“That was the one that made me the superstar I am,” singer-pianist Billy Joel announced after playing the bright and frantic “Everybody Loves You Now” from his 1971 solo debut, Cold Spring Harbor, a few months after its release during a live radio concert on Philadelphia’s WMMR. That crack was a joke on himself. Joel, then 22, was promoting a non-charting album that had been mastered at the wrong speed, making him sound like he had the voice of a cartoon squirrel, and was part of a production deal closer to indentured servitude.
But Joel’s performance with his touring band before a small invited audience at Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios on April 15th, 1972 – which I heard as it originally went over the air that night – immediately made Joel a superstar in my town. Songs from that hour-long simulcast went into WMMR’s high rotation, most notably an unrecorded epic dissection of teenage suburban exile: getting high, going nowhere and, in one boldly unbleeped line, jerking off. “Captain Jack” would be the big-finish track on Joel’s next record and first for Columbia, 1973’s Piano Man. But the early radio take was better: a hard rain of piano triplets in the chorus, Joel belting that ennui like he was desperate to bust out of his own private prisons.
A Portrait of the Artist on the Verge
After years as a bootleg, on off-the-air cassettes and CDs often coated in static, the entire WMMR gig is officially out, in knockout fidelity, as the second disc in a new reissue of Piano Man (Columbia/Legacy). It is a rare example of the bonus material eclipsing the original classic. That is partly due to the latter’s familiarity. Piano Man was a Top-30 LP, ultimately selling over four million copies, and the title track – Joel’s recall of his days living on tip-jar change as a lounge singer – was a Top-30 single, a deft and polished balance of self-mocking and rolling-ivory sentimentality.
But the 1972 radio concert caught Joel months away from signing to Columbia, in a giddy, fighting mood at the piano and his microphone. The former teenage boxer was punching his way out of the mess of his career to date, rescuing the country-flavored “Turn Around” and the ballad “She’s Got a Way” from the ruin of that first album and previewing his future in Piano Man‘s “Travelin’ Prayer” and the Long Island-outlaw story, “The Ballad of Billy the Kid.” There is a soft moving song for his mother, “Rosalinda” – an early glimpse of the gentle touch in “Just the Way You Are” – and hot flashes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino in “Josephine.”
The Way It Was
You also get an extended taste of a long-gone freedom in FM rock radio, when a turn of the dial felt like tuning in with friends and fellow travellers. Joel coughs loudly, slurps beer, talks to the listeners driving in their cars and makes more fun of himself. At one point, he claims he’s making a live album of his greatest hits, Songs You Love By Billy Joel – “Volume One,” he notes, cackling. (He’d release a few of those later.) There would be less room for that intimacy and warm clowning in Joel’s shows as he worked his way up to college gyms, theaters and, in 1974, New York’s Carnegie Hall.
That kind of tight connection would eventually disappear from commercial rock radio almost everywhere. “Captain Jack” wouldn’t make it out of a Clear Channel station library today, if it’s still there at all. A guy in anything like Joel’s shoes in 1972 wouldn’t even get near one of their mikes. There are pockets of resistance in some markets – treasure it if you have one – and options left of the dial, on Sirius XM (certain channels, particular hours) and on the internet. But the release of Joel’s WMMR concert is a delightful – and sobering – reminder of a time when someone new, with something special, could literally come to you like this: out of thin air.