brother turned the volume down so low on this one until the lines about getting high, picking your nose and masturbating came over the speakers,” says Tom Montalbano, 60, of Syosset. “I was still a little young and naive to understand what most of these things meant, but I knew there was something really naughty about this song.”
Jim Kohler, 63, formerly of Roslyn, adds, “All of the imagery in the song was very relatable to a lot of kids on Long Island. The line that really stuck with me was, ‘You’re 21 and still your mother makes your bed.’ Sadly, I was one of those kids. But Billy’s music helped ground me.”
'THE BALLAD OF BILLY THE KID'
Joel approached “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” like he was writing a movie soundtrack mixing Aaron Copland-type instrumentation with country western highlights. But there was a line in the song that really struck a chord with Long Islanders.
“When he sang ‘from a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island,’ I felt like he was giving a personal shoutout to all the fans like me who had known him back when we were just neighbors from the same town,” says Montalbano.
Joel’s current guitarist-background singer Michael DelGuidice, formerly of Miller Place, says, “When you hear it on the radio, there’s a sense of home and you feel like, ‘This is my dude, man!’ Long Islanders really felt like he represents us.”
'YOU’RE MY HOME'
One sentimental favorite from the album is the ballad, “You’re My Home,” which was written as a love letter from Joel to his first wife, Elizabeth Weber, as a Valentine’s Day gift.
“I think ‘You’re My Home’ is one of the most beautiful songs ever written,” says Lorraine McCarthy, 60, of Northport and in the band Somehow Sorry. “The lyrics are just divine.”
“You’re My Home” remains a staple in many set lists from Long Island bands.
“We play it every show,” says Pat Farrell, 59, of New Hyde Park, who is a singer and piano player in Joel tribute band Cold Spring Harbor. “It’s also a very popular wedding song.”
Eisner, who sings and plays piano in the duo Jen & Larry at Grasso’s in Cold Spring Harbor on Thursday nights, says, “It’s the most requested Billy Joel song I get. We play it every single week.”
The song has special meaning to several Long Islanders.
“In life, I’ve lived in so many places. You realize that home is where the people are and where you are. It’s not a specific place, it could be anywhere, which is the sentiment of the song,” says Dan Friedman, 50, of St. James, who works as the director of technology at Joel’s alma mater, Hicksville High School.
Phil Heide, 39, of Merrick, who has seen Joel in concert 53 times since 2006, adds, “The song makes me think about family and loved ones you don’t always see. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a house to be a home. It can simply be a memory of a person.”
The title track is not Joel’s biggest hit (it only reached No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart), however, it remains his signature song and serves as his nickname. The song was written about the six months Joel spent playing piano at the Executive Lounge in Los Angeles, under the name Bill Martin, after his first album flopped.
“It’s the quintessential iconic Billy Joel song,” says singer-pianist David Clark, 56, from Joel tribute band All About Joel, who grew up in Hempstead. “Many people who listen to that song identify with the characters in the lyrics making it really accessible.”
Joann Lassus, 63, of Baldwin, whose first album was “Piano Man” which she would play every night while falling asleep, adds, “You can vividly picture the characters from the way Billy describes them. Perhaps people will know someone similar. I have a clear picture in my head of what the place and people look like because he makes it so real.”
When performed live, the song becomes a showstopping moment during Joel’s concerts.
“That’s Billy’s home run. It’s the one people can’t wait to hear,” says DelGuidice, 52. “There’s not a person in the world that doesn’t know that song. Has there ever been a better singalong than that? People don’t just know the chorus, they know every verse.”
Jon Slomka, who grew up in Woodbury, has been to almost every show of Joel’s Madison Square Garden residency and looks forward to the “Piano Mano” moment every time.
“It’s a song for the common man,” says Slomka, 35. “No matter what age a person is, they are going to feel something when they hear it.”
Adam Hopkins, 48, of West Islip has gone nearly every month since Joel’s residency began and never tires of hearing “Piano Man” live.
“It’s never lost on me how on the last verse Billy stops singing and the audience picks it up,” says Hopkins. “The house lights go up and he looks around taking in 20,000 people of all ages and demographics singing his own words back to him. How can you not get lost in that moment?”
Many view the “Piano Man” album as a linchpin in Joel’s career that kept him in the game.
“His next album after ‘Piano Man,’ ‘Streetlife Serenade’ [released in 1974], was a dud,” says Slomka. “ ‘Piano Man’ was the glue between ‘Cold Spring Harbor’ and ‘Streetlife Serenade.’ ”
Cannata agrees, “If it wasn’t for the classic songs on that great record we might not have been able to make the ‘Turnstiles’ album in 1975, ‘The Stranger’ in 1977 and more albums going forward with the band.”
“PIANO MAN” VIDEO SHOT ON LI
Thirty-eight years ago, Billy Joel shot a video for “Piano Man” at one of Long Island’s most legendary clubs — 12 years after the song was released. Joel, who was promoting his “Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II,” filmed the video during a 26-hour shoot at Malibu in Lido Beach in 1985.
“This was like a movie production with trucks hauling equipment and buses filled with cast members for the bar scene,” says club co-owner Charlie Greco. “They even had full-blown catering.”
The room, known as Charlie’s Piano Bar, was 4,500 square feet holding up to 1,000 people where a piano sat in an alcove behind the bar.
“They even changed the look of the club to make it an intimate bar,” says club co-owner Tony Greco. “Billy’s popularity at the time was at an all-time high and it was also the heyday of the club. We were happy they chose Malibu as the filming location.”
Tom Dana, 62, of Dix Hills got to witness the shoot as his brother Mike was a cameraman who put him to work.
“I was asked to sit at the piano so they could do some camera focusing and test the lighting to see how everything looked before Billy arrived,” says Dana. “There was an entire cast that created a full bar crowd.”
One of the cast members was none other than Academy Award winning actor Tommy Lee Jones who portrayed Paul the real estate novelist “who never had time for a wife.” But the main star was Joel who arrived quietly.
“Billy drove over in an old station wagon because he didn’t want to be noticed,” says Dana. “He came off like a regular guy who was very humble.”
The club closed down and hired extra security to protect Joel and the crew.
“Everything was buttoned down and locked up,” says Tony Greco. “Billy would play some songs in between to entertain the crew. He was gracious and affable.”
The piano used in the video currently sits in the living room of Joe Carmen, 38, of Oceanside, who purchased it five years ago after seeing an ad in a local paper.
“The original owner had acquired the piano from the Malibu auction,” says Carmen. “He was moving from Lido Beach and couldn’t take it with him.”
The Baldwin Baby Grand on wheels gets played everyday by Carmen, who teaches music.
“Billy’s a blue-collar guy. There’s something very raw about his music. He says whatever is on his mind and I connect with that,” says Carmen. “When I sit at the keys I try to think, ‘What would Billy Joel do?’ I have a dream that one day he will play it again.” — DAVID J. CRIBLEZ