While I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, I didn’t listen to the radio much until the mid- to late-’80s as I’d been raised on a variety of folk, Broadway, and jazz at my house. So even though Billy Joel’s career started to take off in 1973 with Piano Man, somehow I managed to avoid hearing much of his music until I saw his video for “Tell Her About It” in ’83 or ’84. I still didn’t dive into his back catalog in earnest, however, until 1989 upon the release of Storm Front.
By the time I saw Billy live at McNichols Arena in Denver in 1990 or 1991, I was a rabid fan of his Greatest Hits Volume I and II album, The Stranger, and An Innocent Man. In the years that followed, though, I never went back to some of his earliest albums, like Piano Man.
Thankfully the recent release of Piano Man (Legacy Edition), the 30-year anniversary of Billy’s debut album on Columbia Records, features the original 10 songs, remastered, as well as a second disc featuring his performance at the Sigma Sound Studio in Philadelphia from the year before.
It was that performance in Philly that really started opening doors. Apparently WMMR, one of Philly’s top-rated radio stations, had been playing a recording of “Captain Jack” from that live show and their listeners were going crazy. The attention soon led to major-label interest and eventually a contract with Columbia.
Reflecting on Piano Man Billy has recently said, “I never sat down and said ‘I’m gonna write a hit record.’ I wouldn’t know a hit record if it bit me. I just wrote songs. I wrote them for me, I wrote them for the band, or I wrote a song for the women in my life. I was just writing songs for me. It’s music that I wanted to hear. If I didn’t hear certain kind of music on the radio, I realized, Well, if I write and record this it’ll probably be on the radio and that’s what I’ll hear. That’s what I was thinking. Not so much about having hits, but about making music that I liked. I only really ever did it for me. That may sound selfish, but I’m the only person that I really know all that well.”
The Legacy Edition includes two CDs with rich, clean, and crisp remastered sound. The album proper was remastered from the original recordings. And the Sigma Sound performance was re-mixed from the original studio recording and features three songs which don’t appear on any of his albums — “Long, Long Time,” “Josephine,” and “Rosalinda” — as well as that door-opening performance of “Captain Jack.”
Of all the songs on Piano Man, the album’s title track is still my favorite and it sounds great even after 30 years. Billy manages to capture his passionate performance and storytelling style in this classic about a regular crowd shuffling into a bar, from the old man to the real estate novelist. It’s believable without being over the top. Besides, who wouldn’t love to have Billy Joel playing piano at whatever bar they might happen into?
“Captain Jack,” his anthem to self-destruction, is timeless. Joel himself has had several bouts with depression and alcohol abuse over the years, so the song’s message of using booze “to get you by tonight / just a little push, you’ll be smiling” seems just a bit autobiographical. The rock guitar behind Joel’s piano melodies really makes this song take on a life of its own, vacillating between slower, reflective moments and ones of full anthemic sound.
Between the songs like “The Ballad of Billy The Kid” and “Stop In Nevada” and the live performance CD, I consider this an important addition to my music collection. Plus after seeing Billy live on the Storm Front tour — at a time when he’d already amassed 20 years of recording and touring experience — it’s a treat to behold the purity of this early live performance from 1972.
If you are a fan, young or old, of Billy Joel’s music, Piano Man (Legacy Edition) is a must-have for your collection.