William (Billy) Joel was born in New York in 1949. Joel began to study classical piano when he was four years old; he continued these lessons sporadically until he was 15. At this age, he was influenced by the Beatles, and decided then and there that he wanted to be a rock & roll performer. Joel joined a local band, and quit high school to play full-time. Within the next few years, Joel went through several bands, a break-off from playing with groups to playing solo, and an attempt to make a successful record album, which turned out to be a flop. Joel also played a stint in Los Angeles, working in a nightclub lounge as a pianist. It was here that he got the inspiration for his rock song, "Piano Man," which became the name of his first album with Columbia Records.
In 1977, Joel released the album, The Stranger, which was an immediate commercial success and catapulted the singer/pianist to rock stardom. He had many successful albums after that, including, 52nd Street (1978), Glass Houses (1980), and An Innocent Man (1983). During this time, Joel also won several Grammy awards for his albums. Joel continued to produce albums until 1993, when River of Dreams was released. It was at this time that Billy Joel wrote his last rock song, "Famous Last Words," and fittingly, it was placed as the final song on the album.
Billy Joel's days of rock & roll, bluesy interludes, songs reminiscent of '50s tunes, pop melodies, and a rough voice enhancing steady, rhythmic, and somewhat submissive blues piano chords were over. Just as Joel had decided at 15 years of age that he was going to be a rock & roll musician, he decided with the same determination that he was never going to sing lyrics over harmonies again.
Joel believed that the piano music, which was evolving in his practices, could speak as loudly as words. He wanted to create moods with music. Playing classical piano, he felt he was returning to his "roots" again. Working from 1993 to 2001, Joel composed pieces that were purposefully derivative of the masters of nineteenth century Romanticism, such as Chopin, Rachmaninov, Schubert, and Brahms. He was also interested in Impressionistic composers such as Debussy, and even the Baroque Bach. Joel admired these composers; and so, instead of attempting to create his own modern style, he chose to reminisce what had come before him, giving the music his own slightly bluesy flair.
The comparison of Joel to these great composers of the past could be considered somewhat fantastic and delusional, and it is interesting that he named his first solo piano classical album, released in 2001, Billy Joel: Fantasies and Delusions. Joel chose classical pianist Richard Joo to play the pieces on the album. He said he did this because he, himself, was basically a rock & roll pianist, and he needed someone truly trained in the classical medium to do his pieces justice. Although Joel claims he wrote every note, Joo arranged the pieces, and four others are credited with music preparation and additional arrangements.
William Joel has gotten mixed reviews with this classical debut album. Some critics love it, some say it is a poor rehash of the Romantic style. Admittedly, Joel did write his ten pieces in the different styles of his favorite composers; however, only time will tell, as it has with other composers before him, whether this music will stand on a platform equal to its musical influences.