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#ThrowbackThursday: “Piano Man” by Billy Joel

The 1973 single "Piano Man" has become the signature song for Billy Joel, who will be a headlining performer at the 2015 Bonnaroo Music and Art Festival.
  – The 1973 single "Piano Man" has become the signature song for Billy Joel, who will be a headlining performer at the 2015 Bonnaroo Music and Art Festival.

by Sean Smith

The lineup for the 2015 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival was announced earlier this week. The 13th edition of the festival will be held June 11th through the 14th in Manchester, Tennessee. Some of the notable musical acts announced to take one of the 12 stages at the festival this year include Mumford & Sons, Deadmau5, Kendrick Lamar, Earth Wind & Fire, and Billy Joel. You can check out the full list of announced performers on the Bonnaroo website, and tickets for the four-day festival go on sale this Saturday, January 17th at noon EST.

While the headliners for Bonnaroo are largely made up of popular musical acts of today, the inclusion of Billy Joel as a headline act this year isn’t surpising. Over the last few years the festival has made it a point to include at least one more legendary and iconic act to top the bill. Last year it was Elton John and Lionel Richie, in 2013 it was Paul McCartney and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and in 2012 it was The Beach Boys.

Billy Joel is one of the most celebrated and commercially-successful musical acts of modern times. He has sold over 150 million records in his career, was inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame in 1992, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. His hits over the years have included the likes of “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, “Uptown Girl”, “New York State of Mind”, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”, and “Only the Good Die Young” just to name a few. Billy Joel has won six Grammy Awards for his work and has had 33 songs that he has written and performed chart within the Top 40 charts. But with the news coming this week that Billy Joel will be a headlining performer at this summer’s Bonnaroo Festival, today we take the time to remember his legendary signature song “Piano Man”.

Billy Joel released his first solo studio album Cold Spring Harbor on Family Records in 1971. The production on the record was to say the least lackluster. An error in the post-production of the record caused the songs to be played too quickly, making Joel’s voice sound somewhat unnatural. His record deal with Family Records was later purchased by Columbia Records who released his second solo album Piano Man. The title track for that album was written by Billy Joel about his time spent playing at the Executive Room piano bar in Los Angeles, where he performed under the name Bill Martin.

All of the characters depicted in the song “Piano Man” are based on real people in Billy Joel’s life. When he sings about “John at the bar” he is talking about the real-life bartender at the Executive Room named John who worked the bar when he was performing there. The “Paul is a real estate novelist” character depicts a regular at the bar who was an actual real estate agent named Paul who would work on writing a book while drinking at the Executive Room. The waitress he describes as “practicing politics” was actually speaking about his first wife Elizabeth Weber, who he initially met at the piano bar.

“Piano Man” is now largely thought of as Billy Joel’s signature song. In fact, his nickname is the Piano Man. However, upon the song’s initial release, it was only moderately successful. “Piano Man” was released in 1973 as a single and only reached as high as the #25 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Although as time went by, and Joel turned out more popular songs over the years, “Piano Man” gained more popularity with his fan base. So much so, that despite the fact that a video promo was shot for the song upon its initial release in 1974, a new video for the song was filmed in 1985, which you can check out below.

So, in light of Billy Joel being announced this week as a headline performer at this year’s Bonnaroo Music and Art Festival, this week’s #tbt remembers the 1973 Billy Joel classic “Piano Man”. Enjoy!

Billy Joel

“Piano Man”

From Piano Man

Family Productions/Columbia Records