A Prize for the Piano Man

Billy Joel accepts the Gershwin Prize from Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Photo by John Harrington.

Billy Joel accepts the Gershwin Prize from Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Photo by John Harrington.

Last Wednesday, the Library of Congress celebrated the music and career of singer-songwriter Billy Joel, awarding him the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. A star-studded cast walked a packed house at the DAR Constitution Hall through Joel’s own songbook during a tribute concert. I myself had the honor and privilege to also take the stage as a sort of “opening act” for Joel while performing with the Library of Congress Chorale. It was a once in a lifetime experience to be able to honor such a music legend.

Twyla Tharp. Photo by Amanda Reynolds

Twyla Tharp. Photo by Amanda Reynolds

The following is a recap of the concert, written by Mark Hartsell, editor of the Library of Congress newsletter, The Gazette.

The Library of Congress honored rock and roll’s piano man with its Gershwin Prize for Popular Song on Wednesday night, with a little help from his friends.

“This is kind of verklempt,” Billy Joel told the audience during a concert at DAR Constitution Hall that featured more than a half-dozen stars performing some of his most-loved tunes. “This is something that’s very, very important to me and very, very valuable. I’ll always treasure this.”

Members of the Twyla Tharp Dance company. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Members of the Twyla Tharp Dance company. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Joel composed and recorded 33 top-40 songs during his career, a string of hits that spanned three decades and inspired generations of fans: “Piano Man,” “Just the Way You Are,” “Movin’ Out,” “Only the Good Die Young,” “Big Shot,” “You May Be Right,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “Allentown,” “Uptown Girl,” “An Innocent Man,” “The Longest Time,” “Keeping the Faith” and “A Matter of Trust,” among many others.

On Tuesday, Joel attended a luncheon at the Library, took a tour of the Main Reading Room, viewed a collection of Library treasures and stopped at the Gershwin display in the Jefferson Building, where he played a few tunes on Gershwin’s piano.

Tony Bennett. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

Tony Bennett. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

On Wednesday, Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey, choreographer Twyla Tharp and singers Tony Bennett, Boyz II Men, Gavin DeGraw, Michael Feinstein, Josh Groban, Natalie Maines, John Mellencamp and LeAnn Rimes took the stage to celebrate Joel and his songs’ memorable melodies and characters.

Following a performance by the Twyla Tharp Dance company, Spacey greeted the audience and lauded the Library as a “beacon of American culture” and the “world’s largest repository of human knowledge and creativity.”

“That’s right: I said ‘repository,'” Spacey quipped, “not that other word some of you were thinking I said.”

Then, taking on his villainous “House of Cards” character, Spacey welcomed the guest of honor, seated above the stage between Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor.

Gavin DeGraw (left) and longtime Billy Joel bandmate Mark Rivera. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Gavin DeGraw (left) and longtime Billy Joel bandmate Mark Rivera. Photo by Shawn Miller.

“I think even a man like Frank Underwood would be pretty excited about a night like tonight,” Spacey said in his slow Underwoodian drawl. “So, Billy, here’s to you. Let’s start the show.”

Via video, Joel received tributes from two of his great pop contemporaries, Barbra Streisand and James Taylor, and one fellow Gershwin Prize-winner: Paul McCartney.

“This is an award you very much deserve,” McCartney said. “This is from a great American composer of the past to a great American composer of the present. … I love your music.”

Boyz II Men delivered a finger-popping a cappella performance of “The Longest Time” that kicked off a string of some of Joel’s biggest and best-loved hits: “Lullabye” (Rimes), “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (DeGraw), “She’s Got a Way” (Maines), “She’s Always a Woman” (Groban, accompanied by a string quartet and classical guitar) and “Allentown” (Mellencamp).

Natalie Maines. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

Natalie Maines. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

John Mellencamp (right). Photo by Shawn Miller.

John Mellencamp (right). Photo by Shawn Miller.

Kevin Spacey. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

Kevin Spacey. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Bet you all didn’t know Billy was a protest singer, but he was and is. So, we’re going to prove it right now,” Mellencamp said, launching into a raspy acoustic version of Joel’s song about the blue-collar blues of out-of-work Pennsylvania steelworkers.

By the time Joel released his first album in 1971, the next performer already had been singing professionally for more than two decades. At Constitution Hall, Bennett, dapper as ever at age 88 and in fine voice, earned a standing ovation with his take on Joel’s classic “New York State of Mind.”

LeAnn Rimes. Photo by Shawn Miller.

LeAnn Rimes. Photo by Shawn Miller.

After Bennett exited, Billington, Sotomayor, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Reps. Gregg Harper and Candice Miller entered, escorting Joel to the stage to present him with the Gershwin Prize medal.

“For more than five decades, Billy Joel has inspired new generations of performers, musicians and singer-songwriters,” said Sotomayor, a New Yorker and noted Yankees fan. “Tonight, we recognize Long Island’s favorite son – even if he is a Mets fan – for creating an enduring musical and lyrical legacy for our nation as well as our world.”

Joel propped the medal on his piano, took a seat and performed a brief set (“Movin’ Out,” “Vienna,” “Miami 2017,” “You May be Right”) – prompting Spacey to return to point out a glaring omission.

“I took a poll backstage, and there is a general sense that you’ve left one song out. This song requires a particular instrument,” Spacey said, pulling out a harmonica.

Erin Allen sings a solo during a performance by the Library chorale. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Erin Allen sings a solo during a performance by the Library chorale. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Spacey and Joel duetted on the piano-and-harmonica intro to “Piano Man,” then led the whole cast – and, at times, the audience – through a show-ending sing-along of perhaps Joel’s best-known composition.

In video interview clips shown throughout the evening, Joel discussed his early life, his musical upbringing, the musicians who influenced him and the importance of the Gershwin Prize to him.

“I recognize great songwriting when I hear it. These people who have received the Gershwin award are the great authors of the American Songbook,” Joel said. “I would like to hope that my songs will have that kind of resonance. These songs resonate and will continue to resonate by these great songwriters. It’s a great group to be included in.”

Billy Joel (center) with Boyz II Men, Josh Groban, Gavin DeGraw and Tony Bennett. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Billy Joel (center) with Boyz II Men, Josh Groban, Gavin DeGraw and Tony Bennett. Photo by Shawn Miller.

The Gershwin Prize concert honoring Billy Joel is scheduled to be broadcast Jan. 2 on PBS.

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