“Piano Man” by Billy Joel
“Piano Man” is actually an autobiographical piece based on a particular juncture in Billy Joel’s life and career. At the time, he was working as a “piano man”, i.e. a lounge musician, in Los Angeles. And the lyrics are highlighted by notable personalities he interacted with, such as “John at the bar”, “Paul… a real estate novelist” and “the businessman slowly get(ting) stoned”. And the insinuation is that these people were regulars at the venue he worked at.
Moreover it has been noted that these characters were all based on individuals Billy knew in real life, though not all of them from his place of work in L.A. For instance, “the waitress… practicing politics” was actually a shoutout to his wife at the time, Elizabeth Weber.
But one thing that all of these featured personalities have in common is a psychological dependency, if you will, on the piano man. In other words, they frequent the lounge specifically for the purpose of hearing him play, as his songs have an uplifting effect on their moods. Indeed it is implied with they are all dealing with their respective unfulfilled ambitions or disappointments, which his songs help to alleviate or make them temporarily forget.
Also his playing skills are exceptional, as they note that his talent level supersedes his current station. So basically, the chorus itself is based on this audience entreating the singer to play them a number.
So overall we can deduce Billy Joel’s days as a small-scale entertainer in Los Angeles, just prior to him making it big professionally, were at least memorable. Or more to the point, he was able to capture this particular era of his life in a hit song.
When did “Piano Man” come out?
“Piano Man” is the title track from Billy Joel’s second album. Columbia Records also released it as the lead single from such on 2 November 1973.
It proved to be the first true hit of Billy Joel’s career and indeed has gone down in history as his signature tune. In fact Mr. Joel himself is commonly referred to as the Piano Man.
During its initial run, “Piano Man” charted in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands and the United States. Moreover, it appeared on the Irish Singles Chart in 2013 and the Dutch Singles Chart in 2014.
But don’t let these humble chart showings fool you, as “Piano Man” has been placed onto Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.
Additionally the Library of Congress deemed it important enough to add to the National Recording Registry in 2015.
And whereas it has yet to actually chart in the United Kingdom, the song has still managed to go Gold there.
Two Music Videos
There are also two different (though similar) music videos to this track, one filmed during its initial release and the other in 1985. Below is the first (original) video.
Who is “Bill” from “Piano Man”?
In the song, “John at the bar” (who was actually a bartender) refers to the singer as “Bill”. This is because at the time Joel was a piano man he performed under the name Bill Martin (which is actually his first name shortened, along with his middle name). And the reason he did so was the same reason he held down such a humble gig in the first place. The singer was hiding out from the record company, Family Productions, he initially signed with as he was in the process of attempting to get out of that contract (which he eventually did with the help of his subsequent label, Columbia Records).
Did Billy Joel write “Piano Man”?
Yes. Joel solely wrote this great classic all by himself. It was subsequently produced by the late American producer Michael Stewart.