Since releasing his first hit song, "Piano Man," in 1973, Joel has become the sixth best-selling recording artist and the third best-selling solo artist in the United States, according to the RIAA.
Joel had Top 40 hits in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s; achieving 33 Top 40 hits in the U.S., all of which he wrote himself. He is also a six-time Grammy Award winner, a 23-time Grammy nominee and has sold over 150 million records worldwide.
He was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1992, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2006 and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2009. Joel "retired" from recording pop music in 1993 but continues to tour.
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William Martin "Billy" Joel was born in The Bronx and raised in Hicksville, New York. His half-brother, Alexander Joel, who is an acclaimed classical conductor in Europe, currently chief musical director of the Staatstheater Braunschweig.
Joel's father was an accomplished classical pianist. Billy reluctantly began piano lessons at an early age, at his mother's insistence. Because he took part in music, rather than sports, was a source of teasing and bullying in his early years.
As a teenager, Joel took up boxing so that he would be able to defend himself. He boxed successfully on the amateur Golden Gloves circuit for a short time, winning twenty-two bouts, but abandoned the sport shortly after having his nose broken in his twenty-fourth boxing match.
Joel attended Hicksville High School, but did not graduate. Due to playing at a piano bar, he was one English credit short of the graduation requirement; he overslept on the day of an important exam. "I told them, 'the hell with it. If I'm not going to Columbia University, I'm going to Columbia Records and you don't need a high school diploma over there'."
Columbia did, in fact, become the label that eventually signed him. (Also, in 1992, he submitted essays to the school board and was awarded his diploma at Hicksville High's annual graduation ceremony—25 years after he had left.)
After seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, Joel decided to pursue a full-time musical career, and set about finding a local Long Island band to join. When he as 14 years old he found the Echoes, a group that specialized in British Invasion covers. The Echoes became a popular New York attraction, convincing him to leave high school to become a professional musician.
Joel began playing recording sessions with the Echoes in 1965, when he was 16 years old. Later, in 1965, the Echoes changed their name to the Emeralds and then to the Lost Souls.
In 1967, he left that band to join the Hassles, a Long Island band that had signed a contract with United Artists Records. Over the next year and a half, they released The Hassles in 1967, Hour of the Wolf in 1968, and four singles, all of which failed commercially.
Following The Hassles' demise in 1969, he formed the duo Attila with Hassles drummer Jon Small. Attila released their eponymous debut album in July 1970, and disbanded the following October. The reason for the group's break-up has been attributed to Joel's affair with Small's wife, Elizabeth, whom Joel eventually married.
Joel signed his first solo record contract with Artie Ripp's Family Productions, and subsequently recorded his first solo album Cold Spring Harbor. However, Ripp mastered and released the album at the wrong speed, resulting in Joel's voice sounding too high. In addition, the terms of Ripp's Family Productions contract also paid very little money to Joel.
Popular cuts such as "She's Got a Way" and "Everybody Loves You Now" were originally released on this album, although they did not gain much attention until released as live performances in 1981 on Songs in the Attic.
Cold Spring Harbor gained a second chance on the charts in 1984, when Columbia reissued the album after slowing it down to the correct speed. The album reached #158 in the US and #95 in the UK nearly a year later.
Joel played local clubs in New York in the fall of 1971 and moved out to Los Angeles early in 1972, adopting the stage name Bill Martin. While in California he did a six month gig in The Executive Room piano bar on Wilshire Boulevard. It was there he composed his signature hit "Piano Man" about the various patrons of the lounge.
Philadelphia radio station WMMR-FM started playing a tape of a new song of Joel's, "Captain Jack," taken from a live concert. It became an underground hit on the East Coast. Herb Gordon, an executive of Columbia Records, heard Joel's music and Joel signed a recording contract with Columbia in 1972. He returned to New York City in 1975.
Beginning in 1994, Joel toured extensively with Elton John on a series of "Face to Face" tours, making them the longest running and most successful concert tandem in pop music history.
In 2001, Joel released Fantasies & Delusions, a collection of classical piano pieces. All were composed by Joel and performed by Richard Joo. Joel often uses bits of these songs as interludes in live performances, and some of them are part of the score for the hit show Movin' Out. The album topped the classical charts at #1.
In 2005, Columbia released a box set, My Lives, which is largely a compilation of demos, b-sides, live/alternate versions and even a few Top 40 hits.
-----Despite having never graduated from high school because of a missed exam, Joel has been presented with multiple honorary doctorates:
• Doctor of Humane Letters from Fairfield University (1991)
• Doctor of Music from Berklee College of Music (1993)
Hofstra University (1997)
• Doctor of Music from Southampton College (2000)
• Doctor of Fine Arts from Syracuse University (2006)
• Doctor of Musical Arts from the Manhattan School of Music (2008)