Behind the Meaning of the Classic Piano Bar Song, “Piano Man” by Billy Joel

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man / Sing us a song tonight / Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody / And you got us feelin’ alright.

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“Piano Man,” perhaps legendary songwriter Billy Joel’s most famous song, is full of a cast of characters we’ve never met but know so well—from Paul, the real estate novelist, and Davey, who is still in the Navy, to the bartender and the man making love to his tonic and gin. Even the waitress practicing politics. We know them all. Joel put them in a song and we live with them whenever we want to hear the tune again.

But let’s dive into the meaning of the song.

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Songwriting P.O.V.

As noted above, “Piano Man” tells the story of a professional piano player at a city bar. With the slew of people coming in and out of the bar—their stories, their ups, and downs—the piano man watches and retains all of their tales. Then those come out in the lyrics as he talks about patrons, bartenders, waitresses, and more.

The song is based on Joel’s experience as a lounge performer in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. He performed as such for about six months between 1972 and 1973 at the now-defunct Executive Room bar in the Wilshire district. He’d move to California from his native New York to avoid the record company he’d signed a contract with after the poor performance of his album, Cold Spring Harbor. Joel lived in L.A. for about three years working under the name “Bill Martin” since he couldn’t use his own name, due to contract issues. And all of the people highlighted in the song are based on Joel’s real-life encounters.

The Characters

John at the bar was an actual bartender who worked during Joel’s shifts. Paul the real estate novelist is a real estate agent who was also named Paul, and each night he sat at the bar and worked on what might become the next great American novel. The waitress who practiced politics was Joel’s first wife, Elizabeth Weber, whom he moved to L.A. with in 1972. She also worked at The Executive Room while Joel performed.

The Writing

Written by Joel in 3/4 (also known as waltz time), the song opens with a flourish of piano before Joel comes in singing. He is accompanied by harmonica (that he plays), as well as mandolin and accordion, along with more standard fare like bass, drums, and acoustic guitar. Joel has stated that he laments the fact that the chord structure for the song is the same in the verse and the chorus—but millions of listeners haven’t seemed to mind. Likely because of the lush storytelling and familiar scene setting.

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The Release

The song was Joel’s first single released in North America and appeared on his 1973 LP of the same name. Released as a formal single on November 2 of that year, “Piano Man” peaked at No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1974. It’s since become one of his signature hits, if not the signature song. More recently, when he’s performed it live, the audience sings the chorus. In 2015, the song was selected for the National Recording Registry for the Library of Congress.

When it was set to release as the lead single for the album, Piano Man, Columbia thought the song was too long. So, executives cut two verses in half and spliced them together, cutting the track by about one minute. A promo 45-inch record had an even shorter version, cut from the original 5:37 to 3:16, removing the fourth verse and final chorus. Joel’s later single, “The Entertainer,” includes lyrics about the song’s trimming, It was a beautiful song, but it ran too long / If you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit.

Contract Issues

Joel had moved to Los Angeles from New York to record his first LP, which turned out to be Cold Spring Harbor. But that process was scarred by a mastering error by the producers from his record company, Family Productions. After that experience, Joel wished to leave his contract for a better one at Columbia Records, but he couldn’t. So, as he put it, he hid out at the bar, performing as Bill Martin (his full name is William Martin Joel) while the lawyers at Columbia worked to extricate him from his deal with Family Productions. Eventually, it worked out and “Piano Man” became Joel’s first hit.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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