Billy Joel, nicknamed Piano Man for his 80s hit under the same title, is a songwriter with other hits including Uptown Girl and We Didn’t Start the Fire. What is less clear- Is Billy Joel Italian?
Billy Joel has a German-Jewish heritage, with his father being born in Germany. So Billy is more German-Jewish in background than Italian. Continue reading to find out more about his heritage and how the infamous Piano Man became the Piano Man.
Billy Joel’s Heritage
Born in the Bronx, New York City, on May 9th, 1949, William Martin Joel was the son of classic pianist Howard Joel and his mother, Rosalind Joel. His parents moved to Long Island, Hicksville when Billy was a year old.
Billy’s mother Rosalind was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York City. Both Rosalind’s parents were Jewish, of whom moved from England.
Billy’s father Howard, was a successful businessman and classical pianist in Germany. During the influx of Nazis into Germany during World War II, the Joel family fled to Switzerland to evade imprisonment for their Jewish heritage.
Howard’s family eventually emigrated to the United States, where he worked as an engineer. He never liked the U.S. though, feeling like the people were materialistic and uneducated.
Brought up in the middle-class suburb of Hicksville, Billy was raised in a musical family with his father being a classical pianist throughout his lifetime. Although it was Howard, Billy’s father with the musical background, it was actually Billy’s mother who persistently encouraged Billy to take up the piano.
Billy first started learning how to play the Piano when he was four years old. From the beginning, Billy showed a natural talent for the piano. From a young age, Billy studied classical piano music, which made sense considering his father’s legacy.
“For whatever reason, not all people are born with the particular gift of being able to express ourselves through music. And, believe me, it is a gift.”
Forward ten years later, Billy shifted away from classical piano towards soul music and British Invasion, with the likes of the Beatles.
How did Billy Joel Become Piano Man?
Well, being brought up in a musical family, especially being the son of a successful classical pianist must have helped Billy become Piano Man. However, Billy rejected his father’s classical influence on Billy’s musicality by his teens, shifting more towards UK Rock n Roll and British Invasion.
Billy’s first band was the Hassels, a rock, and blue-eyed soul group. In the late 60s, the group released two albums which did not prove to be a major success. Shortly after, Billy was part of a Psychedelic heavy metal, Led Zeppelin-inspired band called Attila.
The duo, with drummer Jon Small, recorded a self-titled album (Billy Joel) in 1970. Quite a few critics argued that it was one of the worst rock albums ever made…
Unfortunately for Billy, his duo Psychedelic rock piece did not develop into a major success. Yet, Billy was about to move onto bigger and better things.
Billy released his first solo album a year after his psychedelic rock efforts, titled Cold Spring Harbor. Billy was disappointed with the quality of the album, an album that did not reach commercial success.
The Rockstar life is not easy to achieve, as Billy noticed. After his first solo album, Billy kept quiet for a year after his turbulent contract with Family Productions.
He played as a lounge pianist in Los Angeles, in 1972. He used the pseudonym Bill Martin at this period.
It was at this Executive Room bar in Wilshire, LA that Billy got inspired to write Piano Man. A fictionalized version of conversations he either had himself or overheard during his time working at the bar, Billy was inspired to write a song that captures the various types of people that he met.
Despite the song’s success, reaching the top 20 in the US, Billy displayed a rather modest reaction:
“I was living in LA and trying to get out of a bad record contract I’d signed. I worked under an assumed name, the Piano Stylings of Bill Martin, and just bulls–ted my way through it. I have no idea why that song became so popular”
The characters in the songs are based on real people, “Paul is a real estate novelist” was based on an actual real estate agent who aspired to be the next great American novelist.
“The waitress is practicing politics” was actually based on Billy’s wife Elizabeth Weber, who was a waitress at the Executive Room at the time Billy wrote the song.