Listening to: Your Only Human    


May 9, 1949 - Present

1950  |  1960  |  1970  |  1980  |  1990  | 2000

1949: PIANO Man Billy Joel was a glue-sniffing, belligerent hood during his youth. His father, Howard, a Jew who immigrated to New York via Cuba after surviving internment in the Dachau concentration camp, settled his wife Rosalind and their two children in Levittown, New York, where the seed of young Billy's discontent took root. Levittown, built in the years following World War II to offset the housing crunch created by returning vets, was by design a rabbit warren of tract houses, executed in mind-numbing sameness. For William "Billy" Martin Joel, the alienation he felt living in the oppressive suburban development erupted into rebellion, sprees of gang crime, general antisocial hell-raising, and, fortuitously, music.

1960:  When the spirit of the British invasion blew across the country in the early sixties, Joel became convinced that he, too, could achieve coolness by performing in a band; suddenly, the pansy piano lessons his father and mother (by then they had divorced, and Howard had returned to Europe) made him take as a youngster seemed pardonable. Never having taken to his parents' musical predilections (his father was a classically trained pianist), Billy fancied boogie-woogie, rock and roll, and early soul. He formed a group called the Echoes; bedecked with blue jackets and velvet collars in knock-off Beatles fashion, they took the Teen Canteen at Hicksville High by storm. The Echoes saw a couple of name changes the Emerald Lords, the Lost Souls but no change in status or recognition. Joel, still struggling against his shabby economic and social circumstances, was denied his high school diploma due to excessive absenteeism, ran away from home, and was arrested on suspicion of burglary. The charges were dropped, but a terrifying night in jail did little to build a happy outlook on life.

Joel had his first glimmer of rock-and-roll hope at eighteen, when he joined the Hassles, a relatively popular club band. In the late sixties, the group cut two forgettable albums, The Hassles and Hour of the Wolf, before breaking up. Joel fell back onto hard times after the dissolution of the Hassles: his longtime girlfriend broke up with him, and the distraught young man attempted suicide by drinking furniture polish. When that didn't solve the problem, he committed himself to the mental ward at Meadowbrook Hospital for three weeks observation and quickly discovered that he was quite sane. A Thorazine nightmare, the hospital visit steeled his resolve to make it in rock and roll, and after checking himself out of the ward, he formed a two-man psychedelic band, called Attila, with Hassles' drummer Jon Small. The duo released one self-titled album, which flopped.

1970:  Joel didn't have any more luck with his next project a solo album called Cold Spring Harbor, which was mismastered to the point that he sounded like Alvin the Chipmunk. Embittered by the album's failure and the frustration of having signed away his publishing royalties, Joel and his girlfriend (and future wife and manager) Elizabeth Weber took off to Los Angeles, where he played in piano bars under the pseudonym Bill Martin. In 1973, good fortune finally stumbled into Joel's life in the form of a contract with Columbia Records; that year, he released Piano Man, which sold over a million copies. But Joel's dark cloud wouldn't seem to go away: he earned a whopping $7,763 for his effort.

His next album, Streetlife Serenade, delivered up his first Top 40 hit, "The Entertainer," which articulates the bittersweet reality of a performer's life something Joel was all too familiar with. In 1977, he broke through commercially in a big way. The Stranger went multi-platinum and yielded five huge hits, one of which, "Just the Way You Are," earned him a Grammy Award for Song of the Year. By the end of 1979, sales of The Stranger had surpassed the five-million mark. Joel could finally thumb his nose at the critics whose lumps he had endured for his economy of style and apparent disdain for addressing issues of the era. His acerbic themes and the structure of his anthems which merged Tin Pan Alley composition with Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney sensibilities began to attract hordes of fans, and his follow-up albums, 52nd Street (1979),

1980:  Glass Houses (1980), Songs in the Attic (1981), Nylon Curtain (1982), and An Innocent Man (1983) all went platinum. His subsequent releases, Greatest Hits, Volumes 1 & 2 (1985), The Bridge (1986), Kohuept (the record of his 1987 concert in Leningrad), Storm Front (1989), and the critically acclaimed River of Dreams (1993), have sustained his gilded winning streak.

1990:  Joel made headlines in 1985 for his second marriage, to "Uptown Girl" model Christie Brinkley the unlikely couple met and became involved, in 1983, after Joel's divorce and Brinkley's breakup with French race-car driver Olivier Chandon. Their union yielded one daughter, Alexa Ray (named after Ray Charles), but the couple divorced in 1994, after Brinkley survived a close brush with death in a helicopter crash with real estate developer Rick Taubman, whom she married shortly thereafter. You just never know how people will react to crisis.

2001:  Billy Joel is alive and well touring America with Elton John in the "Face To Face Tour".

 © 2001 Michael Zilinskas.  All Rights Reserved.