William Martin Joel was born on 9 May 1949 in the Bronx, New York. Growing up in the Levittown area of Hicksville, smack in the middle of Long Island, he fought as a welterweight boxer and was only 16 years old when he played the piano on The Shangri-Las‘ 1964 hits, Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand) and Leader of the Pack.
He next recorded a pretzel commercial with Chubby Checker, but by 1970 he was playing distorted organ in a heavy metal duo called Attila. He and his musical partner, Jon Small, released one truly awful album, Hour Of The Wolf – featuring a cover photo depicting the pair dressed as barbarians – which was unsuccessful.
In 1971 he played piano at LA’s Executive Room under the name ‘Bill Martin’, which eventually provided the inspiration for the song Piano Man.
Joel became depressed and spent some time in a mental hospital after trying to commit suicide by drinking a bottle of Pledge furniture polish. “It had the skull and crossbones on it, so I thought that might do it. All I ended up doing was farting furniture polish”.
Following successful psychiatric help, Joel released his first solo record in 1973, Cole Spring Harbor, followed by Piano Man, which received critical acclaim.
In 1977 Joel’s album, The Stranger, was a huge success and went platinum, selling more than seven million copies, with the song, Just the Way You Are, winning a Grammy.
This success paved the way for the next five years, as Joel continued to sell millions and win awards.
The crowning glory of this breakthrough album was arguably Scenes From An Italian Restaurant – a complex, flawless and obsessively detailed three-part saga about nostalgia, dashed expectations, Long Island, and Long Island accents, reminiscent of early Springsteen.
The Irving Berlin of suburbia packed an entire Broadway musical into seven and a half minutes as he told the story of Brenda and Eddie, popular kids who marry young, then flameout and divorce.
The album also prompted Joel’s biggest tour to date, playing 54 shows in the US and Europe in the Autumn of 1977.
His success was interrupted in 1982 when Joel separated from his wife, Elizabeth Weber, whom he had married in 1973, and he also broke his wrist in an accident. Perhaps due to these difficulties, his next album, The Nylon Curtain, did not do as well as his earlier hits.
But by 1985, Joel was back on form. His album, An Innocent Man, was a great success, and he had re-married – this time to model Christie Brinkley (they would later divorce).
1989 brought new non-musical troubles for Joel, and a court case ensued between Joel and his former manager and brother-in-law, Frank Weber. Joel was accusing Frank of fraud and stealing $90 million from him.
The case was settled in 1991, with Joel awarded $2 million.
Despite these problems, Joel’s musical success continued, and in 1991 he was awarded the Grammy Living Legend award. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in March 1999.
In recent years his classic songs have provided the musical accompaniment to the successful Broadway musical, Movin’ Out.