Billy Joel: Top Five Cover Songs by the Piano Man
Billy Joel turns 63 years young today (May 9, 2012), and to celebrate the Piano Man's birthday, here's our take on his top five covers of all time. Joel's like any red-blooded baby boomer American rocker -- he wears his influences on his sleeve and has never been shy about paying them tribute with cover versions, mostly in a live setting. As you might imagine, his tastes run toward the oldies and classic rock era of the fifties and sixties. Not making the list below are songs by artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Leonard Cohen, and Duke Ellington. It's the work of the rock masters that Joel has shown the greatest affection for, and as you'll see, he tears into these classic tracks like nobody's business, honoring everything that makes the original great while giving the song his own unique spin.
In 1987, Joel and his band toured the Soviet Union, a popular rite of passage for rockers in the 1980s as the cold war began to thaw and the Communist state began cautiously opening its door to Western culture. In addition to a full set of his major hits, Joel squeezed two covers onto the live album documenting his shows -- Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A-Changin' and this Beatles classic. Both were obviously calculated to help rouse the Soviet populace in attendance into the mood of rock 'n' roll revolution. Unfortunately, the crowds didn't end up storming the Politburo after the show, but they probably had a pretty awesome time anyway -- the energy on this live recording is pretty amazing.
Joel's relationship with fellow piano man Sir Elton John has resulted in a number of successful co-headlining tours, during which they typically perform individual solo sets as well as a shared opening and encore. Guest spots during each other's solo sets were also a regular occurrence; Joel's set often featured Elton sitting in on a cover of his 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.' 'Road' is one of those classic songs that deserves a fresh take and Joel's vocals put a new twist on some well-worn lyrics.
Along with Dylan, whose work recurs throughout Joel's career as a frequent cover favorite, the songs of the Beatles are often revisited in concert by the Piano Man. He's been known to perform 'A Hard Day's Night' as an encore number and we've already seen his 'Back in the U.S.S.R.' make our own top five covers list. This relative Beatles obscurity, an album track from the 'Hard Day's Night' LP, was a B-side to the single version of 'An Innocent Man.' Like many artists, Joel's music is influenced by a healthy dose of music geekery, which he displays in full bloom by choosing this deep cut to cover.
Here's a rarity not just for Joel's career but for any artist -- he was able to release a "cover" version of a song before the original artist released his own take. Even more amazing, the song in question was a new composition by Bob Dylan. The three "new songs" tacked on to make superfans buy a compilation that Joel included on his 'Greatest Hits Vol. III' release were all covers, but 'To Make You Feel My Love' was a debut of a song by Dylan that wouldn't see release from Dylan himself until later in 1997 on the 'Time Out Of Mind' album. Since then, of course, it's become a smash hit for artists like Garth Brooks and Adele, but let's never forget that it all started with Billy Joel.
So the guy's done Dylan and the Beatles, but this obscure cover of a 1960s soul single makes number one? It earns the spot through sheer enthusiasm and energy. Backed by a tight support band and a full horn section, Joel rips this song to shreds with a classic boogie woogie piano line, rowdy backing vocals from his band, and a smoking sax solo. The original tune by Lloyd Price charted in 1959. It's easy enough to give classic rock tunes a whirl in a live setting, or to carve new territory when performing someone else's material, but 'Wedding Day' hits all the cover sweet spots--it's got a unique identity that channels the original while making it sound fresh. We'd expect nothing less from the birthday boy.