Billy Joel, ‘Piano Man’ (Legacy Edition) – Album Review
Before he became the “Piano Man,” Billy Joel was a scrappy kid from Long Island dreaming of landing a major label record deal and breaking through as a solo artist.
The two-CD Legacy Edition of ‘Piano Man’ commemorates that nascent talent and serves as a reminder of many people’s first introduction to Joel’s hit-making power.
But it’s not his sophomore effort, released in November 1973 on Columbia Records, that’s really on display here. Instead, it’s the inclusion of a rare radio concert on the second disc.
Legend has it the April 1972 broadcast from Philadelphia’s WMMR found on disc two helped Joel secure his Columbia Records deal a full 18 months before ‘Piano Man’ would ever hit turntables.
In fact, the session captures what may be the earliest renditions of future ‘Piano Man’ material like ‘The Ballad of Billy the Kid’ and ‘Captain Jack.’
The Sigma Sound Studios broadcast shows Joel at his early best as a brash, bold and ballsy performer. Like a diamond in the rough, the prodigy of the ivories can be heard cracking open a beer and loudly slurping as he banters between songs. At one point before launching into one of the quieter numbers, the Piano Man actually calls for a ‘moment of silent meditation’ before abruptly switching gears and quipping that he’s ‘trying to work up a burp and I want to do it on the radio.’
Joel is accompanied by a backing band for most of the numbers on the radio session, with the MVP award going to sideman drummer Rhys Clark. The skinsman’s rhythmic assault sits loudly front and center in the new mix, giving some of the already rocking numbers an even extra raucous air.
Among the several quieter moments of solo piano on the Philly broadcast are the classic ‘She’s Got a Way’ and ‘Nocturne’ — both cuts from Joel’s 1971 debut, ‘Cold Spring Harbor.’ The latter tune shows Joel’s early attempts at classical composition, a foreshadowing of what would come 30 years later on 2001’s ‘Fantasies & Delusions.’
And though he’s not known as a particularly brooding artist, Joel really opens a vein on ‘Rosalinda,’ one of three songs from the radio session that have never been recorded in any other form.
The mysterious ballad, written as a tribute to his empty-nester mother, offers a psychologically tense observation of a woman who gives all for her children. It’s set to the accompaniment of a busy keyboard workout that swirls and lurches while never losing sight of a dark, dangerous melodicism.
It just goes to show that if you thought you knew Billy Joel, there’s always another side of him to discover.