American rock singer, pianist, and songwriter Joel’s music is remarkably eclectic and remains extremely popular. His insatiable curiosity regarding the formal and stylistic possibilities of popular music made him among the most successful composer-performers to follow in the wake of the Beatles.
Born: May 9, 1949; Bronx, New York
William Joseph Martin Joel was born to Howard and Rosalind Joel in Bronx, New York, on May 9, 1949. Both parents were talented musicians, and Joel soon began to exhibit similar abilities. At the age of four, he received his first formal piano lessons, and although he continued to study for the next twelve years, his interest in rock and roll ultimately led him away from the classics. In 1967 he joined the Hassles, a Long Island rock group that recorded two moderately successful albums for United Artists. He subsequently left the Hassles, taking drummer Jon Small with him, to form Attila, a power duo that released one album on Epic Records in 1970.
Frustrated by the failure of Attila, Joel decided to become a songwriter. He signed a contract with Family Productions and recorded an unsuccessful solo album entitled Cold Spring Harbor. Despondent over his lack of success, Joel resolved to break his contract with Family Productions by fleeing to the West Coast with his wife, Elizabeth Weber. During this time, he performed as Bill Martin at a Los Angeles piano bar called the Executive Lounge. Meanwhile, a live radio concert he had given for a Philadelphia radio station resulted in the turntable hit “Captain Jack,” which piqued the interest of Columbia Records executive Clive Davis. Joel subsequently signed with Columbia and returned to the studio to record Piano Man. The title track drew heavily on his experiences at the Executive Lounge, and it became a Top 40 hit. His next album, Streetlife Serenade, failed to build on the success of Piano Man, suggesting that the singer needed a change of scenery.
For Turnstiles, Joel returned to New York for inspiration, and the resulting album showed considerable artistic growth. He then teamed with producer Phil Ramone for The Stranger, which was the biggest-selling album in Columbia Records’ history until 1985. His next record, Fifty-second Street, capitalized on the success of The Stranger and was another huge hit. Glass Houses, featuring a more aggressive rock and roll stance, was quickly followed by Songs in the Attic, a collection of numbers from his first four studio albums performed in a live setting. In 1982 Joel released The Nylon Curtain, an album that remains the singer’s favorite. Following his divorce from Weber in 1982, Joel began a relationship with model Christie Brinkley, who became the inspiration for An Innocent Man. The couple married in 1985 and the following year celebrated the birth of a daughter, Alexa Ray. Joel’s next release, The Bridge, sold well but was generally perceived as a disappointment following the massive success of An Innocent Man. It marked his final full-length collaboration with producer Ramone. Following a historic tour of the Soviet Union, Joel recorded Storm Front, an album that revisited the edgier sounds of Glass Houses.
River of Dreams was an exploration of Joel’s disillusionment with his former business manager, Frank Weber, and the breakdown of his marriage to Brinkley. At this point, he began devoting himself to the composition of classical music and in 2001 released Fantasies and Delusions, a collection of original piano works performed by Richard Joo. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Joel lent his support to the benefit concerts America: ATribute to Heroes and Concert for New York City. He would continue to tour extensively, both as a solo artist and with singer Elton John, as well as giving master classes to university students in which he described his experiences in the music business. In 2004 he married television personality Katie Lee.
The couple settled in Long Island, New York, where they lent their support to various environmental causes. The Music Throughout his career, the hallmark of Joel’s music was its eclecticism. It reflects Joel’s insatiable curiosity regarding the formal and stylistic possibilities of popular music. The fact that each of his albums is organized around an underlying thematic thread suggests the influence of artists who attempted to transformthe long-playing record into a unified statement, or concept. What distinguishes Joel from such artists is his lack of interest in recording technology as a part of the compositional process. Whereas bands such as the Beatles actively explored the sonic and structural potential of multitrack recording, Joel has been content to let others shape the sound of his records.
This maybe because of the fact that his approach can be traced back to an earlier standard that predates the emergence of recording technology as a part of the compositional process. However, his professed method of writing albums as unified statements does connect him with the classical tradition of the song cycle. In that sense, his works can be seen as consistent with the development of the concept album but unique in that they strongly adhere to an earlier standard of compositional practice. Cold Spring Harbor. Joel’s fascination with classic pop construction is evident on his solo debut, Cold Spring Harbor. The album demonstrates the singer’s precocious mastery of song form and his fascination with mode mixture as the means for creating expressive variety. Piano Man.
On Piano Man, he continued to expand his musical palette by using modulation to create sectional contrast within individual songs. Streetlife Serenade. Streetlife Serenade is an intriguing, yet uneasy transition into the singer’s middle period. The textures are varied and interesting, but one senses that Joel is struggling with his considerable skills as a pop craftsman and his ambitions as a composer of pure music. Turnstiles. Joel’s next album, Turnstiles, began to resolve the contradictions that had emerged in his earlier works. He was still creating songs of remarkable skill, but he was now finding ways to extend his compositional ideas in unique and interesting ways. The album is further distinguished by the inclusion of jazz-derived musical gestures that would continue to be developed on the singer’s next two offerings. The Stranger. The Stranger marked the beginning of Joel’s nine-year collaboration with producer Ramone. The album is an impressive tour de force that successfully highlights his strengths as a composer and performer.
The centerpiece, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” is a remarkable formal experiment that rises to the standard set by the Beatles’ Abbey Road medley. This album is clearly an arrival point for Joel, and one that would prove difficult to surpass. Fifty-second Street. On Fifty-second Street, Joel turns the jazz-based musical gestures he explored on Turnstiles and The Stranger into a unifying thread. The harmonic progressions featured throughout demonstrate Joel’s continuing interest in expanding the expressive variety of his music. As usual, there are several attractive pop ballads, and there is an ambitious track entitled “Zanzibar” that features a remarkable trumpet solo by jazz great Freddie Hubbard. Glass Houses. Glass Houses attempts to foreground the connections Joel perceived between new wave and the earliest forms of rock and roll. The album concludes with “Through the Long Night,” a delightful genre study that demonstrates his complete mastery of the Beatles’ middle-period style (1965-1967). The Nylon Curtain. His next release, The Nylon Curtain, was a lyrical meditation on the experiences of the post-World War II generation.
The music appropriately draws on the textural effects associated with albums by the late-period Beatles (1967-1970). Although a critical success, The Nylon Curtain did not sell at the level of Joel’s previous recordings. An Innocent Man. He rebounded in 1983 with An Innocent Man, a collection of songs that explored the New York-based rock and rhythm-and-blues styles of the early 1960’s. The musical structures are fairly traditional, but Joel’s harmonic sense continues to shine on tracks such as “Leave a TenderMoment Alone” and “This Night,” the latter referencing the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13. The Bridge. By the mid-1980’s, Joel seemed to have exhausted the influences that were the impetus for his early and middle periods. As a result, The Bridge finds him grappling for inspiration in the very musical scene he had helped to create. The album features several interesting genre studies and a remarkable ballad, “This Is the Time,” which employs a two-key framework to contrast its jazzbased verse with a stirringly majestic chorus. Storm Front. For Storm Front, Joel enlisted the services of producer Mick Jones, a founding member of Foreigner and a formidable pop composer in his own right.
The resulting album revisited the harder edged sounds of Glass Houses, with an accent on rhythm and blues. Joel continued to mine contemporary music for inspiration and also presented an intriguing hybrid in “I Go to Extremes,” which merges the rhythmic attack of rock and roll with a harmonic progression more typical of the pop ballad. However, the standout track was a leftover from 1983, “And So It Goes,” a secular hymn that remains highly melodic despite the fact that the piano accompaniment consistently employs dissonant major and minor seconds in support of the vocal line. River of Dreams. The best material from his two previous albums indicated that Joel’s compositional skillswere still intact, but the fact that the best track from Storm Front wasmore than five years old suggested that something was seriously wrong. In an effort to revitalize hiswork, Joel recruited guitarist Danny Kortchmar to produce River of Dreams, his most eclectic collection of songs since the late 1970’s.
The strength of this album suggested that Joel was beginning to reconnect with his muse. However, the final track, “Famous Last Words,” provided a thinly veiled description of the singer’s impending retirement from the world of pop. Fantasies and Delusions. Following the release of River of Dreams, Joel announced that he had lost interest in rock and roll and thereafter would devote himself to the creation of instrumental works in the classical style. In 2001 he released Fantasies and Delusions, a collection of piano works written in the manner of Fr?d?ric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, and Ludwig van Beethoven. He reunited with producer Ramone in February, 2007, for the single “All MyLife,” which revisited the Tin Pan Alley style he had previously explored in such tracks as “Baby Grand” and “New York State of Mind.” Musical Legacy Joel’s musical longevity has surpassed all expectations for a composer working in the rock idiom. His back catalog continues to sell in large numbers, appealing to generations of fans who were not even alive when the singer first appeared on the scene. In 2002 a selection of his songs was used as the score for a Broadway musical, Movin’ Out.
The show was a popular success, and productions have been mounted in various cities throughout the world. Compared with other composers of his generation, Joel’s musical standard has remained remarkably high. The structural integrity of his pop songs makes his subsequent forays into classical music seem logical and inevitable. Joel’s penchant for creating albums as unified statements does suggest an ongoing interest in the aesthetic potential of recorded sound. In that sense, his work may ultimately be seen as an important historical link between the classical traditions of the past and the technologically driven music of the present.