OK, pop quiz: who is runner-up to Elvis Presley as the top album seller singer in America? It’s Billy Joel, the unofficial mayor of New York City who, unlike Bill De Blasio and Michael Bloomberg, is not term limited but holds that distinction for life! Superstar musicians in that rarefied league ( and many more only pretenders to it ) almost always surround themselves with gaggles of managers, “minders”, assistants, agents, and promoters , and the size of the entourage doubles when they’re on tour. So imagine my surprise when Billy Joel arrived like The Strangerpersonified for our scheduled interview at my Orlando hotel room door at the decidedly unhip hour of 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning – completely alone. Billy had played to a sold-out audience of 15,000 only 12 hours earlier, but now here he stood before me without security guard or tour manager, dressed in an old navy-blue t-shirt, matching shorts , and well-worn canvas deck shoes, just another schlep tourist whose kid wanted to meet a real celebrity. Like Mickey Mouse, for instance.
What ensued was, for me, a delightful conversation, two guys who had never met, from different parts of America, just shooting the breeze about mutual loves. Sure, we talked rock’n’roll, from Billy Joel seeing the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show to British Invasion bands that followed, garage rock , and the New York City punk scene that influenced his approach on the 1980 Glass Housesalbum. But we also talked at length about baseball (he was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan until they moved to L.A. in 1958, when he switched to the Yankees); Harley Davidson Cafe Sportsters ; the motorcycle accident which almost cost Billy Joel his hands, his career, and his life ; and the break-up of his marriage to his former manager even while her brother managed Joel’s career amidst claims of impropriety.
The only thing Billy Joel claimed that he did not want to discuss that morning was his Fall 1977 blockbuster breakout The Stranger, a bit of a change-up pitch for me since that monumental album ( it knocked the iconic Simon and Garfunkel’sBridge Over Troubled Water out as the top-seller in Columbia Records long storied history) was one of the primary reasons I was there. But I wisely took the pitch rather than line driving it back at Joel, him fiercely independent & a card-carrying contrarian, with me figuring that this engaging conversationalist with the unpretentious attitude would be obliged to get around to discussing the 10 million plus- seller The Stranger at some point. And as you hear in this classic rock interview, I was right. And you also get to hear from Billy Joel’s producer of The Stranger, the legendary Phil Ramone, with 34 Grammy nominations one of the most acclaimed technicians in music history who sadly passed away in March 2013. Hear the entire Phil Ramone interview here. Happy birthday, Billy, we love you just the way you are, seventeen or seventy. –Redbeard