What Billy Joel was doin’ was playing in a piano bar, just like those lyrics. His career was stuck in idle. He may have been embarrassed to be there, because he was using the name Bill Martin. At least he got a great song out of it.
Billy Joel had been having trouble getting his career moving. His first solo album was Cold Spring Harbor in 1971. The crazy thing is, the label mastered the album at the wrong speed! Joel came off a bit like The Chipmunks. Billy moved to Columbia Records (and to L.A. from New York) in 1972, and that’s when he was playing in a piano bar.
Billy Joel’s first hit, “Piano Man”, was in 1973. It seems like a #1 hit, but “Piano Man” only made it to #25. The popularity of the song grew with Billy Joel’s career. His Piano Man album did fairly well (#27), and the follow up, Streetlife Seranade (1974), did okay (#35).
His fourth album Turnstiles (1976) tanked at #122. But here’s the thing. Turnstiles is actually one of Billy Joel’s best albums. It includes “Say Goodbye To Hollywood”, “New York State Of Mind”, “Prelude/Angry Young Man”, “I’ve Loved These Days”, and “Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway”). Those all made regular appearances in his concerts, and eventually got airplay when Joel became more popular.
I wore out my first copy, bought a second, and then bought it again when it came out on CD. I like every song. Lest you think I’m crazy (you may be right), here’s what happened in the late ‘90’s when five of us (Joe Skare, Tim “Timmo” Cawley, Bill Barker, Jim Steel & I) were talking at our Classic Rock radio station, KTGL “The Eagle”. We were discussing what albums we might choose if we were marooned on an island (with stereo equipment & electricity obviously), and three of us mentioned Turnstiles as a possibility. We figured it’s because all of the songs are good, and they weren’t burned out by too much radio play.
Billy Joel finally broke big time with The Stranger, released in 1977. It had four hit singles…”Just The Way You Are”, “Movin’ Out”, “Only The Good Die Young”, and “She’s Always A Woman”. Plus, “The Stranger” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” were regulars on FM stations. At the time, it became Columbia Record’s all time best selling album, even passing Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Billy Joel followed that up with a string of hit albums…52nd Street, Glass Houses, The Nylon Curtain, and An Innocent Man. During that run, he also had another 17 hit singles. Hits that made the Top 10 included “My Life”, “You May Be Right”, “It’s Still Rock & Roll To Me” (#1), “Tell Her About It” (#1), “Uptown Girl” and “An Innocent Man”.
That’s when we were lucky to catch him in concert. It was his “Innocent Man” tour in April of 1984. Billy Joel was still young, energetic, and was running around a stage that had ramps and multiple keyboards at various locations.
When he introduced “The Longest Time” (love that song, what a rhyme scheme), he explained that he sang all the many vocal parts on the recording, then had to teach them to the band before they headed out on tour. It sounded great! Also, it was absolutely amazing to see him playing the frenetic piano part on “Prelude/Angry Young Man”.
Billy Joel continued to have hit albums into the ’90’s, The Bridge, Storm Front, and River of Dreams. Another ten hit singles included “A Matter Of Trust”, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (#1), and his final big hit “The River of Dreams” (#3) in 1993.
In the late ’90’s, after charting hits during three decades, Billy Joel announced he had retired from writing Pop music. He did release an album of original classical music in 2011.
Billy Joel has been a concert draw for the longest time (though he no longer runs around the stage). Joel had over six years of monthly sold out shows at Madison Square Garden, before a 20 month break because of the COVID pandemic. He returned to the Garden in November of 2021, and is doing some concerts with Stevie Nicks in 2023.
I looked up the list of best selling artists in the U.S. Billy Joel outsold Michael Jackson and Elton John. The only pop/rock solo artist to outsell Joel in the U.S. was Elvis Presley. Billy Joel came a long way from getting tips in a piano bar.