Few musical artists of the 20th century have come anywhere close to the number of hits that superstar Billy Joel has—not to mention the number of hearts and souls that have been touched by his beautiful melodies and lyrics. As familiar as his songs might be, there’s a lot more to the Piano Man than what people see on stage or hear on the radio. He has lived a fascinating life and has built himself a career like no other. Here are 42 awesome and interesting facts about the legendary Billy Joel.
1. From Worst to First
Despite “Piano Man” being universally recognized as Billy Joel’s most popular track of all time and his signature tune, the song was not actually a big hit when it was first released in 1973. Never reaching higher than #25 on any US chart during its initial release, the now-classic recording only began to reach serious levels of fame when people rediscovered it following the success of Joel’s 1977 album, The Stranger.
2. Deja Vu
Joel narrowly avoided getting himself into what could have become a major plagiarism scandal in the late 1970s—the original melody he wrote for the song “Movin’ Out” sounded an awful lot like Neil Sedaka’s hit song “Laughter in the Rain.” Luckily, Joel’s drummer Liberty Devitto recognized the melody, warned him that he must have subconsciously copied it, and forced Joel to rewrite it the way we know it today.
The irony? Joel never even liked the song “Laughter in the Rain”!
3. Personal Homage
Being an avid lifelong music fan, Joel named his daughter, Alexa Ray, after one of his musical heroes—none other than the legendary Ray Charles. When Charles discovered this, he was so flattered that he initiated a musical collaboration with Joel, which would end up becoming the song “Baby Grand.”
4. You May Be Wrong
Being from a Jewish family, Joel became the victim of anti-Semitic bullying as a child on more than one occasion. At one point, a neighborhood girl informed him of the archaic belief that Jews develop horns when they grow up—causing poor young and paranoid Joel to start checking the top of his head for burgeoning bumps for a period of a few months.
5. Canada State of Mind?
Despite being an American icon, Joel was originally much more popular in Canada than he was south of the border. Not only was “Piano Man” a success in Canada long before it was in the US, but until 1980, every single hit of Joel’s charted higher in the Great White North than in the Land of the Free—except, of course, for songs that hit the venerated #1 plateau in both countries.
6. River of Calculated Pragmatism
Despite his continuous popularity, Joel made the decision to retire from songwriting in 1993 and has not released any new albums since that year’s River of Dreams. The reason behind this was his disappointment in the fact that most of that album’s songs got little attention—leading him to feel that he was past his prime in what he had to offer fans.
7. Pet Peeve
Joel can’t stand when his songs are released on compilation albums. Despite having come up with the idea for his two initial Greatest Hits albums, all new formats that his songs appear on rub him the wrong way, and in his own words, they “don’t mean anything.”
8. Don’t Ask Me Why
Joel had really wanted to land legendary Beatles producer George Martin to help put together his 1977 album, The Stranger. Martin was interested, but only on one condition: that Joel replace his bandmates with new ones of Martin’s choosing for the record. Joel turned this offer down, and maybe lucked out as a result—the album turned out to be one of the biggest successes of his entire career.
9. And So It Goes
With any wildly successful singer, fans will argue til they’re blue in the face about which of their songs is truly the best. In Joel’s case, the singer has already beaten us all to it—his own favorite song of his is not any of the major hit singles, but rather the seven-minute Abbey Road influenced “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” from his legendary The Stranger album of 1977.
An appropriate choice, considering that it was viewing the Beatles’ famous Ed Sullivan Show performance on TV that first gave him the idea of becoming a singer—and the rest is history.
10. A Legend in His Time
Joel’s classic 1974 song “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” recounts the story of the legendary 19th-century outlaw that it’s named after—or does it? It turns out that, other than the name, nothing about the story Joel tells in this song bears any resemblance to the real-life of Billy the Kid. A few examples? The real outlaw was not born in West Virginia, was killed in a gunfight as opposed to a public hanging, and never even robbed a single bank—let alone went on the cross-country bank-robbing spree the lyrics describe.
If Billy the Kid came back to life and heard this song on the radio, he would never imagine that it was meant to be about him!
11. For the Longest Time
Joel has been a lifelong history buff and even seriously considered becoming a history teacher at one point. He has been an avid reader of history books since at least the age of seven when his mother labeled him a major “bookworm.”
12. Big Shot
I guess even the biggest stars in the world have their soft side—and Joel is no exception! In 2014, he heard that a local New York elementary school class was doing a concert performing his compositions, and he decided to surprise them all by actually showing up to attend the concert. Needless to say, the students and teachers involved were both shocked and honored by this thoughtful gesture.
13. Back in the USSR
After decades of rock ‘n’ roll music being banned in the Soviet Union, reformer Mikhail Gorbachev decided that the time had come to gradually change this policy. In 1987, Joel was invited to perform the country’s first-ever rock concert, and Joel enthusiastically said yes—realizing the historical significance that such an event could have down the road.
14. Summer, East Hamptons
Back in 2000, Joel sold his $32 million Long Island mansion to none other than TV legend Jerry Seinfeld, who uses it to this day as his family’s summer retreat. Jerry Seinfeld in the Hamptons? Let’s hope there are no ugly babies or “shrinkage” involved this time…
15. He Didn’t Start the Fire
Joel’s popular historical-themed song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was inspired by a very unlikely and unexpected source—deceased Beatles superstar John Lennon’s son, Sean. When speaking to Sean and another young friend of his in the studio one day, the youngsters remarked that Joel didn’t know what it was like to be 21 at a time when crazy things were happening in the world.
Joel’s attempt to set the record straight about this ended up leading to the song we all now know and love.
16. Only the Good Songs Get Censored
Because of its potentially anti-Catholic lyrics, Joel’s hit song “Only the Good Die Young” was censored by many radio stations and was even the source of death threats towards him—as well as many demands that he not perform it any longer. Joel’s defiant response was to begin playing the song twice in concert, and the song became popular largely as a backlash to all the negative attention it was getting.
As for its message, Joel insists that the song was not meant to be anti-Catholic, just merely “pro-lust.”
17. Billy the Kid
Joel has always been a serious music fan, and is particularly fond of Beethoven and other classical composers. Growing up, Joel could never stand country music and often considered it the one major musical genre he could never relate to—that is, until he heard his musical hero Ray Charles record a country album. The combination of this and hearing country superstar Garth Brooks cover his own song, “Shameless” has led to a complete change of heart.
Joel now not only likes country music, but has even said he enjoys blasting it on the radio while driving in his red pickup truck. A shocking turn of events for any New Yorker!
18. I’m in an Impaired State of Mind
Billy Joel once tried heroin back in the early 80s and opened up about the experience during a 2014 interview with Howard Stern. Luckily, he didn’t care for the drug and even said it “scared” him—so he never became addicted or seriously harmed by it as many other musicians have over the years. On the bright side, this experience inspired his song “Scandinavian Skies.”
19. Slow Down, You Crazy Child
Despite his reputation as a crowd-pleaser, Joel upset many fans in 2009 when he decided at the last minute to cancel a major joint stadium tour that he was supposed to begin embarking upon with fellow music legend, Elton John. He made this decision because he felt that all the stress he had been through over the past couple years had taken too much of a toll on him, and he decided that he needed a break.
As much as it sucks that this would-be epic tour didn’t happen, I guess the reasoning is pretty fair. It just goes to show that even the biggest superstars are still only human!
20. Scenes From a Russian Medical Center
Joel’s historic 1987 Russian concert ran into a major roadblock that almost prevented the whole show, not to mention its effect on world history, from ever coming to fruition. On the night that Joel and his crew arrived in Moscow, he completely lost his voice and everyone was concerned that he wouldn’t physically be able to perform.
Despite no luck in dealing with local doctors, Joel pushed through and used whatever vocal strength he could muster up to deliver what became one of the most epic live shows of all time. That’s what you call a trooper!
21. Missed It By That Much
Most rock ‘n’ roll fans would give anything to go back in time and get the opportunity to attend 1969’s legendary Woodstock festival. While a young Billy Joel had actually made the trek there and sat in on a day and a half’s worth of performances, he decided to leave early due to the fact that he found the toilet facilities gross. Little did he know what he was about to miss out on!
22. One Man Show
Joel’s hit doo-wop song “The Longest Time” was, not surprisingly, written with the intent of having a 1950s-style vocal group record it with him. Nevertheless, Joel and the guys realized that it would be even cooler if Joel just sang and recorded all the vocal parts himself and then spliced them together to sound like a quartet—and that’s exactly what you’re really hearing every time this classic song plays.
Now that takes talent!
23. Such a Lonely Story
With Joel, the songwriting process isn’t always as glamorous and artistic as many of us might think it to be. For example, the song “Honesty” was merely the product of drummer Liberty DeVitto goofing off and making inappropriate jokes while on the road. Joel came up with the now beloved song by playing around with Liberty’s comments and putting them to a melody.
Who would ever know that such a serious song could have such a ridiculous origin?
24. What Else Do I Have to Say??
Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” famously chronicles the progression of major historical events which took place between 1949, the year of his birth, and 1989, the year of the song’s release. However, Joel did cheat just a teensy bit with this song. While almost the entire track successfully incorporates the events in question into their correct chronological order, there is one exception.
The line “Begin, Reagan, Palestine, Terror on the airline” sees events which took place between 1975 and 1980 rearranged for the sake of rhyming and style. I think we can forgive him though—the song wouldn’t have been the same otherwise!
25. An Innocent Child
Despite being from an ethnically Jewish background, Joel’s family was not really into religion and Joel was actually baptized as a child to better fit in with those around him.
26. From Friend to Foe
Joel and Sony Records were sued in 2010 by his former drummer, Liberty DeVitto, for 30 years worth of unpaid royalty fees for his contributions to Joel’s songbook. The case was ultimately settled out of court, and all parties were seemingly happy with the results.
27. He’s Got a Way
When the news got out in April 1982 that Joel had been involved in a violent motorcycle crash, many people feared that he would never be able to play the piano again. Although both of his hands were seriously injured, Joel was able to make a complete recovery thanks to the help of some excellent medical care.
28. He is the Entertainer
An avid motorcycle fan, Joel actually runs a Long Island bike shop in his spare time at which he personally entertains fans from time to time and allows the public to come check out his private collection. Visiting this shop has got to be on every fan’s bucket list!
29. It’s Still Real Life to Me
Joel was very shaken up in 2009 when his daughter, musician Alexa Ray Joel, consumed an excess of sleeping pills in what appeared to have been a suicide attempt. The younger Joel later explained that she had never intended to try and actually kill herself—she was just going through a very rough time and overreacted in a moment of rage.
The toll this incident took on Joel is believed to have contributed to his taking some extended time off later that year.
30. Vienna Waits for You
The Joel family suffered tremendously at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. Billy Joel’s father was born and raised in Germany and fled the country when Adolf Hitler came to power, while the rest of his relatives were tragically wiped out soon after. This fact has definitely had its effect on Joel over the years.
Not only did trying to reconnect with his estranged father’s European roots inspire the song “Vienna”, but it also led him to take a very public stand in 2017 against President Donald Trump’s now-infamous failure to condemn a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Joel wore a yellow star on his suit jacket during a concert to raise awareness of the dangers of fascism and to show solidarity with its victims past and present.
31. Manhattan 1976
In the mid-1970s, New York City had become ravaged by crime and financial crisis, and many people feared that it was on its way to falling completely apart. At this time, when many were abandoning the city left right and center (famously including the Federal government), one individual decided that this was precisely the time to go back there.
Billy Joel had briefly been living in LA trying to make it in show business but decided that if his beloved hometown was going down the drain then he wanted to be there to go down with it. This move inspired the songs “New York State of Mind,” “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” and “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).”
32. Tell Us About It!
Joel has revealed that he, Sting, and Don Henley often jokingly toy with the idea of teaming up to form a rock supergroup. Although they don’t seem to have any plans of actually going through with this any time soon, Joel has indicated that he’d be willing to come out of songwriting retirement to contribute material for this hypothetical group. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed!
33. Darkest Hour
When he was just 21 years of age, Joel was so devastated over a breakup that he tried to commit suicide. He ransacked his mother’s belongings, looking for a tool with which he could do so. After being scared away from bleach thanks to the skull icon, he drank down some furniture polish. Luckily for all of us, the incident only resulted in him “farting furniture polish for a couple of days and polishing my mother’s chairs.”
Despite it being one of the highest-charting hits of his entire career and a Grammy-nominee for Record of the Year, Joel has not shied away from expressing disdain for his 1989 song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” While he is proud of the lyrics and concept behind it, he has called the melody “terrible”—at times even comparing it to a novelty song or the noise of a dentist’s drill.
35. Who Ever Called Him “The Stranger”?!
Joel helped popularize the practice of an artist “crowd surfing” during performances. Despite it having been done by one or two other smaller performers previously, he really took things to the next level when he did it during his highly publicized Moscow concert as a show of trust between himself and the people of Russia during those historic and trying times.
36. Enduring Popularity
Despite not having put out a single new album in over 25 years, Joel has sold out New York’s Madison Square Garden a whopping 40 times since 2014 alone. He also ranks as the sixth best-selling musical artist of all time for the US market. Having sold over 81 million records, Joel has even beat out names such as Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, and the Rolling Stones.
If that’s not an impressive resume, I don’t know what is!
37. Unfinished Business
In high school, Joel had begun playing late-night piano gigs to help his family with their finances. Unfortunately, the crazy schedule that came along with this lifestyle led to him sleeping in one morning and missing his final English exam, causing him to fall one credit short of being able to graduate.
He built his entire legendary music career without ever having had a high school diploma, until he finally decided to go back, finish that credit, and graduate at last in 1992—at the age of 43 years young.
38. Second Career
Joel briefly dabbled in the world of cartoon voice acting in the late 80s, playing the role of a dog named Dodger in an animated adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
In addition to his many musical abilities, Billy Joel is also considerably talented in another unlikely arena—the boxing ring. Joel became a trained boxer when he was a teenager and even won several amateur tournaments. He took up this hobby in response to being attacked by bullies one day on the way to a piano lesson.
He decided to hang up the gloves and call it a day shortly after having his nose broken during a bout.
40. Not a Fantasy
Under a lot of stress, Joel once had a public meltdown in the middle of a concert in Russia. While singing the song “Sometimes a Fantasy,” he took umbrage with a decision to point the theater lights at the audience and interrupted his song to let everyone know. He then knocked over his own keyboard, ran around the stage trying to kick his bandmates, and smashed a microphone stand on the ground—all while lambasting the confused audience’s lack of reaction to these actions.
41. Unsolved Mystery
When it was announced in 2006 that Joel’s longtime drummer of 30 years, Liberty DeVitto, would no larger be part of Joel’s band, the public was never given an explanation as to why. Whenever asked, Joel refuses to comment on the situation, stating that it “would ruin Liberty’s life if I said what really happened, and I don’t want to ruin his life.”
He has also said, “Let’s put it this way—he knows why and I know why, and I’m going to leave it at that.” This has gotta leave you wondering!
42. If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try Try Again!
Joel wasn’t always the “Piano Man” character we know him as today. Believe it or not, he was actually a heavy metal artist early on in his career—starting off with a group called the Hassles and later forming his own group, Attila. Attila released an album in 1970 which failed to chart and which has since been called “one of the worst rock albums of all time” by music critics.
Despite their lack of success, it was ultimately Joel’s “running off” with his bandmate’s wife that led to this group’s demise.