From 1973 to 1997, Billy Joel racked up nearly three dozen self-penned Billboard hits, tackling everything from adult contemporary pop and classic rock to smooth jazz and Broadway-ready showtunes. And although he's largely avoided the studio since, the legendary singer/songwriter has still very much been a fixture of the music scene thanks to his tireless work on the road.
This past March, for example, he launched a series of co-headlining dates across North America with another '70s icon, Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks. Then there's the residency at Madison Square Garden he's staged every month (bar the pandemic-hit period, of course) since 2014, while his In Concert tour has been ongoing for a similarly impressive amount of time, too.
However, with the former now officially coming to an end ("My team tells me that we could continue to sell tickets, but 10 years, 150 shows — all right already," he remarked in a June 2023 press release) and a March 2024 show at Arlington's AT&T Stadium looking like the final date of the latter, the proud New Yorker now appears to be gearing up to give those famous piano-playing fingers a well-earned rest.
As he plays his final run of shows (at least for now), Joel also celebrates the 30th anniversary of his final mainstream album, 1993's River of Dreams. (His thirteenth and final album, 2001's Fantasies and Delusions, was a surprising detour into classical music, perhaps inspired by his musical hero Paul McCartney's orchestral works.)
In honor of his latest milestones, GRAMMY.com delves into the biggest and most impactful tracks from one of pop's all-time great storytellers.
"She's Got A Way," Cold Spring Harbor (1971)
With its heartfelt melodies, textured piano arrangement and unabashedly romantic lyrics, the opening track from Joel's 1971 debut Cold Spring Harbor effectively set the template for the classic Billy Joel ballad. The man himself went on to dismiss "She's Got A Way" (and the rest of the LP) for a mastering error which made him resemble a chipmunk. But he eventually began to appreciate its simple charms: a performance of the track for seminal 1981 live album Songs in the Attic even resulted in a belated but deserved entry on the Billboard Hot 100.
Joel had added strings to the track during his iconic 1977 show at Carnegie Hall, but it's the stripped-back original — a dedication to his manager, and first of four wives, Elizabeth Weber — that pulls at the heartstrings the hardest.
"Captain Jack," Piano Man (1973)
"The song is sort of brutal, but sometimes it is good to be brutal and offend people," Joel once remarked about the song that ultimately launched his major label career. "It keeps them on their toes."
Listeners of Philadelphia station WMMR certainly seemed to appreciate such provocation. Following its debut at a competition winners' show, DJs were flooded with requests for its caustic tale of a suburban teen who develops a heroin addiction purely out of boredom.
Inspired by a real-life drug deal witnessed from Joel's Long Island apartment, "Captain Jack" subsequently attracted the attention of Columbia Records boss Clive Davis, too. The seven-minute epic — which boasts one of Joel's most rousing choruses and stinging lines ("Well, you're 21 and your mother still makes your bed") — later showed up on 1973's Piano Man, and in 2000 offended Rudy Giuliani after being accidentally played to celebrate rival Hillary Clinton's U.S. Senate campaign announcement.
"Piano Man," Piano Man (1973)
Although far from his biggest commercial hit — it peaked at a modest No.25 on the Hot 100 in the spring of 1974 — the title track from Joel's second album has undoubtedly become his defining.
Showcasing his remarkably concise ability to tell a story, "Piano Man" paints a vivid picture of the Los Angeles lounge he performed at while Columbia's lawyers were negotiating his freedom from first label Family Productions. Joel insists its parade of unfulfilled dreamers — Paul the real estate novelist, John the bartender/aspiring movie star — really were part of The Executive Room's Saturday night crowd; the waitress practising politics is definitely another reference to his then-other half Elizabeth.
But whether a genuine portrait of barroom demographics or work of pure fiction, this meeting point between folksy troubadour Harry Chapin and the theme to Cheers is always worthy of raising a glass to.
"New York State of Mind," Turnstiles (1976)
Following a three-year spell in the bright lights of Los Angeles, Joel gave the impression he needed to make amends with his beloved hometown. Not only did the six-time GRAMMY winner return to Long Island (a place he still owns a property at to this day, but he also dedicated much of his fourth album, Turnstiles, to the joys of New York.
Other than the ability to buy its newspapers fresh off the press, this slice of sophisticated jazz-pop doesn't pinpoint exactly why he feels such an affinity to the place. But genuinely conceived while "taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River Line," "A New York State Of Mind" still evokes a palpable sense of pride, placing it alongside Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind" and Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" in the holy trinity of Big Apple classics.
"Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," The Stranger (1977)
Clocking in at nearly 8 minutes, Joel's longest studio cut is also his most audacious: a mini operetta that segues from traditional piano ballad, to jaunty Dixieland jazz, to good old-fashioned rock and roll and back again.
Inspired by the second half of The Beatles' Abbey Road, the lyrical themes of "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" are similarly multi-dimensional. Joel starts out reminiscing with an old school friend at said Italian restaurant (reportedly Fontana di Trevi, a regular haunt during his Carnegie Hall residency), but the small talk and nostalgia later gives way to the poignant story of Brenda and Eddie, two high school sweethearts whose seemingly idyllic romance came unstuck by the pressures of adult life ("They started to fight when the money got tight/ And they just didn't count on the tears").
Although never released as a single, the standout from fifth LP The Stranger has become a firm favorite among both fans and Joel himself — only "Piano Man" has been played more frequently live on stage
"Just the Way You Are," The Stranger (1977)
Joel very nearly dropped "Just the Way You Are" from The Stranger tracklist, believing it may be just one sentimental spousal tribute too far. But thanks to some wise interference from studio neighbors Phoebe Snow and Linda Ronstadt, the wedding favorite made the cut and the rest is history.
Indeed, the Phil Ramone-produced track became Joel's first top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic, picked up Record and Song Of The Year at the 1979 GRAMMYs, and propelled its parent album to worldwide sales of more than 10 million. Joel once again gave the smooth soft rock standard the heave-ho in the wake of his 1982 divorce to Weber — but after returning to his setlists at the turn of the century, it's remained a much-loved ever-present.
"She's Always a Woman," The Stranger (1977)
"She's Always a Woman" initially sounds like your typical Joel love song, but lines such as "She is frequently kind and she's suddenly cruel" prove it's no rose-tinted deification. You can certainly hear its echoes in the earlier work of Ed Sheeran, a man who, at times, seemed determined to point out his lover's flaws in order to chivalrously claim he can look beyond them.
Thankfully, the fourth Top 40 single from sales juggernaut The Stranger isn't as graceless. Joel isn't referencing any physical attributes, but simply the complex mix of personality traits most of us possess. It's the most emotionally raw of the many tributes he penned for Weber, and perhaps the most obvious foreshadowing of the split that was to come.
"My Life," 52nd Street (1978)
"I don't care what you say anymore, this is my life/Go ahead with your own life, leave me alone." "My Life" may have been adopted as the theme tune to pre-fame Tom Hanks sitcom Bosom Buddies, but amid its jaunty piano melodies and peppy harmonies (courtesy of Chicago's Donnie Dacus and Peter Cetera), Joel instead appears to be taking his cues from All in the Family's grumpy old man Archie Bunker. Audiences still embraced this more irascible side of the singer/songwriter's personality, however, with the lead single from sixth LP 52nd Street equaling his then-highest Hot 100 peak of No. 3.
"It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," Glass Houses (1980)
Fans once again lapped up Joel in defensive mode on "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," the first of his three U.S. No. 1s. Taken from his seventh studio effort, Glass Houses, the rockabilly throwback was a direct response to those detractors who dismissed his adult contemporary sound as old hat.
Released in the same year Michael Jackson's "Rock With You," Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown" and Blondie's "Call Me"also hit the top spot, the song's industry satire argued that the newly popular hot funk, cool punk, new wave and latest dance crazes were simply retreading what had gone before. You could argue it was a needless display of petulance, but you also can't deny it's one of his biggest earworms.
"Goodnight Saigon," The Nylon Curtain (1982)
Bookended by the Apocalypse Now-esque sound of chirping crickets and whirring helicopters, "Goodnight Saigon" finds Joel stepping into the military boots of a 19-year-old called up to fight in the Vietnam War. The Piano Man had been a conscientious objector himself, but on this occasion decided against politicizing the conflict ("And who was wrong? And who was right? It didn't matter in the thick of the fight").
Instead, drawing upon the tales of friends who did see battle, he offers an intimate portrait of the soldier experience, from the distractions of Playboy magazine and Bob Hope to the hardships of losing a comrade. The standout from his most serious-minded LP The Nylon Curtain, this is Joel at his most affecting.
"Tell Her About It," An Innocent Man (1983)
Joel loosened things up a little for his ninth LP, An Innocent Man, paying homage to the soul and doo-wop sounds he grew up with on this toe-tapping throwback. Buoyed by an equally playful promo in which the pianist lives out his The Ed Sullivan Show fantasy — pulling out some unexpected dance moves in the process — "Tell Her About It" became his second U.S. No. 1 in the summer of 1983.
Joel went on to disown his slightly wordy wingman anthem ("It's not automatically a certain guarantee/ To insure yourself/ You've got to provide communication constantly"), acknowledging it sounded more like bubblegum pop crooner Tony Orlando than the Motown tribute he intended. In fact, he hasn't played it live for 36 years!
"Uptown Girl," An Innocent Man (1983)
Joel's affectionate nod to the falsetto pop of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons has endured a little better: proving its cross-generational appeal, he invited Olivia Rodrigo to perform the track with him at Madison Square Garden in August 2022. (The pop superstar referenced "Uptown Girl" in her own monster hit "déjà vu.")
As with much of Joel's oeuvre, the tale of a working-class guy trying his luck with a woman way out of his league has autobiographical roots. It was inspired by the time Joel found himself in the company of Whitney Houston, Christie Brinkley and Elle Macpherson. And while he was dating the latter at the time, it was her fellow supermodel that ended up gracing the memorable "Uptown Girl" promo, and indeed, becoming the second Mrs. Joel.
"A Matter of Trust," The Bridge (1986)
Often his own biggest critic, Joel has been largely dismissive of tenth LP The Bridge, claiming it was hampered by both impatient record execs and the distraction of becoming a first-time father. You can briefly see baby daughter Alexa and then-wife Brinkley in the video for one of its saving graces.
Second single "A Matter of Trust" is a rare but convincing foray into Bruce Springsteen-esque arena rock in which the Piano Man becomes the Electric Guitar Man. It was also a highlight of Konsert, the following year's live album recorded during his historic tour of the Soviet Union.
"We Didn't Start the Fire," Storm Front (1989)
The hostile reaction to Fall Out Boy's recent update proves how hard it can be to namecheck 40 years of newsworthy events in just 4 minutes of anthemic pop-rock. From post-war president Harry Truman to the cola wars of the 1980s, the original "We Didn't Start the Fire" manages to throw in 118 references — and in mostly chronological order, too, without barely pausing for breath.
Inspired by a "my generation had it worse than you" conversation with a friend of Sean Lennon, Joel's rapid-fire alternative history lesson became his third and final No. 1, and picked up Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance nominations at the 1990 GRAMMYs. The lead single from 11th LP Storm Front didn't gain the seal of approval from its creator, however, with Joel comparing it to the sound of a dentist's drill.
"The River of Dreams," River of Dreams (1993)
Joel earned two more Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year nominations for River of Dreams' title track at the 1994 GRAMMYs. But despite an additional nod for Album of the Year, he still went home empty handed. (He also made headlines for pausing his live performance of the song in protest of producers' curtailing Frank Sinatra's Lifetime Achievement Award speech.)
In contrast to all the awards drama and soul-searching lyrics, "The River of Dreams" is one of Joel's most jovial hits, an uplifting blend of doo-wop and gospel vocals arranged by regular band member Crystal Taliefero. The last time the once-prolific hitmaker would grace the U.S. Top 20, it's a fine commercial swansong.
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