Artist Biographies: The Billy Joel Story
The Piano Man
Billy Joel (birth name William Martin Joel) was born on May 9th, 1949 in the Bronx and grew up in Hicksville, a suburb of New York. His parents were Howard Joel (birth name Helmuth Joel) and Rosalind Joel (maiden name Rosalind Nyman). Howard was born in Germany but later emigrated to the United States. Rosalind was born in England. Billy Joel is best known for his songs “Piano Man” (1973) and “Upton Girl” (1983). “Piano Man” has since become Billy Joel’s nickname.
The Early Life of Billy Joel
Despite being a well-known pianist, singer and song-writer, Billy Joel did not actually enjoy playing the piano when he picked it up as a child. When he was four, he started lessons at his mother’s insistence, despite the fact that his father was the classical pianist. However, Joel quickly showed quite an impressive aptitude and was taught by the American pianist Morton Estrin and the musician Timothy Ford, amongst others.
Billy Joel started a relatively successfully professional music career even before he turned 16. He was originally hired to be a pianist for Bobby Vee, although, when he refused to wear the necessary matching jackets, he was fired.
Since Billy Joel had used his piano skills to help his mother make ends meet, his attendance at school had not been great and he ended up not graduating with his class. Nevertheless, he did not let this deter him from starting his career in music.
The Early Musical Career of Billy Joel
Following the relative success of his early years, Billy Joel was soon signed onto a record label (with the record company Family Productions) to start his solo career. His first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor, was released in 1970 and, despite the fact this album contained two songs “She’s Got a Way” and “Everybody Loves You Now” that would later be very popular, it did not achieve any technical or commercial success.
On the back of the disappointment of his first album’s failure, Billy Joel ended up moving to Los Angeles to lay low for a time. In 1972, he managed to get a job working as a lounge pianist with the stage name ‘Bill Martin’. He would later sing about these experiences in one of his most famous songs “Piano Man”.
Late in 1972, Billy Joel had recorded his second album Captain Jack that was slowly gaining popularity in the East Coast area. It was as a result of this that the music label Columbia Records signed Joel and gave him the break that his music career needed.
Late 1970s - Early 1990s Musical Career:
Joel’s Piano Man, released in 1973, was this first album created with Columbia Records. Although sales were not very impressive straight away, “Piano Man” soon became Joel’s signature track.
Joel’s second album recorded in Los Angeles was Streetlife Serenade, released in 1974. In this and Piano Man, there was clear theme of a growing frustration at Hollywood and the music industry in general. This was followed by Joel’s leaving Los Angeles in 1976 to return to New York. There, he recorded the album Turnstiles at Caribou Ranch.
As he progressed in his career, Joel’s musical style changed and adapted, and he composed music in a number of styles, from pop to blues and jazz.
The Stranger was produced in 1977 and was Billy Joel’s first major commercial breakthrough, and from this album he managed to get four songs into the Top 25 of the U.S. Billboard charts. This album won two Grammy awards: one for Record of the Year and one for Song of the Year (for “Just the Way You Are”, which was written for Joel’s first wife, Elizabeth Weber). The popular magazine Rolling Stone ranked The Stranger as the 70th greatest album of all time.
Later, throughout the 1980s, more awards and achievements came flooding in recognizing Joel’s musical talents and abilities. He wrote many hits, including “Tell Her About It” (Joel’s second track to get to Billboard’s No. 1), “Uptown Girl” (No. 1 in the U.K.) and “Innocent Man” (No. 10 in the U.S. and No. 8 in the U.K.).
After the success of Billy Joel’s record An Innocent Man, he was asked to produce and release an album of his most successful tracks. He made his album Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and 2 which is now tied for the third-best-selling album in American music history.
Throughout the 1980s, Joel was also touring, performing with other famous singers and musicians including Cyndi Lauper and John Mellencamp, often for charitable events.
In 1989 Joel was given a Grammy Legend Award following the success of his single “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, also released in 1989. He continued to produce hits and win awards throughout the early 1990s. After 1994 and the release of River of Dreams, however, Joel began to focus less on studio recordings and more on continuing his tours with other artists, including Elton John.
Late Musical Career:
Despite his musical success, his personal life was a mess. In the early 2000s, Joel was struggling with alcohol addiction and going in and out of rehab. Having released “All My Life”, his first track with original lyrics for 13 years, in 2007, Joel has continued to tour rather than focusing on recording new songs, although he has composed some classical songs since.
The Personal Life of Billy Joel:
Billy Joel married his first wife, Elizabeth Weber, on September 5th, 1973, and was inspired to write “She’s Always a Woman” for her. They divorced 9 years later on July 20th, 1982. They had no children together, although Elizabeth had a child from a previous relationship.
In 1985, Joel married his second wife, Christie Brinkley, the American model, on March 23. They had a daughter, Alexa Ray Joel (the middle name “Ray” in honor of the great Ray Charles), who was born on December 29th, 1985. The couple then divorced on August 25th, 1994.
In 2004, Joel married Katie Lee, who was then 23 years old. After five years of marriage, they confirmed that they had divorced in 2009.
Joel is now expecting a baby with his current girlfriend, Alexis Roderick, in 2015. They have been together since 2009.