In 1973, Billy Joel signed a recording contract with Columbia Records.
Don Hunstein took photos.
Billy's second solo album, Piano Man, almost did not happen. After the business disaster of Cold Spring Harbor and the accompanying tour, Billy realized he had signed some bad business deals and decided to hide out. He refused to record for Artie Ripp's' Family Productions, which would be out of business in a few years anyway. In a well-repeated story, Billy got a job playing piano at The Executive Lounge on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles under the pseudonym Bill Martin (Martin is his middle name). He played there for about six months. Although it was a gig beneath Billy's talents, the experience would eventually lead to his signature song "Piano Man."
Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, a live version of "Captain Jack" that Billy had recorded for a mini-concert on WMMR (Philadelphia) in 1972 was becoming an FM hit as people kept requesting it even though it had not yet been released. DJ Ed Sciaky at WMMR was instrumental in promoting the song. The song's popularity and Billy's performance at the Mar Y Sol festival in Puerto Rico (see video at 3:25) attracted the attention of Columbia Records executives, including top executive Clive Davis, who took note and eventually found Billy in Los Angeles. Columbia made a deal with Ripp, and put Billy back in the recording studio. Billy was thrilled to sign with Columbia Records which was the label for Bob Dylan and other recording artists that Billy respected.
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Billy lived up to expectations. The songs on Piano Man were strong, diverse, and memorable, and the production was much stronger compared to Cold Spring Harbor. Songs such as "Piano Man," "Captain Jack" and "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" were minor epics, and covered a wide range of themes both musically and topically. "Travelin' Prayer," "Stop In Nevada," "You're My Home," and "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" even had a country feel to them, no doubt influenced by Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection and other songs popular at the time that had a Western theme or sound. "Somewhere Along The Line" and "Ain't No Crime" were solid pop-rock tunes. They remained popular in Billy's concerts through the late 1970s. And of course "Piano Man" became Billy's signature song.
Piano Man was the debut album that Billy should have had. It marked him as an up-and-coming singer and songwriter, with a gift for writing catchy melodies, a talent for clever lyrics, and a diversity of styles and subjects. The song "Piano Man" became a top 40 hit, and the album went 4x platinum. Billy appeared on national television programs such as The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner's Rock Concert to promote the album though he had expressed disdain for this type of television appearance. Billy also toured the country, and opened for acts like The Doobie Brothers, The Beach Boys, and The J. Geils Band, often garnering more attention and applause than the headline act.
But it would be a few more years before he became an international superstar with the release of The Stranger in 1977. As Billy put it later in "The Entertainer" from Streetlife Serenade: "I know the game, you forget my name/And I won't be here in another year/If I don't stay on the charts."
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In 2011, Sony released a special two-CD Legacy Edition of Piano Man with 24-bit remastered recordings, as well as his full WMMR radio concert from 1972. Fans had waited almost 40 years for an official version of the concert which included three songs ("Josephine," "Long Long Time" and "Rosalinda") that were not even available on Billy Joel's My Lives, a collection of rarities and B-sides released in 2005. Information about the WMMR Radio Concert can be found on this site as "Live on WMMR."
Classic Rock Reviews
Ultimate Classic Rock (Legacy Edition)
Billy discusses the 'country' influence in some songs on Piano Man from The Complete Albums collection. See more videos at Billy Joel's Official Site and VEVO.
Billy in New York (1973). Photo: Don Hunstein/CBS Records. Keeping Time: The Photographs of Don Hunstein.
Released: 9 November 1973
Recorded: September 1973, Devonshire Sound, Los Angeles, California
Genre: Rock, Country Rock, Soft Rock
Producer: Michael Stewart
All Songs written by Billy Joel
Billy Joel – piano, organs, electric piano, harmonica, vocals
Larry Carlton – guitars
Eric Weissberg – banjo
Billy Armstrong – violin
Richard Bennett – guitars
Rhys Clark – drums (track 10)
Laura Creamer – backing vocals
Mark Creamer – backing vocals
Wilton Felder – bass guitar
Emory Gordy, Jr. – bass guitar
Fred Heilbrun – banjo
Michael Omartian – accordion
Dean Parks – guitars
Susan Steward – backing vocals
Ron Tutt – drums (tracks 1-9)
Uncredited - percussion