With 13 studio albums, six Grammys and a string of hits, there’s no doubt Billy Joel has made his mark on several generations of pop culture – and what better person to kick off Access Hollywood’s very own Shaun Robinson’s “Living Legends” series than with the Piano Man, himself.
“Complete this sentence: The first time I heard my song played on the radio, I…?” Shaun asked Billy.
“Almost drove off the road – which shouldn’t surprise anybody because, you know, I’m not the world’s greatest driver,” he joked. “I was driving down the street, I heard the song on the radio, and I pulled over to the side of the road and rolled down the windows and I was yelling my head off to passing drivers, ‘Hey! Hey! That’s me! I’m on the radio!’ and my arms were waving around, I got out of the car and I jumped up and down, then I got back in the car and drove off and I said, ‘That was cool.’”
The song was “Piano Man” and the year was 1973 – it was Billy’s first big radio hit, from the album of the same name – and you may be surprised by just how well the singer/songwriter knows the tune’s subject matter.
“Do you really know John, Paul and Davey?” Shaun asked, referencing the names of the men he mentions in the song, which he wrote while he played at a Los Angeles piano bar in 1972 – a gig which eventually landed him the moniker “The Piano Man.”
“Yeah. John was the bartender. Paul was this real estate guy who wanted to write the great American novel and Davey was a guy who was in the Navy,” Billy revealed. “It’s a true story and I knew when I was doing the gig, I said, ‘I gotta get a song out of this’ and it worked out.
“Even the girl in the song, that says ‘And the waitress is practicing politics, as the businessmen slowly get stoned’ – that was my first wife,” Billy said. “She was working there too, as a waitress.”
Long before Christie Brinkley, Billy was married to Elizabeth Weber for nine years. She also managed the musician for five years, during which time he had many of his biggest hits, before they divorced in 1982.
Forty years since bursting onto the music scene, Billy remains the epitome of legendary cool – and it’s his personal life which has had a profound influence on some of his most well known work.
“Surprisingly, you wrote ‘New York State of Mind,’ another one of your signature songs, while you were living in Los Angeles also. What was the impetus for that song?” Shaun asked.
“I actually wrote that on the bus. I was going to move back to New York. And as I’m on the Greyhound bus, I’m writing this song,” Billy explained. “I got to the house and my wife was there. I said, ‘Do we have a piano?’ She says, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Excuse me,’ gave her a hug and a kiss, ran upstairs and wrote the song in about 15 minutes.
“Yeah, I love when that happens,” he added.
“How often does that happen?” Shaun followed up.
“Not often enough,” Billy smiled.
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