AKA William Joseph Martin Joel
Birthplace: Bronx, NY
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Pianist, Singer/Songwriter
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Didn't start the fire
The offspring of Howard Joel, a European-born Jewish immigrant whose family had fled the Nazi regime during World War II, and his wife Rosalind Nyman, a British-born Jewish immigrant raised in Brooklyn, William Joel was brought into the world in the South Bronx and spent most of his youth in the working class neighborhood of Levittown on Long Island. Early in their son's childhood Howard and Rosalind divorced, after which his father returned to Europe and started a new family, leaving his mother to raise Billy entirely on her own. At the age of four Joel developed an interest in music and began his training on the piano -- a direction influenced by his father, who was an accomplished pianist himself. This interest was somewhat incompatible with the attitudes of his peers, and in his teens he also took up boxing in order to more effectively respond to his critics. For a while boxing also became a possible career course, and a short period was spent competing on the amateur level. A broken nose ultimately returned his attention fully to his music.
During his high school years Joel's musical tastes moved towards jazz and pop music, and by the age of 14 his keyboard skills had earned him a place in his first band The Echoes. A year later The Echoes evolved into The Emerald Lords, which in turn became The Lost Souls in 1966. It was with his next band, The Hassles, that the young keyboardist launched his recording career, their self-released debut being issued by United Artists in 1967 and followed by a second album Hour of the Wolf in 1968. Neither album received much attention, and by 1970 Joel and Hassles drummer Jon Small had split off to form the hard rock duo Attila; one album was completed for Epic Records, but once again failed to have any significant impact. The discouraging state of his career, aggravated by the stress in his personal life, plunged Joel into severe depression, resulting in an attempt at suicide and subsequent hospitalization.
In 1971 Joel signed with Family Productions and launched his solo career with the album Cold Spring Harbor. Due to a manufacturing error, however, the released version of the recordings ended up at a noticeably faster speed; the business side of his dealings with Family proved to be equally faulty, and in order to escape the unreasonable terms of his contract Joel relocated to California, where he supported himself by performing in bars under the name Bill Martin. It was at this time that airplay of a live recording of his song Captain Jack attracted the attention of Columbia records, with the label ultimately agreeing to buy the performer's contract from Family and releasing his second effort Piano Man in 1973. The album proved to be the commercial breakthrough that Joel had been seeking, earning gold sales and situating both itself and the title track into the top 30 of the mainstream charts.
In the mid-70s Joel strove to maintain the popularity established by Piano Man with the albums Streetlife Serenade (1974) and Turnstiles (1976). The former managed to place him once again in the top 40 and featured his second successful single The Entertainer; the latter did not fare quite as well commercially, but did mark an important creative step forward for the performer, who assumed production duties for the sessions and hand-picked the musicians. The album also announced a return back to his home territory, having had his fill of the LA lifestyle over the previous three years. This attitude was unambiguously presented in songs such as Say Goodbye to Hollywood and New York State of Mind (which in time became one of his signature compositions).
A second significant commercial breakthrough for Joel arrived in 1977 with the release of his 5th album The Stranger, recorded with veteran producer Phil Ramone. Far surpassing the success of all of his previous releases, The Stranger climbed to #2 on the album charts, achieved multi-platinum status, earned two Grammys for the romantic ballad Just the Way You Are and placed four singles into the top 40 (Just The Way You Are, Movin' Out (Anthony's Song), Only The Good Die Young and She's Always A Woman). The change in fortunes was far from a temporary development, and Joel maintained his status as one of the most popular performers/songwriters in the industry well into the next decade. His sixth album 52nd Street (1978) -- again recorded in collaboration with Ramone -- earned him his first #1 album, three more high-charting singles (My Life, Big Shot and Honesty) and two more Grammy awards.
The Joel/Ramone partnership continued throughout the first half of the 1980s, achieving results that remained consistent with their two late 70s releases. In response to the growing popularity of the punk rock movement, Joel adopted a somewhat harder rock style for his 1980 offering Glass Houses -- a style that was particularly evident on the first two singles You May Be Right and It's Still Rock And Roll To Me. The change did nothing to impede the album's popular acceptance, and it became his second #1 in a row, as well as featuring four more more top 40 pop singles (including his first #1 single in the aforementioned Still Rock And Roll). A more subdued approach was then chosen for 1981's Songs in the Attic, a live collection which revisited then-lesser-known material from earlier in his career and placed two more singles into the top 30.
For his next release Joel shifted gears once again, this time moving his emphasis from catchy rock to more sophisticated compositional forms, while also making use of the fully-digital recording technology that had recently become available. Sessions for the album were brought to a temporary halt in early 1982 when Joel was struck by a car while riding his motorcycle, resulting in a broken wrist that required surgery and a month-long recuperation; The Nylon Curtain was still completed in time for a 1982 release, however, and found its way up to the #7 position. A concept album of sorts, The Nylon Curtain addressed the circumstances of working class people born during the postwar boom of the 40s, and while public reception was a bit more reserved than had been the case for his previous 2 offerings, platinum status, top 10 placement and three popular singles (Allentown, Pressure and Goodnight Saigon) still qualified the album as a success.
In 1983 Joel returned himself to the top of the charts with An Innocent Man, a tribute to the R&B/Doo-Wop sounds of his youth. His personal life was also receiving an large amount of attention around this time, due to a publicly-scrutinized romance (and subsequent marriage) to supermodel Christie Brinkley, who would later appear in the promotional video for -- and was the inspiration behind -- the album's second single Uptown Girl. One of the most commercially well-received releases of his career, An Innocent Man placed four singles in the top 20 (Uptown Girl, An Innocent Man, The Longest Time and Keeping the Faith), two more in the top 30 (Tell Her About It -- also a #1 in the UK -- and Leave a Tender Moment Alone), earned multi-platinum sales figures and positioned itself at #7 on the album charts. A double-disc collection of his singles released in 1985, Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and 2, revealed the singer's audience to be undiminished at the midpoint of the 80s, ultimately taking its place as one of the best-selling albums in the United States.
In the second half of the decade, Billy Joel's recorded output became considerably more sporadic: only two studio albums would be released between 1986 and 1992, although other notable projects would keep him in the public eye during that period. On his 11th release The Bridge (1986) he enlisted the participation of several guest artists for the first time, foremost amongst which was his childhood musical influence Ray Charles, who co-wrote and co-performed the track Baby Grand. Contributions were also made by Cyndi Lauper (writing and vocals on Code of Silence) and Steve Winwood (Hammond organ on Getting Closer). In support of the album, Joel embarked upon a world tour that included six shows in the Soviet Union -- the first officially-sanctioned appearance by an American rock act in the region since the early 1960s. A live document of these was performances was released later in the year as KOHUEPT ("In Concert").
Joel's 1988 output was restricted to voice acting for the Disney animated film Oliver & Company -- essentially a New York-centered version of Oliver Twist with talking animals. His next studio effort Storm Front (1989) marked the end of the long-standing production partnership he had maintained with Phil Ramone, Foreigner writer/guitarist Mick Jones being enlisted in his place in an attempt to bring a different sound to the recording sessions. The desire for a new sound also prompted Joel to make use of an entirely different group of studio musicians, barring his longtime drummer Liberty DeVito. The album once again returned the singer to the top of both the mainstream album and single charts (the latter being accomplished with the track We Didn't Start the Fire, which consisted of a litany of the significant historical events that had taken place for Joel's generation), as well as providing him with another multi-platinum certificate for his wall and two additional top 30 singles. A gap of four years would pass before another new release from Joel would materialize, an interim during which the performer fired manager (and ex-brother-in-law) Frank Weber after a number of financial inconsistencies in Weber's dealings were uncovered.
Only one new record from Joel would surface in the 1990s: 1993's River of Dreams. Despite his decreased activity, the singer's fan base remained loyal during the years of silence after Storm Front, and River of Dreams managed to provide him with yet one more #1 album, while the title track added to his list of high-charting singles (a #3 in this case). A painting by his wife Brinkley was used for the the cover, but the two would separate and then divorce the year following its release. Another world tour was arranged in support of the record, after which Joel spent a period pursuing other interests -- such as designing his own model of powerboat, participating in a 1996 college lecture tour called An Evening of Questions, Answers...and a Little Music, and accepting various awards -- before returning the road once again in 1998 for a North American tour. The tour culminated in what was rumored to be his final concert appearance: a three-hour-plus New Year's Eve spectacle at Madison Square Garden, issued in mid-2000 as the 2-disc set 2000 Years: The Millennium Concert. Joel did in fact continue to perform in the 00s, however, collaborating with Elton John on a 2001 "Face to Face" tour (a project originally undertaken in 1994 and reprised once before in 1998) before launching his own well-received solo tour of the U.S. and Europe in 2006.
Although his recorded output remained sparse in the 00s, Joel branched out into several new areas of creative endeavor during the decade. Fantasies & Delusions, a collection of his classical piano compositions performed by Richard Joo, was issued in 2001, while a Broadway musical derived from his songs titled Movin' Out was presented by director/choreographer Twyla Tharp in 2002. Goodnight, My Angel: A Lullaby -- a book for children and Joel's first venture as an author -- was published in 2004. The multi-disc archive collection titled My Lives was released by Columbia in November of 2005.
Father: Helmut Joel ("Howard", engineer for GE)
Mother: Rosalind Nyman (secretary)
Brother: Alexander Joel (half-brother, conductor)
Wife: Elizabeth Webber (former manager, m. 1972, div. 1982)
Wife: Christie Brinkley (model, m. 23-Mar-1985, div. 25-Aug-1995)
Daughter: Alexa Ray Joel (b. 29-Dec-1985)
Wife: Katie Lee (restaurant correspondent/TV host, m. 2-Oct-2004)
High School: Hicksville High School, Long Island, NY (did not graduate)
The Hassles Keyboardist/Vocalist (1967-69)
Attila Keyboardist/Vocalist (1970)
Hillary Rodham Clinton for US Senate Committee
Obama for America
Grammy Song Of The Year (for Just The Way You Are) (1978)
Grammy Record Of The Year (for Just The Way You Are) (1978)
Grammy Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male (for 52nd Street) (1979)
Grammy Album Of The Year (for 52nd Street) (1979)
Grammy Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male (for Glass Houses) (1980)
Grammy Legend Award (1991)
Grammy Hall Of Fame Award (for Just The Way You Are) (2004)
Hollywood Walk of Fame 6233 Hollywood Blvd (recordings)
Songwriters Hall of Fame
Suicide Attempt 1970
Traveled to the USSR Jul-1987
Hip Replacement Surgery Nov-2010
Silver Hill Hospital Jun-2002
unknown detox facility alcoholism (Mar-2005)
Burglary charges dropped (1967)
Wedding: Donald Trump and Melania Knauss (2005)
Wedding: Howard Stern and Beth Ostrosky (2008)
Risk Factors: Former Smoker, Alcoholism, Asthma, Depression
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
12-12-12 (1-Nov-2013) · Himself
Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston (Apr-2010) · Himself
America: A Tribute to Heroes (21-Sep-2001) · Himself
Oliver & Company (18-Nov-1988) [VOICE]
We Are the World (28-Jan-1985) · Himself
Appears on the cover of:
Pulse!, Nov-1989, DETAILS: Billy Joel -- Superb Pop Craftsman
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