by Curtis Lanclos
Today, May 9, 2019, is the 70th Birthday of a man who contributed so much to the musical landscape of the ’70s, ’80s and even the ’90s. William Martin Joel was born in 1949 in the Bronx and grew up on Long Island. He dropped out of high school with dreams of putting his skills as a pianist, songwriter and singer to use to make music which would become so memorable to the masses.
After a modest release of his first album Cold Spring Harbor in 1971 by a virtually unknown label, someone at Columbia Records took notice of Joel and offered him his first big record deal. The result was his second album Piano Man in 1973. From there, the sky was the limit as he released a total of 33 Top 40 hits over the next couple of decades. He also caught the attention of a popular fashion model, to whom he was married for 9 years.
With this being Billy Joel’s 70th Birthday, a top 7 list of his best songs is in order; one for each decade of his life. I realize limiting the list to 7 means omitting a great deal of amazing music, and my list is certainly subjective. However, the goal is to honor this now 70-year-old man and the catalog of music he has shared with us.
#7 – “Piano Man”
The title track from Joel’s 2nd album quickly also became his nickname. Not surprisingly, the song is based on his real life experiences working as a piano player at bar from 1972 – 1973. The chorus really sums up what we want out of all musicians: “Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us feelin’ alright.” Or, as a woman seated behind me at a recent Chicago/Earth, Wind & Fire concert yelled out during the show, “Take me back!” Music immediately takes us back to where we were when we first heard it. Joel better than anyone understands this. A musician who knows what he or she is doing has an amazing ability to give people an escape and make them “feel alright” (like they did when they “wore a younger man’s clothes”).
#6 – “The Longest Time”
During the ’70s, there was a great deal of nostalgia related to the 1950s. The 1973 movie American Graffiti and the TV show Happy Days (as well as it’s spinoffs) were the precursors of this resurgence of what was perceived as “the good ol’ days.” This trend continued into the ’80s, most notably with Marty McFly traveling back to 1955 to meet his parents as teenagers in 1985’s Back to the Future. Joel is a huge fan of music from the ’50s, so he penned a catchy doo-wop single which appeared on his 1983 LP An Innocent Man. “The Longest Time” reached #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary Chart.
#5 – “She’s Always a Woman”
Looking back on this hit single from his 1977 album The Stranger, I’m sure Mr. Joel might be more of a cynic now than he was when he wrote this song; after all, he is on his 4th marriage. “She’s Always a Woman” is an endearing love ballad in which the singer falls in love with everything about his mate; including her peculiar habits and flaws. He wrote this song for his first wife Elizabeth Weber who was also his manager.
#4 – “Just the Way You Are”
Never underestimate the power of a saxophone solo. Grammy award-winning jazz performer Phil Woods lends his “saxy” skills to Joel’s lead single (released in September 1977) from The Stranger, “Just the Way You Are.” This song was so popular it was covered by several artists; most notably Harry Connick, Jr., Barry White and Diana Krall. It was also written for first wife Elizabeth Weber. After their divorce in 1982, Joel rarely performed the song live until year 2000 or so because it was too painful for him. Enter the next phase of his love life….
#3 – “Uptown Girl”
On the heels of his divorce from Weber, Joel released his 9th studio album, An Innocent Man in 1983. He was dating supermodel Elle Macpherson at the time, and he began to write a song for her. “Uptown Girl” is the classic “she’s out of my league” song about a downtown working-class man who will stop at nothing to get a certain high-class girl, who not surprisingly lives uptown. Upon its release, the song became more about model Christie Brinkley, who starred in the music video for the song. She also became Joel’s 2nd wife on March 23, 1985. Although their marriage ended in August 1994, they remained friends and continued to amicably co-parent their one daughter, Alexa Ray Joel.
#2 – “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”
The first time I ever heard of Hackensack, NJ was when I saw 1978’s Superman: The Movie. It was the hometown of Lex Luthor’s secretary Miss Tessmacher, and coincidentally it was where one of the nuclear missiles (which Luthor hijacked) was headed. In my estimation, Billy Joel is the only man who could get away with referencing Hackensack in a song and make it a hit as well; he had built a reputation through his music with the lower and middle-class folk of New York and New Jersey. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” from 1977’s The Stranger is a piece about blue-collar workers working long hours to “keep up appearances,” and the singer’s disgust with it all.
#1 – “My Life”
Similar to Frank Sinatra’s famous line “I did it my way,” Mr. Joel sang “I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life, go ahead with your own life leave me alone.” The song “My Life” from his 1978 album 52nd Street is a plea to the listener not to allow others to live your life for you; all of us have people in our lives who are full of good advice for everyone except themselves, and sometimes they need to be put in their place. Two members of Chicago (Donnie Dacus and Peter Cetera) provide great background vocals, and the song also features a catchy keyboard riff. It was used as the theme song for the ABC TV series Bosom Buddies (which premiered in 1980) starring Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari; although it was a cover version with a different singer, it added much longevity to the song, until the show’s cancellation in 1982.
And there you have it! Feel free to comment below and share your favorite songs and memories about this music icon, the great Billy Joel! Also, please like us on Facebook!