It took Billy Joel a long time to become famous. The Long Island native began playing in local bands when he was just 14 years old in 1964, but he didn’t have an opportunity to record a solo album until 1971’s Cold Spring Harbor. An error in the mastering process sped the songs up on the finished LP and caused Joel’s voice to sound ridiculously high. When Joel first heard the album he ripped it off his record player, ran outside and hurled it down the street.
Needless to say, the album wasn’t a hit, and he decided to pack up and move to Los Angeles. To pay the bills he did a six-month stint at the Executive Room piano bar under the name Bill Martin. His brief time there has been much mythologized, since it inspired his breakthrough hit “Piano Man.” The song – which was inspired by the real-life characters he met at the bar – became the title track of his 1973 Columbia debut, and the single hit Number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100. Check out this video of Joel playing the song on the BBC in 1975.
For a while after the release of “Piano Man” Billy Joel seemed like he was going to go down in history as a one-hit wonder. His follow-up LP, Streetlife Serenade, didn’t connect with a large audience, and the one after that, Turnstiles, did even worse. By the summer of 1977 it seemed like Joel was through. Knowing his back was to the wall, he holed up in New York recording studio and poured everything he had into his work on The Stranger. It would change his life forever.