William Martin Joel (born May 9, 1949) is an American singer-songwriter and pianist. He was born in the Bronx, New York, and was raised on Long Island, New York, places which have a heavy influence on his songs. Since releasing his first hit song, “Piano Man”, in 1973, Joel has become the sixth best-selling recording artist and the third best-selling solo artist in the United States. His compilation album Greatest Hits Vol. 1 & 2 is one of the best-selling albums in the US.
Joel had Top 40 hits in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, achieving 33 Top 40 hits in the US, all of which he wrote himself. He is also a six-time Grammy Award winner who has been nominated for 23 Grammy Awards. He has sold more than 150 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling artists of all time.
Joel was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1992), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1999), and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame (2006). In 2001, Joel received the Johnny Mercer Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2013, Joel received the Kennedy Center Honors, the nation’s highest honor for influencing American culture through the arts. With the exception of the 2007 songs “All My Life” and “Christmas in Fallujah”, Joel stopped writing and releasing pop/rock material after 1993’s River of Dreams. However, he continues to tour, and he plays songs from all eras of his solo career.
William Martin Joel was born in the Bronx on May 9, 1949, and was raised in Levittown, New York in the town of Oyster Bay. In 1963 when zip codes were assigned, the section of Levittown in Oyster Bay was given a Hicksville, New York zip code and has since been part of Hicksville.
Joel’s father, Howard (born Helmuth) Joel, a classical pianist, was born in Germany, to a Jewish family, the son of a merchant and manufacturer, Karl Amson Joel. Howard emigrated to Switzerland and later to the United States (via Cuba, as immigration quotas for German Jews prevented direct immigration at the time) to escape the Nazi regime. Joel’s mother, Rosalind, was born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents, Philip and Rebecca Nyman, originally from England. Rosalind and Howard Joel divorced in 1957. Howard Joel moved to Vienna, Austria. Billy Joel has a sister, Judith, and a half-brother, Alexander Joel, a classical conductor in Europe, who was the chief musical director of the Staatstheater Braunschweig from 2001 to 2014.
He reluctantly began piano lessons at an early age, at his mother’s insistence, his teachers including the noted American pianist Morton Estrin and musician Timothy Ford, but he has admitted to being a better organist than a pianist. As a teenager, Joel took up boxing so he could defend himself. He boxed successfully on the amateur Golden Gloves circuit for a short time, winning 22 bouts, but abandoned the sport shortly after his nose was broken in his 24th boxing match.
Joel attended Hicksville High School until 1967, but he did not graduate with his class. He had been playing at a piano bar to help his mother make ends meet, which interfered with his attendance; specifically, he missed a crucial English exam, as he had been playing a late-night gig at a piano bar the evening before. Though Joel was a comparatively strong student, at the end of his senior year, he did not have enough credits to graduate. Rather than attend summer school to earn his diploma, Joel decided to begin a career in music: “I told them, ‘To hell with it. If I’m not going to Columbia University, I’m going to Columbia Records, and you don’t need a high school diploma over there’.” Joel did eventually sign with Columbia. In 1992, he submitted essays to the school board and was awarded his diploma at Hicksville High’s annual graduation ceremony, 25 years after leaving.
1965–1970: Early Music Career
Influenced by early-rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues artists, including groups such as The Beatles, The Drifters and The Four Seasons, he favored tightly-structured pop melodies and down-to-earth, unpretentious songwriting.
After seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, Joel decided to pursue a career in music. In an interview, he said of the group’s impact, “That one performance changed my life … Up to that moment, I’d never considered playing rock as a career. And when I saw four guys who didn’t look like they’d come out of the Hollywood star mill, who played their own songs and instruments, and especially because you could see this look in John Lennon‘s face – and he looked like he was always saying: ‘F— you!’ – I said: ‘I know these guys, I can relate to these guys, I am these guys.’ This is what I’m going to do – play in a rock band’.”
Joel joined the Echoes, a group that specialized in British Invasion covers. The Echoes began recording in 1965. Joel (then 16) also played piano on several records released through Kama Sutra Productions and on recordings produced by Shadow Morton. Joel played on a demo version of “Leader of the Pack”, which would become a major hit for the Shangri-Las. Joel states that in 1964 he played on a recording of the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” but he is unaware of whether he played the demo or master version; The released single included a co-producer credit for Artie Ripp, who later was the first to sign and produce Joel as a solo artist after Michael Lang, who had given Joel a monetary advance, passed Joel along to Ripp to focus his attention elsewhere instead.
In late 1965, the Echoes changed their name to the Emeralds and then to the Lost Souls. Joel left the band in 1967 to join the Hassles, a Long Island group that had signed with United Artists Records. Over the next year and a half they released four singles and two albums (The Hassles and Hour of the Wolf). All were commercial failures. Joel and drummer Jon Small left the Hassles in 1969 to form the duo Attila, releasing an eponymous debut album in July 1970. The duo disbanded the following October when Joel began an affair with Small’s wife, Elizabeth, whom Joel eventually married.
1970–1974: Cold Spring Harbor and Piano Man
Joel signed a contract with the record company Family Productions (owned by Artie Ripp but backed by Gulf + Western), with which he recorded his first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor (a reference to Cold Spring Harbor, New York, a town on Long Island). Ripp states that he spent $450,000 developing Joel; nevertheless, the album was mastered at the wrong speed and as a result, the album was a technical and commercial disappointment.
The popular songs “She’s Got a Way” and “Everybody Loves You Now” were originally released on this album, but went largely unnoticed until being released as live performances on Songs in the Attic (1981). Columbia released a remastered version of Cold Spring Harbor in 1983.
Joel began his Cold Spring Harbor tour in the fall of 1971, touring with his band (Rhys Clark on drums, Al Hertzberg on guitar, and Larry Russell on bass guitar) throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico, opening for groups such as the J. Geils Band, The Beach Boys, and Taj Mahal. Joel’s performance at the Puerto Rican Mar Y Sol Pop Festival was especially well-received; and although recorded, Joel refused to have it published on the Mar Y Sol compilation album Mar Y Sol: The First International Puerto Rico Pop Festival. Nevertheless, interest in his music grew.
During the spring of 1972, the Philadelphia radio station WMMR-FM began playing a concert recording of “Captain Jack”, which became an underground hit on the East Coast. Herb Gordon, a Columbia Records executive, heard Joel’s music and introduced him to the company. Joel signed a recording contract with Columbia in 1972 and moved to Los Angeles; he lived there for the next three years. For six months he worked at The Executive Room piano bar on Wilshire Boulevard as “Bill Martin”. During that time, he composed his signature hit “Piano Man” about the bar’s patrons.
Despite Joel’s new contract, he was still legally bound to Family Productions. Artie Ripp sold Joel’s first contract to Columbia. Walter Yetnikoff, the president of CBS/Columbia Records at the time, bought back the rights to Joel’s songs in the late 1970s, giving the rights to Joel as a birthday gift. Yetnikoff notes in the documentary film The Last Play at Shea that he had to threaten Ripp to close the deal.
Joel’s first album with Columbia was Piano Man, released in 1973. Despite modest sales, Piano Man‘s title track became his signature song, ending nearly every concert. That year Joel’s touring band changed. Guitarist Al Hertzberg was replaced by Don Evans, and bassist Larry Russell by Patrick McDonald, himself replaced in late 1974 by Doug Stegmeyer, who would stay with Joel until 1989. Rhys Clark returned as drummer and Tom Whitehorse as banjoist and pedal steel player; Johnny Almond joined as saxophonist and keyboardist. The band toured the US and Canada extensively, appearing on popular music shows. Joel’s songwriting began attracting more attention; in 1974 Helen Reddy recorded “You’re My Home” (Piano Man).
1974–1977: Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles
In 1974, Joel recorded his second Columbia album in Los Angeles, Streetlife Serenade. His manager at the time was Jon Troy, an old friend from the New York neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant; Troy would soon be replaced by Joel’s wife Elizabeth. Streetlife Serenade contains references to suburbia and the inner city. It is perhaps best known for “The Entertainer”, a No. 34 hit in the US. Upset that “Piano Man” had been significantly cut for radio play, Joel wrote “The Entertainer” as a sarcastic response: “If you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit, so they cut it down to 3:05.” Although Streetlife Serenade is often considered one of Joel’s weaker albums (Joel dislikes it himself), it contains the notable songs “Los Angelenos” and “Root Beer Rag”, an instrumental that was a staple of his live set in the 1970s.
In late 1975, Joel played piano and organ on several tracks on Bo Diddley’s The 20th Anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll all-star album.
Disenchanted with Los Angeles, Joel returned to New York City in 1975 and recorded Turnstiles, the first album he recorded with the group of hand-picked musicians who became the Billy Joel Band. Produced by James William Guercio (then Chicago’s producer), Turnstiles was first recorded at Caribou Ranch with members of Elton John’s band. Dissatisfied with the result, Joel re-recorded the songs and produced the album himself.
“Say Goodbye to Hollywood” was a minor hit; Ronnie Spector recorded a cover as did Nigel Olsson, then drummer with Elton John. In a 2008 radio interview, Joel said that he no longer performs the song because singing it in its high original key “shreds” his vocal cords; however, he did finally play it live for the first time since 1982 when he sang it at the Hollywood Bowl in May 2014. Though never released as a single, “New York State of Mind” became one of Joel’s best-known songs; Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett have each recorded covers (Bennett’s a duet with Joel on Playing with My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues). Other notable songs from the album include “Summer, Highland Falls”, “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)”, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”, (a live version of which became a Top 40 hit), and “Prelude/Angry Young Man”, a concert mainstay.
1977–1979: The Stranger and 52nd Street
Columbia Records introduced Joel to Phil Ramone, who would produce all of Joel’s studio albums from The Stranger (1977) to The Bridge (1986). The Stranger was an enormous commercial success, yielding four Top-25 hits on the Billboard charts: “Just the Way You Are” (#3), “Movin’ Out” (#17), “Only the Good Die Young” (#24), and “She’s Always a Woman” (#17). Joel’s first Top Ten album, The Stranger was certified multi-platinum and reached number two on the charts, outselling Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Water, Columbia’s previous best-selling album. The Stranger also featured “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”, an album-oriented rock classic, which has become one of his best-known songs.
The Stranger song “Just the Way You Are” — written for Joel’s first wife, Elizabeth Weber — was inspired by a dream and won Grammy awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. On tour in Paris, Joel learned the news late at night in his hotel room. Rolling Stone ranked The Stranger the 70th greatest album of all time.
Expectations were high for Joel’s next album, 52nd Street, which he released in 1978, naming it after Manhattan’s famous 52nd Street, which, at the time of its release, served as the world headquarters of CBS/Columbia. The album sold over seven million copies, propelled to number one on the charts by the following hits: “My Life” (#3); followed successes from the album were “Big Shot” (#14), and “Honesty” (#24). A cover of “My Life” (sung by Gary Bennett) became the theme song for a new television sitcom, Bosom Buddies, which featured actor Tom Hanks in one of his earliest roles. 52nd Street won Grammy awards for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male and Album of the Year.
In 1979, Joel also traveled to Havana, Cuba, to participate in the historic Havana Jam festival that took place between March 2–4, alongside Rita Coolidge, Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Stills, the CBS Jazz All-Stars, the Trio of Doom, Fania All-Stars, Billy Swan, Bonnie Bramlett, Mike Finnegan, Weather Report, and an array of Cuban artists such as Irakere, Pacho Alonso, Tata Güines and Orquesta Aragón. His performance is captured in Ernesto Juan Castellanos’s documentary Havana Jam ’79.
1979–1983: Glass Houses and The Nylon Curtain
The success of his piano-driven ballads like “Just the Way You Are”, “She’s Always a Woman”, and “Honesty” led some critics to label Joel a “balladeer” and “soft rocker”. Joel thought these labels were unfair and insulting, and with Glass Houses, he tried to record an album that proved that he could rock harder than his critics gave him credit for, occasionally imitating and refer to the style of new wave rock music that was starting to become popular at the time. On the front cover of the album, Joel is pictured in a leather jacket, about to throw a rock at a glass house (referring to the adage that “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”).
Glass Houses spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard chart and yielded such hits as “You May Be Right” (used as the theme song, covered by Southside Johnny, for the CBS mid-1990s sitcom Dave’s World) (#7, May 1980), “Don’t Ask Me Why” (#19, September 1980), “Sometimes a Fantasy” (#36, November 1980) and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”, which became Joel’s first Billboard number-one single (for two weeks) in July 1980. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” spent 11 weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and was the 7th biggest hit of 1980 according to American Top 40.
Glass Houses won the Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male. It would also win the American Music Award for Favorite Album, Pop/Rock category. The album’s closing song, “Through The Long Night” (B-side of the “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me” single), was a lullaby that featured Joel harmonizing with himself in a song he says was inspired by The Beatles’ “Yes It Is”. In a recorded Masterclass at the University of Pennsylvania, Joel later recollected that he had written to the Beatles asking them how to get started in the music industry. In response, he received a pamphlet about Beatles merchandise. This later led to the idea of Joel conducting Q&A sessions around the world answering questions that people had about the music industry.
His next release, Songs in the Attic, was composed of live performances of less well-known songs from the beginning of his career. It was recorded during larger US arenas and intimate nightclub shows in June and July 1980. This release introduced many fans, who discovered Joel when The Stranger became a smash in 1977, to many of his earlier compositions. The album reached No. 8 on the Billboard chart and produced two hit singles: “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (#17), and “She’s Got a Way” (#23). It sold over 3 million copies. Though not as successful as some of his previous albums, the album was still considered a success by Joel.
The next wave of Joel’s career commenced with the recording of his next studio album, The Nylon Curtain. With The Nylon Curtain, Joel became more ambitious with his songwriting, trying his hand at writing topical songs like “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon”. Joel has stated that he wanted the album to communicate his feelings about the American Dream and how changes in American politics during the Reagan years meant that “all of a sudden you weren’t going to be able to inherit [the kind of life] your old man had.” He also tried to be more ambitious in his use of the recording studio. Joel said that he wanted to “create a sonic masterpiece” on The Nylon Curtain. So he spent more time in the studio, crafting the sound of the album than he had on any previous album. Production of The Nylon Curtain began in the fall of 1981. However, production was temporarily delayed when Joel was involved in a serious motorcycle accident on Long Island on April 15, 1982, severely injuring his hands. Still, Joel quickly recovered from his injuries, and the album only ended up being delayed by a few months.
In 1982, he embarked on a brief tour in support of the album. From one of the final shows of the tour, Joel made his first video special, Live from Long Island, which was recorded at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York on December 30, 1982. It was originally broadcast on HBO in 1983 before it became available on VHS.
The Nylon Curtain went to No. 7 on the charts, partially due to heavy airplay on MTV for the videos to the singles “Allentown” and “Pressure”. “Allentown” spent six weeks at a peak position of No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it one of the most-played radio songs of 1982, pushing it into 1983’s year-end Top 70, and making it the most successful song from The Nylon Curtain album, besting “Pressure” which peaked at No. 20 (where it resided for three weeks) and “Goodnight Saigon” which reached No. 56 on U.S. charts.
1983–1988: An Innocent Man and The Bridge
Joel’s next album moved away from the serious themes of The Nylon Curtain and struck a much lighter tone. The album An Innocent Man was Joel’s tribute to R&B and doo-wop music of the 1950s and 1960s and resulted in Joel’s second Billboard number-one hit, “Tell Her About It”, which was the first single off the album in the summer of 1983. The album itself reached No. 4 on the charts and No. 2 in the UK. It also boasted six top-30 singles, the most of any album in Joel’s catalog. The album was well received by critics, with Stephen Thomas Erlewine, senior editor for AllMusic, describing Joel as being “in top form as a craftsman throughout the record, effortlessly spinning out infectious, memorable melodies in a variety of styles.”
At the time that the album was released, WCBS-FM began playing “Uptown Girl” both in regular rotation and on the Doo Wop Live. The song became a worldwide hit upon its release. The music video of the song featured Christie Brinkley as a high society girl, whose car pulls into the gas station where Joel’s character is working. At the end of the video, Joel’s “grease monkey” character drives off with his “uptown girl” on the back of a motorcycle. When Brinkley went to visit Joel after being asked to star in the video, the first thing Joel said to her upon opening his door was “I don’t dance”. Brinkley had to walk him through the basic steps he does in the video. That began a relationship between the two that later led to their marriage.
In December, the title song, “An Innocent Man”, was released as a single and it peaked at No. 10 in the U.S. and No. 8 in the UK, early in 1984. That March, “The Longest Time” was released as a single, peaking at No. 14 on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. That summer, “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” was released and it hit No. 27 while “Keeping the Faith” peaked at No. 18 in January 1985. In the video for “Keeping the Faith”, Christie Brinkley also plays the “redhead girl in a Chevrolet”. An Innocent Man was also nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy but lost to Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Joel participated in the USA For Africa We Are The World project in 1985, capping off a series of successful singles.
Following the success of An Innocent Man, Joel was asked about releasing an album of his most successful singles. This was not the first time this topic had come up, but Joel had initially considered “Greatest Hits” albums as marking the end of one’s career. This time he agreed, and Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and 2 was released as a four-sided album and two-CD set, with the songs in the order in which they were released. The new songs “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” and “The Night Is Still Young” were recorded and released as singles to support the album; both reached the top 40, peaking at No. 9 and No. 34, respectively. Greatest Hits was highly successful and it has since been certified double diamond by the RIAA, with over 11.5 million copies (23 million units) sold. It is one of the best-selling albums in American music history, according to the RIAA.
Coinciding with the Greatest Hits album release, Joel released a two-volume Video Album that was a compilation of the promotional videos he had recorded from 1977 to the present time. Along with videos for the new singles off the Greatest Hits album, Joel also recorded a video for his first hit, “Piano Man”, for this project.
Though it broke into the top ten, Joel’s next album, The Bridge (1986), did not achieve the level of success of his previous albums, but it yielded the hits “A Matter of Trust” and “Modern Woman” from the film Ruthless People, a dark comedy from the directors of Airplane! (both #10). In a departure from his “piano man” persona, Joel is shown in the video playing a Gibson Les Paul. The ballad “This is the Time” also charted, peaking at No. 18.
On November 18, 1986, an extended version of the song “Big Man on Mulberry Street” was used on a Season 3 episode of Moonlighting. The episode itself was also titled “Big Man on Mulberry Street”.
The Bridge was Joel’s last album to carry the Family Productions logo, after which he severed his ties with Artie Ripp. Joel has also stated in many interviews, most recently in a 2008 interview in Performing Songwriter magazine, that he does not think The Bridge is a good album.
In October 1986, Joel and his handlers started planning a trip to the Soviet Union. He became one of the first American rock acts to play there since the Berlin Wall went up, a fact not lost on history buff Joel. There were live performances at indoor arenas in Moscow, Leningrad, and Tbilisi. Joel, his family (including young daughter Alexa), and his full touring band made the trip in August 1987. The entourage was filmed for television and video to offset the cost of the trip, and the concerts were simulcast on radio around the world. Joel’s Russian tour was the first live rock radio broadcast in Soviet history.
Most of that audience took a long while to warm up to Joel’s energetic show, something that had never happened in other countries he had performed in. According to Joel, each time the fans were hit with the bright lights, anybody who seemed to be enjoying themselves froze. In addition, people who were “overreacting” were removed by security. It was during this concert that Joel, enraged by the bright lights, flipped his electric piano and snapped a microphone stand while continuing to sing the current part of the set. He later apologized for that incident.
The album КОНЦЕРТ (Russian for “Concert”) was released in October 1987. Singer Pete Hewlett was brought in to hit the high notes on his most vocally challenging songs, like “An Innocent Man”. Joel also did versions of The Beatles’ classic “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin”. It has been estimated that Joel lost more than $1 million of his own money on the trip and concerts, but he has said the goodwill he was shown there was well worth it.
1988–1993: Storm Front and River of Dreams
The recording of the album Storm Front, which commenced in 1988, coincided with major changes in Joel’s career and inaugurated a period of serious upheaval in his business affairs. In August 1989, just before the album was released, Joel dismissed his manager (and former brother-in-law) Frank Weber after an audit revealed major discrepancies in Weber’s accounting. Joel subsequently sued Weber for $90 million, claiming fraud and breach of fiduciary duty and in January 1990 he was awarded $2 million in a partial judgment against Weber; in April, the court dismissed a $30 million countersuit filed by Weber.
The first single for the album, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, was released in September 1989 and it became Joel’s third and – to date – most-recent US number-one hit, spending two weeks at the top. Storm Front was released in October, and it eventually became Joel’s first number-one album since Glass Houses, nine years earlier. Storm Front was Joel’s first album since Turnstiles to be recorded without Phil Ramone as producer. For this album, he wanted a new sound and worked with Mick Jones of Foreigner fame. Joel is also credited as one of the keyboard players on Jones’ 1988 self-titled solo album, and is featured in the official video for Jones’ single “Just Wanna Hold”; Joel can be seen playing the piano while his then-wife Christie Brinkley joins him and kisses him. Joel also revamped his backing band, dismissing everyone but drummer Liberty DeVitto, guitarist David Brown, and saxophone player Mark Rivera, and bringing in new faces, including multi-instrumentalist Crystal Taliefero.
Storm Front’s second single, “I Go to Extremes” reached No. 6 in early 1990. The album was also notable for its song “Leningrad”, written after Joel met a clown in the Soviet city of that name during his tour in 1987, and “The Downeaster Alexa”, written to underscore the plight of fishermen on Long Island who are barely able to make ends meet. Another well-known single from the album is the ballad “And So It Goes” (#37 in late 1990). The song was originally written in 1983, around the time Joel was writing songs for An Innocent Man; but “And So It Goes” did not fit that album’s retro theme, so it was held back until Storm Front. Joel said in a 1996 Masterclass session in Pittsburgh that Storm Front was a turbulent album and that “And So It Goes”, as the last song on the album, portrayed the calm and tranquility that often follows a violent thunderstorm.
In the summer of 1992, Joel filed another $90 million lawsuits against his former lawyer Allen Grubman, alleging a wide range of offenses including fraud, breach of fiduciary responsibility, malpractice and breach of contract but the case was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
In 1992, Joel inducted the R&B duo Sam & Dave into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. That year, Joel also started work on River of Dreams, finishing the album in early 1993. Its cover art was a colorful painting by Christie Brinkley that was a series of scenes from each of the songs on the album. The eponymous first single was the last top 10 hit Joel has penned to date, reaching No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and ranking at No. 21 on the 1993 year-end Hot 100 chart. In addition to the title track, the album includes the hits “All About Soul” (with Color Me Badd on backing vocals) and “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)”, written for his daughter, Alexa. A radio remix version of “All About Soul” can be found on The Essential Billy Joel (2001), and a demo version appears on My Lives (2005).
The song “The Great Wall of China” was written about his ex-manager Frank Weber and was a regular in the setlist for Joel’s 2006 tour. “2000 Years” was prominent in the millennium concert at Madison Square Garden, December 31, 1999, and “Famous Last Words” closed the book on Joel’s pop songwriting for more than a decade.
Beginning in 1994, Joel toured extensively with Elton John on a series of “Face to Face” tours, making them the longest-running and most successful concert tandem in pop music history. During these shows, the two have played their own songs, each other’s songs and performed duets. They grossed over US$46 million in just 24 dates in their sold out 2003 tour. Joel and John resumed the Face to Face tour in March 2009 and it ended again, at least for the time being, in March 2010 in Albany, New York, at the Times Union Center. In February 2010, Joel denied rumors in the trade press that he canceled a summer 2010 leg of the tour, claiming there were never any dates booked and that he intended to take the year off. Joel told Rolling Stone magazine: “We’ll probably pick it up again. It’s always fun playing with him.”
1997’s “To Make You Feel My Love” and “Hey Girl” both charted from Joel’s Greatest Hits Volume III album. Joel wrote and recorded the song “Shameless” that was later covered by Garth Brooks and reached No. 1 on Billboard’s country charts. Joel performed with Brooks during his Central Park concert in 1997. To add to his achievements Joel was inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Ray Charles made the induction speech and mentioned the duet Joel wrote for the two of them, “Baby Grand” (a track on Joel’s album The Bridge released in 1986).
On August 25, 1994, Joel and second wife Christie Brinkley divorced, but they remained friends. On December 31, 1999, Joel performed at New York’s Madison Square Garden. At the time, Joel said that it would be his last tour and possibly his last concert. Two of his performances from that night, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” were filmed and featured that night as part of ABC’s special New Year’s Y2K coverage. The concert (dubbed The Night of the 2000 Years) ran for close to four hours and was later released as 2000 Years: The Millennium Concert.
In 2001, Joel released Fantasies & Delusions, a collection of classical piano pieces. All were composed by Joel and performed by Hyung-ki Joo. Joel often uses bits of these songs as interludes in live performances, and some of them are part of the score for the hit show Movin’ Out. The album topped the classical charts at No. 1. Joel performed “New York State of Mind” live on September 21, 2001, as part of America: A Tribute to Heroes benefit concert, and on October 20, 2001, along with “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)”, at the Concert for New York City in Madison Square Garden. That night, he also performed “Your Song” with Elton John.
In 2003, Joel inducted The Righteous Brothers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, noting that his song “Until the Night” from the album 52nd Street was a tribute to the duo.
In 2005, Columbia released a box set, My Lives, which is largely a compilation of demos, b-sides, live/alternate versions and even a few Top 40 hits. The compilation also includes the Umixit software, in which people can remix “Zanzibar” and a live version of “I Go to Extremes” with their PC. Also, a DVD of a show from the River of Dreams tour is included.
On January 7, 2006, Joel began a tour across the U.S. Having not written, or at least released, any new songs in 13 years, he featured a sampling of songs from throughout his career, including major hits as well as obscure tunes like “Zanzibar” and “All for Leyna”. His tour included an unprecedented 12 sold-out concerts over several months at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The singer’s stint of 12 shows at Madison Square Garden broke a previous record set by New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen, who played 10 sold-out shows at the same arena. The record earned Joel the first retired number (12) in the arena owned by a non-athlete. This honor has also been given to Joel at the Wells Fargo Center (Philadelphia) (formerly the Wachovia Center) in Philadelphia where a banner in the colors of the Philadelphia Flyers is hung honoring Joel’s 46 Philadelphia sold-out shows. He also had a banner raised in his honor for being the highest grossing act in the history of the Times Union Center (formerly the Knickerbocker Arena and Pepsi Arena) in Albany, New York. This honor was given to him as part of April 17, 2007, show he did there. On June 13, 2006, Columbia released 12 Gardens Live, a double album containing 32 live recordings from a collection of the 12 different shows at Madison Square Garden during Joel’s 2006 tour.
Joel visited the United Kingdom and Ireland for the first time in many years as part of the European leg of his 2006 tour. On July 31, 2006, he performed a free concert in Rome, with the Colosseum as the backdrop.
Joel toured South Africa, Australia, Japan, and Hawaii in late 2006, and subsequently toured the Southeastern U.S. in February and March 2007 before hitting the Midwest in the spring of 2007. On January 3 of that year, the news was leaked to the New York Post that Billy had recorded a new song with lyrics—this being the first new song with lyrics he’d written in almost 14 years. The song, titled “All My Life”, was Joel’s newest single (with second track “You’re My Home”, live from Madison Square Garden 2006 tour) and was released into stores on February 27, 2007. On February 4, Joel sang the national anthem for Super Bowl XLI, becoming the first to sing the national anthem twice at a Super Bowl. and on April 17, 2007, Joel was honored in Albany, New York, for his ninth concert at the Times Union Center. He is now holding the highest box office attendance of any artist to play at the arena. A banner was raised in his honor marking this achievement.
On December 1, 2007, Joel premiered his new song “Christmas in Fallujah”. The song was performed by Cass Dillon, a new Long Island based musician, as Joel felt it should be sung by someone in a soldier’s age range (though he himself has played the song occasionally in concert.) The track was dedicated to servicemen based in Iraq. Joel wrote it in September 2007 after reading numerous letters sent to him from American soldiers in Iraq. “Christmas in Fallujah” is only the second pop/rock song released by Joel since 1993’s River of Dreams. Proceeds from the song benefited the Homes For Our Troops foundation.
On January 26, 2008, Joel performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra celebrating the 151st anniversary of the Academy of Music. Joel premiered his new classical piece titled, “Waltz No. 2 (Steinway Hall)” arranged by Brad Ellis. He also played many of his less well-known pieces, with full orchestral backing arranged by Mr. Ellis, including the rarely performed Nylon Curtain songs “Scandinavian Skies” and “Where’s the Orchestra?”.
On March 10, 2008, Joel inducted his friend John Mellencamp into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.
Joel’s staying power as a touring act continues to the present day. He sold out 10 concerts at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut from May to July 2008. The casino honored him with a banner displaying his name and the number 10 to hang in the arena. On June 19, 2008, he played a concert at the grand re-opening of Caesars Windsor (formerly Casino Windsor) in Windsor, Ontario, Canada to an invite-only crowd for Casino VIPs. His mood was light, and joke-filled, even introducing himself as “Billy Joel’s dad” and stating “you guys overpaid to see a fat bald guy”. He also admitted that Canadian folk-pop musician Gordon Lightfoot was the musical inspiration for “She’s Always A Woman”.
On July 16, 2008, and July 18, 2008, Joel played the final concerts at Shea Stadium before its demolition. His guests included Tony Bennett, Don Henley, John Mayer, John Mellencamp, Steven Tyler, Roger Daltrey, Garth Brooks, and Paul McCartney. The concerts were featured in the 2010 documentary film Last Play at Shea. The film was released on DVD on February 8, 2011. The CD and DVD of the show, Live at Shea Stadium were released on March 8, 2011.
On December 11, 2008, Joel recorded his own rendition of “Christmas in Fallujah” during a concert at Acer Arena in Sydney and released it as a live single in Australia only. It is the only official release of Joel performing “Christmas in Fallujah”, as Cass Dillon sang on the 2007 studio recording and the handful of times the song was played live in 2007. Joel sang the song throughout his December 2008 tour of Australia.
On May 19, 2009, Joel’s former drummer, Liberty DeVitto, filed a lawsuit in NYC claiming Joel and Sony Music owed DeVitto over 10 years of royalty payments. DeVitto had never been given songwriting or arranging credit on any of Joel’s songs, but he claimed that he helped arrange some of them, including “Only the Good Die Young”. In April 2010, it was announced that Joel and DeVitto amicably resolved the lawsuit.
2011 marked the 40th anniversary of the release of Joel’s first album, Cold Spring Harbor. According to Joel’s official website, to commemorate this anniversary, Columbia/Legacy Recordings originally planned “to celebrate the occasion with a definitive reissue project of newly restored and expanded Legacy editions of the complete Billy Joel catalog, newly curated collections of rarities from the vaults, previously unavailable studio tracks and live performances, home video releases and more”, although this never fully came to fruition. The album Piano Man was re-released in a two-disc Legacy edition in November 2011.
In 2012, Joel signed an exclusive worldwide publishing agreement with Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) and its subsidiary Rondor Music International. Under the agreement, UMPG and Rondor replaced EMI Music Publishing in handling Joel’s catalog outside the U.S. Additionally, the agreement marked the first time since Joel regained control of his publishing rights in the 1980s that he began to use an administrator to handle his catalog within the U.S. The agreement’s focus is on increasing the use of Joel’s music in movies, television programs, and commercials.
On December 12, 2012, Joel performed as part of 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief at Madison Square Garden, a concert held for all the victims of Hurricane Sandy. He changed the lyrics to “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” to make it relate to all the damage caused by Sandy.
In May 2013, it was announced that Joel would hold his first ever indoor Irish concert at the O2 in Dublin on November 1. He subsequently announced his return to the UK for the first time in seven years to perform three dates in October and November. Joel played two arena dates in Manchester and Birmingham plus a very special show at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. In October, Joel held a surprise concert on Long Island at The Paramount (Huntington, New York) to benefit Long Island Cares. The venue holds a capacity of 1,555 and sold out in five minutes. Joel headlined a solo arena concert in New York City for the first time since 2006 when he performed at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on December 31, 2013. In 2015, Joel performed 21 concerts (in addition to his Madison Square Garden residency) from January 7 to August 2 in various cities around the U.S. and Canada.
On December 3, 2013, it was announced that Joel would become a franchise of Madison Square Garden, playing one concert a month indefinitely, starting with a date on January 27, 2014.
On June 24, 2017, he returned to Hicksville High School fifty years after his would-be graduating class received their diplomas, to deliver the honorary commencement address. It was also the 25th anniversary of receiving his own diploma from the same High School.
In 1996, Joel merged his long-held love of boating with his desire for a second career. He formed, with Long Island boating businessman Peter Needham, the Long Island Boat Company.
In November 2010, Joel opened a shop in Oyster Bay, Long Island, to manufacture custom-made, retro-styled motorcycles and accessories.
In 2011, Joel announced that he was releasing an autobiography that he had written with Fred Schruers, titled The Book of Joel: A Memoir. The book was originally going to be released in June 2011, but in March 2011 Joel decided against publishing the book and officially canceled his deal with HarperCollins. Rolling Stone noted, “HarperCollins acquired the book project for $3 million in 2008. [However,] Joel is expected to return his advance on that sum to the publisher.” According to Billboard, “the HarperCollins book was billed as an ’emotional ride’ that would detail the music legend’s failed marriage to Christie Brinkley, as well as his battles with substance abuse.” In explaining his decision to cancel the book’s release, Joel stated, “It took working on writing a book to make me realize that I’m not all that interested in talking about the past, and that the best expression of my life and its ups and downs has been and remains my music.” In 2014, Schruers did release a Billy Joel biography, simply titled Billy Joel, based on extensive personal interviews with Joel.
Joel’s first wife was Elizabeth Weber Small. When their relationship began, she was married to Jon Small, his music partner in the short-lived duo Attila, with whom she had a son. When the infidelity was exposed, Weber (temporarily) severed her relationships with both of them. Distraught, Joel overdosed on Nembutal while at his mother’s house on Long Island, and called Small to apologize. Small then went to the house and, finding Joel unconscious, got him medical attention.
Weber and Joel married on September 5, 1973, and she became his manager. His song “She’s Always a Woman” was inspired by her. She was also the inspiration for the waitress character in “Piano Man“. They divorced on July 20, 1982.
Joel mentioned in a television interview on the UK’s Five that he had dated Elle Macpherson in the 1980s, prior to his marriage to Christie Brinkley. Joel has also said that the songs “This Night” and “And So It Goes” were written about his relationship with Macpherson.
Joel married his second wife, Christie Brinkley, aged 31 at the time, in March 1985. Their daughter, Alexa Ray Joel, was born December 29, 1985. Alexa was given the middle name of Ray after Ray Charles, one of Joel’s musical idols. Joel and Brinkley divorced on August 26, 1994.
On October 2, 2004, Joel married his third wife Katie Lee, aged 23 at the time. At the time of the wedding, Joel was 55. Joel’s daughter, Alexa Ray, then 18, served as maid-of-honor. Joel’s second wife, Christie Brinkley, attended the union and gave the couple her blessing. Lee works as a restaurant correspondent for the PBS show, George Hirsch: Living it Up!. In 2006, Katie Lee hosted Bravo’s Top Chef. She did not return for a second season, instead, going on tour with her husband. She then began writing a weekly column in Hamptons magazine and became a field correspondent for the entertainment television show Extra. On June 17, 2009, they announced their separation.
Joel’s mother, Rosalind Nyman Joel, died on July 13, 2014, at the age of 92. She was the inspiration for “Rosalinda’s Eyes” from his 52nd Street album.
On July 4, 2015, Joel married his fourth wife, Alexis Roderick (aged 33 at the time), an equestrian and former Morgan Stanley executive, at his estate on Long Island with the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, conducting the ceremony. The couple had been together since 2009. On August 12, 2015, the couple’s daughter, Della Rose Joel, was born. The couple had a second daughter, Remy Anne, on October 22, 2017.