Turning 70 today (Thursday), Billy Joel made his mark in music with a piano-driven ballads, vivid lyrics and pop-rock tunes with a retro feel.
A 1999 inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Long Island, New York's most prolific musical native is also a big time sports fan. He's brought those worlds together performing the national anthem before baseball's World Series (2000, when the Yankees played the Mets) and football's Super Bowl (in 1990, when the met 49ers and Bengals). These days, he's also the musical "franchise" of New York's Madison Square Garden, where he performs a monthly show. He'll also do shows at various ballparks around the country.
In his own words, Billy opens up on his music, shedding light on what shaped him as an artist.
Billy Joel studied classical piano while growing up, but couldn't resist the temptation of rock and roll: "I wish I'd studied more, actually. I'm kind of angry at myself that I didn't. But by the time I was 15, I didn't want to be a concert pianist. I didn't want to a virtuoso, I wanted to be in rock and roll. So I left it. I left the girl next door and I ran away with the rock and roll woman, ya know?"
Billy Joel discussed the origins of his song "Piano Man."
"The music business had relocated to California, Southern California and I was living there, trying actually to get out of a bad contract that I had signed. And I had to get a job to pay the rent, so I worked in a piano bar. A lot of people think I worked in piano bars for years, I only did it for about six months. But I knew that was going to be able to get a song out of this, because it was a very strange gig. And I've become the patron saint of piano men... everywhere."
Billy Joel talked about the key to his longevity:"I know how to write, music and lyrics. I know how to play my instrument. I know how to sing. And I know how to perform on the stage. And I know the recording techniques. I'm not, by any means, an extraordinary artist. I don't think I'm all good. Now, if you're competent in an age of incompetence, that makes you appear extraordinary. So that's my rationale for why I've been around a long time. I'm not all that good. I just know how to do the job."
Billy Joel says his hit songs usually were written in reaction to his darker material: "I wrote the ones that became the hits as sort of a variation on the other songs I wrote. I worked just as hard on the ones that are album cuts or not Top 40 hits. And then I'd say, 'Well, what am I gonna do, I need some balance here.' So I might write -- just throw something off or write something in response to something heavy that I wrote and it ends up being a pop hit. I mean I don't plan to write a hit. The record company people hear it and they go, 'Oh, that could be a single.'"
Billy Joel says his original goal was to be a successful songwriter, not a "rock star." "I became a rock and roll star kinda accidentally. I wanted to write songs and they said, 'You should record an album.' And I recorded an album during the singer-songwriter era. So I became a 'singer-songwriter.' And then they said, 'We should go on the road and you should promote your album.' And I thought, 'OK, this is kind of weird way to be a songwriter.' But that's what was going on in the '70s. And I became Billy Joel -- rock star, which to me, is hysterical."