Monday, December 29, 2014

Billy Joel, The #11 Artist of the Seventies*

The artists in this range are extremely close--the difference, in fact, between #9 and #11 are minimal; a shifting of focus on factors could mean the difference between the six amazing artists we're about to here. Don't concentrate on their ranking; rather, appreciate each of them for what they are--some of the most fantastic artists of the decade! The artist at #11* shows us how tough it is to be a star.  Even though today he is one of the most successful artists of the Rock Era, it wasn't always that way.  It shows that even a man of extraordinary talent has to work his way up.

Joel began taking piano lessons at an early age.  As a teenager, Billy began boxing on the amateur Golden Gloves circuit, and he was a pretty good one, winning 22 bouts.  He ended that career when his nose was broken.  Joel went to Hicksville High School in New York, but he did not graduate with his class.  As his parents were divorced, Billy played at a piano bar to help pay the family bills, and this interfered with his schooling.  Billy also played sessions for Kama Sutra Productions, on records by Shadow Morton, and he also played on a demo version of "Leader Of The Pack", which ultimately became a big hit for the Shangri-Las. 

Instead of going to summer school to earn his diploma,  Billy decided to begin a music career.  In 1992, however, to his great credit, Billy submitted essays to the school board and received his diploma from Hicksville, 25 years after leaving.

Joel founded the Echoes, and the group attracted a following around New York City.  In 1967, Joel joined the Hassles, a group that had signed with United Artists Records.  The Hassles released two albums without any fanfare, so Joel and drummer Jon Small formed the duo Attila, releasing a self-titled album in 1970. 

In 1971, Joel signed a contract with Family Productions and released the album Cold Spring Harbor.  Although the album contained the future hit "She's Got A Way", the album went unnoticed.  It also features the cynical "Everybody Loves You Now".
Joel, who battled depression in his early days that is reflected in many of his songs, wrote this great track after a failed suicide attempt in 1970.
Joel continued to perform around New York City, and WMMR-FM of Philadelphia began playing a concert recording of "Captain Jack".  Herb Gordon, an executive with Columbia Records, heard the song and helped Billy sign a major recording contract with Columbia in 1972.

Joel moved to Los Angeles, and worked at the piano bar at The Executive Room on Wilshire Boulevard.  Performing as "Bill Martin", it was during this time that Joel wrote the words about the bar's patrons for what would become his first big hit.  Billy toured throughout the United States and Puerto Rico, opening for groups such as the Beach Boys and the J. Geils Band.

In 1973, Joel released the album Piano Man.  As great as we all now know the song to be, it's hard to believe that at the time, the title song peaked at #25 in the U.S. (although it did reach #4 on the Adult chart), and #10 in Canada.  "Piano Man" is among the best in The Top Unknown/Underrated Songs of the Rock Era*.  The song finally did go over one million copies sold.

The enduring popularity of "Piano Man" eventually led the album to four million in sales.  Another gem can be found on the album.  Billy played "Travelin' Prayer" on The Midnight Special, and the clip has become famous for showing us the incredible talent he had, even back then. 

Another song that has become famous from the album is "The Ballad Of Billy The Kid".
The following year, Billy recorded the album Streetlife Serenade.  Upset that Columbia had cut the length of "Piano Man" for radio play, Joel wrote "The Entertainer" as a sarcastic response.  Streetlife Serenade also did not do well in the beginning, but has now been certified Platinum.  "The Entertainer" stalled at #30 in Canada and #34 in the U.S.
"Souvenir" is another quality song on the album.
Joel moved back to New York in 1976 and released the album Turnstiles.  Again, the album didn't sell well at first, but future Billy Joel fans bought the album enough to put it over one million copies sold.  "Say Goodbye To Hollywood" received some airplay as a single, but it didn't become a hit until it was released years later on the live album Songs in the Attic.

Although the album didn't contain a big hit, it is the home of a couple of examples of Billy's best work.  This is "Miami, 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)".
And here is "Prelude/Angry Young Man".
Billy famously sang "New York State Of Mind" in the benefit America:  A Tribute to Heroes, for the victims of the 9/11 murders in 2001.  It too is on the album Turnstiles.

Joel had the respect, and those that saw his live performances had an inkling of his talent--Billy just didn't have the hits or the success to show for it.  After all, to this point, Joel had become known as "The Piano Man", and even that was a #25 song! 

That all changed in 1977, though.  Columbia introduced Billy to Phil Ramone, who would produce Joel's albums through 1986, beginning with the release of the album The Stranger.  You don't own too many albums better than The Stranger, because it ranks as  The #21 Album of the Rock Era*.   The single "Just The Way You Are"  became Billy's breakthrough hit, topping the Adult Contemporary chart for four weeks and going to #3 overall in the U.S.  It also soared to #2 in Canada, and #6 in both Australia and New Zealand, and went Gold.

"Just The Way You Are" earned Grammy Awards for both Record of the Year and Song of the Year.  Billy was finally on his way, although the next single, "Movin' Out", only went to #17.

"Only The Good Die Young" did worse at #24.
 The next single, "She's Always A Woman" also didn't budge past #17 overall, but did go to #2 on the AC chart.

The Stranger has now sold over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone, as people discovered more and more great songs.  This is the title track.

The album became Billy's first Top 10, going all the way to #2 in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  "Vienna" is another excellent song.

Another favorite from The Stranger is "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant".

In 1978, Joel released a great follow-up album, 52nd Street52nd Street went to #1 on the Album chart in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and #10 in the U.K.  The single "My Life" roared to #3 in the U.S. (#2 on the Adult Contemporary chart), #3 in Canada, and #6 in Australia and New Zealand.

Joel won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male.  The next single, "Big Shot", went to #14.

52nd Street itself has gone over the seven-million mark in sales.  The single "Honestly" went to #9 on the AC chart, and #24 overall.

This song also received considerable airplay--"Stiletto".
Another great song is "Until The Night".  Billy is unique in that none of his songs sound alike.  You would be hard-pressed to find another artist in history with as much versatility and ability to always come up with something that sounded completely different from anything he's ever done. 

In 1979, Joel went to Havana, Cuba to perform in the Havana Jam Festival, featured in the documentary Havana Jam '79.

In 1985, Billy released the compilation double album Billy Joel's Greatest Hits, Volume I & II.  It has now gone over 23 million in the United States alone, and, since a little more than half of the album is dedicated to his 70's material, Joel gets 12 million in sales from that album for the purposes of this special.

Billy has received numerous honorary degrees:  A Doctor of Humane Letters from Fairfield University in 1991, a Doctor of Music from Berklee College of Music in 1993, a Doctor of Humane Letters from Hofstra University in 1997, a Doctor of Music from Southampton College in 2000, a Doctor of Fine Arts From Syracuse University in 2006, and a Doctor of Musical Arts from the Manhattan School of Music in 2008.

In 1992, Billy was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  In 1999, Joel was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  In 2001, this great talent received the Johnny Mercer Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  In 2002, Billy was named the MusiCares Person of the Year.  In 2005, Joel received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Billy is the only artist in history to have played both Yankee and Shea Stadiums in New York; he has also played Giants Stadium, Madison Square Garden, and Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.  Billy sponsored the Billy Joel Visiting Composer Series at Syracuse University.  On December 12, 2011, Joel became the first non-classical musician honored with a portrait in Steinway Hall.

In 2013, Joel received the Kennedy Center Honors, the nation's highest honor for influencing American culture through the arts.  Earlier this year, it was announced by the United States Congress that Joel would be the sixth recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

Joel continued to enjoy tremendous success in the 80's as one of the top artists of that decade as well, and recorded his final album River of Dreams in 1993.  He still performs throughout the world to sellout crowds.

Billy sold at least 35 million albums in the United States alone from his music of the Seventies--He scored 11 hits, with two Top 10's and numerous other Top Tracks* as you've just heard.  What an amazing talent.

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