Billy Joel on Making Out With Mobsters’ Daughters and Why He’d Be Tempted to Sell His Music Catalog for One Billion Dollars
The Piano Man visits the Stern Show ahead of his much-anticipated Madison Square Garden returnOctober 28, 2021
Beloved singer, songwriter, and piano-playing superstar Billy Joel made his long-awaited Stern Show return on Wednesday morning, sitting down with Howard ahead of his highly anticipated homecoming next Friday at Madison Square Garden. He touched upon a variety of subjects during the interview, from the hot call girl who inspired his song “Roberta” to the cold cuts he requests before every concert but never actually eats. He spoke about how much money he might need to sell his multi-platinum publishing catalog while also mocking the simple chord progressions on some of his own big hits. The 72-year-old Long Island native also opened up about when precisely he fell in love with playing the piano and why he’s retired from writing lyrics.
He was only 22 when his first solo album dropped in 1971 and put him on the map, but as he told Howard on Wednesday that’s not technically where his recording career began. At the age of 15, he and his high school band the Lost Souls signed a contract Mercury Records.
“Our recordings weren’t hit records. They were pretty bad,” Joel admitted to Howard. “We were just another garage band playing at school dances. In those days, in the ‘60s after the Beatles came out, they were signing everybody. They would sign the janitor if he could sing.”
Billy’s wild tales begin long before he found fame or fortune. In the early days, he recalled putting on private concerts for New York’s infamous Gambino crime family. “We had no idea who these people were,” he told Howard, explaining he was paid in cash to perform at their luxurious (if not garish) Queens home. “It looked like everything came off a truck,” Billy said with a laugh, adding, “These were people who did the Lufthansa heist.”
He also recalled hitting on the mobsters’ daughters. “We’d been trying to make out with these girls who were the daughters of Goodfellas. We could’ve been killed,” he said. “We had no idea who these people were. All we knew is they loved to have us and they gave us a lot of money.
They’ve Got a Way
Mob daughters weren’t the only girls Billy developed feelings for before becoming famous. He opened up to Howard about several young romances, from his first kiss in junior high to Virginia – presumably that Virginia from “Only the Good Die Young.” He said he developed feelings for her in the third or fourth grade, but she transferred over to a private school. When he saw her again in the audience of a gig a few years later, those feelings intensified. “I had a crush on her that was in a different way,” Billy said of Virginia. “I don’t think she ever knew that I had a crush on her. I was never bold enough to … verbalize that.”
When he developed feelings for a girl in his English class, on the other hand, he didn’t need to verbalize anything at all. “I think I used to stare at her, but I never had the nerve to even talk to her,” Billy said, explaining she eventually caught wind of his leering and wrote about it in a note she passed to her friend. “The creep is still looking at me,” the note read.
“I was the creep [and] I was heartbroken,” Billy lamented.
An Unlikely Duo
Mick Jagger had Keith Richards, John Lennon had Paul McCartney, Billy Joel had … Cyndi Lauper?
Billy has never been big on collaborations, but the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer told Howard he once made an exception after running into Lauper, who made him a generous offer he couldn’t refuse. “I was stuck on [the song] ‘Code of Silence,’” Billy recalled before breaking into an impression of the “Time After Time” songstress. “Cyndi sees me in the studio and goes, ‘You’re really having a tough time with these words, aren’t you? … You play the song and just throw out some words when you’re playing and I’ll make some sense out of it and we’ll figure it out.”
He was hesitant to accept Cyndi’s help, but she was persistent. They teamed up and soon after completed the song. “She is, I think, the only other co-writer I was ever able to work with because she did all the work,” Billy laughed. “The only other writer I gave credit to on a collaboration was Ludwig van Beethoven because I stole a piece of his music … I didn’t pay him, but I gave him credit.”
Not every one of Billy’s all-star team ups was quite so successful. A collaboration with John Oates never got off the ground whereas one with Burt Bacharach quickly went sideways. “Bacharach wanted me to write a song with him, but he wanted me to write the words [and] I’m the guy who writes music first,” Billy said before breaking into an impression of Bacharach struggling to sing. “I couldn’t finish the project.”
Considering Joel had largely retired from writing his own songs, Howard wondered if he ever felt an urge to collaborate with up-and-coming musicians.
“From time to time a younger artist will ask if I’m interested in co-writing with them or helping to produce them … but I always back off,” Billy responded. “I like helping people and I like being able to guide people to avoid making the same mistakes I made, but I don’t want to get hooked into having to write again.”
“It turns out it’s not going to be very good if I don’t want to do it,” he continued. “It’s not going to be real.”
Sing Us a Song of a … Prostitute?
Billy may not be much of a collaborator, but he’s the first one to admit a variety of different musicians have helped shape his sound. “I’m a product of my influences. Nobody grows up in a test tube,” he told Howard, saying he’s emulated everyone from Ray Charles and Sam Cooke to Cream and the Beatles.
“I’m derivative as hell,” he later added with a laugh. “As a matter of fact, if being derivative disqualified you from being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there wouldn’t be any white people there. All they did is copy Black music. That’s where rock ‘n’ roll came from. Come on!”
He shocked Howard when he told him his 1973 love song “You’re My Home” was purposefully written in the style of Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. “I love Gordon Lightfoot. He’s one of my favorite singers,” Billy said of the ballad, which he went on to perform at Howard and Beth’s wedding.
Billy shared plenty of song-perfecting credit with his band, too, revealing they vetted many of his best-known tunes long before they appeared on an album. “If the band didn’t like it I would throw it out, or I would change it, or I would rearrange it,” he said.
He recalled drummer Liberty DeVitto being particularly instrumental in helping him find the right sound on one of his earliest hits. “I came in with ‘Only the Good Die Young’—it was originally reggae, [Liberty] hated reggae—he threw his sticks at me,” Billy recounted. “So, we had to figure out another way to do it, and that’s why you hear what you hear.”
“Big Shot,” Joel confirmed, was based on the type of contentious relationship he imagined Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger had with his now-ex-wife. “I just pictured him yelling at Bianca Jagger after they went out and had too much to drink,” he said. “It was my own fantasy. It wasn’t based on anything real.”
“Roberta,” meanwhile, a song off Billy’s third album “Streetlife Serenade,” was an ode to a beautiful prostitute he knew while living in Los Angeles. “I couldn’t believe that was her job. I just couldn’t get over it. She could’ve been a model. She could’ve been an actress. But she was a call girl,” Joel said. The two never dated, though Billy recalled she did seem open to spending some time with him … for the right price.
Captain Jack Gets Dishonorably Discharged
Even with his band helping him craft the best tunes possible, Billy remains his own harshest critic. “There are some songs I wrote that I think are really good, and there’s some stuff that I wrote that’s okay, and there’s some stuff that I wrote that sucks,” he told Howard.
Giving an example, Billy said he isn’t completely happy with his voice and the lyrics on “She’s Got a Way.” “Sometimes we [perform it in concert], but as I’m singing I get to some of the verses and I’m like, ‘That could’ve been written better,’” he said of the 1971 hit.
His contempt for “Captain Jack,” a fan-adored tune off his 1973 album “Piano Man,” was downright palpable. “It’s dreary … [and] I hate the repetition,” he said before mocking its unimaginative chord choices.
He took aim at the song’s themes, too. “‘Captain Jack’ is about suburban kids who go score smack because that’s their big thrill in life,” he told Howard. “I’m kind of preachy in the song. I’m being judgmental. I’m making fun of this poor kid picking his nose, you know, and jerking off at home. I hear the lyrics and I say, ‘Who the hell are you to be judgmental?’ I’ve had issues with drinking. I’m not perfect.”
“Having done the song so much, I have demoted him from Captain Jack to Private Jack,” Billy concluded.
So, Billy Joel Doesn’t Think He Can Sing
Despite being a world-renowned pianist and songwriter, Billy doesn’t think himself to be much of a vocalist. “It so happens I can carry a tune and I don’t sing out of pitch but I don’t think I’m a very good singer,” he critiqued. “Ray Charles is a good singer. Nat King Cole is a great singer. Sam Cooke is a great singer. Marvin Gaye is a great singer. Aretha Franklin was a great singer. Me? I don’t care for my voice that much.”
Occasionally, that lack of enthusiasm for his vocals proved difficult when recording albums. “I hated doing it again and again,” Billy told Howard of doing multiple takes. “If I had to do a song more than three times in the recording studio, I hated the song.”
When his debut album “Cold Spring Harbor” came out and was famously sped up accidentally in the final mix, that only made things worse. “I hate my voice on this song – shut up!” the rocker told himself while listening back to the track “She’s Got a Way.” “Hearing my voice [sped] up like a chipmunk, that’s my version of hell.”
He’s With the Band
Billy, who found the time off in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic both “aggravating” and “very enjoyable,” paid his band during the sabbatical when they were unable to play live shows.
“I did pay them full salary for a year,” he confirmed. “I have a great band, I’m so happy to have them on stage … I don’t do as many gigs as I used to but … I wanted to take care of the band.”
While he might sign the checks, Billy still very much thinks of himself as in the band. “I don’t even think of myself as a lead singer. I happen to be the guy in this band that sings the songs and they put the piano a little bit more out front,” he noted before revealing he always asks the stagehands to move his rig closer to the rest of the band. “I want to be in the band. When I’m onstage I’m thinking of it as a band … it’s all a band effort.”
Sing Him a Song
When Howard, who has long been critical of audience members singing along at concerts, asked for Billy’s input, the musician maintained an opposing point of view. “I actually like when they sing along … I get a kick out of it. It’s like this community,” he responded. “When the crowd sings along, there’s a great joy that I get from that.”
A side benefit of crowd participation, for Billy, is they can fill in the spots as needed when it comes to lyrics. “Sometimes when I’m singing and I’m worried I’m going to forget the words, I’ll actually watch people singing in the audience to read their lips,” he said, referencing verbose songs such as “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” “They’re trying to prove to me they know the words and then I try to read their lips—oh they know the words; I’ll follow that guy.”
But since Joel does the majority of the singing, he has a strict rule before each show—no eating. “I never ate food before a show … that was for guests,” he said of his rider which includes deli meat and popcorn. “You can’t be digesting food while you’re trying to sing, it doesn’t work. You need to be hungry; you need to be digestion-free … and you need to be a little bit angry because you’re hungry– you need that edge.”
(Not So) Big Shot
When Howard noticed Billy’s substantial weight loss – around fifty pounds – the musician credited the unorthodox cocktail of pain and aggravation for the transformation. “I had back surgery early this year and the pain afterwards was so bad I lost my appetite,” he explained. “I embraced that, I said, ‘Okay, I won’t eat as much’ and I ate less and less and less and less and then there was just life aggravation and that tends to, you know, impact your appetite too.”
While it wasn’t a change he necessarily was looking to make, he was pleased that it happened. “I had gotten kind of chunky,” he admitted before adding, “I was happy to lose the weight.”
How a ‘Rock Star Bubble’ Retired Him as a Lyricist
Billy hasn’t released an album of new material since 1993’s “River of Dreams.” On Wednesday, the legendary songsmith told Howard he might be done writing lyrics for good.
“I stopped writing songs because I couldn’t be as good as I wanted to be. It became too aggravating, it became too frustrating, so I stopped,” he said, later adding, “I just haven’t had a desire to do it.”
“I love music, so I never stopped writing instrumental music, but I stopped writing lyrics because I got tired of that particular format,” Billy clarified. “I became more comfortable with abstract form.”
During a previous visit to the Stern Show, the singer-songwriter told Howard he’d written “New York State of Mind” in only 15 minutes while riding the bus. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always that easy. “It can be a grind. Sometimes I look at the piano and it’s this big black beast with 88 teeth that wants to bite my fingers off … It’s the most frustrating feeling in the world because you want to be productive, you want to create something, and it doesn’t always come to you like a bolt out of the blue. You don’t always get the Promethean moment like I did with ‘New York State of Mind,’” he said Wednesday.
“The worst thing about songwriting is the struggle. I love having written. I hate writing,” he concluded.
Howard imagined songwriting might be even harder for someone who is famous. From Davy (who might still be in the Navy) and Mister Cacciatore’s down on Sullivan Street to the aforementioned call girl Roberta, Billy often crooned about the interesting people and places he crossed paths with in real life. “You got to observe people and write about them … [but now] wherever you go, ‘People are like, ‘Oh, there’s Billy Joel.”
“I wrote myself out of the narrative,” Billy agreed. “I can’t be a fly on the wall anymore. My observations from life are in a bubble.”
“I live in this rock star bubble,” he continued. “It’s not something I would write about anymore. It’s not as interesting to me as that other kind of life was. I like my life, I enjoy my life, but that has nothing to do with like the rest of the world anymore.”
A Matter of Trust
Billy may be done writing new lyrics but he still possesses one of the most commercially successful song libraries on the planet. Considering Bob Dylan sold his publishing catalog last year to the reported tune of $300 million and Paul Simon had recently cashed out with a similar deal, Howard couldn’t help but wonder if the “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” singer ever considered saying goodbye to his own music.
“Have you ever had an appraisal done on what your catalog would be worth?” Howard asked.
“I’ve never have an appraisal done. There have been offers for me to sell it, which I haven’t accepted,” Billy responded, saying he wasn’t above having his song appear in an occasional deodorant commercial but was reluctant to let someone else make those decisions for him. “Right now, I still have control of how these songs are used,” he said. “If I sell my catalog I give that power up. I give my control up.”
“I think of my songs as my kids,” he continued. “I went through a pregnancy and a labor with these songs. I remember how hard I worked on them and I don’t necessarily want to give that permission away for how my kids are utilized.”
Billy would never say never, however, and his interest was piqued after Howard guessed his rich catalog might be worth in upwards of a billion dollars. “I don’t know who would pay that, but if somebody came to me with a billion dollars, what am I going to do? Say no?” Joel laughed. “I’m from Levittown.”
Billy Joel’s Madison Square Garden residency continues on Friday, Nov. 5. His new box set ‘The Vinyl Collection, Vol. 1’ is available the same day.