Family & Companions
A modern-day bard and legendary "piano man," Billy Joel released some of the most memorable songs of all time. A classically trained pianist, he played with various bands before launching a successful career as a solo artist. For several decades, Joel wrote and recorded countless hit songs inspired by his experiences as a struggling artist in such songs as "Piano Man" (1973), being a proud New Yorker with "New York State of Mind" (1976), and a man in love with 1977's "Just the Way You Are." The multiple Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee also caught the eye of the world's most beautiful women, most notably his second wife and international supermodel Christie Brinkley, whom he immortalized with the hit single "Uptown Girl" (1983). Not one to rest on his success, Joel often pushed himself creatively and took on ambitious projects throughout his career, whether it was headlining historic concerts in the Soviet Union, releasing an album of classical compositions in 2001, or collaborating on the Tony Award-winning musical "Movin' Out" (2002). With his songs forever ingrained in music history, Joel stood out as a prolific songwriter and entertainer for the ages.
William Martin Joel was born on May 9, 1949 in Bronx, NY and grew up in the suburbs of Long Island. When he was eight, Joel's father, a classical pianist, left the family. His mother struggled to support her two children, but also encouraged Joel to study piano. He played like a pro by the time he was 16; however, Joel was also caught up with getting into trouble as a teen. He joined a street gang and took up boxing, which resulted in a broken nose. Inspired by The Beatles' historic appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971), Joel began playing piano for the local cover band the Echoes (which later changed its name to the Lost Souls). In the late-1960s, Joel joined a Long Island group called the Hassle before forming the hard-rock duo Attila, along with Hassles drummer Jonathan Small. Both bands released records that were met with very little commercial success. After releasing its critically panned debut album in 1970, Attila disbanded supposedly due to Joel's affair with Small's wife Elizabeth Weber, whom he eventually married in 1973. Joel discovered his strong suit was in songwriting and released his solo debut Cold Spring Harbor (1971), which barely cracked the Billboard Hot 200 albums chart at No. 158. The album included the original version of the ballad "She's Got a Way," which was re-released as a single in 1981, and "Tomorrow Is Today," a deeply personal track with lyrics derived from an attempted suicide note Joel wrote years prior.
Weighed down by his early attempts at stardom, Joel packed up his bags and moved to Los Angeles, where he found work as a lounge pianist. He took on the pseudonym Bill Martin and played at The Executive Room, a lounge on the city's famed Wilshire Boulevard. Joel immortalized this experience with "Piano Man," written about his failed dreams and the people he met while performing in a no-name piano bar. The single reached peaked at No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and would become widely regarded as Joel's signature song. His 1973 album Piano Man, Joel's first with Columbia Records, also yielded the classics "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" and "Captain Jack." The breakthrough success of Piano Man allowed Joel to release more albums throughout the '70s, with his songs inspired by missing home, as in "New York State of Mind" and his growing frustration with the L.A. lifestyle, with "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" (1976). His fifth studio album, The Stranger (1977) - widely regarded by critics as Joel's greatest work - rose up the charts with hit singles such as "She's Always a Woman," "Only the Good Die Young," and "Just the Way You Are," a ballad dedicated to Elizabeth that won the coveted Record of the Year and Song of the Year honors at the 1978 Grammy Awards. Rolling Stone magazine also listed Joel's album The Stranger at No. 67 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Despite his success on the charts and onslaught of awards, some critics still considered Joel a novelty pop act rather than a reputable artist. The singer, however, did not take such criticism sitting down and would often rip up printed reviews onstage during his concerts. He finally landed at No. 1 with 52nd Street (1978), an album inspired by his love for Manhattan that won Album of the Year at the 1979 Grammy Awards. Joel further made his mark in music in 1983 with Motown-inspired pop songs; from the No. 1 hit "Tell Her About It," to "Uptown Girl" - widely believed to be his love letter to Sports Illustrated supermodel Christie Brinkley. The singer had begun dating Brinkley after divorcing his wife Elizabeth in 1982 and after having a brief fling with Brinkley's fellow supermodel Elle Macpherson. Joel and Brinkley were married in 1985 to much fanfare, and soon after, their daughter Alexa Ray (named after Joel's idol Ray Charles) was born.
That same year, Joel took part in the benefit single "We Are the World," along with music's biggest names, including Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Tina Turner. He made history in 1987 as one of the first U.S. artists to play in the Soviet Union since the Berlin Wall went up over 25 years before. The legendary concerts were featured in the music documentary "Billy Joel: Live in Leningrad" (1987). Joel brought his acting talent to the big screen in 1988 by providing the voice for the character of Dodger, the leader of a canine gang, in Disney's animated film "Oliver & Company" - a performance that earned Joel positive reviews. The singer closed the decade with the 1989 album Storm Front, which yielded another classic, the history-laden track "We Didn't Start the Fire," whose video became an MTV sensation.
In 1991, Joel was honored with the Grammy Legend Award, along with Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash and Quincy Jones. While at the peak of his professional career, Joel's personal life began to take a tumble in the early 1990s. His marriage to Brinkley suffered, which resulted in their divorce in 1993 - a breakup that shocked fans the world over. The split did not stop the singer from featuring Brinkley's painting as the cover art for his 12th studio album River of Dreams. The album topped the Billboard 200 chart and paved the way for a successful U.S. concert tour titled "Face to Face" with fellow piano man Elton John. Joel was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Presenting him with the honor was none other than his idol, Ray Charles. In 2004, Joel married his third wife, the much younger TV personality and chef Katie Lee. The singer had battled with depression and alcohol addiction throughout his life, which resulted in numerous rehab attempts, including a month-long stay at California's Betty Ford Center in 2005 and a few automobile accidents that the press surmised resulted from alcohol impairment. Due perhaps in part to his escalating personal issues and some negative press, Joel eased up on recording new material for most of the 2000s, but he continued to tour and even composed classical music. Portions from his classical album Fantasies & Delusions (2001) were used to score the 2002 Broadway musical "Movin' Out," Joel's collaboration with choreographer Twyla Tharp. Featuring his classic hits, "Movin' Out" won numerous theater honors including Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations at the 2003 Tony Awards. In 2007, Joel released his first single in 14 years, "All My Life," which reached No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Singles Sales chart.
By Marc Cuenco