Known to some as the songwriter behind such legendary hits as Piano Man and We Didn’t Start the Fire, and to others as the guy who did the soundtrack for Disney’s Oliver & Company, Billy Joel is one of the most iconic musicians around. Today we’re looking at the not so well-known parts of this musical legend’s life and revealing 20 things you probably didn’t know about the piano man.
20. His song The Legend of Billy the Kid isn’t accurate at all
Billy Joel’s song The Legend of Billy The Kid was released in 1974 on his album Live In The Studio – Sigma Studios 1972, and went on to become one of the biggest hits of his career.
Through its numerous verses, it recounts the story of the legendary outlaw who once roamed America on the run from the law. It’s exciting, but it isn’t accurate.
For example, the real Billy the Kid was not born in West Virginia, as the song claims, and in fact he probably never even visited there during his life.
Not only that, but the idea that Billy the Kid managed to rob a whole string of banks before being caught by the authorities is more than a slight exaggeration.
The truth is that the historical Billy the Kid didn’t rob a single bank – and he certainly didn’t become one of the most prolific bank robbers of the era, as Joel suggests.
Lastly, Billy the Kid’s life did not actually end with a public hanging like Billy Joel said, but with a gunfight that probably wasn’t even witnessed by many people.
19. John Lennon’s son gave Joel the idea for We Didn’t Start the Fire
We Didn’t Start the Fire details the various tragedies and intrigues of the 20th century, fired off in a characteristic quick succession that has been endlessly aped and parodied over the years.
The fast pace and tongue-twisting lyrics make attempting to learn and sing-along to the track both a challenge and its own reward, and numerous artists have attempted to update the words to reflect the modern day.
Despite the song being a quintessential Billy Joel track, the inspiration actually came from another celebrity source – John Lennon’s son Sean, who accompanied Billy Joel to the studio one day.
The story goes that Sean remarked to Joel that Joel just didn’t understand what it was like to come of age and be a young adult in a time of such mounting turmoil.
This remark inspired Billy Joel to try and create a song that reflected what the present moment felt like, especially to those who had grown up knowing nothing else.
That’s why the song is caught between the jaunty beat and optimism of the melody, and the feeling of mounting stress and claustrophobia as more and more unprecedented events are listed off.
18. He performed in the first-ever rock concert in the USSR
Many artists have had the honour of making musical history over the course of their career, but far fewer have had the privilege of seriously interacting with real-world history.
Billy Joel ended up playing one of the most important shows in the context of the end of the Cold War ever, as he played the first-ever rock concert in the USSR.
For decades, rock and roll music had been banned throughout the whole Soviet Union, until new leader Mikhail Gorbachev softened policies to allow for more music and media consumption.
Part of this arrangement included inviting stars like Billy Joel to perform in the USSR, and in 1987 Joel became the first artist ever to do so.
In order for the USSR to make the most value for money possible after paying for Billy Joel to tour Russia with his whole entourage, full band and members of his family, the shows were also filmed for both television and radio.
The shows were simulcast on radio around the world, making Billy Joel also the first US musician to have a rock show broadcast on Russian radio.
17. He once showed up to an elementary school concert of his songs
Billy Joel hasn’t only become a beloved musical icon because of how catchy his songs are, but also because of his reputation as a truly kind person.
Despite several other rockstars mostly making headlines for their entitled and selfish behaviour after retirement, Joel has continually made it into the news for his good deeds and wholesome hobbies.
Maybe the best anecdote to support this is the fact that in 2014, Joel heard that an elementary school in New York was performing a concert, where all the schoolchildren would be singing Billy Joel songs.
Of course, Joel knew that there was only one thing he could do, and so he secretly found out which school it was as well as where it was, and he managed to stand in the back and watch.
After the concert had ended, Billy Joel revealed to the teachers and students that he had been watching from the back of the hall the whole time, and he congratulated them on their excellent work.
Obviously, the entire student body and faculty were shocked and thrilled that such a huge music star would go out of his way to do such a nice thing.
16. He received death threats after releasing Only the Good Die Young
Overall, Billy Joel doesn’t really have a reputation for being a controversial artist, especially in a genre defined by tall tales of wild antics.
That being said, there was one occasion where his work did cause him a fair bit of negative attention, and that was on the release of Only the Good Die Young.
Despite being relatively uncontroversial now, Only the Good Die Young was perceived to have deeply anti-Catholic lyrics, resulting in many radio stations censoring it or outright refusing to play it.
Not only that, but many targeted Joel himself in letters, demanding he stop playing the song in concert and even sending death threats.
In response to this overwhelming negative attention, which Joel hadn’t expected to be as vitriolic as it ended up being, Billy Joel began playing the song twice during every concert as an act of defiance.
Only the Good Die Young’s ability to shock and offend has diminished over the years though, as several artists have put their own spin on the track, from Me First and the Gimme Gimmes to the cast of Glee.
15. He named his daughter after Ray Charles
Despite being one of the most popular artists in the world, Billy Joel has his own set of performers who he idolises, and chief among them is the legendary Ray Charles.
Billy Joel adored Ray Charles so much that when his first daughter was born in 1985, Joel named her Alexa Ray Joel after Ray Charles.
Ray Charles himself eventually discovered this fact, and was incredibly flattered, leading to Billy Joel getting to talk to his idol and explain how much Ray Charles’ music had meant to him since he was a kid.
This led to a friendship being struck up between the two men, who eventually became collaborators and worked for a short time on music together.
This mini-collaboration led to the release of Baby Grand, a Billy Joel song featuring Ray Charles that was released on his 1986 album The Bridge.
The track followed the format of Ray Charles’ song Georgia on my Mind, with dueling verses played on dual pianos by Joel and Charles, charting their journey through the music industry.
14. Piano Man was a flop when it was first released
There’s no doubt about it; if you ask a group of people to name a famous Billy Joel song, a pretty large percentage of them will name Piano Man.
However, despite the popular conception of Piano Man being Billy Joel’s biggest hit and signature tune, the truth is more complicated.
As surprising as it might sound, Piano Man was actually considered a flop when it was first released in 1973, as the song never reached above position 25 in any American chart during its initial release.
The track only started down the road to becoming a classic in 1977, when it was included on the tracklist of Billy Joel’s hugely successful album The Stranger.
Piano Man was actually written after Joel was forced to leave the music industry and begin playing in bars around the country, after his first attempt at an album completely flopped.
He began documenting the regular patrons at his bar to pass the time while working and recovering from the emotional blow of his music career not working out, so it’s pretty ironic that the track became one of his biggest hits.
13. He thinks music festivals are disgusting
Across his decades-long and storied career, Billy Joel has toured the world numerous times, playing countless shows and singing the words to the classics more times than we can imagine.
Those shows have included multiple festival appearances, from Bonnaroo to Stone Music Festival to Quebec City Summer Festival in Canada.
However, despite Billy Joel playing to several festival crowds in various countries over the years, he’s actually not a very big fan of festivals in general.
Joel has expressed his dislike of festivals on the grounds that they include too much standing around in the sun, and often have gross toilet facilities that fail to meet basic standards of cleanliness.
Obviously Billy Joel’s right about both the crowds and the disgusting portaloos, and he definitely wouldn’t be the first aging rockstar to decide that they couldn’t rough it in a tent anymore.
However, Billy Joel actually decided he hated festivals way back in 1969, when he went to the legendary Woodstock and left after a day and a half, bemoaning that the standing around and inadequate bathrooms were just too much to deal with. Not the most rock and roll moment of his life for sure.
12. He’s been retired since 1993
When it comes to artists who were at the peak of their fame in the 70s, it’s not difficult to find examples that are still touring and releasing music today.
There are even some bands, like the Rolling Stones, the Who or the Cure – who operate as if their plan is to tour forever, or at least until they’re no longer physically able.
Billy Joel took a different approach. After the release of his album River of Dreams in 1993, he announced that he would never release another mainstream album.
Joel has largely stuck to this promise ever since, and has never released a direct continuation to River of Dreams, despite occasionally releasing other projects.
The other projects he has worked on have included recording a few singles, as well as releasing an album of classical piano covers in 2001.
However, since his official retirement from releasing new music, Billy Joel’s main commitment has been his monthly Madison Square Garden residency, which began in 2014.
11. He now runs his own motorbike shop in Long Island
Given that Billy Joel retired from writing in late 1993, it’s not surprising that he has had time to pick up a hobby in addition to touring the world.
However, what is a little bit unusual is that you can actually visit the results of Joel’s free time, as he has made them available to the general public.
When he is not touring, Billy Joel spends time in Long Island, running a motorcycle store that sells parts for those who need them for repairs or upgrades, and also full motorcycle bodies.
Despite being born in the Bronx, Billy Joel grew up in Long Island, and so there was only one option for where to go when he decided that he wanted to build a motorbike shop in his semi-retirement.
They obviously aren’t available for purchase, but the store also houses part of Joel’s personal motorcycle collection, which he allows the public to look at when they stop by.
Joel has also been known to chat to fans who show up to talk to him, either about motorbikes or about music, but many customers have show up not knowing that the store is owned by such an iconic artist.
10. He graduated high school 25 years after his classmates
Lots of famous artists find themselves unable to thrive in school, often because they’re too ambitious and impatient to get out into the world and start making art.
Many struggle with academic subjects to begin with and are better suited to creative work; others are flat-out rebellious and disrespectful, traits more suited to rock’n’roll than the honor roll.
Billy Joel is unique in that he did not fall into either category: he was neither an inattentive student nor a particularly bad one.
Despite this, Joel did find himself unable to graduate high school with the rest of the class, and it was only 25 years later that he received an honorary doctorate and finally got to walk across the stage in cap and gown.
The reason why Billy Joel couldn’t graduate is simple: his family fell on hard financial times while he was studying, and so he began picking up late-night piano gigs in order to help make ends meet.
Unfortunately, this led to him oversleeping one morning and missing his final English exam, which prevented him from officially finishing his education.
9. Vienna was written about his absent father
Many of Billy Joel’s most famous songs have universal themes, and can be related to by a wide swathe of people, which explains in part his enduring success.
With that said, he has also written some intensely personal songs, like the moving and earnest Vienna, which was included on his album The Stranger.
Billy Joel’s father was born in Germany and was forced to flee the country when Hitler came to power, leaving most of his family behind.
Tragically, not many members of Joel’s extended family survived under Hitler’s regime, and Joel’s father settled down in America after first travelling through Cuba.
However, after Billy Joel’s parents divorced his father returned to Europe and cut contact with his ex-wife, feeling that American culture was, on the whole, shallow and materialistic.
Vienna was Billy Joel’s attempt to reconnect both with his father and his European and Jewish roots, as he had been raised Roman Catholic.
8. He believes in ghosts
Billy Joel has always been a pretty down to Earth person, preferring to avoid the spotlight in his personal life and indulge in grounded, relatable hobbies like motorbike repair.
He’s even joked about his appearance on numerous occasions, emphasising that he looks more like “the guy who makes the pizza” than a stereotypical rockstar.
Given that Billy Joel seems like such an everyman, it may surprise you to know that he has one very unusual opinion: he believes in ghosts.
Not only has Joel said that he believes in spirits’ ability to remain on Earth after death, but he also believed that his own home was playing host to a lost soul.
In 2000, Billy Joel sold his $32 million mansion in Long Island to TV personality and comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and one of the reasons why he sold might have been the supposed supernatural lodger.
Joel maintained that he often saw a 19th-century woman walking through his home and brushing her hair, though it is unclear whether he warned Seinfeld about the lady before the transaction was completed.
7. He wants to form a supergroup with Sting
Seeing Billy Joel perform live is a life-long goal for many people since he is one of the most legendary singer-songwriters on Earth.
However, if anything would bring fans more joy than the opportunity to see Billy Joel onstage alone, then that would be the chance to see him perform as part of a supergroup.
If you’re asking yourself who Joel would team up with if the opportunity ever arose, then it will delight you to know that Joel has answered that question himself.
On numerous occasions, Billy Joel has joked about his desire to start his own touring supergroup, with none other than Sting and Don Henley, one of the founding members of The Eagles.
It definitely seems to be more of a running gag between the three musicians than a serious plan, but Joel has still said that he would happily write songs for the group if it ever came to be.
Maybe one day fans will be able to see these three musical giants take to the stage together, but until then they’ll just have to be content with buying three sets of concert tickets.
6. He almost had a plagiarism scandal with Movin’ Out
Movin’ On was released on Billy Joel’s 1977 album The Stranger, and deals with themes of social mobility among immigrant families in New York.
It condemns a society that forces people to abandon their working-class roots for materialistic trophies that prove they have “made it”, symbols that eventually prove to be futile.
Movin’ Out is a gem in Billy Joel’s already-shining discography, and is remembered so fondly that it was even chosen as the namesake for the Billy Joel jukebox musical, which gave its opening performance in 2002.
However, Joel only narrowly avoided getting into serious trouble with the song, as it almost led him straight into a lawsuit and accusations of plagiarism.
When Joel began writing the song in the early 1970s, his drummer Liberty Devitto pointed out that the melody was dangerously close to that of Neil Sedaka’s hit song Laughter in the Rain.
Thankfully, after Devitto’s astute observation Joel amended the melody and structure of the song, and saved himself a whole heap of trouble in the long run.
5. He hates We Didn’t Start the Fire
There’s no doubt that Billy Joel’s smash hit We Didn’t Start the Fire is now a cornerstone of his legacy, a touch overplayed but still very much beloved.
With its unique origin story of having been inspired by the son of John Lennon, and its ability to function as a time capsule of a certain climate and atmosphere, it’s no wonder that it has become such a bona fide classic over the years.
With that said, though Billy Joel has said that he is happy that the song was able to so deftly capture a moment in time, he’s not completely proud of it.
Throughout his career, Joel has been vocally critical of We Didn’t Start the Fire on a number of occasions, with most of his ire being directed at the song’s construction.
Billy Joel has even gone so far as to call the melody “terrible”, and say it reminds him of a cheesy novelty song rather than a real piece of art.
He’s also compared the sound of the song to a dentist’s drill so, if you’ve ever been critical of your own work a few years after creating it, just remember that Billy Joel is no different!
4. He hated country music growing up
Everyone has something that they hated when they were a kid for no good reason, whether it was the colour pink or the presence of broccoli literally anywhere near their plate.
Most of the time, this random hatred simply dissolves after a few years, when we realise that there are ways to cook vegetables that are delicious, or that the colour pink is actually pretty nice.
A similar thing happened to Billy Joel, who grew up being something of a snob when it came to any kind of popular music.
Joel’s father was a classical pianist, and Joel himself had piano lessons starting from the age of four, so he grew up listening to classical music almost exclusively.
This led to a young Billy Joel declaring his hatred for most forms of contemporary music, but his loathing was especially reserved for country and western music.
This all changed when Joel heard his idol Ray Charles’ country album, which completely turned his opinion around and changed his opinion on country music forever.
3. He used to be a boxer
When someone has perfected one or two skills to the advanced level that Billy Joel has, it can be difficult to imagine them ever doing anything else.
Billy Joel started playing piano around the same time he first set foot in a school, so it is true that he’d already started on the path to musical greatness as a very young child.
However, Billy Joel also found the time to indulge in a few different hobbies in addition to tickling the ivories, and one of them was pretty surprising.
As out of character as it might seem for the good-natured and jovial Billy Joel, he grew up harbouring a serious fascination for boxing, and he trained diligently for many years.
Before abandoning the career in favour of music, Joel even won a few amateur teenage tournaments and was training under a well-known name in the industry.
His boxing origin story is pretty heartbreaking too, as he first decided to learn after being cornered by bullies on the way to a piano lesson.
2. He single-handedly popularised crowd-surfing
When you think of the kinds of musicians that you associate with crowd surfing at gigs and concerts, Billy Joel probably isn’t the first artist that springs to mind.
We often associate the crowd behaviour with rock, punk and metal bands, whether they’re crammed into tiny dive bars or playing huge, sprawling festival crowds.
However, though the move pre-dates Billy Joel’s use by a number of years, it was Joel who popularised it during his landmark USSR concerts.
Joel decided to dive into the audience in order to show the watching crowds that he trusted them completely, and believed in the possibility of peace between the US and the USSR.
Billy Joel’s decision to engage with his audience in such a way sparked a huge increase in the amount of both fans and artists engaging in the practice, and you will still catch people crowd-surfing today!
However, the people you see crowd-surfing at a festival or show probably wouldn’t think to credit Billy Joel for inspiring their decision!
1. Canada loves him more than America
To most people, Billy Joel no doubt feels like the quintessential all-American icon, with his salt-of-the-earth attitude and songs that reflect the reality of being a working man in America.
With that in mind, it’s actually pretty surprising to know that the country of his birth does not comprise his biggest fans, at least not according to the numbers.
Throughout most of his career, Billy Joel has actually been far more successful in Canada than he has been in the States, with his American listening numbers lagging behind his Canadian ones.
Canada was the first country to embrace Piano Man as a hit, for example, and every one of his singles charted higher in Canada than they did in America, right up until 1980.
However, Billy Joel was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, alongside Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Dusty Springfield. So for over two decades now he’s been recognised as one of the most beloved singer-songwriters in America, even though he had already been retired for five years before his induction.