After being honored at The Kennedy Center for excellence in music, Billy Joel has finally left an everlasting mark on the genre’ that he, more or less, invented. We can put Elton John into this same category since they both made their mark using the piano as a rock and roll tool.
The piano, in rock and roll music, was always pretty much either an afterthought or used to fill out songs, with the occasional solo thrown in for good measure. In the early days of rock and roll, and particularly when put into use by Jerry Lee Lewis, the piano had reached the mainstream. But electric guitars ruled the day, what with Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly and others, and soon enough, the piano was relegated to second or third choice when it came to making popular rock music.
That all pretty much changed when Billy Joel hit the scene. Not that he was the originator, and not that anyone hadn’t done anything like this before, but he took the piano to heights and places where it had never been, and he used it in the exact same way one would use a guitar.
His music was catchy and the tunes sounded so familiar right from the get-go. Songs like “Piano Man,” have become pop standards, and “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” is so historically accurate that is has actually been used as a teaching aid! How many rockers can say that about their song? (Maybe the Chili Peppers with “Californication,” but that’s about it.)
Songs like, “Uptown Girl,” where he actually met his future wife Christie Brinkley, “Big Shot,” about mocking a girlfriend and her drunken and/or drug fueled adventures, and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” which is a cynical look at the music industry that surrounds him. These songs, and many others, have become Joel’s legacy, and the words and the music are all karaoke worthy in every respect.
It may be safe to say that when Billy Joel ruled the charts, in the 70’s and early 80’s, he was the voice of that generation. He certainly spoke of situations, problems and the difficulties that we all faced, and he reached out to the masses in a musical tone that struck a cord in all of us. His new music was eagerly awaited, by everyone, to hit the airwaves, and his jaunty keyboard playing and irreverent lyrics were a relief from heavy guitar riffs and giant bass runs.
Today, Joel still plays concerts and has a recurring gig at Madison Square Garden. He brings back memories of a time when the piano was king, and every so often, he’ll team up with the other great piano man, Elton John, for a rollicking, frollicking piano-based rock and roll bash that’s hard to beat anywhere else in the world.
Billy Joel, The Entertainer. (Yes, he actually had hair at one time!)
Allentown, about the decline and fall of the steel industry
And, of course, Only the Good Die Young