The Piano Man: Billy Joel

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia

Born William Martin Joel on May 9, 1949, in the Bronx, New York, Billy Joel went on to become one of the most commercially successful soft rock solo artists of the 1970s and 80s. Dabbling in everything from rhythm and blues groups to rock and roll and soft rock, Billy Joel created a career for himself that spanned decades and continues to influence musicians not only for his sound but his killer style as well.

From "Just the Way You Are" to "We Didn't Start the Fire," Billy Joel's often critically declaimed music gave voice to a generation of wayward rockers, overcoming financial and public controversies to carry out a successful career.

Billy Joel's Early Musical Years

Even in a business known for precociousness, Billy Joel got an early rock and roll start as teenage lead singer for the Echoes and the Hassles, two local bands that dabbled in R&B and blue-eyed soul. When the latter group disbanded in 1969, Joel and former bandmate Jon Small decided on a bold, deeply misguided direction for their next project, Attila.

The duo released a self-titled album in 1970, an attempt at hard rock with just organ and drums. The record was an immediate and unequivocal flop, and after the group imploded the same year Joel spent some time in a mental hospital for treatment of severe depression.

Slow-Building Solo Career

Ever the bounce-back artist, Joel later relocated to Los Angeles, where he spent time playing lounge piano under the name Bill Martin — an experience that inspired the title track from his 1973 debut Columbia release "Piano Man." Still, Joel didn't enjoy his first Top 10 pop hit until 1978 with "Just the Way You Are."

Before that — over the course of four albums leading up to 1978's smash "52nd Street" — Joel received little acclaim for his piano-driven story songs and ballads. Critical success still eluded Joel even after the hits broke through in a flood, but there must have been some consolation in stardom.

Despite the intensity of his late-1970s MOR pop and soft rock success, Joel was far from comfortable with his underwhelming critical status and wished to shake things up with his 1980 release "Glass Houses." This harder-rocking collection of tunes is widely perceived as Joel's response to punk rock and new wave.

As his second consecutive No. 1 album, the record proved Joel had become a major star, but only with 1982's "The Nylon Curtain" did he receive some much-coveted critical approval, and good fortune continued for Joel into 1983 with the release of oldies homage "An Innocent Man."

Royalty and Prosperity

Following the release of a well-received greatest hits compilation, it may have appeared that Joel had grown a bit too comfortable with his success. After all, he waited three years to release a follow-up to "An Innocent Man," and though 1986's "The Bridge" performed more than respectably well, its lack of major hit singles could have signaled an impending decline for the singer.

In addition, Joel had met and become romantically involved with supermodel Christie Brinkley, a rather head-scratching development to many onlookers. The couple married in 1985 — life was good for Billy Joel in the mid-'80s. But once again, when faced with the possibility of stagnation, Joel responded with a very bold move to keep his career fresh.

In 1987, the singer embarked upon a major tour of the Soviet Union, a decision that helped demonstrate his continuing status as a star but at the same time functioned as yet another less than subtle appeal for relevance and respect.

If nothing else, the Soviet tour offered Joel some different themes for his next album, which he began to conceive amidst lawsuits surrounding the firing of his longtime manager.

From "Storm Front" to "Retirement"

In 1989, Joel emerged from financial controversies with a rather bombastic album, "Storm Front," that drew from both his Soviet experience and his newfound domestic contentment as a husband and father.

While "We Didn't Start the Fire" became a huge, ubiquitous hit in the fall of that year, its frenetic history lesson never seemed very dazzling to me — even so, the album's success sustained a long-term world tour that stretched into 1991. Since then, Joel's musical output has been quite limited, as 1993's "River of Dreams" still stands as his last real pop/rock album.

Following "River of Dreams," Joel voluntarily retired from active status as a pop/rock artist.

Even so, the singer has continued to find considerable success on the oldies circuit, playing his classics for audiences young and old. But it does often seem that his greatest fear — becoming not only disrespected but ignored as a serious rock artist — has long been a reality at this point.

But who knows? Maybe Joel has another trick up his sleeve for the 21st century to hit the pop charts once again.