This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for May 9, 2017: In Spring

May 9, 2017: birthday: Billy Joel

It’s the birthday of Billy Joel, born in the Bronx (1949). Soon after he was born, his family moved to Long Island’s Levittown, the first suburb in America. His dad was a classical pianist, and his mom made sure that young Billy learned the piano too. He started playing when he was four years old, and showed a natural talent. His father left when Billy was eight, and his mother moved with the two kids to Hicksville. She worked hard to support the family, but money was very tight. Billy fell in with a rough crowd, and took up boxing in his teen years.

He was not quite 15 when he saw the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, and decided then and there that he would make music his career. He joined a succession of bands. He sneaked into a Jimi Hendrix concert by carrying around a bunch of electrical cables and pretending to be a roadie. He eventually dropped out of school to work on his first album, Cold Spring Harbor (1971), which was not a success. He moved to Los Angeles and took a job playing piano in a lounge on Wilshire Boulevard, using the stage name “Bill Martin.” That job ended up inspiring his first big hit, “Piano Man.” He stepped away from the pop music business for a while, beginning in the 1990s, in favor of composing classical music, which he released on the album Fantasies and Delusions (2001).

“I never wanted to be an oldies act, but I suppose I am,” he said in a recent interview. “I never wanted to be a nostalgia act, but I suppose I am. But I listen to Beethoven, and that’s really old stuff. Is that nostalgia? To me, that music is as alive as it ever was.”