In January 2014 the veteran singer-songwriter Billy Joel sat down for an exclusive interview with Billboard magazine. And along with talking about an illustrious five-decade music career, he also touched upon a curious rule that he insists upon when touring. Apparently, Joel never sells the front-row seats for his shows, and the reason why is quite remarkable.
We’ll come back to Joel’s curious edict regarding his shows a little later, but first let’s learn more about the musician. He first rose to national prominence in 1977 with his album The Stranger, and since then, the New Yorker has barely looked back.
Joel has gone on to become one of the world’s all-time best-selling artists since The Stranger first hit stores back in the 1970s. Remarkably, he has sold 150 million units around the world, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. And alongside that wave of popular success, Joel has carved out a reputation as a solid live performer.
Later in his career, the musician turned predominately to gigging. And he has had an ongoing residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden as part of his “Billy Joel in Concert” tour, which has been running since 2014.
As we’ll soon find out, Joel has enjoyed stunning success over an illustrious career going back over five decades. But how did it all begin? Well, the singer began life as William Martin Joel in May 1949 in New York City.
Joel’s parents were New York native Rosalind and Howard, who was a businessman and classical pianist from Germany. Shortly after the singer’s birth, the couple then adopted a girl named Judy – the daughter of Rosalind’s late sister Muriel.
The musician’s parents both came from a Jewish background. Joel’s father was born in Nuremburg, Germany, but he and his family moved to nearby Switzerland in the 1930s to evade persecution from the Nazis. Howard’s father had built a highly profitable mail-order textile company, but he ended up selling it for a meager sum in order to escape from Germany. Thankfully, they managed to flee in time, though many of Howard’s extended family would later die in the Holocaust.
Howard eventually settled in the United States. His family had arrived there via a trip to Cuba in order to get around the immigration quotas then in place. In 1942 he would meet the Brooklyn-born Rosalind – the daughter of English immigrants. The pair met at a City College of New York student musical production in 1942 and married four years later.
Howard served with the U.S. Army during World War II, and after the conflict ended he began work as an engineer. As we mentioned earlier, he was also a keen classical pianist. And Howard’s deep love of music would later be picked up by his son Billy Joel.
A year after Joel’s birth his family uprooted from their home in The Bronx to America’s so-called “first suburb” on New York’s Long Island. He recalled in a 2012 interview with Alec Baldwin on WNYC Radio, “I grew up on the island, in the Levittown section of Hicksville. We had a Levitt house – Cape Code – on the quarter acre. Everybody’s house looked the same…”
Joel began taking classical piano lessons when he was just four years old, and he would quickly become smitten with the instrument. The star was taught for around 12 years and his teachers included the renowned pianist Morton Estrin.
Sadly for Joel, his parents would divorce in 1957. His father returned to Europe reportedly because he didn’t like living in the U.S. Howard’s son, however, opted to remain and live with his mother and sister Judy. Rosalind toiled as a clerical worker while Joel attended Hicksville High School and also took up boxing.
Joel’s teenage years were a time of change; alongside a short career in boxing which saw him win 22 fights on the Golden Gloves amateur boxing circuit, he also began to harbor his own music dreams. And in that WNYC interview with Baldwin he admitted as much, stating, “When you become a teenager, everything changes. I didn’t want to read other people’s dots anymore.”
But it was seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 which would be a real turning point for Joel. He told The San Diego Union-Tribune 30 years later, “That one performance changed my life… I must say that appearance by The Beatles on Ed Sullivan galvanized me. Up to that moment I’d never considered playing rock as a career.”
Elsewhere, Joel told CBS News in 2014, “[The Beatles] were a quartet and we said, ‘Wow, we can do that. If these guys from England can come out and play rock ‘n’ roll, we can do it…’ We bought [Beatles] wigs. We went to the drama store, and I guess they were Three Stooges wigs at that time.”
By 1965 Joel was playing in a band later called the Lost Souls while still studying at high school. He performed outside of that outfit, too – doing gigs at a local piano bar to support his family. And it’s this latter job which would result in Joel failing to graduate, after a late-night gig meant that he missed and subsequently failed an English exam.
During this period of his life, Joel also got his first experiences of commercially recording music. By 1964 he had made enough of a name for himself to play on the The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” and “Remember (Walking in the Sand).” Then, three years later he joined a band called The Hassles, who had penned a contract with United Artists Records.
Joel and The Hassles went on to record two LPs and four singles, but all of them failed to make any kind of dent. Frustrated, the musician left the band along with its drummer Jon Small in 1969. The pair of them began a short-lived duo called Attila, and they released an eponymous album a year later. The project would end in acrimony, however, when Joel shacked up with Small’s spouse Elizabeth Weber, who he later wed in 1973.
However, it was during his time in Attila that Joel’s life almost came to a premature end. During a struggle with depression in 1970 the star attempted to take his own life. The singer-songwriter downed a bottle of furniture polish, but he was rushed to hospital by his bandmate and thankfully survived.
Joel nevertheless recovered and was soon ready to step out on his own as a solo artist. He penned a deal with Family Productions and got to work on a record called Cold Spring Harbor. Unfortunately for Joel – who was reportedly fuming with its apparent off-kilter sound mastering – the 1971 LP was a commercial flop.
Joel set off on a fall tour across the United States the year that Cold Spring Harbor was released. And during this time, he warmed up for popular outfits like The Beach Boys, J. Geils Band and Badfinger. Some of his performances gained acclaim, but he became disillusioned with the relative failure of his debut album. Joel then decided to move across the country to Los Angeles, where he would retreat from the spotlight and rediscover his mojo.
Just before his move west, a live recording of his song “Captain Jack” began to be played on the Philadelphia radio station WMMR-FM. It became popular with listeners, and Joel’s music caught the attention of Columbia Records, who duly signed Joel to their roster.
The musician also spent six months playing piano at an LA bar called The Executive Room under the name “Bill Martin.” And his time spent playing there would serve as inspiration for a song which would push his music career to new heights. We are, of course, referring to the now famous “Piano Man.” Joel’s playful, semi-autobiographical ditty was released as a single and made the Top 20.
In 1973 Joel released his second studio album bearing the name of that hit single. It was Joel’s biggest success to date – reaching number 27 on the U.S. Billboard 200. Not long after, Joel then began recording songs for what would become Streetlife Serenade.
However, Streetlife Serenade failed to make much of an impression. The musician then moved back to New York City in 1975 and recorded another album called Turnstiles with a new outfit called the Billy Joel Band. The star wasn’t happy with the result, however, so he re-recorded the entire album and produced it himself. Naturally, this must have been a difficult time for Joel, but good fortune was just around the corner.
Thanks to Columbia Records, Joel met Phil Ramone, and the latter would go on to produce a series of his albums, the first of which was 1977’s The Stranger. The LP was a massive hit, and four of its tunes all reached the Top 25 in the Billboard charts. Joel even won Grammy awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year for “Just the Way You Are.” Finally, the musician had really made it.
Joel was now on a roll, even though his sound was disliked by some rock critics of the time. A year later he released another hit album called 52nd Street, which landed the Record of the Year gong at the 1979 Grammys for the song “Honesty.”
Joel’s commercial hot streak continued into the following decade with 1980’s Glass Houses. This was a stab at a harder sound and it enjoyed stunning success – sitting at number one for six weeks and producing four Top 40 hits. The following two years saw Joel release two more LPs, the latter of which had positive reviews but considerably fewer sales.
Success continued in 1983 following the release of An Innocent Man, which went on to sell more than seven million copies. Arguably the most enduring of these was the megahit “Uptown Girl” – a song partly inspired by Joel’s new supermodel girlfriend Christine Brinkley. The two married in March 1985 and went on to have a daughter called Alexa Ray that December. Sadly, the couple would divorce nine years later.
In 1985 Joel released his most successful record yet – his Greatest Hits – Volume I & Volume II collection. Remarkably, the compilation would go on to sell over 11 million copies and is the third highest-selling record in U.S. history, tied with Led Zeppelin IV and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Joel also released studio albums The Bridge and Storm Front in the 1980s and controversially toured the Soviet Union. However, his recording output would slow down significantly in the following decade.
Joel spent the turn of 1990s extensively touring the U.S. and in 1993 released his 12th studio album: River of Dreams. Though the eponymous song accompanying the LP entered the charts at number one, it would be another eight years before Joel released another album. Meanwhile, in 1994 Joel set off on a highly lucrative tour with the superstar Elton John.
But since that tour with Elton John, Joel has only released one more album: 2001’s Fantasies and Delusions. Instead, the musician has primarily focused on live performances over the past several decades – including his current “Billy Joel in Concert” tour which kicked off in 2014. However, fans hoping to grab themselves a ticket might want to keep in mind a curious rule that the ageing rocker has put in place for his gigs.
Yes, for a number of years Joel has insisted on not selling tickets for the first few rows at his shows. The kind-hearted troubadour has instead decided to provide these prime positions to those punters who purchased lower-cost tickets. And the Bronx-born artist revealed why in an interview with Billboard.
The reporter remarked that there was a “pretty [chilled] vibe” backstage at Joel’s gigs. And the star responded, “These guys are all road dogs, all veterans, they’ve been doing it for years… they’ve worked for everybody. There’s a good spirit on this tour, and good morale is really important.”
Then, Joel went on to disclose exactly why he doesn’t allow the sale of the seats closest to the stage. The star revealed, “We never sell front rows; we hold those tickets at just about every concert. For years, the scalpers got the tickets and would scalp the front row for ridiculous amounts of money.”
“Our tickets are cheap; under $100, some in the $80s, the highest is about $150,” Joel said. “I’d look down and see rich people sitting there, I call ‘em ‘gold chainers.’ Sitting there puffing on a cigar, [saying], ‘Entertain me, piano man.’”
Joel continued, “They don’t stand up, make noise, [they just] sit there with their bouffant haired-girlfriend lookin’ like a big shot. I kinda got sick of that. Who the hell are these people, where are the real fans? It turns out [that they] were always in the back of the room in the worst seats.”
So, Joel decided to take decisive action. He revealed to Billboard, “We now hold those tickets, and I send my road crew out to the back of the room when the audience comes in and they get people from the worst seats and bring ‘em in to the front rows. This way you’ve got people in the front row [who] are really happy to be there, [the] real fans.”
Joel added, “We don’t want to play to big shots. I want to play to younger people, people who can only afford a low-ticket price. They make the best audience, they make the most noise, they’re the most enthusiastic. It’s just hard to get to them anymore.”
And Joel clearly has more fans than just those who turn up to his shows. In 2015 he married again, this time walking down the aisle with the equestrian Alexis Roderick, with whom he has two children. So whether it’s with his stunning musical career or his personal life, Joel clearly still has a lot to give.