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 Checker, Dave 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.
I signed him to CBS/Epic Records in early 1969, when I was head of the division. We did one album. A terrible effort titled “Attila.”
Nevertheless, I knew that Billy would eventually evolve into the musical giant that he has become.
He was always a pleasure to deal with!