Piano Man

Written by Christian James Hand

By 1972, William Martin Joel’s career was, pretty much, over. He had released his debut album, Cold Spring Harbor, to a crushing silence. The record had been mastered at the wrong speed, which was to blame for its awful sonics and even more awful sales. Prior to this, a young, and naive, Joel had signed a LIFETIME recording contract with Family Productions, the record label owned by renowned huckster Artie Ripp (It is believed that Artie is the driving-force behind the term “rip off.” This may not be factually accurate).

Carrying a debt of $450,000 for the recording and marketing of the album, Joel was more than a little f’ed, to say the least. In an attempt to clear his head and get some perspective, a 23-year-old William, along with his ex-bandmates’ ex-wife (scandalous!), now HIS wife Elizabeth, departed New York for the sunnier climes of Los Angeles. The hope was that he would be able to get out of the deal with Ripp and get on-board at Columbia Records under the watchful eye of industry titan Walter Yetnikoff. There was a problem though, Joel didn’t want Family to know that he had moved to Los Angeles. So, he needed a job. The obvious choice was to begin working as the musical act at the Executive Room on Wilshire Blvd. To maintain his anonymity, he chose to perform under the stage name Bill Martin. It was also here that he would take some of his experiences as The Entertainer and fashion one of his most indelible songs. It was while at the Executive Room that he became The Piano Man.

The Players:
Drums – Ron Tutt
Bass  EITHER Wilton Felder OR Emory Gordy Jr.
Accordion – Michael Omartian
Mandolin – Uncredited
Guitars – EITHER Larry Carlton, Dean Parks, OR Richard Bennett
Piano/Harmonica/Vocal – Billy Joel

To The Tape!!
Ron Tutt came to the Piano Man sessions with a lengthy resume that included such luminaries as Roy Orbison, Neil Diamond, Jerry Garcia, and time behind the kit as sticksman for Elvis’ TCB Band — no slouch on the old trap, if you know what I mean. “Piano Man” is based in waltz time. There aren’t many drummers that could really make THAT work, but Ron comports himself beautifully back there. The entire song is a master class in self-control and putting the tune first. At the 4:30 mark, however, Old Ronny gets a little flash and gives it some lovely ruffs and ghost-noted fills that explode as Billy sings of carnivals and loneliness. The entire track is SUCH a bastard. Tutt’s bass-drum work is so decisive, so meant. You can hear the thought in all of it. A standard waltz wouldn’t be nearly as busy, but this is a Rock Waltz and there needs to be sufficient support for the bass-line, the piano, and that vocal. Tight is the best way to describe it. There is no wasted effort. Nothing extraneous. I am particularly fond of the hi-hat playing. It’s spartan, but there is a fastidious swing to it. Not easy to do. Honestly, it would take a special kind of mind to ENJOY playing a song with this feel. Kudos, Ron, I couldn’t do it. I also find it interesting just how much reverb the drums are drenched in. One could imagine that a producer today would want to reflect the intimate nature of the location of the song and possibly use a much drier sound. Reverb of this nature gives the impression that it was played in a much larger space — perhaps they knew that Joel would end up as one of the great Arena Rockers! #spoileralert

The credits for this record, as you can see from the above list, are a little hazy. The bass department for the whole album was occupied by two players, and both of them are capable of doing the business on this track. Who was it? No idea. Wilton Felder had played with The Jackson 5, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, and Marvin Gaye, among many others. He was both an accomplished saxophonist AND bass player. The other possibility listed is Emory Gordy Jr. He came to this gig after filling the bass department for Liberace, Neil Diamond, and as the other half of the Engine Room for Elvis’ TCB Band. If asked, I would hazard a guess that it is Wilton playing on this song. The little flourishes in the post-chorus section, the establishing riff and groove in the verse, and the other version of the line in the second verse all sound like Wilton to me. But, who knows. All that matters is that it’s AWESOME! Holy smokes! It takes a special player to get a waltz to be FuNkY, and this line is FUNKY. I love the counter-melody that is employed in the “La-La” bit. Simple. Complex. Simple. My favorite. The entire bass line evolves over the course of the track, which is pretty friggin’ smart. The song, in its original form, is over 5 minutes. It would be VERY easy for that to become boring and plodding. By building the track, adding more fireworks and flourishes over the course of that time, it keeps the ear refreshed with new melodies and relationships. WHOEVER wrote this line is VERY good. And the playing is sublime. R&B Waltz isn’t an easy thing to invent!

Billy is also an accomplished harmonica player, and this track starts with him giving it the beans on both the piano and the mouth harp. He has often said that his major influence on that instrument is, of course, Bob Dylan, and it shows here. Another other cool little surprise in this track is that there is an acoustic guitar played in the choruses. It’s a trick that is often employed to provide somewhat of a percussive drive to a part without using a percussion instrument. The jangle of the guitar becomes almost a “Shaker In Key” that is FELT more than heard; I have used this trick myself and it’s very effective. And a neat little way to impress the kids.

One can only imagine that the accordion was an instrument that Joel heard often in the Italian communities where he was raised. Michael Omartian also has a resume filled with the big names. He played accordion for Dolly Parton, Amy Grant, and Michael Bolton, to name a few. What I love about this texture in the song is that it isn’t played as a waltz, or as a strolling player in the bar that the song is set in. To me, it sounds more like a sea-shanty. Almost as if Joel and all of the punters in the bar are actually a crew of pirates on an old ship, traveling the seas, in need of a song to sing in the hours before the marauding happens. Quite an accomplishment. There are MANY narratives happening in this song. As to WHO played the acoustic guitar? No clue. One of the three blokes listed.

The guitar track reveals that the acoustic isn’t just played during the choruses. It does the same “Shaker In Key” trick FOR THE WHOLE SONG!! So smart. And you can barely hear it, you FEEL it. But, it is another texture that takes it from waltz to Pirate Anthem, as far as I am concerned. And THEN!?! The even BIGGER surprise…THE MANDOLIN! How is this uncredited?!? It’s amazing. Beautiful execution. And another track that enforces the ribald, sea-shanty, pirate nature of the song. Just give it a listen and then go back and listen to the full mix. It’s friggin’ brilliant. Tucked inside the mix. Right headphone. Unless you have them on backwards. YOU HAVE THEM ON BACKWARDS!!

The Piano. Well, the song is called “Piano Man” and Billy Joel is a legendary piano player, sooooooo….this track is mint. Couldn’t be anything but. It tickles me to no end that the song is called “Piano Man” and is played in such a way that anyone who sits at a piano, anywhere, and bangs through it while singing the lyrics BECOMES the Piano Man. You go from being OUTSIDE the song, to it being ABOUT you, by simply playing it. On the piano. The instrument named in the title…that has become YOUR instrument…and the story, your story. How fucking perfect is that?! I struggle to think of another song that does this trick. If you’ve got one, please leave the title in the Comments section.

Oh, and his solo is magnificent.

William’s voice is one that instantly brings you to a place. He is one of the great troubadours of contemporary music. This vocal is one of his best. There is so much going on. Firstly, even though the song is first person, and sung by Joel about himself, he STILL seems to adopt a character to tell you the story. Almost as if it ISN’T him. Perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps it’s Bill Martin who performs “Piano Man.” Either way, I don’t know if I have heard Joel use this character since. It’s interesting that there are blokes that played on this record that also spent some time in the trenches with Randy Newman, as this is a favorite conceit of Newman’s. It’s such a sublime trick that Joel pulls off on this track. Good grief. The fragility of his voice at moments, the strength below the big belted notes. So much Broadway. It’s a musical theater performance. The story telling. There’s a whole musical waiting to happen here.

The characters that he sings of were mostly people from the bar that he saw nightly. Paul, the Real Estate Novelist, was a real person. The waitress was his wife, Elizabeth. Davey was actually David Heinz, a sailor that Joel had met while in Spain in ’72. It’s all real. Authentic. And, I think that that is why it resonates so much when you hear it. It all happened. There’s no fiction here. It’s directly from his own experiences. Like a good book. Springsteen, Newman, Joel, all songwriters who were capable of distilling their worlds, and ours, down to 4-minute books. Troubadours. The last verse is a gobsmacker. You can imagine him leading the whole bar in singing that last verse and chorus with him. What must it have been like to sit in that place and hear Billy Joel working through some of his early works? Absolutely amazing. Especially because nobody had any clue that Bill Martin would go on to become Billy Joel. Ain’t life grand?

I had the pleasure of attending one of Billy Joel and Elton John’s MANY Face to Face shows, and it was quite something to see the difference between the two performers. Elton had CLEARLY graduated to arenas before Joel because there was a distance in his show. We couldn’t quite GET there. Billy Joel, on the other hand, shrunk The Forum down to a tiny little nightclub. It was brilliant. We all felt like we were there with him. See one of his shows as soon as you can. It shouldn’t be missed. Hearing an entire arena sing along to this one is an experience that everyone should have. It’s church.

In “The Entertainer” Joel sings “It was a beautiful song, but it ran too long/If you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit/So they cut it down to 3:05” about Columbia’s radio department demanding an edit of “Piano Man” that they could get on the FM stations they needed to have play it. Billy certainly wasn’t happy about THAT desecration. The album version is THE version. It has to be. You need all of the characters, including the narrator, reading the whole story for you. But, more importantly, you need to give him time to build it all. To bring you in. Get you singing. Swaying backwards and forwards. Lost in the comfort of your solitude being replaced, for JUST a moment, with the unity of raised voices and smiling faces. For 5 minutes, everything is okay.

My dad was a big Billy Joel fan, and I can remember hearing these songs coming off the Thorens deck and filling the room in our little house in London. They were tales from an alien landscape. A world a million miles away. But, now that I have lived in Los Angeles for all of these years (many of them spent in the music industry), I feel part of “Piano Man.” I feel like a character in it. One of the punters, but also one of the story tellers, and each night, as I leave the bar, I walk to the piano, put some bread in the jar, and ask Bill Martin, “Man, what are you doing here?”

Oh, and as a gift on his birthday, Walter Yetnikoff purchased back the rights to Joel’s catalog from Artie Ripp and gave them to him at the party. There are rumors that Walter MAY have threatened physical violence in order to get said rights, but…they’re just rumors.

Ah, the Good Ol’ Days. Where are these pirates now?

Until the next one,

PS – You can find me on IG, Facebook, and here if you want any info about The Sessions and where to catch me live.

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