Billy Joel – Piano Man (Columbia / Legacy 88697 61901 2)

Piano Man (Columbia / Legacy 88697 61901 2)

Billy Joel built his reputation upon writing good pop tunes with catchy melodies, interesting harmonies and the ability to express positive sentiments without sounding corny.  He’s also an example of the virtue of patience and perseverance.  Although beginning his music career in the mid-sixties, it took him ten years to reach any kind of legitimacy and fame, and even longer to establish himself as a big name rock act.

Joel released his final pop album River Of Dreams twenty years ago even though he still tours occasionally (both solo and with Elton John).  In November 2011 Columbia released The Complete Albums Collection, a box set with his entire catalog plus a disc of rarities.  The label also released Piano Man, 2CD Legacy Edition.

The album, released in November 1973 was a vast improvement over Cold Spring Harbor.  Although the highest Billboard chart position forth LP was twenty-seven, the single of the title track fared much better, hitting number four on the adult contemporary chart.  It also entered permanent residence on every AOR rock station and assumed a place in the canon of great rock classics from the seventies. 

Original album

Disc 1 (43:36):  Travelin’ Prayer, Piano Man, Ain’t No Crime, You’re My Home, The Ballad Of Billy The Kid, Worse Comes To Worst, Stop In Nevada, If I Only Had The Words (To Tell You), Somewhere Along The Line, Captain Jack

Piano Man is an heroic album.  After recording several albums already both in bands and as a solo act which went nowhere, he needed to leave his native Long Island in order to truly find his niche and talent.  His archetypal travels brought him to Los Angeles where he honed his talent and found his niche. 

Many of the songs have a western theme, such as “Travelin’ Prayer,” “The Ballad Of Billy The Kid” and “Stop In Nevada,” and are scored with banjos, harmonicas and slide guitars, all instruments associated with country and western music.  

The hit of the album is the title track “The Piano Man.”  Hitting upon a theme of loneliness and desperation, it is one of the best examples of a torch song in the style of jazz / rock.  Scored with a heavy waltz beat in three time, it also borders folk with the strong connotation of the harmonica.  It is one of his most beautiful and moving compositions, one of the classic songs to come out of the rock era. 

“Captain Jack” was the other hit from the album.  It doesn’t have the same staying power as “The Piano Man,” but the theme of suburban anomie and boredom is nicely captured in the strong images.

Sigma Sound Studios, Philadelphia, PA – April 15th, 1972

Disc 2 (58:11):  Introduction By Ed Sciaky, Falling Of The Rain, Travelin’ Prayer, The Ballad Of Billy The Kid, She’s Got A Way, Everybody Loves You Now, Nocturne, Station ID, Turn Around, Long Long Time, Captain Jack, Josephine, Rosalinda, Tomorrow Is Today

Before The Piano Man was released in late 1973, Billy Joel’s career benefited from two high profile events in April 1972.  The first was his set at the Mar Y Sol Festival in Puerto Rico on April 2nd.  He livened up the crowd with his own material plus spot-on impressions of Joe Cocker and a scorching cover of the Leon Russel arrangement of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Youngblood” from the previous summer’s Concert For Bangladesh. 

He was given a glowing write up in the New York Times for his effort.  A nice sounding soundboard tape of the set is in circulation (although not currently pressed). 

The second event was two weeks after Mar Y Sol when he gave an hour long studio concert on WMMR in Philadelphia.  Recorded at the famous Sigma Sound Studios, the recording has been in circulation for forty years but has been very hard to find on silver pressed bootlegs. 

Columbia offer a pristine, remastered copy of the tape.  It sounds slightly narrow compared to latter day recordings, but it is still a raw and exciting document of a young Billy Joel. 

The audience was made up primarily of contest winners and the set list included six songs from Cold Spring Harbor, three that would be recorded later in the year for Piano Man, and three rarities from Joel’s early songwriting catalogue (“Long, Long Time,” “Josephine” and “Rosalinda”).

Ed Sciaky of WMMR introduces Billy Joel before the fleeting piano melody of “Falling Of The Rain.”  During the next hour Joel, speaking in a much thicker Long Island accent than his latter days, exudes charm, charisma and bad attitude over the radio.  He frequently sips loudly from his beer (“I can’t plug the beer, but it’s very good”) almost to the point of annoyance. 

He pokes fun of his new western themed material (“It’s western, and a ballad.  And I know everything about the west being from New York”) and his own obscurity (before “Nocturne” he says “we’re making The Best Of Billy Joel Vol. 1). 

What truly stands out are the as-yet-unreleased songs from The Piano Man.  Unlike what would be released more than a year later, these renditions are much more raw and immediate.  “Travelin’ Pray,” which relies upon the banjo in the studio recording, sounds much better on the stark piano.

“Captain Jack” also sounds much better live.  This recording was made its way into the WMMR playlist,  making it a minor hit and made Columbia notice the young singer, prompting his signing with the label.  He sounds a bit defensive at first, wondering if he could play the song on the radio due to it’s mention of masturbation, but proceeds anyway. 

The Piano Man Legacy Edition is worth having for the Sigma Studio recording alone.  Classic live performances from Billy Joel are vastly under represented on silver disc, and having Columbia clean up and issue this show is very nice.  Some could quibble about its propriety (why not the November 1973 showcase show at the Troubadour mentioned on the artwork), but nobody can doubt the quality and historic interest of the performance.     

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