The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #182: The Piano Man by Billy Joel (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #182: The Piano Man by Billy Joel.

It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday

the regular crowd shuffles in….

And so begins one of the truly great “story songs” of all-time…”The Piano Man” by Billy Joel.

“The Piano Man” was written by Joel as he followed one of the #1 rules of writing which is, to write about what you know. This song is based upon his own experiences as a piano man in a lounge in Los Angeles. The characters who populate “The Piano Man” were all based upon real people that he came to know in his role as the man was responsible for helping them “to forget about life for awhile“. “The waitress who was practising politics” was his real-life wife who, along with him, were trying to work at any job they could find just to pay the rent and put food on their table. “Davey, who is still in the Navy” was a real friend named David Heintz, who remained on active duty all throughout the early stages of Joel’s career. “Now Paul ….the real estate novelist” was actually a real estate agent who would sit at the end of the bar each night and work on the next great American novel that, acoording to Joel, probably never got written because Paul was always drinking his evenings away. “John, at he bar, is a friend of mine. He gets me my drinks for free.“…..well, as you guessed it, “John” actually was a friend in real life, too. And, on and on the stories could go.

At the time, Billy Joel was a native New Yorker who was involved in a contractual dispute with the record company that produced his first album. There had been some error with the master tapes for his first album which resulted in poor sound quality. Not surprisingly, sales of his debut release tanked. Joel sought to gain his release but, because Joel had signed with them, ‘for life” as a performer with the stage name, “Billy Joel”, he would not be able to perform again, as himself, unless he won his case, In the meantime, in order to earn an income, he fled to the other side of the country and performed in the piano bar as “Bill Martin” (with “Martin” being his middle name). Eventually, his case made it through the Court System and a settlement was reached that freed him to sign with another label but, obligated him to compensate his original label by dedicating a percentage of future royalties to them “for life”.

“The Piano Man” has gone on to become one of Billy Joel’s most beloved songs. However, as much as singing it to adoring crowds brings him satisfaction, he is also apologetic to all of the other lounge singers who tickle the ivories in bars the world over because he has saddled them with a song that gets continually requested by drunks oozing with sincerity in their belief that their song request is, absolutely, without a doubt, the most appropriate and clever song that can be sung at that exact moment in time by the piano man before them.

“The Piano Man” has an enduring quality because of the nature of the story being told by the lyrics. But, there is more to its’ appeal than that. The cadence of the song is in “Waltz time” or 3/4 time, which helps to give the song that wavy rhythm that carries the story along. *(If you close your eyes and hum the song while picturing ballroom dancers, you can imagine how the song is structured like a waltz.) The harmonica that is so integral to the song is a tip-of-the-hat to Bob Dylan who, Joel claims, was always an influence when it came to his own writing and playing style. Finally, the verses are, also, written as limericks which further adds to the rthymic flow that “The Piano Man” contains:

Now Paul is a real estate novelist

who never had time for a wife.

And he’s talking to Davey,

who’s still in the Navy

And probably will be for life.”

Overall, “The Piano Man” was the first song of note for Billy Joel in a career that has included such hits as, “She’s Got a Way”, “The Entertainer”, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”, “Just the Way You Are”, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”, “Only the God Die Young”, “She’s Always a Woman”, “The Stranger”, “My Life”, “Big Shot”, “You May Be Right”, “It’s Still Rock n’ Roll To Me”, “Pressure”, “Allentown”, “Tell Her About It”, “Uptown Girl”, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and so many more. Billy Joel has sold over 150 million records worldwide. He was inducted into The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. He is still actively performing today and, when he does, he always finds time for the song that started it all off for him, “The Piano Man”.

I play that for you now. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “The Piano Man” by Billy Joel, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Billy Joel, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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