About The Song

What gives “Piano Man” such enduring power four decades into Joel’s 75 years?  It’s in the telling of the tale… and the kind of details mixed in among the metaphors that suggest his reminiscence of life among the barflies might be a true story.

It is. “All the characters in that song were real people,” Joel told a Harvard audience in 1994. “John at the bar was this guy named John — and he was at the bar,” he added, pausing for the crowd to chuckle at the exactness of his verisimilitude. “Davy was in the Navy… and probably still is,” Joel pointed out, shooting down theories that he renamed the character just to rhyme with a branch of the armed forces.

“And the waitress was actually my first ex-wife… a cocktail waitress while I was playing the piano at this place for a while.” That would be Elizabeth Weber, Joel’s wife for nine years and manager for five, in his pre-Christie Brinkley days. The “real estate novelist” was a fellow named Paul who seemed to have been working on the great American novel forever while he really split his time between being a realtor and being an alcoholic. “Old man making love to his tonic and gin — OK, a little bit of poetic license there. He wasn’t really making love to his tonic and gin, because that could be pretty gross, actually.”

And what of the character to whom everyone says, “Man, what are you doing here?”… as in “What’s a brilliant future legend and billion-dollar tunesmith like you doing in a dump like this?” Joel has some pretty entertaining answers about that, too. He was slumming, to be sure, but he was also hiding out from the music business while he plotted how to get out of a bad contract.

“I dropped out of sight,” Joel recalled in an interview with Alec Baldwin on the actor’s MSNBC show. “I had to get out of this horrible deal that I’d signed. I signed away everything — the copyrights, publishing, record royalties, my first child — I gave it all away. And I said, ‘I’ve got to get out of this deal,’ and I hid in L.A. and I worked in a piano bar under the name Bill Martin.”

Having written “Piano Man,” he pitched it to Atlantic Records in an impromptu living-room session for some of the industry’s biggest producers and moguls. A legend of the business, Jerry Wexler, listened to Joel’s waltz-tempo future classic and said, “You know, it’s kinda like ‘Bojangles'” — meaning “Mr. Bojangles,” which had been a huge hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. If ‘Bojangles’ wasn’t written, you probably wouldn’t have written that, right?'”

Eventually he was brought to the attention of Clive Davis at Columbia, and that label bought him out of his previous contract, although that meant paying royalties to Family Productions and putting the Family logo on all album sleeves through 1986. “Piano Man” was issued as a single Nov. 2, 1973, followed a week later by the sophomore album of the same name. But the single didn’t enter the Billboard chart until April 6, 1974, and it quickly peaked at a measly No. 25 that same month before disappearing.

“‘Piano Man’ was not a hit record,” Joel told Baldwin. “It was a turntable hit. In other words, it didn’t sell through, but this is back in the early ’70s. In those days, they still had FM progressive radio. Disc jockeys could spin whatever they wanted.”

Not until the late ’70s did Joel become a bona fide superstar, at which point piano men everywhere who wanted to earn their tips were forced to play “Just the Way You Are” as well as, of course, “Piano Man.”

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