If you’re one of those purists who thinks that the Great American Songbook is closed, that the icons of yesteryear will forever be ensconsed in an ivory tower with no newcomers allowed, then we suggest you don’t read any further. We’re about to compare two songwriters in a way that will probably upset you!
No sense beating around the bush: Billy Joel is the Irving Berlin of his generation.
Now if you’re thinking that’s preposterous, or if Billy Joel is just some greasy kid from Long Island who plays piano and happened to marry Christie Brinkley, well, you really need to read this.
Although Billy Joel has always been regarded as a showman, a performer, a piano man, it is our contention at PopularSong.org that it will be his talent as a songwriter that is remembered a century from now. His performance and style may live on in video, but it will be like listening to Irving Berlin on recordings made from old wax cylinders. Berlin’s words and music live on, long after his recordings become irrelevant. Berlin sang his songs with style, but more talented vocalists continue to do better versions. 100 years from now, it is likely that Billy Joel’s music will be regarded the same way.
Now if you’re that stodgy purist who doesn’t believe anybody from today can compare to anyone from yesteryear, you’re probably saying “well that doesn’t make Billy Joel comparable to Irving Berlin!” And you’re correct, it doesn’t. It’s just part of the equation.
Father of the Modern New York Sound
Consider first the impact of their music. Berlin is basically the father of American Pop, building on the foundations of jazz, folk, and the operettas of the day. With “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” he invented pop, and used that as a springboard to re-invent the operetta and ultimately, American Musical Theatre. Joel is basically the father of the modern pop/jazz sound, building on the foundations of jazz, doo-wop, and the British Invasion. And if anything, he’s enabled musicologists to better define the melting pot known as the New York Sound.
Support for these points is found in Joel’s music. Like Berlin with “Alexander’s”, Joel’s first hit may not be his best nor his personal favorite, but “Piano Man” has become his signature song and the benchmark for everything to follow. And like Berlin, Joel has reached across different musical styles, and hit homeruns in each. After decades of success in the pop/rock format, his song “River of Dreams” topped the adult contemporary charts for three months in 1993. In 2001 Joel released an album of classical piano compositions — using another pianist to get the most out of his songs — and the CD topped the classical charts. He’s even headlined Broadway, with a successful short-run show based on his music, performed by others.
If you still harbor doubts that Joel has penned a significant number of entries in the Great American Songbook, let’s review a few selections. If you recognize that these are songs you know, songs that everyone knows, and if perhaps for a moment you forgot that they were Billy Joel songs — that’s all the proof you should need. These are the new standards, penned by New York’s Billy Joel, scion of the Brill Building, Doo-Wop, and — dare we say it — Irving Berlin.
We’ve already discussed “Piano Man,” that’s the song that established Joel and is unquestionably a modern standard.
So we’ll begin with a Barbra Streisand hit, “New York State of Mind.” This is a song Joel wrote and released on his 1976 LP Turnstiles, produced by James William Guercio. Streisand turned it into a huge adult contemporary hit when it was included on her 1977 album Superman. The song was later covered by the likes of Tony Bennett, Carmen McRae and Mel Tormé. It’s one of those songs that sounds like an old standard, the sort of thing you’d expect to see Dinah Shore sing in a 1940s era black and white film.
Joel ramped up to speed in a big way in 1977 with the release of an album called The Stranger. In the vast musical wasteland of the late 1970s, this was easily one of the most significant albums of the decade. Beyond the title song — which hasn’t yet achieved “standard” status, although we make a case for it in our discussion of Frank Sinatra — four of the songs are considered modern standards, or at least well on their way to that status. The two that are perhaps semi-standards are “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Only the Good Die Young”. The other two,”Just the Way You Are” and “She’s Always a Woman” are unquestionable.
Amidst the disco and the glam rock and the alphabet bands of 1977, Billy Joel was an anomoly. As if to answer the confused congnoscenti, he released a song called “My Life” in 1978. I don’t care what you say anymore, this is my life… This song is not a standard to the extent of those mentioned above, but certainly “bubbling under” as they say in chart-speak.
In 1981 two early Joel compositions were released, landed on the charts, and firmly on the pages of the Great American Songbook. “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” and “She’s Got a Way” are unquestionably part of our culture, the songs everybody knows.
If the strength and quantity of these songs is surprising, consider that we’re skipping over anything that could be remotely considered rock and roll. But truth be told, plenty of those songs will be recognized as standards in the years to come. “Uptown Girl,” “Tell Her About It,” and “The Longest Time” are all selections from Joel’s 1983 homage to early rock and doo-wop, an album titled An Innocent Man. We should warn you that the title track from that LP is no slouch either.
Throughout his career, Billy Joel has been difficult to pin down. Rock and roll? Pop? Jazz? Just when critics think they had him pigeonholed, Joel went retro, and then went classical. The only word that comes close to defining him is “innovative.” And that, by definition, puts Billy Joel in the same rarified air as the all-time greats of American Popular Song.