On February 18, 1978, Billy Joel skipped his high school graduating class’s ten-year reunion in order to play a gig, an important gig. That night, Billy Joel became the Billy Joel that we all know and love to this day. For on that night, Billy Joel was booked to perform as the musical guest on a cutting-edge TV show in its third and most watched season. The show was Saturday Night Live, and the host was the former cast member to transcend the show and became a Hollywood star, Chevy Chase. Since the night marked Chase’s return to the show, the viewers were tuning into this episode like few before it. The anticipation was high for the guest host alone. But, Billy Joel came on the show and just nailed his two songs, “Just the Way You Are” and “Only the Good Die Young”. And, so strong was the performance that Joel’s then-current album became the first album to receive what is now known as “The SNL Bump”. Joel’s album, which had be on a slow sinking down the charts, picked up huge sales in the weeks following, causing The Stranger to take off again. And, the result was the album produced two more hit singles, and Billy Joel’s career was jump-started by that one performance. That performance showed the entertainment industry just how powerful the SNL brand had become, and Joel opened the door for more name artists to accept invitations to perform on the variety show.
Today, Billy Joel is revered in the United States as musical icon and is often referred to as America’s Elton John, which is unfair to both artists. But, I do understand the comparison. Both play the piano, though they attack the instrument from two different directions. Where Sir Elton attacks his piano like a campy Little Richard, Joel uses a stately Ray Charles grace channeled through a Broadway-influenced anthems, that their sounds are unique to each artist. And, where Elton can seem larger than life, Billy Joel comes off as an approachable everyman. And, neither of these images help to decipher either man. Let’s just simply agree that both are two of the greatest performers of our lifetimes.
Now, when MTV took over the world, one would have thought that Elton would have made the better video star of the two, mainly due to his flamboyance. Unfortunately for Elton, his alcohol problems were sapping his super powers, so Elton instead floundered during the Eighties. That is until he met fellow-Hoosier Ryan White, who was in the news at the time for everyone’s stupid reactions to people with AIDS. After befriending Ryan, Elton cleaned up.
On the other hand, Billy Joel was creating exciting videos that sold his seemingly non-threatening onscreen personality. Watching him awkwardly hitting on his future wife Christie Brinkley (who should have been swimming or running, not choreographed dancing) in his video for “Uptown Girl”. And, you could tell from how Joel’s voice popped out from your stereo that he was tough, relentless. He sang like the boxer that he had trained to become back in his teens.
As of this writing, I have yet to see Billy Joel in concert. He has long been on my Bucket List, but only if I can find some reasonably priced tickets. Otherwise, I play crowd noise on one stereo and Billy on mine. That’ll make seem like I was there! Or not!
Instead, may I present to you, my loyal reader(s), My 40 Favorite Billy Joel Songs. “Let’s rock ‘n’ roll!”
- “The Stranger” (The Stranger, 1977)
- “Sometimes a Fantasy” (Glass Houses, 1980)
- “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (Glass Houses, 1980)
- “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” (An Innocent Man, 1983)
- “Only the Good Die Young” (The Stranger, 1977)
- “Piano Man” (Piano Man, 1973)
- “You May Be Right” (Glass Houses, 1980)
- “New York State of Mind” (Turnstiles, 1976)
- “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” (The Stranger, 1977)
- “Tell Her About It” (An Innocent Man, 1983)
- “A Matter of Trust” (The Bridge, 1986)
- “I Go to Extremes” (Storm Front, 1989)
- “Just the Way You Are” (The Stranger, 1977)
- “Captain Jack” (Songs in the Attic, 1981)
- “She’s Always a Woman to Me” (The Stranger, 1977)
- “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” (The Stranger, 1977)
- “My Life” (52nd Street, 1978)
- “Uptown Girl” (An Innocent Man, 1983)
- “She’s Got a Way” (Songs in the Attic, 1981)
- “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (Songs in the Attic, 1981)
- “The River of Dreams” (River of Dreams, 1993)
- “Pressure” (The Nylon Curtain, 1982)
- “Goodnight Saigon” (The Nylon Curtain, 1982)
- “Allentown” (The Nylon Curtain, 1982)
- “Big Shot” (52nd Street, 1978)
- “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (Storm Front, 1989)
- “Modern Woman” (The Bridge, 1986)
- “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” (Songs in the Attic, 1981)
- “Vienna” (The Stranger, 1977)
- “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” (Piano Man, 1973)
- “Don’t Ask Me Why” (Glass Houses, 1980)
- “An Innocent Man” (An Innocent Man, 1983)
- “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” (Greatest Hits, Volumes 1 and 2 (1973-1985), 1985)
- “Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)” (River of Dreams, 1993)
- “Honesty” (52nd Street, 1978)
- “Keeping the Faith” (An Innocent Man, 1983)
- “The Longest Time” (An Innocent Man, 1983)
- “And So It Goes” (Storm Front, 1989)
- “The Entertainer” (Streetlife Serenade, 1974)
- “Summer, Highland Falls” (Turnstiles, 1976)
I know! My list is top-loaded with the hits. But, come on! His hits were hits for a reason: those songs were able to touch many people somewhere in their soul. Of course, that’s what separates the musical immortals from the one-hit-wonders. And, when you have created such a deep library of music that is terribly difficult to narrow your list to 40 songs, then you know the man has a magical touch. And, most of the songs on my list are from his best years of 1977 through 1993.
Raise a glass to Mr. Joel!