The first time Billy Joel sang at Madison Square Garden, he was convinced that if he didn't sing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" loud enough, Gene Autry was going to shoot him.
"I must have been no more than 5 or 6 years old and my parents took me to a Christmas show there," recalls Joel, sitting in the back of the showroom of his 20th Century Cycles shop in Oyster Bay. "It was the biggest place I had ever seen in my life. It was huge. We were up in the nosebleeds somewhere and it was almost scary to be up there as a little kid and look down and see all these people."
It was 1955 and Autry was onstage singing his Christmas hit, wanting the audience to sing along. "The audience isn't really singing along," Joel says, laughing. "So he pulls out his six-guns and he starts shooting the guns, saying, 'I said everybody sing!' It scared the living crap out of me. I thought he was shooting at me. I started singing 'Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer' really loud, thinking, 'Please don't shoot me!' I'll never forget that. It was really quite a moment. That was my first impression of Madison Square Garden."
Joel's impression of Madison Square Garden is quite different now. It's his home away from home, the place the Hicksville native calls "The Temple." It's where he is in the middle of a groundbreaking, open-ended monthly residency that has brought him unexpectedly grand success and is influencing the way music superstars are looking at the business of touring and performing, which has become even more crucial in light of declining album sales. His 12 sold-out shows in 2014 grossed about $25 million in ticket sales and, according to Billboard, gave him the top-grossing concert run in America for the year and the fourth-largest in the world, behind runs by the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney in Tokyo and One Direction's massive shows in Croke Park in Dublin.
And on Wednesday, Joel will play his 65th show at the Garden, surpassing Elton John as the artist with the most performances at the arena.
James Dolan, executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Co., says Joel will become the only person in the arena's history to have his name on two banners in the rafters. Joel's name is already on a banner for most consecutive concerts, which currently stands at 18, but he breaks that record monthly as his residency continues. (Dolan is also CEO of Cablevision, which owns Newsday.)
"The Billy Joel franchise has been a tremendous success," Dolan says. "Every show has been a sellout, as Billy has continued to entertain generations of fans -- both old and new. . . . From his first show at MSG on Dec. 14, 1978, he has become as much of a fixture at MSG as Willis Reed, Walt 'Clyde' Frazier, Mark Messier and Henrik Lundqvist."
Joel shrugs at all the record-breaking talk.
"I'm not doing it to break records," he says, taking a long drag from a cigarillo. "I'm doing it because that's what I do. I think if you hang around long enough, all this nice stuff happens to you. I got the Kennedy Center award, the Gershwin award, the ASCAP award and I think, 'Do I have a terminal disease they're not telling me about?' I think a lot of it is that I've been around. I just stayed around. I hung in when a lot of people might have hung it up."
In the music industry, though, Joel's accomplishment is seen as unrivaled. "Sixty-five is an enormous number," says Gary Bongiovanni, president and editor-in-chief of the touring industry trade magazine Pollstar. "What Billy Joel is doing with one show a month for as long as you keep selling them is unprecedented. There's only a handful of artists who could conceivably do that."
And Bongiovanni says, it's unlikely that Joel's record will ever be broken. "We're going to see career cycles be shorter in the future," he says. "The thing with the baby boomer generation of acts is that fans grew up on rock and roll and stayed loyal to it. I think the younger generations, though they are huge consumers of music, their attention spans are a little bit shorter. Whether they're going to still be fans of some of these acts in five or 10 years remains to be seen."
For Joel, though, the real prize is performing at the Garden in front of audiences that are truly excited to see him. "We never take it for granted," he says. "You have to be psyched. The band is always up. We always try to do something that keeps us on our toes. We play a song that we haven't played in 50 years, which I can now say without exaggerating. It makes it fun. Itzhak Perlman will come on stage to play. A string section will be added. John Mellencamp, Don Henley, that makes it fun. A little bit of edge is a good thing."
At the June 20 show, the special guest was Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, who joined Joel and his band for raucous versions of "Big Shot" and "You May Be Right," which segued into a howling bit of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll." But maybe the biggest surprise of the night was the screaming of the multigenerational crowd, roaring as loud as any of the latest teeny-bop band would get.
When Joel hit the first high note of "An Innocent Man," the capacity crowd cheered him as if he had just drained a three-pointer for the Knicks.
"The audience is having such a blast," Joel says. "I look out there and think, 'These people are really happy.' I look around and we're the ones making them happy? Well, we're having a blast onstage."
Not bad for an idea that Joel initially thought was a joke.
Dennis Arfa, Artist Group International CEO and Joel's agent since 1976, says the concept of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer becoming the first artist to establish a residency in an arena wasn't his.
"The idea came up at a dinner in Turks and Caicos with myself, my son Jarred and Jay Marciano, who, at the time, was president of Madison Square Garden," Arfa says. "I remember my son saying to me when we were driving back to the condominium, 'Why wouldn't you do it?' "
Arfa says the timing wasn't right. Joel had stepped back from touring in 2011 and 2012 to recover from hip-replacement surgery and had been talking about the possibility of retirement. That changed after Joel's performance at the "12-12-12" benefit concert at the Garden for victims of superstorm Sandy.
"We played at '12-12-12' and everybody made a big fuss about it," Joel says. "We didn't think we were that good. . . . I thought, 'Yeah, it was OK.' I was trying to redirect the vibe in the crowd because Kanye [West] had gone on just before us and that shocked a lot of people."
Joel remembers Paul McCartney coming up to him backstage right before he went on. "You gotta bring 'em back in, Billy! Go get 'em'," Joel says imitating McCartney's British accent. "I thought, 'OK, thanks a lot.' "
However, the fiery set from Joel and his band surprised a lot of people, and executives from the Garden reignited talk of the residency.
"I thought, 'OK, we'll play a couple of gigs, see how it goes'," Joel says. "If there's a ticket demand, OK, we'll play some more. If there's no ticket demand, we won't play. I wasn't thinking it was going to spin out like this and not realizing they were thinking franchise."
Arfa says they announced a concert at the Garden for January 2014. The response was so overwhelming, they quickly put another three shows on sale. Soon, there were plans for the full year and Joel became known as a Madison Square Garden franchise, along with the Knicks, Rangers and Liberty. Plans for 2015 followed shortly after that.
"No one's been in these waters before," Arfa says. "We're charting a different path. We're at a place now -- 24 sellouts -- that's just mind-boggling."
Ray Waddell, a senior editor at Billboard who has been covering touring for more than 25 years, calls Joel's residency success "a pretty genius concept."
"The idea of a residency in an arena is not new," Waddell says. "Prince sort of pioneered the concept with his 21 shows at the O2 Arena in London in 2007. Bon Jovi did 13 nights there in 2010. Garth Brooks has had several really long engagements in arenas over the years, both as one-offs and as part of a tour. And, of course, Michael Jackson had 50 shows on the books at the O2 when he died. But Billy Joel is the first act to receive the 'franchise' tag, and to book an open-ended, ongoing monthly gig at an arena."
He points out that Latin star Luis Miguel has played 210 times at Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City since 1997, but that arena is half the size of the Garden.
As album sales continue to decline, revenue from touring has become increasingly important to musicians. Last year, album sales dropped 11.2 percent from 2013 to 257 million units, according to Nielsen Music, and single sales, once seen as a potential life-saver for the industry, declined 12.5 percent to 1.1 billion. Touring revenue, on the other hand, climbed 3.4 percent from a strong 2013, making touring a $20 billion business, according to Billboard.
Residencies -- whether they are in theaters in Las Vegas, where Britney Spears and Mariah Carey have put down roots, or Garth Brooks' mini-residencies like his nine-show run in Denver or six-show run in Buffalo -- have become increasingly popular.
"Generally, any time an engagement exceeds one show, profits go up exponentially," Waddell says, adding that Joel's shows have taken the next step by becoming a tourist attraction. "Billy at the Garden has the unique status of being a national, even global, destination gig. . . . . This is about as elite as it gets."
With that kind of success, similar attempts are expected.
"Other artists have and will try it in various models," Waddell says. "But first they have to have the demand and the time to commit, neither of which are easy things."
Demand isn't a problem for Joel.
Arfa says that including the shows through December, Joel has sold 480,000 tickets during his residency and that those tickets were sold to about 375,000 people, mostly from the tri-state area. He says tickets are bought mostly by people in their 40s, but that the crowd is multigenerational. "I think we surprise people when they see the youth of the audience," Arfa says.
It initially surprised Joel. After all, he hasn't put out any new pop music since 1993, long before many in his audience were born. "We've been finding out that a lot of younger people like what we're doing," Joel says. "I look out in the audience and think, 'Wow. They know my stuff.'. . . There seems to be a turnover in the audience. I keep seeing that. I wouldn't want to just play to one age group. Somehow this stuff is getting through to people who wouldn't normally hear it or people who didn't hear it before."
Waddell says Joel connects well to a younger audience. "His songs are beloved and hold up extremely well, and have tremendous appeal to multiple generations in a unique era when young people often listen to the same music as their parents and even their grandparents," he says. "The second reason is Billy Joel is one hell of an entertainer."
Waddell says he got to experience that again first-hand recently, when he saw Joel perform earlier this month at Bonnaroo, the influential, four-day music festival in Tennessee.
"Billy and his guys had to rely on their power as performers to win over the crowd. These fans didn't know every song and most of them didn't arrive already in love with Billy Joel. And, just as [Bruce] Springsteen did, Billy won them over and had them in the palm of his hand just a few songs in. He's still got that magic. Anybody with any appreciation for live music knows they're seeing something special when he takes the stage. It's a rare gift."
All the rave reviews following his Bonnaroo headlining appearance continued the wildly positive appraisals and reappraisals of Joel and his career since the "12-12-12" return.
"It's a little strange to be what appears to be peaking at this age, when this should be the downhill slope," Joel says. "It feels like we're cresting here. I'm 66 years old now. There's something very gratifying for it to be happening now, because we were never like the hottest thing in the world. We were close, but never there. We were working in the trenches, kinda like the underdog, not really getting the attention, which is OK. I'd rather be underestimated than overestimated, 'cause you get a leg up that way. They don't expect you to be so successful. There's something very gratifying about it happening at this age. I never thought I'd still be doing it at this age. This is a kid's job. I started out as a teenager and I'm still doing the same job that I did as a teenager. It kind of allows you to still be a kid in a way. It probably slows your maturity a great deal. It's the fountain of youth."
Joel is certainly feeling that youth again.
"I'm planning on staying as long as the tickets sell," Joel says, his fingers unconsciously playing the table like a piano, both hands, all 10 fingers tapping. "It's funny because I'm waiting to get kicked out. Aren't they going to run out of people eventually?"
He pauses, before saying, "There's always the thought of 'If I suck, I'm gonna stop.' If I physically am not capable of doing it well, not just doing it, but doing it well, I'll stop. I had allergies for a couple of years -- really bad allergies that were hurting my voice. It was thought that I needed surgery, that I had polyps, that I had this and the other. I don't want someone going in and cutting up my throat. For a while, I thought eventually it's going to get worse and I'm not going to be able to sing anymore."
However, the allergy shots he started taking last year have changed things dramatically. "They've really helped my throat and my voice is real strong now," he says. "I'm not so much worried about losing my ability to sing until I get really old. I'm just going to keep going. They want to see me? I'll play."
Even the prospect of a baby, due late this summer with longtime girlfriend Alexis Roderick, will not change Joel's long-term plans.
"This is who I am," he says. "Even when I have a baby, this is my job. It's not like I'll be on tour away from my child for any significant amount of time. It's once a week and I come right home. Or if I go far away, I take her with me. Babies are pretty portable."
Though there is currently no agreement to extend Joel's residency at the Garden into 2016, Arfa and MSG officials will start discussions in the coming months and both sides hope to work something out. "We look forward to seeing Billy continue to make music at his Garden home well into the future," Dolan says.
Joel is looking forward to that as well. He says he is once again having a great time performing.
"The band is really kicking now and it's so tightened up," he says, smiling. "It's like driving a big Cadillac. It's got 12 cylinders and it feels great. . . . It's the best job in the world."
However, Joel says he does understand how that feeling will always be temporary.
"I understand when rock stars have difficulty with the transition of being on stage and normal life," he says. "It's a huge transition. There's a little bit of Mussolini up there. People are yelling your name and if I said, 'Let's go attack Mexico, they'd probably come with me.' It's a little bit scary like that. But then you leave and you get in the car and you're just another schmuck on the highway with a slow car in front of you, asking, 'Don't you know who I just was?' I'm kind of grounded about it. It's a job. Then you go home and take out the garbage and wash the dishes -- except it's a nice big home."
He feels the same way about breaking records at the Garden, conquering the arena that intimidated him so much as a young boy.
Joel says he plans to make his concert July 1 special. He has invited some friends to join him onstage that night, though he declines to identify any of them because the appearances depend so much on unpredictable scheduling.
"I'm not ego-tripping on it -- it's a long road that culminated in this," Joel says. "What's that story? 'The Tortoise and the Hare.' We were the tortoise, I guess, slow but steady."
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. July 1, Madison Square Garden, Manhattan
INFO $64.50-$124.50; 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com