Jonathan Takiff: Billy, the Philly kid
BILLY AND Philly. We've always been a team. Billy Joel has played and sold out more shows (56) at our South Philadelphia arenas and stadiums than any other solo artist.
BILLY AND Philly.
We've always been a team.
Billy Joel has played and sold out more shows (56) at our South Philadelphia arenas and stadiums than any other solo artist.
And while this brashly gregarious, immensely gifted singer/keyboardist/composer has moved more than 150 million albums worldwide, local fans have been in his corner and buying his music the absolute longest.
For proof, look no further than the gatefold Billy Joel CD package hitting stores today and also available in download form, with liner notes by yours truly - but more on that later.
First glance suggests it's just a newly remastered, legacy edition of his Columbia Records debut album "Piano Man," first launched in November 1973. But a close inspection of the label reveals that this two-disc set also features a "previously unreleased restored WMMR radio broadcast" from 18 months before: April 15, 1972.
Yup, it's that famous and oft-bootlegged show from Sigma Sound Studios on 12th Street, carried live on 93.3 FM. It was one of those rare, "go out there a nobody, come back a star" nights, and it transformed the Piano Man's career.
Decades later, guess what? This extra-lively hour of music (newly remixed and slightly tweaked by Frank Filipetti) still kicks major butt. Much more so, frankly, than any of Joel's early studio albums - an observation with which the artist heartily concurs.
The ballad of Billy the Kid
Then a virtual unknown with a whole lot to prove, Joel pumped up his radio power hour with enough adrenaline to fuel a football team, with confidence and humor that made him your instant best friend and with an amazing set of mostly new material. And how about his take-no-prisoners touring band, including a super-splashy, New Zealand-born percussionist named Rhys Clark, whom Joel encouraged to "beat the crap" out of his drums. The guy could have given The Who's Keith Moon a run for the money.
By contrast, Joel's early studio albums - until his 1976, self-produced "Turnstiles" - were cut and polished with professional studio musicians "who didn't have the sense of commitment and camaraderie . . . the fire in their belly," Joel shared with me not long ago.
Adding insult to injury, Joel says he "hates" the sweet upper register of his early recordings, then de rigueur for sensitive young singer-songwriters. During his WMMR hour, though, Joel got to pitch some growling, ballsy tones more akin to the "rough and gruff" style he'd grow into.
Crossing the line
So am I unduly prejudiced toward the man and this historic radio show? Absolutely! Never has this music chronicler been such an integral part of the story, pushed my passion harder or felt such positive feedback.
Note the picture of me that accompanies this piece. I was awarded that gold record for my part in making "Piano Man" a hit. Took almost two years for the album to reach the prerequisite half-million sales mark, though now it's four times "platinum," denoting 4 million copies sold just in the U.S. (Later Joel albums like "The Stranger," "52nd Street," "Glass Houses" and "An Innocent Man" proved far more successful and sold a whole lot faster.)
Joel and his archivist, Jeff Schock, invited me to write the liner notes for the "Piano Man"/WMMR Concert package, encouraging me to tell the story from my participatory perspective.
I sought input from other participants, such as radio concert producer Dennis Wilen, then-Columbia Records chief Clive Davis and, of course, Mr. J himself.
Until now, no other music writer or Joel biographer has bothered to get this story right. Even Joel's performing daughter Alexa Ray Joel didn't know the fine details of how her dad's career was kick-started in Philadelphia until I shared the saga with her during an interview. I suspect Alexa Ray went back to dad for confirmation, which also may have nudged him to hire me for the liners. Thank you, hon!
We DID start the fire
Here's the long and short of my part in the Billy Joel story. Back in the early '70s I had two jobs - writing about music and theater for the Daily News and doing weekend late-night air shifts on WMMR, a young, loose, "art for art's sake" kind of progressive rock operation. Highly esteemed and reasonably popular, it was nothing like the hard-rock mega-machine 'MMR is today.
I'd first fallen for Joel's music on his 1971 solo debut album, "Cold Spring Harbor."
At the time, James Taylor, Elton John and Jackson Browne were also just getting off the ground. Some critics had already dismissed Joel as a "Harry Chapin wannabe." But I heard far more variety and depth in this New Yorker's music - even classical and Broadway influences that appealed to my eclectic Philly upbringing.
So I jumped at the chance to interview Joel and check out his first show at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr. When WMMR radio concert producer Wilen asked about doing a show with Joel, I urged him to go for it. The man was AWESOME in concert. And I'd heard new songs at the Point that blew away almost everything on his debut album. One, in particular, that almost made me fall off my seat.
That special song was "Captain Jack," a pungent, pitiless appraisal of wasted suburban youth. As it had at the Point, the tune killed during the Sigma radio concert. "Captain Jack" dares to murmur the word "masturbate," a sexy shocker I'd never heard uttered in a song before. And then there's that rousing chorus, "Captain Jack will get you high tonight."
Just after the Sigma Sound performance, you'll hear Joel ruminating how the song probably would never make it as a radio single " 'cause we'd have trouble getting it played."
Dumb or determined?
But this wacky free spirit wasn't letting fear of Federal Communications Commission recriminations get in my way. Duty called, no, demanded that I play this powerful and honest piece of work for my freaky, fun-lovin' late-night radio listeners. Jeez, Joel had even customized the concert performance with his wry bummer of a line, "Ah, but there ain't no place to go anyway except Phil-a-del-phi-a, and what for?"
The next time I went into WMMR, after business hours, I found the two-track tape of the Sigma show and secretly ran off a cartridge copy of "Captain Jack." I started cranking it up on my Friday and Saturday shows, getting goose bumps every time. Didn't run it past the music director. Didn't even consider if the station had the legal right to play it.
I had the song exclusively for all of three weeks before other WMMR DJs started getting calls for it on the request line. After our resident British jock, Luke O'Reilly, confronted me, I came clean to its origins. Another copy was run off and permanently installed in the studio, where the likes of Johnny Craft, Ed Sciaky, Michael Tearson, Lyn Kratz and fellow part-timers David Dye and Carol Miller would jump on it, too.
An undeniable hit
As recalled in the album notes, WMMR's "old school" general manager at the time, Joel Samuelson (always sleeping soundly when I was on the air), went nuts when he finally got wind of "Captain Jack" and immediately called for its banning. But our freewheeling program director, Jerry Stevens, somehow convinced Samuelson that it was "already too big to ignore."
The song went on to become the most-requested tune in the radio station's prog-era history, demanded more often than "Stairway to Heaven," "Hey Jude" or even "Freebird."
Via bootleg recordings of the 'MMR gig, the saga of "Captain Jack" also burned the airwaves on other, mostly East Coast radio stations. "I'd launch into the song at a college concert in Bum----sville, and people would start to applaud," Joel recalled.
And yes, all that fuss and excitement clearly enticed Columbia to sign Joel to a recording contract that led to "Piano Man," which featured "Captain Jack" as its grand finale. Columbia's then-Philadelphia branch manager, Herbie Gordon, told me that the song "got the folks in New York very excited about Billy."
"But it was just one factor in our decision to sign him," Clive Davis stressed recently.
You remember it your way, dude. I'll tell it mine.