Keyboardist David Rosenthal on His Years With Billy Joel, Ritchie Blackmore, and Cyndi Lauper
Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features keyboardist David Rosenthal.
As a kid growing up in Edison, New Jersey, in the Seventies, David Rosenthal used to hop on a train and head to Madison Square Garden whenever a big rock band was in town, seeing everyone from Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd to Queen, Peter Frampton, and the Edgar Winter Group.
“When I saw Aerosmith, I was dead center in the last row of the arena,” he says. “I was so high up that I had to duck because of the ceiling rafters. I think I was further from the stage than anyone else in the whole place. There were no screens in those days, so Steven Tyler and Joe Perry looked like little ants on the stage.”
Much to his amazement, Rosenthal became one of those little ants on June 19th, 1982: That night, Rainbow, with Rosenthal on his first tour as the band’s keyboardist, headlined a show at MSG. He was just 20 years old. “It was the biggest gig I’d ever done in my life,” he says. “And who knew if I’d ever get to play there again?”
At that point, it would have been unimaginable that he’d one day play Madison Square Garden more times than just about any musician in history, thanks to his 28-year (and counting) stint in Billy Joel’s band. He’s also spent time gigging with Steve Vai, Cyndi Lauper, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, Robert Palmer, and Enrique Iglesias in addition to his side career as a synth programmer for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Lady Gaga, and many other major touring acts.
We called up Rosenthal at his New Jersey home to hear the whole saga.
How has your pandemic year gone?
It’s definitely been a unique experience for everybody. I’m fortunate to have a nice studio here in my house, so I’m able to be productive and creative the best I can. But it’s been a lot of home time. I’m working on projects, writing music, and always trying to be creative.
Have you always lived in Jersey?
Yeah. I grew up in Edison and I’ve been here most of my life, but I went to school in Boston at the Berklee College of Music. Other than that, I’ve been living here pretty much.
I want to go back and talk about your life. Tell me your first memory of hearing music as a child that really reached you.
I used to listen to the radio a lot when I was young, AM radio in those days. I don’t know why, but I asked my parents for a piano when I was about six years old. I can’t remember my early exposure to music, but my parents told me many, many times the story about how I kept asking them for a piano. We didn’t have one. I don’t know where the calling came from, but I really wanted to play piano. I asked enough times that they finally got me one, and then I started taking lessons when I was seven.
Did you take it up quickly?
Yeah. I didn’t know it was quick. I was seven and they said, “Do this, do that,” and I learned. I didn’t think anything of it, but the teacher kept pulling my mother aside and going, “Your son is learning very quickly.” [Laughs] They spotted pretty early on that I had talent. But, again, as as child, you don’t know one thing from another. You just do what you’re taught.
Who were some of your musical heroes as a kid?
At that age, I was just listening to the songs that were popular on the radio. I think my first exposure to piano players came from listening to [piano duo] Ferrante and Teicher, and Peter Nero and those types of piano players. Then I started listening to rock and pop on the radio and getting into that. That’s all I wanted to play at my piano lessons. They were trying to get me to play classical music and I didn’t want to do it at all. I just wanted to play what was on the radio.
By the time I was 11 years old, I was able to play pretty much anything I heard on the radio. I could solo. I could read any sheet music. I could play any song. And I was already starting to play in bands by the time I was 12 or 13. I was 14 when I dove in deep in classical and really started to get into it.
Were there any key rock albums you heard when you were young that really scrambled your brain?
Absolutely. The first time I heard Yes’ Close to the Edge I almost flipped over backwards. It just blew my mind. I listened to that record a million times.
I listened to Uriah Heep a lot. Ken Hensley was a huge influence. And, of course, Rick Wakeman in Yes. Keith Emerson in those days … lots of prog bands. I really loved that stuff. I was always listening to it. But I started listening pretty early on to Chick Corea and more progressive music like that.
Your childhood years were really an amazing time for fusion, prog, and so many other genres.
It’s so true. And you’re very inspired and influenced at that time by what you’re listening to. You’re just a blank canvas absorbing everything. I remember very specifically the very first time I heard Tomita. He’s a Japanese synthesist that did all his music on synthesizer. I heard his version of [Modest Mussorgsky’s] Pictures at an Exhibition when I was about 13. That just blew me away. I was like, “Wow! That’s what I want to do. I have to get a synthesizer and learn how to make sounds like that.” It was a really, really big inspirational moment for me.
When did you start seeing yourself as someone who could make a career out of this?
Well, I never saw myself as anything but a musician. I often say to people, “I didn’t choose music; it chose me.” I’m very fortunate to have done well with it, but I’m a musician through and through. I breathe it. It’s in my blood. It’s my being. It’s the essence of who I am.
To me, there was never any doubt that I’d do anything other than be a musician for my life. How my career was going to go, I didn’t really know. I just knew that music was what I wanted to do.
What drew you to the Berklee College of Music? Lots of musicians skip that step and just start gigging straight out of high school.
I was already a pretty decent player by the time it was time to go to college, but I went there and became a much, much better player. And I became a much more well-rounded musician. I learned a lot about orchestration and theory and I learned all the ins and outs of synth programming and audio recording.
It was all kinds of different technologies and things that I use to this day. I think it enabled me to become a much more well-rounded musician and it enabled me to work throughout my career doing many different types of things, not only as a keyboard player.
That was a really interesting time period. So many different kinds of drum machines and synthesizers were coming out. The change of pace was very rapid.
Absolutely. It was a really exciting time, and it continues to be exciting. Technology hasn’t stopped moving at that pace. A lot of people take things for granted nowadays, but things keep going and going and going. It’s a full-time job keeping up with technology, but I love it. It’s part of what I do.
Before you joined Rainbow, what were some of your earlier groups?
I had a lot of high-school bands and stuff like that. But when I got to Berklee, I was in a band with Steve Vai called Morning Thunder. He and I met in the first few days at school. We did a lot of playing together and we still keep in touch to this day. I’ve played on a couple of his albums.
I’m sure his talent was apparent even then.
His guitar playing even then was off the charts. In fact, in all of my high-school bands, I played keyboard and guitar. I was always a much better keyboard player than guitar player, but I played both instruments in all my high-school bands. And then I got to Berklee and I saw Steve playing guitar and I just said, “I’m going to put this instrument down. [Laughs] I’m just going to stick to what I’m best at.” I obviously just focused on the keyboards, which was more natural for me.
Tell me about those early gigs with Steve Vai. What were they like?
Well, he used to write stuff that was impossible to play, but we’d try to find a way to play it anyway. I’d write stuff. He’d write stuff. And we’d cover some Zappa tunes and we covered Happy the Man. We covered some of the most difficult music you could possibly imagine. It was just a lot of fun. It was challenging. We pushed each other and grew a lot through the whole thing. And then he eventually left to join Frank Zappa’s band.
It’s pretty incredible you happened to befriend one of the great guitarists of that era at that age.
He really is one of the greatest guitarists. He’s my personal friend. And to me, he’s Steve. But he really is just an amazing guitar player and continues to innovate to this day.
Tell me how you wound up joining Rainbow.
A friend of a friend told me that Ritchie Blackmore was looking for a new keyboard player, so I sent him a cassette. It was my cover band playing a bunch of different rock tunes on one side. And on the other side was my senior classical piano recital where I played all this crazy stuff. I knew he was into classical as well.
He heard that and invited me to audition out on Long Island. It was a cattle call. I went there and they narrowed it down to me and one other guy, and then I got the gig.
Do you recall what you played at the audition?
I don’t remember the exact songs, but it was a lot of jamming. A lot of what Ritchie was looking for was, “Can I connect with him musically? How quick does he learn?” And so there was a lot of jamming. I might have played “Man on the Silver Mountain” and a couple of the other classics. But I honestly don’t remember the specific songs.
It must have been intimidating to be onstage with someone like Ritchie.
Well, to me, it’s not intimidating. I just did what I did. My philosophy has always been to go in there after doings tons and tons of homework where you prepare and prepare. I then go in and do my best. If my best isn’t what they’re looking for, then that’s OK. At least I know I did my best. In this case, it turned out to click.
One moment of the audition I remember very specifically is that [bassist] Roger Glover was running the auditions. He came over to me and said, “Let’s say that we’re onstage now in front of 20,000 people and Ritchie just broke a string and nothing is happening on the stage. You need to fill space. Go.”
I just played. I just starting playing something on the [Hammond] B3 and then I played some riffs on the Minimoog and jumped over to the clavinet. They were Ritchie’s keyboards that they had there. I had brought my stuff with me. I only had a Fender Rhodes, a Farfisa organ, and a synth. I was a student. I didn’t have any money. So they said, “Play our keyboards. Play this setup.”
I had learned about a lot of these keyboards in Theory, but I’d never actually played them. But in any event, I just played a little bit here, and a little bit there. I just played. I didn’t think anything of it.
About a year later, Roger Glover told me that out of all the people they asked that of, I was the only guy that just started playing. He said everyone else had an excuse like, “Oh, don’t worry; I’ll be prepared,” or “I’ll work something up.” Everybody had a story, but I was the only guy that just started playing.
You’re filling the shoes of Don Airey, who’s a pretty incredible player.
Don is a great player. But I had the benefit when I was preparing for the audition of four keyboardists in Rainbow before me. I knew whatever those four players had in common stylistically was what Ritchie liked. I sort of tailored my playing accordingly, knowing what he was looking for, but it was a very natural fit. He and I clicked musically right away. And I was only 20 years old.
It’s an interesting time for Rainbow. They were this big Seventies group, but it’s suddenly the MTV era and they were really adapting to it.
Right. The band had a very different sound with Ronnie James Dio. I think Joe Lynn Turner brought more of an American style. Ronnie was American too, but this was more of that Eighties melodic pop that became very popular when we released the singles “Stone Cold” and “Street of Dreams.” It was quite a different sound than the earlier Rainbow.
Do you recall much about making “Stone Cold”?
I do. I recall that whole record. It was such a great experience for me. Here I am, 20 years old, and I’m up in the studio. We recorded at Le Studio in Morin-Heights [Quebec]. It was really exciting. I had never made an album before. I knew what a lot of the equipment in the studio did since I studied it, but I never really had a chance to be there throughout the whole process.
Ritchie saw that I was fascinated by it and that I loved to learn. He let me sit in the control room most of the time, which he never did with anyone else, and let me watch. I kept my mouth shut while they did a lot of things that didn’t involve me, but I made friends with the engineer, Nick Blagona, and he gave me all the manuals to all the gear in the studio.
Every night, I’d go back and read and learn from them. Then I’d go back to the house where we were staying and stay up late reading manuals. The next day, I’d watch more. Aside from just my keyboard duties, it was an incredible learning experience.
You have a songwriting credit on the song “Miss Mistreated.” Can you talk about making that song?
Sure. Most of the songs came out of jams. Ritchie would come up with riffs and we’d just jam on stuff. Sometimes stuff would survive and other stuff would just be a jam and never get used again. And then, little by little, things would develop into songs, and Joe Lynn Turner would come up with melodies. The ones that Ritchie liked, Joe would go off and write lyrics to.
We all contributed pretty heavily to the arranging. But my contribution was maybe more substantial there, so Ritchie gave me a credit.
How did you grow as a keyboardist on the tour?
It was my first tour. At this point, I’m 21. The record had come out and it was the beginning of MTV. The “Stone Cold” video was getting played constantly. It was crazy. I was so young. I was probably 10 to 15 years younger than everyone else in the band. Honestly, I just didn’t think about it much. I just kind of rolled with everything. “OK, now we gotta do this. We have rehearsals for the tour.” I learned the songs, came up with the parts, and we figured it out.
We went out and did some warm-up gigs for some smaller crowds and then we went right into playing arenas. I had never played gigs of that size before, but I’d just go up there and do what I do and I was comfortable. I’m even more comfortable playing keyboards than I am speaking sometimes. It’s just very natural and easy for me. And so I was never intimidated by large crowds. In fact, the energy of the crowd and the adrenaline that it creates is an amazing thing if you use it to your benefit.
You played Madison Square Garden. That must have been huge for you.
It was huge. My parents came to see the band, and all my friends. There was this prestige of playing the Garden. The Scorpions opened up for us, and of course they went on to become much bigger than we were in Rainbow. But it was a really, really big deal.
To this day, I count my blessings at how many times I’ve been able to play the Garden. Most people are lucky to ever get to play there once.
When “Stone Cold” became a hit, Rainbow could have become a Foreigner-type band that kept pounding out Top 40 hits. Do you think that’s what Ritchie wanted?
It really was Ritchie’s band. It always was and always would be. He kind of just directed it to go where he felt he wanted it to go and where he was at musically at the time. And, of course, Joe Lynn Turner’s writing was a big part in crafting the songs in the direction that they went in on the albums I was involved on.
How was the experience of recording Bent Out of Shape?
That was also good. At that time, I’d already done a world tour and I had an album under my belt. And I wasn’t the new guy anymore. The whole thing wasn’t new to me anymore and now I understood a lot more about who Ritchie was and what he was looking to accomplish musically. I understood what the fans were like all over the world and the differences in the audiences. I went into it having a deeper understanding of what the band was about.
Of course, that’s when [future Billy Joel drummer] Chuck Burgi came around. He wound up playing on that record. That’s the first time we worked together, in 1983.
This is a weird moment where Black Sabbath is being fronted by Ian Gillan. Did you have any sense that Rainbow was going to break up, Ian was going to leave Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple would re-form?
No. We had no idea that was going to happen. I don’t even think Ritchie knew that was going to happen at that time. And so we did the album and “Street of Dreams” was a pretty big hit. We toured the world. The last stop on that tour was in Tokyo and we played Budokan for two nights with an orchestra. I did all the orchestrations for that. And we all kind of knew it was the end of the tour, but we had no idea that there was this Deep Purple reunion brewing in the background.
We knew there was going to be a break, but a month or two after, I got a call from a manager saying that Deep Purple was going to re-form and Rainbow was over.
How did you feel?
Had it continued, I would have done another album and another tour. But by the same token, I wanted to see what was going to come next in my career. And I certainly couldn’t blame Ritchie for wanting to have Deep Purple back together. It’s one of the most legendary rock groups ever. The reunion was huge. I certainly couldn’t fault him for wanting to do that, so I was OK with that and I figured it was time to move on to what was next.
How did you wind up with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul the following year?
The following year, I met Little Steven. He was looking to do a tour for his Voice of America album and was putting a band together. I was available and he asked me to do it and I said, “Sure.”
How was the experience?
It was good. It was a different side of the business. We were playing smaller venues. It was large clubs and small theaters, so it was touring on a different level. I got to see a different side of the business, but it was a memorable experience. Dino Danelli [from the Young Rascals] was the drummer. The band was good. That was it. The tour went like six months.
I spoke to Steve a couple of years ago. He said the biggest mistake of his life was leaving the E Street Band. It cost him a fortune.
Plus, this was the peak of the E Street Band. But he had a vision and he wanted to do his thing. Bruce was really cool with that. And from what I saw from my vantage point, he really felt he needed to do this. He went on that journey. The tour did OK. It wasn’t a big tour, but I think he went back to it later.
You were with Cyndi Lauper the next year. That must have been a very different experience. How did that happen?
I had heard she was putting a new band together. The True Colors album was about to come out. They were auditioning and going to hire a brand-new band at the same time. There was a big cattle call and they were auditioning.
It was kind of strange. I went up to David Wolff, her manager at the time, and introduced myself. I said, “How are you going to audition a whole band all at once?” He said, “We don’t really know. We’re just figuring this out as we go. I guess we’ll have one of each instrument go up there and play. And whoever she likes will stay on. We’ll just keep changing the players until we find the whole band.”
I said, “OK, if that’s how it’s going to work, I insist on going first.” [Laughs] He said, “OK.” I did and Cyndi liked what I did and nobody else got to play on keyboards. Actually, I got to play with Sterling Campbell. He was very young and it was his first gig. I know you did an interview with him as well.
This was near her peak. It must have been a fun tour.
Yeah. She was huge and I got to start doing TV shows. We did Letterman a couple of times and Johnny Carson. I had never done anything like that in my life, so that was a really cool experience. And the band was great. Rick Derringer was in the band too.
We did a whole bunch of videos like “Change of Heart” and a bunch of other songs that were all big hits and on MTV constantly, so I had a bunch more videos under my belt.
It was your first pop tour. I’m sure you had to play in a very different fashion.
Totally. If I did what I was doing in Rainbow, I’d get fired in one day. It was a completely different approach. But I grew up on pop just as much as I grew up on rock, and these different styles of music are all really comfortable for me. I just listened to the records really carefully, studied what her music was about, the role that keyboards play, and did what I thought would sound right for those songs. And it worked.
Are you recreating horn parts and stuff like that?
Yeah. I was doing whatever was on the records. Her records are very keyboard heavy, so there’s a lot of keyboard parts. Some of it was really tricky because I had to play multiple parts all at once. But she liked that. That’s one of the reasons why it worked. I was covering a lot of ground playing all these parts.
As a keyboard player in general, I listen and go, “There’s a horn part here I can grab. Here’s some strings,” whatever. But her stuff was very synth heavy, so there were a lot of parts to cover.
Tell me about this Will to Power song you’re on. I’m sort of fascinated by this thing.
[Laughs] Will to Power was mostly an electronic dance act. I was down in Florida doing a lot of R&B records with a producer named Lou Pace, who passed away about five or six years ago. He was doing all thee R&B records and brought me in to do the synth programming. It was always the same group of players, but we’d always bring in different singers.
We did a record for Donna Allen, one for Stacy Lattisaw, and all these other R&B singers of the time. It was a great experience, and I started to get known in the Miami area, where Will to Power was from.
They brought me in do some programming with them. At the end of one of the sessions — an all-night session; it must have literally been 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. after going all night — Bob Rosenberg, the leader of the band, said to me, “Do you know that song ‘Baby, I Love Your Way’?” I said, “Of course, I know it. I used to cover it in all my high-school bands.” He goes, “Do you know that song ‘Freebird’?” I go, “Yeah, sure.”
He goes, “Aren’t the chord changes kind of similar?” I go, “Actually they are. They are in the same key.” He goes, “What would happen if we put those two songs together?” I thought, “I don’t know. I think maybe you’re a little over-tired. But OK.”
I start playing it and I put down a basic piano part. I just made a sketch and did a few overdubs. At 10 a.m. we’re all literally falling over after working all that time. And then I left and never thought any more about it. I thought he was just screwing around in the studio.
Fast forward and I’m on tour with Robert Palmer. One day I pick up a Billboard and that song is Number One. [Laughs] I almost fell off my chair. I was like, “What?!”
I didn’t even know it was going to go on the record. I didn’t even know he had finished it. And the song went to Number One. It was really, really a crazy story.
I was pretty little, so it was the first time I heard either of those songs. I thought it was a fully original song. It was confusing later to hear the originals.
It’s “Freebird” with no guitar, which seems to make no sense.
Crazily enough, the lyrics work together. It becomes a conversation between these two people somehow.
Agreed. It definitely worked in a strange way. That’s a perfect way to say it.
Tell me about getting the job on Robert Palmer’s Heavy Nova tour.
He was just starting out the tour and the keyboard player wasn’t working out, so I got called to come in and bail the guy out. There were no days off on that tour, ever. At one point, we did 56 gigs in a row in 56 cities.
Yeah. It was just completely insane. And I had to learn the songs real quick and just hit the ground running. This was the “Simply Irresistible” tour.
He’s a great singer who’s been unfairly reduced to two or three hits.
He was really, really talented and a great singer, great writer. He knew everything that was going on in the band behind him even though he wasn’t actually playing an instrument. He was really a great musician. It was really sad he passed away so young. But if the tour we did was any indication, he may have just worked himself to death. [Laughs.]
But it was his doing. He didn’t want any days off, ever.
That’s crazy. Most singers demand the opposite. They want to rest their voices.
I know. His philosophy was, he thought if he took a day off, he’d lose his voice.
It’s the opposite.
Exactly. It’s the opposite of all intuitive thinking and the opposite of every other singer on the planet. But that’s what he wanted to do, so that’s what we did.
He was my second concert and I was really little. My main memory is just women screaming.
Wow. [Laughs] People loved his songs. But when I think of women screaming, or young girls screaming, it takes me right to my Enrique Iglesias period where the girls screamed literally louder than we could hear ourselves play.
The Robert Palmer was kind of a cool tour, but it’s honestly all a blur. All we did was play a gig and then get on the bus. He’d also listen to the show every night on the bus. We’d fall asleep, pull into a hotel, check in, go to sleep again for a few hours in the hotel, go and do a soundcheck — he’d do one every single day — and then we’d do a show and then back on the bus, listen to the show again. We’d just repeat over and over again. We were all just zombies after a couple of weeks.
How do you find time for any sort of a personal life if you’re always on the road like this?
In that case, there was no life. You just keep going and going. And in those days, there wasn’t any email or cellphones or any of that stuff. When you were gone on the road, you were literally gone. It was pretty hard to keep in touch. You really did get pulled away from having any personal life. It was very different than it is now.
And then in 1991, you were back with Cyndi Lauper.
That was just a brief thing in Japan she did as part of the American Music Awards concert series. We did a few shows here in the U.S. as a warm-up and then went over and did that. It was a lot of the same players, so it was fun to go back and do that again.
Were you a big Billy Joel fan in your younger years?
Well, I had never seen one of his gigs until I was in his band. Obviously, I knew all the hits from the radio. But I wouldn’t say I was a fan that went to dozens of shows or anything like that. But whenever songs came on the radio, I always enjoyed them.
How did the job on the River of Dreams tour come your way?
At this point, having done a lot of other things, my name pops up in these types of circles when people are looking for a keyboard player. I was invited to a closed audition. It was just me and one other guy, and I beat him out.
Describe the job. Some people might not understand why he needs a keyboard player since he’s playing piano.
He’s the piano player and he does play a lot of the keyboard parts on his records. But pretty much he plays piano during the shows, and I play organ and synths and horn lines and string lines and a lot of the sound effects and all the other stuff that goes on around him. And sometimes we play dual pianos. And occasionally, I’m playing a piano part when he’s just singing.
I wear a lot of different hats and it changes depending on what songs we’re doing. And the role of keyboards in his band changed throughout the years, so my job is to bring to life a lot of the different styles of music as things evolved throughout his career.
Right. A song like “Pressure” requires something very different than “Captain Jack.”
Totally. It’s a totally different approach to the sounds and what needs to be done. My role is really supportive. Obviously, it’s all about supporting him as a vocalist and a pianist and doing whatever each individual song needs.
Tell me about that first tour in 1993.
That was the River of Dreams tour. The record did really well immediately out of the box, so the tour started off pretty big. We did one warmup show in Portland, Maine, and then I think the second show was Boston Garden. Everything was on 10 already.
It was a pretty amazing experience right from the get-go. I’d done a lot of arena shows with different types of artists, but there’s a magical energy about Billy’s crowd. I’d never seen people’s faces light up the way they light up when they hear his music. It’s really a special thing and very magical. The energy of his crowds and the way people respond when they hear his songs is really incredible.
I was looking at a photo of you on that first tour. You sort of have a Fabio haircut.
[Laughs] I had my Eighties rock helmet. I had just done an album with my own band, Red Dawn, which Chuck Burgi was in as well. My hair was still very long from that. It was quite different than the look of the other band members. I eventually pulled it back in a ponytail and then I just hacked it all off. I was done with it.
How was the Elton John tour of 1995 where you’re doing stadiums?
That was just an incredible experience. Both Billy and Elton are giants of radio. It was three, four hours of constant hits, one to the next. The show was all integrated together. We’d play one of Elton’s songs in our set. Elton played one of Billy’s songs in his set. The whole show started with just Billy and Elton themselves, going back and forth with one of each of their songs. And then Elton did his set, there was an intermission, and then we did our set with Billy. And then both bands played together at the end to just light the place on fire. It was just an incredible experience.
Did you grow close to Elton’s band? Did you get to know his keyboardist, Guy Babylon?
I knew Guy quite well. I had met him, but didn’t know him well before that. We became very good friends. Both bands really got along tremendously, and the crews. It all became one big family, which is an extension of how things are in Billy’s organization with Billy at the helm. It all feels like a big, extended family. We’re all very close.
I’ve interviewed Crystal Taliefero, Mark Rivera, and Mike DelGuidice. They all say Billy is the best boss they’ve ever had.
He really is. He’s very generous. He’s taken care of all of us during the pandemic, which has really, really been phenomenal. I don’t know any other artist that’s doing anything like that or even remotely close. We’re all very grateful to him. He’s just the best work for.
He takes a break in 1997 and you go out with Enrique Iglesias. Tell me about that.
Enrique was a big Billy fan and wanted as many people from Billy’s band as he could get. It was me and Crystal and Tommy [Byrnes]. Chuck Burgi was on that tour, but he wasn’t in Billy’s band yet. That was a great band. It was really interesting. It was the beginning of Enrique’s career. That was his first tour. He was still singing in Spanish. It was quite an experience. It was 95 percent screaming girls and five percent complaining boyfriends.
It’s surprising that he wanted Billy’s band. It’s such a different kind of music.
Yeah. But we played his stuff great. It was fun and a very, very different experience than anything I had done, but it was very cool.
In the late Nineties, I saw Billy do a lot of interviews where he said he was going to stop touring. Did you worry it was ending then?
He kept saying it at that time. We were joking that it was the “annual retirement tour” in those days, but he kept on coming back and we kept doing it. Audiences kept on loving it. It just kept going. The pace slowed down tremendously, but we kept going.
How was that New Year’s Eve show in 2000?
That was really magical. Again, there we were at the Garden. And there was all the hoopla about Y2K and nobody knew what was going to happen at midnight. It turned out to be nothing. But there was a big build-up to that and it was really an incredible show. We were all in a fortunate position to have turned the millennium, but to do it onstage with Billy and his fans there. It was really a memorable night.
Did you worry that at midnight the power would go out and “Miami 2017” would start happening for real?
[Laughs] We didn’t know what to think!
You program synths for other tours, like some E Street Band ones. Can you talk about that?
Synth programming has always been a big part of what I do. I’d always develop my own sounds and come up with whatever I needed for my own parts. But more and more, people were starting to ask me for help with their stuff.
One thing led to another and I wound up doing some programming for the Rising tour. I had done some other programming in the Nineties for some other bands like Dream Theater. But then I got asked to come aboard for the Rising tour and do some synth programming, and then later on the Wrecking Ball tour.
Both of his keyboard players, Roy Bittan and Charlie Giordano, had been using gear they’d been hauling around for 20, 30 years. They needed to modernize, so I was brought in to re-design both of their keyboard rigs. I did it from the ground up and set them up with computers and redundancy and everything. I helped them get their sound. It was a fun experience.
Did you go to band rehearsals?
Oh, yeah. I was there for all the rehearsals. It’s funny. Roy said to me, “Are you OK being down there and not up here playing?” I said, “I am more than OK. I’m totally fine. I get to do big shows all the time with Billy.”
I understand how a guy like Roy thinks. I understand what it’s like to be in his position up there being the guy playing. I know his thoughts and I know what he’s going to look for in terms of relying on his sounds and having a keyboard rig that’s reliable night after night. It’s the same with Charlie. And so I designed the system so it would be something that I’d be comfortable using. But I was just setting it up for someone else.
I was there all through the rehearsals and then the first couple of weeks of the tour to make sure everything was fine and working, and then they were on their way.
During the rehearsals, what exactly are you doing?
I was making sure that everything was working, and I was helping them get the sounds for the new record, which was all new stuff. When rehearsals ended, since we were porting everything into computers and sort of bringing it into the 21st century, a lot of my job was taking their old sounds and converting them so they could be played back using MainStage on the computer, which is a software host for synthesizers and things like that. And I made it all computer-based.
Bruce is very, very particular about the sounds he wants. He wants it to be absolutely, exactly what it was, so I had to completely replicate it so that when I switched over from the old analog stuff to the computer world that there was no perceivable difference in the sound.
In fact, the date I actually switched from the old system to the new system, even Roy didn’t notice. He was like, “Wow, I was playing the new system today?” I was like, “Yeah, you were.”
You did something similar for a Lady Gaga tour?
Yeah. I did some programming for her and her keyboard player. I’ve done a lot of consulting with a lot of different keyboardists and helped them put systems together for tours.
It’s sort of an art form and I guess not many people know how to set up rigs for these giant arena tours.
Yeah. And they have to be bulletproof. I always set things up with redundancy and how to switch things quickly to a backup. Computers are much more stable now than they used to be, but they are still computers and they can crash.
Besides the Paul McCartney moment, tell me your favorite memory from the Last Play at Shea.
Well, that was probably one of them. But there were so many, all the different artists that we had up as guests. It was amazing. A lot of them were artists that I grew up listening to, and there they were up there playing with Billy. We were the band. It was too many pinch-yourself moments to mention them all.
And, of course, Shea Stadium is a place where I used to go see baseball games as a kid. There was an iconic presence at the venue because the Beatles, of course, opened it. And Billy was closing it. It was magical.
What are your favorite Billy songs to play live?
That’s tough. [Laughs] I’d say that “Italian Restaurant” is probably one of the big ones. It goes through so many different changes musically and the crowd sings along and it’s exciting and it climaxes at the end of the “Brenda and Eddie” section and comes back.
It’s just a journey, that song, and really encapsulates what life is like for so many of Billy’s fans growing up. I think everybody really connects to it. I think there’s a lot of Brendas and Eddies out there in the audience. And so that one is really fun to play.
Did you play at the Obama fundraiser show in 2008 when Bruce and Billy played with their bands mashed up?
Yeah. It was about a month before Obama was elected for his first term. That was a pretty amazing experience. And to play some of Bruce’s songs with him and see Billy and Bruce sing together … It was really a magical night. And although we didn’t know it at the time, a telegraphed moment for what would come later when we did the 100th show at the Garden and Bruce came up to play.
Billy toured for a bit after Last Play at Shea, but then he got hip-replacement surgery and sort of vanished. Did you think he was done?
He said he was done, but in my heart I aways believed that he wasn’t. Of course, it was nothing more than a hunch and a hope, but I believed that he’d come back and want to come back and would miss it after a while. Sure enough, that turned out to be true.
Tell me about 12/12/12. From my vantage point, you guys were better than the Who, the Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, and even Bruce.
It was just one of those nights where the stars aligned. Everyone was at their best. Billy was on fire. He just lit the crowd up, plus we hadn’t played in several years and were like animals just let out of a cage. The adrenaline from all of us, and from Billy, of course, we feed off his energy. … The energy level we reached was so amazing.
But I thought there were a lot of bands that were amazing that night. I know a lot of people over time have singled out that performance as something magical, which I thought it was, but I thought there was a lot of amazing things that night.
That was the beginning of Billy going, “Wait a minute, maybe I’ve still got some more gas in the tank.”
What amazes me is that his body obviously ages, but his voice somehow stays basically the same.
Yeah. His voice is just amazing, and keeps getting better. He’s been singing amazingly well and his tone is richer than it’s ever been. He’s always been an amazing singer, but he’s even gotten better with age.
Learning about the MSG residency must have been shocking.
Yeah. It seemed surreal when we started it, but nobody thought it would go longer than a year, maybe two. We had no idea it would go seven years and counting when we were interrupted by the pandemic. He did say that he’d do it until demand wasn’t there anymore, and that day just hasn’t come yet.
The touring has gone bigger. You fill baseball stadiums in markets now where you used to do arenas. It’s somehow growing.
That’s right. We’re at a much slower pace. We only do two or three shows a month. It’s a pace that’s really working for Billy and keeping his voice fresh, hitting the stage fresh every time. By the time it’s time to do a show again, we’re all dying to get back up there and adrenaline goes into overdrive and we hit the stage with all this pent-up energy coming out. It’s a lot of fun.
I have to add that it’s a really unique group of musicians that can hit the stage literally cold. We do a soundcheck and then we go. We don’t rehearse. The group of musicians is really off the charts. There’s so much talent. And it starts with Billy and trickles down from there.
How is the set list made?
Steve Cohen, the lightning designer and production designer, usually submits the first draft of what he thinks might work. And then Billy takes a look at it in soundcheck. Sometimes we put our two cents in. Sometimes he says, “I’m not in the mood to do this song.”
If he’s not feeling a song on a certain day, he won’t do it. I think that’s really cool because the songs he does do, he’s feeling them that night, and it makes a big difference. Fortunately, his catalog is big enough that he can afford to throw away a bunch of big hits and still have tons more than he can lean into.
And so Billy will edit it and it gets whittled down to what eventually becomes the set list, but even then when we hit the stage, anything can happen. There’s always a lot of spontaneity in the show and that’s what makes it so fun.
Do you ever talk about doing The Stranger straight through, or something like that?
That was talked about in the early days of this run, but we ended up not going that route. There were some shows where we focused more on one album or another, but it works best to touch on all the records so that everybody can hear the songs they love. We also go deep with the album cuts. It’s not all hits that we do. I don’t think any two shows ever had the same set list.
Are there certain rare songs — like “James,” or something — that you hope to play one day?
That one we haven’t done yet, but we’ve hit some really rare gems and we’ve even done stuff with Billy at the Garden that he never did back when they were current. It’s a lot of fun to work those up. Sometimes they live for a show or two, and sometimes more, and everyone once in a while we uncover a gem that we let slip through the cracks for a while and it becomes a mainstay of the set for a while. It’s a very organic thing and it keeps on changing.
And, of course, Billy is always playing different cover songs and throwing stuff in there. We’re always doing things that are not planned. When I say “spontaneous,” it’s the true definition of the word. It’s really spontaneous. We just kind of go for it. I think the crowd really picks up on the fact that we’re really up there and we’re really playing. Sometimes we make mistakes, but that’s part of the energy of just going for it as a band. It’s a whole lot of fun.
It’s always fun to hear “Blonde Over Blue” or “Running on Ice” and songs I never thought I’d hear live.
Yeah. I never thought we’d play them live, but there we were doing it. I think it’s really good for people that come to a lot of shows. Every once in a while, they’re going to get a special gem that they never thought they’d hear.
my little mans did so good
In the past few weeks alone, “Zanzibar” became a TikTok dance craze, The Boys on Amazon Prime used a ton of Billy Joel songs, and the new Olivia Rodrigo song “Deja Vu” has a whole verse about listening to “Uptown Girl.” It seems like teenagers are suddenly embracing Billy, seemingly out of nowhere.
It’s true. When “Zanzibar” became a TikTok sensation, everyone felt like they were discovering the song. But the song has been there a long time. It’s a great song, but it’s fascinating to watch a whole new generation of people discover it.
His touring gave you a lot of downtime. What filled out the rest of your time in recent years?
I’m always doing something. One of my fun side projects that I’ve been doing is correcting all of Billy’s sheet music, which has been horribly wrong for years. “Piano Man” was missing measures and there were wrong notes and parts of songs that weren’t even there. The average person would buy his sheet music and try to play it and go, “That doesn’t sound right, but I guess I suck.” Well, no, actually the music is wrong.
Enough of those stories got back to Billy and he asked me to go through the whole catalog and take my time with it, but to make sure everything he’s ever written is accurate in print. I’ve done eight albums already and I’m working my way through the whole catalog. That turned out to be a good project to do during the pandemic because it’s a project I do by myself anyway.
Do you know every single note now from every album?
I do. I don’t have them all memorized. But I’ve been documenting it all. Even before that project, I’m obviously very familiar with all the intricacies of everything that he’s done. It’s part of my job as musical director. But it’s been a very cool project.
Aside from that, I do a lot of recording projects here at my studio. I did a progressive-rock album with a band called Happy the Man, which was really cool. That was a band that was one of my favorite bands of all time. I used to listen to them all the time when I was at Berklee. I was very influenced by them. Kit Watkins was a big influence on me as a keyboard player. I transcribed a lot of his stuff.
And when the band wanted to do a reunion album, and Kit didn’t want to do it, I was like, “I’ll do it! I would love to play with you guys.” And so I wound up making a record with one of my favorite bands. That was really cool.
Are you in regular contact with Billy still?
Yeah. We keep in touch. It’s sometimes on the phone and a lot through email. He’s doing good and he’s anxious to come back, as we all are, when it’s safe to do so. With these big concerts we have, it’s tough. We have six stadium shows that are completely sold out that we’re waiting to do and six Garden shows that were completely sold out that we’re waiting to do.
These shows were sold before the pandemic and there’s no social distancing, so we have to wait until we can do them as normal shows, which we all hope will be sometime this year.
The dream of so many musicians is a steady gig, and it’s so rare. You have one of the few.
Yes. We really do. I never take that for granted. I always try to be cognitive of the fact that you never know when all of this is going to end. I think this pandemic was a reminder of how fragile anything can be at any point in time. I think that’s why we’re going to all appreciate it so much when it comes back, and not just us as performers, but the crowd and, of course, the crew and everyone from top to bottom.
How do you think you’ll feel at the first show back at MSG when the lights go out and the theme to The Natural starts playing?
I think the energy is going to be off the charts, not only from the band and Billy, because we’re going to be so excited to be back, but I think the crowd is just going to be so euphoric to be at a big concert again and return to the good old days when we were able to do that all the time without thinking about it. And I think everybody is going to appreciate it that much more.
There’s always a special moment in the show when the whole crowd sings along with “Piano Man.” I always get chills from that. But when they get to the line, “He knows that it’s me they’ve been coming to see to forget about life for a while,” the crowd just erupts. I’m getting chills now just telling you about this, just thinking about that.
That’s what Billy’s concerts are all about. Everyone there just forgets about life for a while and has a good time. We’re all so looking forward to coming back and doing that again.