It's easy for cynics to dismiss Billy Joel's decades-long career as nothing more than a continuing cycle of hot singles, alcohol abuse, and roller-coaster relationships. But he has also earned the distinction of being one of the most successful singer-songwriters in music history with indelible melodies that inevitably become standards.
A Miami homeboy until relatively recently -- he sold his palatial La Gorce Island estate in summer 2013 -- Joel has known both universal acclaim and awkward encounters. It's all laid out in Fred Schruers' new book, Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography.
Schruers first met the singer during an interview in 1985. The singer tapped him to be a ghostwriter for a proposed autobiography in 2008. That project was scrubbed, but Joel gave Schruers his blessing to pen a book of his own.
Here, then, in chronological order, are Schruers' picks for the top ten moments that define Billy Joel as both an artist and individual.
Young Billy Practices Piano
By the time Billy reached age 7, his mother, Rosalind, had become a single mom. Still, the influence of his father, Howard, a former classical pianist, lingered. When Rosalind saw her son banging away on the family's upright piano, she offered to hire a local woman to teach him the instrument.
The fact that his tutor was also a ballet instructor gave the local bullies in his Hicksville, New York, neighborhood something to tease him about, so out of necessity, Billy also learned to box. Then, with one well-aimed punch, he convinced the local thugs never to bother him again.
Rosalind, who died last year at age 92, was the inspiration for the song "Rosalinda's Eyes." It's a number Billy insisted his dad should have written for his wife but never did.
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Beatles' Influence and Inspiration
In 1966, with their innovative album Revolver and, a year later, with Sgt. Pepper, the Fab Four showed Joel exactly how far he could stretch his musical imagination. Weaned on Ray Charles and James Brown, he now aspired to create concepts that could incorporate the idea of an album as a piece of art.
Echoes, Emeralds, Lost Souls, Hassles, and Eventually Attila
A succession of early bands helped Joel gain his professional footing and some high-profile visibility, including a gig at the 1964 New York World's Fair. After being recruited for the Hassles, Joel emerged with his first recording contract via the band's two albums and succession of singles. He also solidified a musical partnership with Hassles drummer Jon Small, with whom he later formed the hard-rock duo Attila. That pairing fell apart after Joel fell in love with Small's wife, Elizabeth Weber Small, whom he ended up marrying in 1973. That leads us to...
Weber's Way With Billy
Weber became an early muse, inspiring the songs "She's Got a Way," "Just the Way You Are," and "She's Always a Woman." However, it was her bullish attitude as his manager that helped further his career, especially after he signed with Columbia Records, the future home of all his hits. Joel and Weber divorced in 1982, and seven years later, the family ties were irrevocably severed when Joel filed a $90 million lawsuit against Weber's brother, Frank, who succeeded his sister as Joel's manager and close personal confidant. That chain of managerial mishaps led to...
A major music-business hustler, Artie Ripp owned a company called Family Productions. It was Ripp's label that released Joel's first solo album, the ill-fated Cold Spring Harbor. Although it boasted the first versions of future Joel gems "She's Got a Way" and "Everybody Loves You Now," the album was a commercial and technical failure. Mastered at the wrong speed, it so infuriated Joel that he threw the first acetate of the LP into the street. Ultimately, it did help to raise his profile, but as Schruers says, "It wasn't the album he hoped to make." Forced to buy his way out of Ripp's contract, he ended up ceding him a royalty rate of about a quarter for every disc sold over the course of his next ten albums. Then came...
Ramone to the Rescue
Producer Phil Ramone, a former classical violinist, was a musician's musician. With his guidance, Joel achieved some of his greatest successes, beginning with 1978's The Stranger, an album that yielded four massive hits -- "Just the Way You Are," "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," "Only the Good Die Young," and "She's Always a Woman to Me." It reached number two on the charts, sold in the millions, and garnered a Grammy for Record of the Year and Song of the Year for "Just the Way You Are." Joel was on his way.
A Bevy of Beauties
After his divorce from Weber, Joel headed to St. Barths for some R&R. Tinkering at the piano in a local bar one night, he looked up to see the admiring glances of Whitney Houston, Elle Macpherson, and Christie Brinkley. Brinkley told one reporter she was attracted to him because "he had a lot of heart and soul." Joel, a self-described "schlubby little guy," looked gratefully at his piano and basked in his good fortune. You never let me down, he thought while staring at the keys. The two married in 1985, had daughter Alexa Ray the same year, and eventually divorced in 1994. Still, they remain friends, while Alexa Ray is very much the emotional focus of Joel's life.
Joel's last album of popular music, River of Dreams, became his last attempt at writing music for the charts. "I gave it my heart and soul for years," he told fans. "What more do you want from me?" His next venture, a 2001 classical opus named Fantasies & Delusions, had a title that seemed to foretell his ambitions from that point on.
Depression and Addiction
Joel's ongoing struggles with his inner demons made national headlines but yielded little in the way of a cure. Soon after his marriage to his third wife, Katie Lee, he checked himself into the Betty Ford Center, where he spent 30 days for treatment of alcohol abuse. The couple announced their divorce in June 2009.
New Girl, New Gig
With his new paramour, Alexis Roderick, in tow, Joel began a monthly residency at Madison Square Garden. Triggered in part by his successful six-song set at 12-12-12: Concert for Sandy Relief -- which netted him the best reviews of all the performances -- the Garden gigs instantly sell out, an obvious impetus for his future forward motion.
Crossfade's Top Blogs
Billy Joel in Concert. Saturday, January 31, 2015. American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets cost $49.50 to $124.50 plus fees via ticketmaster.com. All ages. Call 786-777-1000, or visit aaarena.com.
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