Billy Joel – Piano Man (Legacy Edition) (CD review)

Billy Joel – Piano Man (Deluxe Edition – Sony/Legacy) CD review

There’s a point during the previously unreleased concert on disc 2 of Piano Man (Legacy Edition) that the singer quips “we’re recording this for Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits.”  Of course, at the time (1972), Joel had yet to be signed by a major label, and the prospect of a career-spanning collection seemed light years away.   He was coming off his disappointing debut Cold Spring Harbor and had made a stop at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia (soon to become the epicenter for the Philly Soul movement, with artists like the O’Jays and Billy Paul).

Recorded in front of a live audience and simulcast on legendary rocker WMMR in Philly, the concert sounds fantastic, with Joel and band running through six cuts from his recent album, and three that would eventually end up on Piano Man a year later: “Travelin’ Prayer,” “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” and “Captain Jack.” Also included are three songs that Joel never committed to tape – “Long, Long Time,” “Rosalinda” (not to be confused with the similarly-titled “Rosalinda’s Eyes” from 52nd Street), and “Josephine,” a great Chuck Berry rocker that would’ve helped boost the intensity of the album had it been included.  There’s also a fair amount of in-between song banter, showing just how at ease Joel was in front of an audience, even at a young age.  In a way, this concert was pivotal in his career – when WMMR began playing the live version of “Captain Jack,” the response was immediate, helping create a buzz which certainly aided Joel in getting signed to Columbia a few months later.

Released the next year, Piano Man is certainly an ambitious debut.  From the banjo on the opening cut “Travelin’ Prayer” to the Caribbean drums on “Worse Comes to Worst,” and the gospel-inflected “Ain’t No Crime,” Joel tried his hand at many styles, and managed to hold it all together with spirited playing and memorable hooks.  There’s a grandiose quality to several songs, including the cinematic “Ballad of Billy the Kid,” which starts with the opening notes of “Happy Trails,” and features prominent strings and horns. The young Joel’s voice also contains a certain operatic quality — a quivering, and a shrillness that is not present in his later albums; either he grew out of it, or just became more comfortable as a singer.  The album closes with a studio version of his WMMR radio hit “Captain Jack,” perhaps a little too heavy on the bombast (he would nail it in live form on Songs in the Attic years later).  Overall, the entire album stands up quite well.  In fact, the only thing that truly dates it to the early Seventies is the pervasive steel guitar that was prominent in the California singer/songwriter albums of the day.

Of course, the record’s title track would end up being his signature song – Joel character- sketching from his piano bench in a smoky bar.  Yet surprisingly, when “Piano Man” was released as a single, it didn’t do that well – barely scraping the Top 30, while another piano-playing songsmith (Elton John) sat in the top spot with “Bennie & the Jets.”  But, it was a start.  However, Joel would find following up this initial success daunting – his next two efforts – Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles were both commercially unsuccessful.  It wasn’t until The Stranger, that he finally hit pay dirt.  By that point, Joel had honed his songwriting and become a more confident singer.  Piano Man gives us a chance to relive those very first steps on Billy Joel’s road to stardom.  The inclusion of the bonus live album further proves that he was an electrifying performer, even that early in his career.  –Tony Peters