In the Seventies and Eighties, Billy Joel was rivaled only by Elton John as a piano-pounding hit machine. Joel has tried his hand at rock & roll, new wave, hard-edged dance fare, 1960s nostalgia, and political statements. The through line in his music is a melodicism derived from Tin Pan Alley and the Beatles. He's a bard of everyday suburban dream and disappointment, and his forte is the romantic ballad, epitomized by his signature tune, "Just the Way You Are." Over the years, Joel's work has moved from purely personal, some would argue sophomoric, concerns of his earliest work to embracing a wider range of styles — particularly with his classical compositions — and subjects. In 1992, Joel was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, followed by induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
When Joel was eight, his father, left the family and Joel's mother. struggled to support her two children in suburban Hicksville, Long Island. As a teenager Joel ran with a leather-jacketed street gang and boxed for three years, breaking his nose in the process.
In the late-1960s, after playing in local cover bands, Joel joined the Long Island group the Hassles, who released two meager-selling records on the United Artists label. He then formed a hard-rock duo, Attila, with Hassles drummer Jonathan Small; Small's wife, Elizabeth Weber, would later wed Joel. Attila's only album also failed. Taking up commercial songwriting, Joel signed with Family Productions in 1971. His solo debut, Cold Spring Harbor, demonstrated both his fondness for Long Island and the somber side of his singing/songwriting approach, but because the tapes were inadvertently sped up slightly in production, Joel's voice sounded nasal and unnatural.
Legal and managerial woes precluded an immediate followup, and for six months Joel performed in West Coast piano bars under the name "Bill Martin." These experiences informed his breakthrough, Piano Man, yielding the Top 30 title track, the Top 100 "Travelin' Prayer," and "Worse Comes to Worst." 1974's Streetlife Serenade album also sold well on the strength of the hit single "The Entertainer" (Number 34, 1974). Turnstiles came next, and although "New York State of Mind" eventually became a standard, Joel's career appeared to be in a holding pattern. Then came his breakthrough album The Stranger and a string of hit singles: 1977's "Just the Way You Are" (Number Three) and 1978's "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" (Number 17), "She's Always a Woman" (Number 17), and "Only the Good Die Young" (Number 24).
More hits followed — from 1978's 52nd Street, "My Life" (Number Three, 1978), "Big Shot" (Number 14, 1979) and "Honesty" (Number 24, 1979); from 1980's Glass Houses, "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" (Number One, 1980) and "You May Be Right" (Number Seven, 1980). Despite the hits, Joel remained a lightweight in some critics' eyes; Joel responded publicly by tearing up critical reviews onstage during his concerts.
Critically and musically, the tide seemed to turn for Joel with The Nylon Curtain, which showcased his musical skill and this pop traditionalist's gift for song structure. On the strength of singles like "Allentown" (Number 17, 1982), a Reagan-era unemployment lament, and "Goodnight Saigon" (Number 56, 1983), The Nylon Curtain went to Number Seven. The multi-platinum An Innocent Man, a stylistic homage to early-1960s pop, offered several hits, including "Tell Her About It" (Number One, 1983) and "Uptown Girl" (Number Three, 1983), a Four Seasons–esque valentine for Christie Brinkley, the model whom Joel would marry in 1985 (the couple divorced in 1994). After a seven-night run at Madison Square Garden in 1984, he released Greatest Hits: Vol. I & Vol. II his seventh consecutive Top Ten album.
The Bridge (1986) found him duetting with Ray Charles, for whom Joel's and Brinkley's daughter, Alexa Ray, was named. The next year Joel toured the Soviet Union; the liveKohuept (Live in Leningrad) album documented the concerts. In 1989 Storm Front and its first single, "We Didn't Start the Fire," charted simultaneously at Number One; its centerpiece ballad "Shameless" became a hit for Garth Brooks two years later, and its supporting tour saw Yankee Stadium hosting its first rock concert. By this time, Joel had reorganized his band, found new management, and, for longtime producer Phil Ramone, substituted Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones.
With 1993's River of Dreams, which also hit Number One, Joel's lyrical content, oftentimes topical and acerbic, revealed a more philosophical outlook. With a cover painting by Brinkley, and employing producer Danny Kortchmar (known for his work with James Taylor and Don Henley), River featured fellow Long Islander Leslie West (ex-Mountain) on guitar. The album's title track reached Number Three, and "All About Soul," with guest vocals by the group Color Me Badd, peaked at Number 29. A tour of the U.S. with Elton John followed in 1994.
After releasing ar volume of greatest hits in 1994 with three new recordings that were all cover songs (an oddity for the prolific songwriter), Joel announced he was concentrating on composing classical music for the foreseeable future. Still, he didn't disappear; a tour with his band culminated in a 1999 New Year's Eve concert at New York's Madison Square Garden and a two-disc live set.
Joel's career has been marked by tumultuous business moves with a litany of litigation against various publishers, managers, lawyers, accountants and others spanning three decades. Deeply suspicious of the music business, Joel has fought for lower concert-ticket prices and attacked ticket scalping; he has contributed extensively to philanthropic causes, including many on Long Island.
It would take eight years for Joel to follow up River, and when he did, it was with an album of classical compositions, not pop songs: Fantasies & Delusions (Number 83, 2001). Segments from Fantasies were included in the singer's next project, the Broadway musical Movin' Out, a collaboration with choreographer Twyla Tharp that opened in 2002.
In between rehab stints in 2002 and 2005 for alcohol abuse, Joel married TV reporter Katie Lee. In 2006, he sold out a twelve-show run at Madison Square Garden, which was later released as the double-disc 12 Gardens Live (Number 14, 2006). His greatest hits continued to be re-packaged, with The Essential Billy Joel (Number 29, 2001) and Piano Man: The Very Best Of Billy Joel. An odds-and-sods box set, My Lives, was released in 2005.
Joel returned to conventional pop-rock songwriting in 2007, with two singles: "All My Life," a ballad in honor of his wife, and "Christmas in Fallujah," which Joel wrote for singer-songwriter Cass Dillon.
In January, 2008, Joel performed with the Philadelphia Symphony, debuting his new classical composition, "Waltz No. 2 (Steinway Hall)," and performing lesser known cuts from hims rock oevre, like Nylon Curtain's "Scandinavian Skies." In July of 2008 Joel played the final concert at New York City's Shea Stadium with cameos by Paul McCartney, Garth Brooks, Roger Daltry, and Steven Tyler.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this article.