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Billy Joel Onscreen: Piano Man Talks 'Shea' Documentary and 'Glee'

Singer/songwriter reveals concert film is in the works, offers catalog to TV's cult hit

April 27, 2010 8:31 AM ET

It's been a month and a half since Billy Joel and Elton John's Face to Face tour ended, but Joel doesn't consider the break a hiatus. "What hiatus?" he says. "I've been off for four weeks. That's a hiatus? I guess for Pharrell it would be."

The singer/songwriter admits he wanted to pause to "be a bum for a while" — "Everyone else in the country is out of work! Let me tune in to what that's like!" — but insists he can't stop himself from working on new projects, including the documentary The Last Play at Shea, which premiered Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film uses Joel's July 2008 concerts at New York's Shea Stadium — the last-ever shows there before it was demolished to make way for the Mets' new home, Citi Field — as a backdrop for telling the history of the venue and its most famous events, including the Beatles' historic 1965 concert and the Police's farewell gig in 1983. "When I was a little kid, I used to watch the Mets play baseball there, and the Beatles played there, and when they asked me to play the same place, I was bamboozled," Joel says. "You want me to play the same place the Beatles played? That was pretty cool."

To mark the occasion as both a celebration of Shea's history and a eulogy for the venue, Joel had invited a slew of guests to join him onstage, including John Mayer, Roger Daltrey, John Mellencamp, Steven Tyler, Garth Brooks, Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney. One of the film's big moments depicts McCartney's miraculous arrival, as air traffic controllers, customs agents and police all worked together to get the Beatle to the stadium right before the end of the second show with just minutes to spare.

Because the crew shot both nights of Joel's three-and-half-hour long performances, director Paul Crowder and the producers behind The Last Play at Shea plan to release a separate concert film later this year. "That will probably be really boring though," Joel says, turning self-deprecating. "Concert films are kind of like jumbo shrimp. It's not a concert, it's a film, but you're not at the concert, so that's already one dimension removed. I hate concert films, but that's just me. Maybe it'll be a big hit. Who knows?"

In the meantime, Joel's been busy writing new music — "thematic music, orchestral music" — that could end up becoming new songs or movie scores. Some of it could even be for a chorus to sing, he said — and if Glee is interested in it, or his back catalog, he's open to following in Madonna's footsteps and giving the show the opportunity to do a Billy Joel-centered episode.

"Take it," he says. "Do the material. I already told them, use my songs. I was in chorus in high school, so I know what that stuff's all about. I love stuff like that."

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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