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The Accidental Rock Star

Billy Joel performed this week in honor of being awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Photo By: Myrna Suarez

Billy Joel . Photo By: Myrna Suarez

Last night the Library of Congress honored veteran songwriter and performer Billy Joel with its coveted Gershwin Prize for  Popular Song. The Library of Congress awards the prize annually to a composer or performer whose lifetime contributions exemplify the standard of excellence associated with George and Ira Gershwin. It’s not entirely coincidental that the Library has also just uploaded a revealing interview with Joel along with several other interviews as part of the latest installment of the  Joe Smith Collection.  Smith, a record executive who rose to helm Capitol-EMI in 1987, interviewed Billy Joel along with many other popular musicians and music industry insiders for his book _Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music_ (New York: Warner Books, 1988). Billy Joel’s interview emphasizes the importance of songwriting to the artist especially when he states that at the age of 19 or 20 he realized, “I’ve had it with trying to be a rock ‘n roll star. I just want to be a songwriter.” 

While his focus on songcraft did indeed lead to some formidable writing chops, his career had a momentum of its own.  The young Joel, fired with zeal for songwriting, built up a sizable cache of songs, but then his music industry acquaintances told him, “If you want people to hear your songs, maybe you should record them.”  So, he got a record deal and made a record. It then became necessary to tour in support of the record, and the touring went pretty well.  Soon “Captain Jack” became an underground hit and Columbia Records took notice and signed Joel.  Subsequently, in 1974 “Piano Man” broke into the top 30.  From that point forward Joel’s songs enjoyed two solid decades of chart success, punctuated by 1977′s number 3 hit and Grammy winner “Just the Way You Are,” the number 1 hit “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” and number 1 records with “Tell Her About It” (1983) and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (1989).  Stardom, it seems, was unavoidable.


Billy Joel’s interview is just one of 30 new interviews that join an existing 58 others on the site.   This new batch includes Herb Alpert, Anita Pointer, Chubby CheckerDave Clark, Alice Cooper, Dan Fogelberg, Woody Herman, Mike Love, Carmen McRae, Jerry Wexler and many others.  Among the revelations in these new recordings are Anita Pointer’s description of her determination to record a country-western song in the face of pressure to stick to R&B; Dave Clark’s thoughts on the prison of touring and his decision to walk away from it; and Lou Adler’s detailing of the mechanics of booking The Who and Jimi Hendrix for the Monterey Pop Festival. If some of the names are not familiar, have a listen. Smith, whose experience as the record executive who had signed or helped to sign Jimi Hendrix, Garth Brooks, Bonnie Raitt, and The Grateful Dead,  was well placed to understand who the key figures in the industry were, both those on the stage and those behind the scenes.

The Very Popular “Are You Popular?” — Now in Color!

In the varied universe of educational films–titles like Facts on Film, which we’ve featured on “Now See Hear!”–few have achieved a wider cultural resonance than the 1947 Coronet Films classic Are You Popular? It’s pretty much the epitome of the type of “social guidance” film that to modern audiences can seem unintentionally hilarious in their […]

Now Playing at the Packard Campus Theater (November 20-22, 2014)

The following is a guest post by Jenny Paxson, Administrative Assistant at the Packard Campus. Thursday, November 20 (7:30 p.m.) A Night of Electric Blues: Great Blues Performances on TV (1955-1989) Selected from the Library’s video collections and digitally restored by Video Preservation Specialists at the Packard Campus, this memorable evening features legendary blues artists […]

Earwitness to History: the Marine Corps Combat Recordings

This blog post was co-written with Megan Harris, reference specialist for the Veterans History Project, Library of Congress. What you’ve just heard is from the Marine Corps Combat Recordings, an amazing and vivid accounting of the war in the South Pacific during World War II. Not only are these recordings one of the most historically […]

The Cabinet of Curiosities: Biograph Company Pay Slips (1911-1913)

It’s natural that the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center is associated with film, video, and sound recordings–we are, after all, the custodial Division for the Library’s A/V holdings–but in reality we’re so much more than that. I’ve already featured some of our print material on “Now See Hear!”; for example, copyright descriptions, periodicals, posters, and lobby […]

The Mishaps of Musty Suffer

In 1947 the Library of Congress acquired the George Kleine collection of 456 film titles as well as stills and correspondence. Kleine was a pioneer motion picture producer and distributor who’s not well known today but was an important part of the early American film industry. He was the “K” in Kalem (named for Kleine, […]

The Elusive Buddy Bolden

 The following post is by David Sager,  Processing Technician in the Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress. This post is in commemoration of the 84th anniversary of Buddy Bolden’s death and the never-ending discussion of his legendary lost cylinder recording. Charles “Buddy” Bolden, 1877-1931, often referred to as the “first man of jazz,” holds an […]

Now Playing at the Packard Campus Theater (November 6-8, 2014)

A couple of special program notes: we’re postponing Thursday’s scheduled “Verdi and the Silent Film” program and replacing it with the 1982 film version of La Traviata starring Plácido Domingo. And on Saturday we’ll be joined by filmmakers Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright as they talk about their documentary The 78 Project. Thursday, November […]