Billy Joel Recalls the “Odd Situation” That Inspired His Breakout Hit “Piano Man”

Billy Joel’s 1973 breakthrough hit “Piano Man,” was released 50 years ago last month. To commemorate the milestone anniversary, Joel was interviewed about the classic tune by writer Bob McKinnon for a special presentation for New York’s WLIW radio station.

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“Piano Man” was inspired by Joel’s experiences playing at a piano bar while living in Los Angeles. The tune’s lyrics are told from the perspective of a performer who relates the somewhat depressing stories of the various patrons who watch him play as they get drunk at the bar.

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Joel revealed in the interview that he didn’t know what became of the people who he wrote about in the song. He also noted that when he returned to L.A. a few years later, after he’d moved back home to New York, the bar had been demolished.

“I think there was like an insurance building or something there, or maybe even condominiums,” he said, “but the bar was gone and the people who … used to hang out at the bar, they were gone too. I don’t know where really any of them ended up.”

How Joel Came Up with the Song

Joel also reflected on how he came up with the song.

“I suppose when I was actually doing the gig, I was thinking, ‘Well, this is different than I thought things were gonna be,’” he explained. “I wanted to be a recording artist … and here I was in this bar in Los Angeles playing for a drinking crowd. … It was kind of an odd situation for me, but I recognized that there was something that was so unique about it, I might be able to write a song about this. I might be able to capture this moment. And that’s how it got written.”

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Hopes Those He Wrote “Piano Man” About Liked the Song

Asked how he hoped the people referenced in “Piano Man” might’ve have reacted to the song, Joel said, “I would’ve hoped that they would’ve liked [that] there was a song about them, that I was kind of celebrating them.”

He added, “That it was something that inspired music and lyrics, because it wasn’t the happiest place in the world, but it ended up being kind of a hit record.”

Reflecting on “Piano Man” Becoming a Hit

“Piano Man,” which was the title track of Joel’s second studio album, reached No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Joel told the interviewer that he was surprised that “Piano Man” became a hit for a number of reasons.

“I can’t figure it out for the life of me,” he said. “It’s in waltz time, it’s in 6-8 time, which is unusual for a hit record, because not many people do the waltz anymore. But it was a different kind of record. It was almost like a novelty record.”

He also pointed out that the single actually didn’t sell very well initially.

“It got a lot of airplay,” Joel noted. “It’s what they call a turntable hit, ’cause this was back in the day when disc jockeys can spin any record they wanted to spin. … [But] it didn’t make a lot of money for the record company. It didn’t sell a lot of copies, but it just got a lot of airplay.”

Joel’s Upcoming Concert Plans

Joel’s next concert is a New Year’s Eve show this Sunday at USB Arena in Elmont, New York.

The 74-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer also has seven more shows remaining in his monthly residency series at the famed New York City venue Madison Square Garden, which wraps up on July 25, 2024.

Besides those concerts, Joel’s itinerary includes a January 24 show in Tokyo; co-headlining performances with Sting on February 24 in Tampa, Florida, and April 13 in San Diego; a co-headlining show with Stevie Nicks on March 9 in Arlington, Texas; and an August 9 concert in Cardiff, Wales, in the U.K.

Tickets for Joel’s concerts are available now via various outlets, including StubHub.

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