By now, a large number of music fans know the story told by Billy Joel about his days as piano lounge singer “Bill Martin” in Los Angeles. It was documented in the lyrics of Joel’s song “Piano Man,” the title track of his album of the same name, released in 1973. In lyrics written in a limerick-type rhyming style -- admittedly by Joel -- he tells of his days playing piano and interacting with the bar’s patrons and a waitress who was practicing politics (and would later go on to be Joel’s wife). According to Joel, the patrons appearing in the song were based on actual people.
Fast-forward to the mid-1980s. Lifelong New Yorker Joel returned to Los Angeles, but not to entertain at a local pub. No, he was a man on a mission, and that mission was going to the Evergreen Stage in Burbank to record some of the tracks that would be included on his next album, 1986’s The Bridge.
For Joel, the project was historic. The album, his tenth, would be the last of Joel’s albums to be produced by respected studio ace Phil Ramone. It would also be the last to feature Joel’s longtime guitarist Russell Javors and bassist Doug Stegmeyer. The Bridge included a duet with one of Joel’s heroes, Ray Charles, on the song “Baby Grand,” and yielded several hit singles. One of the songs, “Modern Woman,” was used on the soundtrack of the film Ruthless People.
Although Joel’s music has always been accessible to the public, it has almost never been simple in the sense that it’s simply three chords and a chorus. Billy Joel is a piano virtuoso who studied classical music as a child, then played complex arrangements until he was bitten by the rock & roll bug. Witness the ultra-fast key jabbing in the songs “Only the Good Die Young” and “Angry Young Man” (which appeared on earlier albums), and understand that it’s a very difficult thing to accomplish.
Joel is also a master at playing, singing and recording in a variety of styles. The Bridge featured songs that represented a wide range of musical influences, from “Running On Ice,” which seems to emulate the sound of The Police, and “Modern Woman,” which is similar in feel to songs by Huey Lewis and the News. One of the most poignant songs on the album is “This is the Time,” in which Joel sings about the constancy of change.
Over a career that spans nearly half a century, Joel has established himself as a powerful singer, lyricist and musician, and as a dynamic stage performer. He was a member of two local New York bands before going out on his own, eventually producing 33 top 40 hits in the U.S. He’s won five Grammy Awards of the 23 for which he’s been nominated. He’s also been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. In 2013 he was among the Kennedy Center Honors recipients.
Also in 2013, Joel began an extended residency at Madison Square Garden in New York, where he continues to perform. His band lineup has changed over the years, but his voice and performing style have not. He continues to rock the house one moment, then serenade the audience with one of his many ballads the next.
In addition, he performed the final concert held at Shea Stadium, which was captured on the DVD and album entitled Last Play at Shea. He continues to tour as well, and many people were treated to a rare collaborative effort by two major superstars when Joel and Elton staged a concert tour a few years back.