Billy Joel, born on May 9, 1949, is an American singer, pianist, and composer of Jewish descent. Joel is one of the most successful musicians in the United States. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) ranks his albums as the sixth best-selling of all time. He has won five Grammy Awards out of 23 nominations, sold approximately 150 million albums worldwide, and since 1999, has been an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Joel was born in the Bronx and grew up in Hicksville, New York. His father, Howard Joel (son of German-Jewish industrialist Karl Joel), was born in Germany and escaped the Nazi regime to the United States in 1939.
His mother, Rosalind Nyman, was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish family that had emigrated from England. In 1957, his parents divorced, and his father moved to Vienna, Austria.
As Karl was a talented pianist, he insisted that Billy learn classical piano from a young age. In his youth, Joel also trained in boxing and even participated in twenty-two amateur bouts. Following a broken nose during a boxing match at the age of twenty-four, Joel retired from boxing.
In 1964, after watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, Joel decided to pursue a career in music, saying, "There was something very different about those guys. They didn't look like Hollywood stars; they looked like regular working-class kids. And there they were, playing their own songs on instruments, screaming girls, and right away, I said to myself, 'This is what I want to do.'"
At the age of 14, Joel joined a band called "The Echoes," which later changed its name to "The Emeralds" and subsequently to "The Lost Souls." The band performed at late-night shows and recorded a few songs. In 1967, Joel joined the band "The Hassles," which recorded several albums and four commercially unsuccessful singles. Within the band, Joel developed a close friendship with the drummer, Jon Small, and his wife, Elizabeth.
Eventually, Joel and Small formed their own band in July 1970. However, the band disbanded due to a romantic relationship between Joel and Small's wife. Following this, Elizabeth divorced Jon Small and married Joel.
In 1971, Joel released his debut album, "Cold Spring Harbor." During the recording of the album's original master, a technical error occurred, leading to the recording being sped up. This resulted in a distortion in the sound quality, which persisted throughout the album. The album included several songs that later became significant hits, such as "She's Got a Way" and "Everybody Loves You Now," although they did not gain much attention at the time.
Additionally, Joel's contract terms with producer Artie Ripp were unfavorable, causing him to leave New York for Los Angeles in 1972. In California, Joel worked as a pianist in a bar for six months, an experience that inspired one of his most significant hits, "Piano Man." During his time in California, Joel and his band performed a series of live shows, one of which led to the recording of the radio-favorite song "Captain Jack." A Columbia Records producer, Herb Gordon, heard the song and was impressed. He signed Joel to a recording contract.
Joel's breakthrough came with the release of his second album, "Piano Man," in 1973. The album's title track became a huge success, marking a turning point in his career. The technical issues that plagued his previous album also affected this one. The record company decided to shorten the title track to just three minutes for the radio version due to economic calculations, even though the original song was 5 minutes and 40 seconds long. To this day, "Piano Man" is considered one of Joel's most iconic songs.
His next major album, "The Stranger," released in 1977, continued his success. The album ranked second on the charts and produced four successful singles, including "Just the Way You Are," which received numerous cover versions. The song won a Grammy Award for Best Record, and the album itself won a Grammy for Album of the Year.
Joel's sixth album, "52nd Street," released a year later, brought further success. The single "My Life" reached number three on the charts, and the album became his first to reach number one on the Billboard 200. The album was named after the street that housed Columbia Records' recording studios. In 1982, it became the first album released on compact disc in Japan. The album won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Album and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
In 1980, Joel's album "Glass Houses" was released, featuring hits like "You May Be Right" and "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me." It won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Album. On March 10, 1980, Joel embarked on a tour in the Soviet Union, becoming one of the first American rock musicians to perform there since the construction of the Berlin Wall.
The tour included concerts in Moscow, Leningrad, and Tbilisi. Joel, along with his family and full backing band, held the tour in August 1987. The concerts were filmed for television broadcasts to reduce travel expenses and were aired on radio stations worldwide. These broadcasts marked the first live rock concerts in Soviet history. Following the tour, the album "КОНЦЕРТ" ("Concert") was released in October 1987.
The 1980s and Beyond
In 1993, Joel released his next successful album, "River of Dreams," which reached number one on the Billboard 200 chart. The album's title track reached number three on the singles chart. In December 1994, Joel was awarded the Billboard Century Award for his significant contributions to music. In 2002, he won a Tony Award for his work on the highly successful musical "Movin' Out." In 2005, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Since "River of Dreams," Joel has not released another album but has occasionally released individual songs, including two for his third compilation album in 1997. In 2001, he released "Fantasies & Delusions," a collection of piano pieces composed by Joel and performed by the pianist Richard Joo. Since then, Joel has primarily focused on live performances.
Joel married his first wife, Elizabeth Weber, in 1973. They divorced in 1982, and she remained his business manager. In 1985, Joel married model Christie Brinkley. In the same year, they had a daughter, Alexa Ray Joel, who later became a successful singer in her own right. The couple divorced in 1994, and Joel married for the third time, to Katie Lee, a noted chef, in 2004. They divorced in 2009. In 2015, Joel married Alexis Roderick. In October 2017, the couple welcomed their first daughter together.
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