Billy Joel

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    Kennedy Center Honors Highlights 2013



Biography

(Pianist, singer, and songwriter; born May 9, 1949 in New York, New York)

"In the Seventies and Eighties, Billy Joel was rivaled only by Elton John as a piano-pounding hit machine," declared Rolling Stone in its biography of the Piano Man. "Joel has tried his hand at rock & roll, new wave, hard-edged dance fare, 1960s nostalgia, and political statements. The through line in his music is a melodicism derived from Tin Pan Alley and the Beatles. He's a bard of everyday suburban dream and disappointment, and his forte is the romantic ballad." A six-time Grammy Award winner and 23-time nominee, Billy Joel is one of the world's best-selling artists of all time, having sold more than 150 million records worldwide. Beloved from Long Island to Leningrad, Allentown to Amsterdam, he's been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

As American as blue jeans and baseball, Billy Joel played the first rock concert at Yankee Stadium and the final concert at Shea Stadium. His music is the soundtrack to the scenes of our lives and our memories, and his songs have been covered by the likes of Barry White, Barbra Streisand, the Beastie Boys and even The Simpsons. Joel has contributed extensively to philanthropic causes, including Farm Aid I, USA for Africa's "We Are the World," UNICEF, Elton John AIDS Foundation and his own Charity Begins at Home. "I think music in itself is healing," Joel has said. "It's an explosive expression of humanity. It's something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we're from, everyone loves music." Joel has appeared with Tony Bennett in support of Bennett's Exploring the Arts Program that supports schools in New York and Los Angeles. "He happens to be an excellent musicologist," Bennett, a 2005 Kennedy Center Honoree, told Access Hollywood. "He's a very good teacher of music."

William Martin Joel was born on May 9, 1949 in the Bronx, New York. His family moved to the Levittown section of Hicksville on Long Island where he grew up. Joel's father, an accomplished classical pianist, left the family when Joel was eight and his mother struggled to support him and his sister Judith. In 1953 he began studying piano and was teased in school for his interest in music. He took up boxing as a teenager until he broke his nose.

During high school, Joel played at a piano bar to help his mother make ends meet, which affected his attendance and he didn't have enough credits to graduate. Rather than attend summer school, he chose to begin a career in music. "I told them, 'To hell with it. If I'm not going to Columbia University, I'm going to Columbia Records, and you don't need a high school diploma over there.'"

That dream was made into reality when recording executive Clive Davis signed Joel to Columbia Records in 1973. "Piano Man," the title track of Joel's debut album was inspired by real-life experiences during a six-month gig at The Executive Room on Wilshire Boulevard. The song became his first top 20 single, first gold album and the final song of nearly all his concerts. Following Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles, his 1977 breakthrough album, The Stranger, became Columbia Records' biggest selling album from the time of its release until 1985. The album's single "Just the Way You Are" captured two Grammy Awards in 1978. The decade ended with 52nd Street, his first No. 1 album featuring hits "Big Shot," "Honesty," and "My Life." The album was the first-ever to be released on CD in Japan in 1982.

The 1980s brought more fame and hit albums: Glass Houses with "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," The Nylon Curtain with "Allentown" and "Goodnight Saigon," and An Innocent Man with six top 40 singles including "Uptown Girl." The Bridge included a collaboration with his friend Ray Charles who inspired the name of his daughter Alexa Ray Joel. When inducting Joel into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Charles said, "If you think about a man who has maybe 37, 38 huge hits, 13 of 'em went in the top 10, three of 'em were Number One, that gives you what they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating." Storm Front featured "We Didn't Start the Fire," which reached No. 1 on Billboard singles charts, and "Shameless" which later became a hit for Garth Brooks. In 1987 Joel made history by giving the first live rock radio broadcast in Soviet history. His hit single of The Beatles' "Back in the U.S.S.R." was included on a live album from the tour.

River of Dreams debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Album Chart in 1993 and featured the hit title single that debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 Chart. Joel began touring extensively in 1994 with Elton John on a series of "Face to Face" tours, making them the longest-running and most-successful concert tandem in pop music history. "To play with another piano player of Billy's caliber and to play with another musician, a songwriter, who's written those songs--you don't get a better deal than that," said Elton John, a 2004 Kennedy Center Honoree, to VH1 in 1998.

That same year, Joel announced he was concentrating on composing classical music, resulting in 2001's Fantasies & Delusions. Segments were included in 2002's hit Broadway musical Movin' Out, a collaboration with choreographer Twyla Tharp that earned Joel a Tony Award for Best Orchestrations. "Billy was clearly the best choice because he's such a good storyteller," Twyla Tharp, a 2008 Kennedy Center Honoree, told the New York Times. "There is rage in his music and guts in his songs. I've always known that his music dances."

Billy Joel is as synonymous with New York as Bruce Springsteen is with New Jersey. An Every Man, an educator, an entertainer, a melody maker, he will forever be the Piano Man. Created from his experiences and the life he saw around him, Joel's music is a unifying force. From the boxing ring to Broadway, we're all in the mood for a melody, and he's got us feeling alright.
Billy Joel