1970s: Cold Spring Harbor to 52nd Street

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Posted on Fri, 10/31/2014 - 10:52am
by John MacMillan

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Joel signed a contract with the record company Family Productions (owned by Artie Ripp), with which he recorded his first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor (a reference to Cold Spring Harbor, New York, a town on Long Island). Released in 1971, the album was a technical and commercial disappointment.

The popular songs "She's Got a Way" and "Everybody Loves You Now" were originally released on this album but went largely unnoticed until being released as live performances on Songs in the Attic (1981). They have since become popular in concert. Columbia released a remastered version of Cold Spring Harbor in 1984, which reached #158 in the US and No. 95 in the UK.

While performing locally in New York City in the fall of 1971, the Philadelphia radio station WMMR-FM began playing a concert recording of "Captain Jack", which became an underground hit on the East Coast. Herb Gordon, a Columbia Records executive, heard Joel's music and introduced him to the company. Joel signed a recording contract with Columbia in 1972 and moved to Los Angeles, where he lived for three years (time that he now regrets). For six months he worked at The Executive Room piano bar on Wilshire Boulevard as "Bill Martin," composing his signature hit "Piano Man" about the bar's patrons. That year Joel toured with his band (Rhys Clark on drums, Al Hertzberg on guitar, and Larry Russell on bass) throughout the United States and Puerto Rico, opening for groups such as J. Geils Band, The Beach Boys, and Taj Mahal. Joel's performance at the Puerto Rican Mar Y Sol Pop Festival was especially well-received: interest in his music grew.

1973–1976: Early Columbia Years

Despite Joel's new contract, he was still legally bound to Family Productions. Ripp sold Joel's first contract to Columbia on the conditions that the Family Productions logo be displayed alongside the Columbia logo on Joel's next ten albums and that Ripp be paid a royalty on every record sold. Walter Yetnikoff, the president of CBS/Columbia Records at the time, bought back the rights to Joel's songs in the late 1970s, giving the rights to Joel as a birthday gift. Yetnikoff notes in the documentary film The Last Play at Shea that he had to threaten Ripp to close the deal.

Joel's first album with Columbia was Piano Man, released in 1973. Despite modest sales, Piano Man's title track became his signature song, ending nearly every concert. That year Joel's touring band changed. Guitarist Al Hertzberg was replaced by Don Evans, and bassist Larry Russell by Patrick McDonald, himself replaced in late 1974 by Doug Stegmeyer, who would stay with Joel until 1989. Rhys Clark returned as drummer and Tom Whitehorse as banjoist and pedal steel player; Johnny Almond joined as saxophonist and keyboardist. The band toured the US and Canada extensively, appearing on popular music shows. Joel's songwriting began attracting more attention; in 1974 Helen Reddy recorded "You're My Home" (Piano Man).

Joel recorded a second album in Los Angeles: Streetlife Serenade. His manager was Jon Troy, an old friend from the New York neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Troy would soon be replaced by Joel's wife Elizabeth. Streetlife Serenade contains references to suburbia and the inner city. It is perhaps best known for "The Entertainer", a No. 34 hit in the United States. Upset that "Piano Man" had been significantly cut for radio play, Joel wrote "The Entertainer" as a sarcastic response: "If you're gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit, so they cut it down to 3:05." Although Streetlife Serenade is often considered one of Joel's weaker albums (Joel dislikes it himself), it contains the notable songs "Los Angelenos" and "Root Beer Rag", an instrumental that was a staple of his live set in the 1970s.

In late 1975, he played piano and organ on several tracks on Bo Diddley's The 20th Anniversary of Rock 'n' Roll all-star album.

Disenchanted with L.A., Joel returned to New York in 1976 and recorded Turnstiles, the first album he recorded with the group of hand-picked musicians who became the Billy Joel Band. Produced by James William Guercio (then Chicago's producer), Turnstiles was first recorded at Caribou Ranch with members of Elton John's band. Dissatisfied with the result, Joel re-recorded the songs and produced the album himself.

"Say Goodbye to Hollywood" was a minor hit; Ronnie Spector recorded a cover as did Nigel Olsson, then drummer with Elton John. (In a 2008 radio interview, Joel said that he no longer performs the song because singing it in its high original key "shreds" his vocal cords; however, he did finally play it live for the first time since 1982 when he sang it at the Hollywood Bowl in May 2014.) Though never released as a single, "New York State of Mind" became one of Joel's best-known songs; Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett have each recorded covers (Bennet's a duet with Joel on Playing with My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues). Other notable songs from the album include "Summer, Highland Falls", "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)", "Say Goodbye to Hollywood", (a live version of which became a Top 40 hit), and "Prelude/Angry Young Man", a concert mainstay.

The Stranger and 52nd Street

Columbia Records introduced Joel to Phil Ramone, who would produce all of Joel's studio albums from The Stranger (1977) to The Bridge (1986). The Stranger was an enormous commercial success, yielding four Top-25 hits on the Billboard charts: "Just the Way You Are" (#3), "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" (#17), "Only the Good Die Young" (#24), and "She's Always a Woman" (#17). Joel's first Top Ten album, The Stranger was certified multi-platinum and reached number two on the charts, outselling Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water, Columbia's previous best-selling album. The Stranger also featured "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant", an album-oriented rock classic, which has become one of his best-known songs.

The Stranger won Grammy awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year ("Just the Way You Are"—written for Joel's first wife, Elizabeth Weber). On tour in Paris, Joel learned the news late at night in his hotel room. Rolling Stone ranked The Stranger the 70th greatest album of all time.

Expectations were high for Joel's next album, 52nd Street, which he released in 1978, naming it after Manhattan's famous 52nd Street, which, at the time of its release, served as the world headquarters of CBS/Columbia. The album sold over seven million copies, propelled to number one on the charts by the following hits: "My Life"(#3), recorded in the disco genre; followed successes from the album were "Big Shot" (#14), and "Honesty" (#24). "My Life" became the theme song for a new television sitcom, Bosom Buddies, which featured actor Tom Hanks in one of his earliest roles. 52nd Street won Grammy awards for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male and Album of the Year. It was the first album to be released on compact disc, going on sale alongside Sony's CD player CDP-101 on October 1, 1982.

In 1979, Joel also traveled to Havana, Cuba, to participate in the historic Havana Jam festival that took place between March 2–4, alongside Rita Coolidge, Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Stills, the CBS Jazz All-Stars, the Trio of Doom, Fania All-Stars, Billy Swan, Bonnie Bramlett, Mike Finnegan, Weather Report, and an array of Cuban artists such as Irakere, Pacho Alonso, Tata Güines and Orquesta Aragón. His performance is captured in Ernesto Juan Castellanos's documentary Havana Jam '79.



Billy Joel - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia : taken from - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Joel