In 1989, Crystal Taliefero got a call from someone she knew from her days touring as a percussionist and backup singer in John Mellencamp’s band. He wanted to know if she was available for a recording session in New York and a possible tour with another artist. “I said, ‘Sure. With who?'” she says. “He goes, ‘With the Piano Man.’ I was trying to be cool, but I didn’t know who the Piano Man was.”
It’s now 31 years later and she not only knows that the Piano Man is Billy Joel, but she’s played that song with him well over 1,000 times. Many musicians have come and gone during her tenure in the Billy Joel band, but only saxophonist Mark Rivera has been there longer.
On that fateful day in 1989 when she first met Joel, Taliefero laid down the percussion track on the master recording of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Since then, she’s become a pivotal utility player in his band, playing everything from saxophone to congas and harmonica. And at a moment’s notice, she’s ready to lead the band through covers of classics like “Dancing in the Street” as all of Madison Square Garden sings along.
That alone would be an incredible, career-defining accomplishment. But Taliefero has also toured with the Bee Gees, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Joe Cocker, Enrique Iglesias, and Bruce Springsteen, with whom she had the near-impossible task of recreating Clarence Clemons’ “Born to Run” sax solo night after night. Few musicians in rock history have had the opportunity to tour with so many Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–caliber acts.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the concert industry, Taliefero has been camped out in her hometown of Nashville. She was diagnosed with Stage Two breast cancer in February, but she’s undergoing treatment and doctors expect her to make a complete recovery.
She phoned us up to share her incredible life story and reflect on her long life on the road with Joel, Springsteen, and everyone else.
How is your quarantine going?
I don’t really know how to respond, so I’m just going to say it like it is: I couldn’t have picked a better time to go through cancer. [Big laugh] I don’t know how I quite feel about this. It’s just one more hurdle. My whole career, my whole life has been like this, so I’m not surprised God threw an extra bone at me and said, “Let’s see what you do with this.”
I’m so sorry you’re going through this.
It’s not anything to be sad about. I believe in God and I believe in the power of God. Whatever is going to happen, is going to happen, but it’s going to be a hell of a fight.
How far along are you with your treatment?
Well, I was diagnosed with breast cancer on February 2nd. This is going into my fourth badass chemo. I’m going to call it that since the nickname is so bad. They call it the “Devil’s Juice.” But that’s a triple negative, which means it’s highly aggressive. They want to squash that baby as quickly as they can. So, we’re going to do one more of those bad boys and then I have 12 of the Taxols and after that it’s going to be that journey. Once I get past these two chemos I have a surgery to remove it and then radiation.
Let’s move on to happier topics. How old were you when music first became a big part of your life?
I was 11. I didn’t really want to, but my brother said to me, “We need another person, so learn the guitar and you’ll be in the band.” I was like, “I don’t want to be in an all-boys band.”
But that’s how I started. I really want to thank my brother for encouraging me like he did. It ended up becoming a career. I was one of those kids that did what she was told. He’d be like, “We need a horn player, so learn this horn part.” That’s how I was able to learn different instruments as fast as I did.
How did you go from your brother’s group to it becoming more professional?
I went to Indiana University Bloomington. We had the first multicultural pop band in Bloomington. We played everywhere. We were very, very popular. Our drummer Shawn Pelton, who went on to play in the Saturday Night Live band, his instructor was [John Mellencamp drummer] Kenny Aronoff. He used to come in and sit in with us to get some funk when he got off the road with Mellencamp.
One day, Kenny came to me and said, “Hey, John came to the show in Bloomington.” He just stayed for one song, so I thought he didn’t like what we did. He said, “He wants to meet you.” I said, “Great, I can be ready on Monday.” He said, “No. In 45 minutes.”
Kenny drives me out to Mellencamp’s house. We sat in his backyard, the two of us. He was telling me, “I can offer you this, that, that, and that.” I was like, “That sounds great. I need to talk it over with my band.” I was so young and green. He started laughing and goes, “Alright. You got until Monday.”
I go back to my apartment with my brother and go, “Hey, what do you think about me going on tour?” He goes, “On tour with who?” I go, “This guy named John Cougar Mellencamp.” He goes, “John Mellencamp! Get out of here! Go! Get!” That’s how I started performing with John Mellencamp. It was my brother saying, “Get out of here!” I was just 20.
What’s it like to walk onstage and see that giant crowd the first time?
This is the beauty of what Mellencamp did. I tell you, I’ve never seen anyone rehearse like that. He would rehearse 30 days. It was like clockwork. You show up late for any reason at all, you will get fined a whole week’s pay. I’m living proof of that. And I was never late again in my entire life. I didn’t care if I had a flat tire. “I had a flat tire!” “I don’t care. Time is money. Money is time. Docked.”
It was good for me because all of that training made it like a cakewalk after that. What he’d do was rehearse 30 days in a row, 11 hours a day. By the time we got onstage, we were so prepared in that way that we didn’t have time to think about stage fright or the crowd. All I was thinking about was making something magical happen. That was my goal. “Can I jump over Toby [Myers]’ head when he’s playing bass on ‘Crumblin’ Down’ even though I’m not a gymnast?” It was that kind of crazy stuff. “Can I jump over John’s head?”
What was your role in the band?
I was utility. He’s the one that started making me into a utility player. I did a little percussion. He broke me in slowly. Then he’d give you little bits more. “Hey, we need a harp. I want you to learn this by next week for ‘Small Town.’ We’re going to be on David Letterman live in a week, so learn it.” I was like, “Okaaaay.”
I didn’t even know how to hold the thing. But I said, “If you have faith in me, I’ll give it my 100 percent best shot.” That’s all I can do.
How was it adjusting to life on the road like that? It was a huge change for you.
Yeah, it was. But I was kind of prepared for that. I had worked in bars from the time I was 11. My father used to bring us around everywhere. I think I was bred for it. It was something that really didn’t phase me. It was exciting to be away from my parents and to be on my own. I had another female who was there with me, 10 years older than I was. She was my mentor in a way. Her name was Pat Peterson. I had the chance to follow her. I always watched people and watched how they acted. I never went off on my own.
I’m sure there were days off where you didn’t know what to do with yourself. It’s a very different way of living.
You know what? That helped me too. I learned how to be alone and that being alone was OK. What I started doing was occupying myself by writing music, bringing a studio on the road. I found ways. I got in the gym because I was a gym-aholic. I was crazy,
What was your next big tour after that one?
I went from Mellencamp to Bob Seger on his American Storm tour [of 1986–87].
How did you get into the group? Did Bob see you play with Mellencamp?
Yes. They all intertwine. I get a call from Punch [Andrews], [Seger’s] manager. He says, “You play percussion, right?” I told a little white lie and I said, “Yeah!” He said, “I’m going to come have you audition in nine days.”
I went to a pawn shop and bought a set of white congas. I was learning and studying on them until my hands were bleeding. They were beaten up. They were tore up by the time I got to my audition. All I wanted to do was give myself enough courage to be able to play the things. I’m sitting in there and we’re rehearsing all day long. We finally got to the point where my hands were cracked and bleeding and I couldn’t go on anymore.
I said, “I can’t play for you anymore. Thanks for the opportunity. It’s been awesome and amazing.” And Punch comes over and he goes, “Well, what’s your number?” I was so young. I started giving him my telephone number like, “812 …” “No, not that number! How much do you want?” I didn’t know what to ask for. They gave me an offer and I took it.
What was the tour like?
Bob was like a father figure to me. He’d tell me things like, “Hey, watch out for that. Don’t go there!” That kind of stuff. There were a few other female singers in the band as well: Laura Creamer and Shaun Murphy. They were really great too.
Again, Bob kept giving me more responsibilities. [Sax player] Alto Reed said to me, “I want you to play this baritone saxophone.” I said, “That’s a big saxophone.” He took me in the back and got me everything to play the part. It worked great. Bob comes up and says, “Hey, I wrote this song ‘Hollywood Nights’ and I had two drummers on there. Can you play on it?”
I was like, “OK.” And he goes, “You’ll play with Donny Brewer.” Now, you know that Don Brewer is a bad mama jama. He’s the man. I’m thinking, “I’m going to sit next to Donny Brewer? You sure about that?” He goes, “Yeah, I can do four on the floor. Hi-hat and snare. That’s it.” I said, “If you have faith in me to do it, I’ll give it a shot.”
The Bee Gees came not long after this, right?
Yeah. That came about because of another phone call. They asked me if I’d come out and do a tour with them. It was the High Civilization tour [of 1991]. They asked me if I wanted to get another singer to come with me. I was like, “Absolutely!” and I called Pat Peterson from Mellencamp and we ended up going on tour with them in Europe.
That was crazy! That was so crazy because I’d never seen so many people! I didn’t think the audience would be that huge. It was like 100,000; 50,000. Every single person in the audience was singing all of the lyrics!
What was your role?
Percussion and vocal. On top of that, Maurice [Gibb] comes up to me once and says, “Hey Crystal…” He was a complete gentleman. He used to carry my suitcase. He was like, “Let me show you how a man is supposed to take care of a woman.” He was so funny. He said, “You’ve got some original music, don’t you, Crystal?” I said, “Well, yeah. I got some songs I recorded.” He goes, “We need an opening act. Maybe you guys can play some songs for like half an hour?”
I told him I didn’t have a band. “Oh, you can just use our blokes.” I’m like, “Really?” He goes, “Oh, yeah. We’ll pay you too.” I was like, “Get the frig’ out!”
Here we are onstage in front of 50,000 people opening up for the Bee Gees. That was crazy! We only did originals. I said, “I’m not doing covers. I’m only doing originals. I’m not getting booed.” These are festivals. We did alright. We were called Bonzai.
The Bee Gees are some of the best harmony singers of all time. It must have been amazing to sing with them every night.
They were crazy tight. The challenge at first was getting into their inflections, the tones and how they pronounce the words. But it was great. What an education. Oh, and before that I went back to Mellencamp for the Lonesome Jubilee album and tour. And after that we did one album, Big Daddy.
That was right when you joined up with Billy Joel. Tell me about the Storm Front sessions where you first met him.
It was at the Hit Factory in New York City. I was really nervous. I walk in and I had my best duds on. You should have seen me. I thought I looked sharp. I had on a black-and-red flannel shirt with long sleeves. I had my Justin Boots. I had my bolo tie and a black belt with a big buckle on the front. I was sharp in my eyes. Nevertheless, learn the gig before you walk in there like that!
I walked in there with this nice cowboy hat on and spurs. [Drummer] Liberty DeVitto walks up to me and goes, “What’s that?” I stood there like a deer in headlights. He goes, “What are you wearing?” I had already taken off the hat off my head. I bent down and took the spurs off my boots. He goes, “That’s right.” I took my belt buckle off and he goes, “That’s good too.” I took off one suspender and he goes, “You can leave the other one on.” Then he said, “Don’t you know there ain’t no cowboys and cowgirls in Gary, Indiana?” I was like, “Dang. He’s right!”
Anyway, that was my entrance. And then [bassist] Schuyler Deale walks in and is like, “Don’t listen to him. Welcome to New York! Come on in!” I was shellshocked and I’m standing there, waiting for whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing. I sat in the lounge for a couple of days, waiting. Finally Billy comes out and goes, “You’re up!”
I didn’t have any gear. I thought they were going to rent stuff from SIR, but I didn’t see any congas. I’m getting nervous. I walk into the tracking room and on the other side of the glass, there’s Billy and [producer and Foreigner guitarist] Mick Jones. I walk in and see against the glass window there’s a set of Rototoms, little ones, like seven or eight of them. I walked over to it and was like, “Wow.” I was having an inside panic attack. I was like, “What is this? What am I supposed to do with this?”
And then who walks through the door? Liberty. He has a pair of drum sticks about three feet tall. I don’t know where he got them from. He stood over me and said, “Here, play.” I’m standing there and they started the track of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” I hit the Rototom one time with those huge, gigantic sticks and I threw them in the air and I said, “This is crazy. Nobody plays these things. This is from the Seventies.” Billy pressed the button and said, “You got the gig.”
About 10 minutes later, a set of congas comes in. I guess they wanted to see if I was full of crap. I said, “What are you hearing in your vision?” He said, “I hear a tribe-type of thing.” I said, “Why don’t you play cowbell, Liberty plays snare, and I’ll play congas?” We did “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” two takes. And that was it.
Then he hired you to play in the touring band?
Yep. He told me I had the gig.
How was the first tour?
It was a challenge for me because I was the only female and the only African-American female, though he had a black guy on bass. But he left shortly after that. It was fun, but they would initiate you. You wouldn’t just walk in there.
My initiation was in Japan. The guys said to me, “Have you ever been to a bathhouse?” I was like, “No, what’s that?” They were like, “Come on, let’s go.” So they took me to a bathhouse. There was a male side and a female side. I go over there and I’m starting to experience it, but I failed to do a couple of things before I left. I did not take the hotel key with me and I did not write down the name of the hotel. You don’t think about these thing when you’re with your boys. You think, “I’m with the band. I’m good.”
I get in there and this woman is scrubbing me down, but I don’t know if she’s ever seen a black person before at that time in Osaka. She was scrubbing me so hard, man, I’m telling you. I look up and she was working hard. I had to say to her, “Ease up some. You’re tearing my skin off.” She started tapping the palm of my hand and then flipped my hand over. I was like, “No, no, no! Those are two colors!”
I got what she was saying. You look at a white person’s hand and it’s white on both sides. My hand was brown on one side, but the palm was lighter. I said to her, “It’s not going to change.” [Laughs] She threw some salt on me at the end and it stung, so I ran out and got out of there early.
I’m sitting in the lobby. They told me to be there by 11 o’clock. I was there by 10:30. I said to the lady, “Did you see some ugly Americans come through here? There was about five of them.” They said, “They left about an hour ago.” Sheer terror. I was like, “Oh, my God. What am I going to do?”
That’s horrible. What happened?
I’m walking around the streets of Japan and nobody is speaking English to me. It was like 12 o’clock now. I was out there about four hours trying to get somebody to help me. Finally, I broke down and I sat right in the middle of the street. Police officers came running over with sirens. They pointed to a cab stand. It was nearby the whole time.
I get into the cab and just because I have good sense of direction, that’s the only way I got back to the hotel. I was tapping the driver on the shoulder like “turn here, turn there.” I get back and I was like, “I’m going to get those guys. I’m going to tell my boss and he’s going to get them.”
Rule number two: Don’t bring your band’s politics and crap onto the stage. Ever. Ever. Nobody cares. OK? But I brought it onstage. Big mistake.
You mean you told Billy what they did to you?
Yeah. He was playing piano in the middle of soundcheck and I went right down there. I was like, “I’m going to expose everybody!” He said to me, “Did you take the matches that were on the side of your bed in the hotel room? It has the name of the hotel on it and telephone number.” I said, “No, I didn’t think I needed to have that.” He goes, “Did you take that big key?” I said, “I put it in the box because I didn’t think I needed that either.” He goes, “Alright. Did you write down with a pad and pencil the name of the hotel?” I said, “No. I didn’t.” He goes, “Crystal! You’re on the road, baby.”
That was a big learning experience. Also, Mellencamp docking me a whole week’s pay for being late. These kids today, they gotta learn this kind of stuff because it will stick to you for the rest of your life. It will make you a better person. It will make you a better musician. It will make you a better team player. People go, “How were you able to go this long and be viable this long?” I say, “Go through some of that stuff.”
Let’s flash forward to the 1992–93 Springsteen tour. How did that happen?
Bobby “Boomer” Thrasher worked production for Billy and Bruce. And Bruce asked him, “What do you think of this girl Crystal?” And Boomer said, “She’s what you need.” And then the phone call came out from Jon Landau or someone in management. I was sitting in New York talking to my lawyer. He said, “You’ve worked for just about everybody.” I said, “No, I haven’t. I haven’t worked for Bruce.”
And do you know I got a phone call when I was still in his office? That’s crazy! And it was from Bruce’s camp. They were like, “Do you want to come out for an audition and see about a tour?” I said, “Sure!” It was a Friday and I said, “I can come out on Monday.” They said, “No. We’re going to fly you out tomorrow.” I said, “I gotta be honest with you. I don’t know any of Bruce’s music.” He said, “Well, just get here.”
I flew out there with two day’s worth of clothes. I took a skirt, a pair of jeans, underwear and whatever, and a bra. I thought I’d just be there for two days. But Boomer picks me up at the airport and now I’m really wigging out. I’m like, “Boomer, what are you doing here?” He goes, “Just get in the car, missy.” We went straight to an airplane hangar at LAX. And I walk in there and many of the guys were from Billy’s crew were there. They shared the same crew. They were like, “Hey, Crystal!”
I walked into the place not knowing what I was supposed to do, nothing. I’m standing there and Bruce goes, “Hey, how are you doing? You play a little guitar?” I say, “I’m a 1-4-5″ girl.” He goes, “Most of of my songs are 1-4-5. Come over here. Let me introduce you to my little friend.” He starts playing a song and was like, “Can you play it with me and sing?” I said, “I don’t know. I can give it a try.”
We were doing some song and I’m playing with him. He goes, “You know, Crystal, you have a nice stroke.” I said, “You think so?” He goes, “Yeah. You want to stay and play with the band for a little while?” I said, “Sure. I don’t got no place else to go.”
I ended up rehearsing night and day because I don’t know what else I was going to play or what I was expected to play. I’m learning keys, acoustic guitar, vocals. I’m learning some sax. I didn’t think that was going to happen, but was like “Just in case …”
The possibility of playing Clarence’s parts must have been daunting.
I was thinking, “I can’t walk onto his stage, onto the Big Man’s stage, with no tenor saxophone. That ain’t gonna happen. I’ll get booed.” And I never got a chance to rehearse any of the horn songs with the band. Not one rehearsal. And the first time we played “Born to Run” was in New Jersey. The Big Man was there. Bruce comes up and goes, “Hey, are you ready?” “Ready for what?” “We’re gonna do ‘Born to Run.” I was like, “Oh, my God!” He goes, “Do you want to do it?” I was like, “If you have faith in me, I will give it my 100 percent. That’s all I can give you.” He said, “Alright.”
I went backstage and asked Boomer for a boiler room. I was like, “I don’t need any lights. Just a room.” I had about an hour or an hour and a half. I was like, “How am I going to do this?” I transposed the part on an alto. I’m thinking, “I can’t walk up there with a tenor. Ain’t no way. But if I come smaller, play the part, play it without any flamboyant crap, I can get off the stage and I think I might survive.”
That’s exactly what I did. They were like, “Let’s put this wireless on your sax.” I was like, “I don’t want no wireless. Put a mic on a stand on the floor. Matter of fact, I ain’t even going to come onto the stage until it’s time for me to play.” That’s exactly what I did. And I did not get booed. The Big Man was standing there. Crew guys were standing by the monitors rooting me on like, “You can do it! You can do it!” That was fun, but a challenging time for me. A huge challenge.
It must have been really scary knowing you were filling the shoes of such legends on that stage.
Scary is not the word. Horrifying. I was terrified. But I went for it because he had faith in me. I said, “If you have faith in me, all I can give is 100 percent of what I can give. That’s all I have.” Think about if I didn’t try. You have to believe you can do something even if you’ve never done it before. If you think, “I can do this and make it my own without being booed,” you can. But it was tough.
Also, that was my first time I’d ever been down front, ever. Bruce said to me, “Have you ever been down front before?” I was like, “Yeah, I’ve done duets with Billy.” He was like, “No, I’m talking about it being me, you, and Shane Fontayne.” And man, it was totally different, night and day. He said, “What you do in the back, you don’t do out front.” I’m like, “Wow!” I never thought about it. I thought everything was relative.
He said, “I just want you to stand there and be you.” That was deep. For once, I didn’t have to think about trying to make something happen. All I had to do was just be myself.
You sort of became his onstage foil.
If that’s what you want to call it. But it felt so empowering. Jeez, there was a lot of power down there. And then he told me, and I’m very grateful for this, “I’m going to teach you how to control the masses.” Basically, what that is, is the more you are you are yourself and calm, the more you are in control. It’s simple. But you don’t think of that since you’re in the back and doing jumping jacks and whatever. You don’t do that stuff down front.
I learned a lot from Bruce about finding my center. I felt so strange at one point because I was chewing gum out of being nervous. Barbara Carr and him showed me a video and said, “Look at you.” I was chewing that gum. “You gotta get rid of that gum!” Had they not showed me that, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it.
What were your favorite songs to perform on that tour?
“Light of Day,” “Glory Days,” and “Human Touch,” “Lucky Town.” He wrote some amazing songs. Powerful stuff.
It’s often seen as a period where he struggled to write songs, but I love a lot of that stuff.
I think the band was underrated. There was a lot of politics, but that was a seriously talented band. They were gifted. [Bassist] Tommy Sims was no joke.
At the end of the tour, did you think there might be another tour with Bruce?
No. Bruce had a sit-down with me and he talked to me and I appreciate that, too. He said, “What are you doing with your life? You have to do something for yourself like you’ve done for everyone else.” I ended up moving down here to Nashville. He turned me onto Tommy and said, “Tommy is a producer.” I ended up moving down here and starting my own little production thing and went back to school for audio engineering. It’s been really nice and I really appreciate that knowledge that he shared with me.
Also, when I spoke with Bruce he said, “What are you doing with your life?” I said, “I’m hanging out with you.” He said, “You can’t hang out with me, I’m a rock star. After this tour I probably won’t see you again. I thought you said you wanted to have a family and do this and do that.” I said, “Yeah, I do.” He said, “Then you gotta make it happen.” I loved that. He didn’t have to do that.
Then I told him I had some material, but nobody wanted to hear it. He said, “I want to hear it.” I was like, “What?” He went to my hotel room. I was creating loops back then with an MPC60 [sequencer]. He goes, “What’s that?” I said, “Nobody wants to hear this stuff. They want rock & roll music, not this stuff with the loops.” He goes, “I like this stuff with the loops. How do you do a loop?” I showed him how I do a loop and he said, “I like this better. “
It was very encouraging. Very loving. He took the time to ask me what I was doing and it changed the whole course of my direction.
What did you do after the Bruce tour?
Enrique Iglesias. It was the Experiencia Religiosa tour. That was interesting because I got a chance to sing some Spanish and do a duet with him. I ended up going off to work with Tina Arena in Australia. I played saxophone on that tour, which was interesting. It was the first time I had a role on the sax. Then I came back to Billy.
The co-headlining shows with Elton John started around then. How was that experience?
Well, Face to Face. It was big. A lot of people. We became a little semi-family between the two bands. It was interesting. It was big. I like it better … he had a lot of people in his entourage and a lot of stuff going on.
You were playing places like the Tokyo Dome. That’s enormous.
Exactly. Sometimes we didn’t get the hotel we wanted because there was too many of us. I like it better the way it is, but that’s just my opinion.
Tell me about Last Play at Shea in 2008 when Paul McCartney came out.
Oh, man! That was crazy. “The Eagle has landed.” I’m not kidding you. He flew right in just in the nick of time. I mean, it was crazy. That could definitely only happen with Billy. Crazy stuff happens with Billy. Before he went onstage, I got a kiss on the cheek! “It’s over! It’s over! I’ll never wash my cheek again. A Beatle kissed my cheek!” I turned into a serious groupie girl. I was like, “Oh, my God. I love you.”
It was about a year later that Billy kind of stopped touring. Did he tell you he was getting a hip replacement and would be off the road for an indefinite period of time?
Yeah. He had to take a break. He had to take care of some situations. He’s always been upfront with us, which is a rarity these days. If I can be a little candid about my boss … It doesn’t get any better. This is it. You’re not going to see too many people like him. He’s a rarity. He does things that 90 percent of other people just don’t do. He think about us. He’s concerned about us. During this pandemic, he’s paid our salaries. Come on, man. I’m starting to get emotional here.
There weren’t any shows for a few years, and then he did 12/12/12. How was that night?
We were on fire. We were fired up for it. We had been down for a little bit and we just got back. That was when the message got out that everyone had to up their game. We knew everyone had to up their game, so we had to come up with a little more fire under us. That was the whole vibe. Everybody was like, “OK, we’re back here. We have another chance. Let’s do it again.”
Tell me about learning you were going to play MSG on a monthly basis forever.
No one expected for it to go this long, first of all. We figured it would be six months or a year. And then the first year went by. “Dang it, we’re going into the second year. OK.” Second year went by. “Oh goodness, we’re in the third year.” Fourth year went by. “What’s happening?” And then 100 sold-out shows. “Oh, my goodness.” He is truly anointed. He’s blessed. His fans remind me of the Bee Gees’. They are totally, totally committed. They come out and they spend their hard-earned money to see us. I feel so blessed that we can perform for them. They don’t have to spend their money on us.
He really keeps you on your toes by breaking out surprise covers and really obscure songs. Are you ready to play anything in his catalog at a second’s notice?
Here’s the problem. Here’s the situation with that. I tell everyone this. Like Bruce told me onstage when I didn’t know one of his songs when I was up there. He said, “Just walk off the stage.” You see, I didn’t even know I could do that. “You don’t know the song, walk off. Sit it out. Don’t try to bang through it without knowing the chord changes. Sit out.”
What are your favorite Billy Joel songs to play?
I like “Blonde Over Blue” and “Sometimes a Fantasy” and “She’s Always a Woman” and “Modern Woman.” Of course I like “River of Dreams.” I like the Storm Front album.
Billy’s last album was 1993, but his audience never goes away.
You know what I think? It’s because of the show. It’s the show. Back in the day, we put out an album every four years. We toured on every album. This seems to be, we’re touring on his show, his songs. It’s all about the songs. You write a great friggin’ song, people are going to want to come out and hear it, especially if you’ve got a great performance to back it up.
I also talk to a lot of his fans. They feel like they know Billy. They feel like he is on their side, he’s for the blue-collar guys. He tells it like it is when he’s on the stage. If he’s feeling like crap or doesn’t want to do a song he’ll go, “I don’t feel like doing that.” There’s something really cool about that.
How has it been to be not playing live these past few months?
For me, you’re asking the wrong person. I’m trying to recover.
How is that going?
It’s stage two, at least, until they get in there and see what’s going on. But it’s not in the lymph nodes. I’m good. I just have to go through some stuff. That’s all.
It’s just one more hurdle for you to jump in life.
Here’s another thing about my boss. I have to say it. When I got diagnosed, he was the first one that jumped right in and said, “Check this doctor out. We have a relationship with these guys over here.” So helpful. And that’s for all of us. When a tech guy had to have surgery for his diabetes, Billy was all over that. He cares. He really, genuinely cares about his family. And I consider this my road family.
It’s fantastic that he’s still paying you guys.
Pretty amazing. It’s unselfish. It’s loving. It’s all of the above. That’s probably one of the main reasons he’s been so blessed. He’s not a taker, let’s put it like that.
How do you feel day-to-day?
I feel a little anxious because I don’t want to go back to the hospital. Last time I went, I had neutropenic fever, which meant my white-blood-cell went down under 30. They tested me for COVID and before the results came in, they put me in the COVID ward. That’s the last place you want to be when you have cancer.
You should have seen me when they finally took me to the cancer floor. I had my hands waving in the air going, “Oh, thank you!” The nurses were looking at me like, “What is wrong with this woman? She’s on the cancer floor.”
But right now, I’m looking out my window right now, man. I see my sky is all blue. I don’t know what’s going on, but Mother Nature needed a break. I’m serious. My grass is super green. What’s happening? It needed a break from what we were doing. We were sucking up the earth’s nutrients and not replenishing it. I think this is an opportunity for the world to take a breath. That’s how I look at that.
Before you know it, this will all be behind you and you’ll be back onstage. And just think, only a handful of people that pick up an instrument make a career out of it. What you’ve done is amazing.
I had nothing to do with it. Nothing to do with it. It was being in the right place at the right time. And just being down to earth, real. Don’t come in there like you’re something special, because you’re not. And just don’t make everything too serious.
And always be on time.
On time is late! And always write down the name of the hotel.
And don’t get abandoned at a bathhouse in the middle of Osaka.
That was my initiation. I made it!