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Billy Joel Learns his Limits but Expands his Creative Horizons

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Dec. 10, 2001 -- "Piano man" Billy Joel concedes he's not as proficient on the ivories as he would like.

Billy Joel

Billy Joel
Photo: Robert Smith, Copyright Maryland Public Television, Piano Grand! A Smithsonian Celebration

Fantasies and Delusions

The cover of Billy Joel's Fantasies & Delusions album is reminiscent of sheet music.


Billy Joel's Music

From Fantasies & Delusions

listen "Soliloquy (On a Separation)"

listen "Sorbetto"

listen "Waltz # 2 (Steinway Hall)"

From The Essential Billy Joel

listen "Piano Man"

listen "New York State of Mind"

As a little boy growing up in a little Levitt-style house in Hicksville, Long Island, Joel found himself drawn to the family's old upright Lester piano. "By the time I was four, my mother was tired of hearing me go bang, bang, bang (on the keyboard) and she said, 'You're going to learn how to play.' "

At 16, Joel "discovered girls" and the piano lessons stopped. Consequently, he tells Susan Stamberg on Morning Edition, "I'm not as well-versed in all the keys as I should be. I didn't practice my scales enough when I studied piano."

But that hasn't stopped Joel from drawing a deep understanding of the instrument that brought him fame and which is featured in his latest album. Fantasies & Delusions: Music for Solo Piano, which has topped the classical charts for several weeks now, is unlike anything he's done before. Neither Joel's famous voice -- nor his piano playing -- is anywhere to be heard on the album. Instead, admitting his own limitations, he drafted classical pianist Richard Joo to perform.

"My left hand is not really good," Joel concedes. "I didn't study to be a concert pianist. I got to a certain point in my piano lessons (when) I realized I wasn't going to be (a classical pianist like) Vladimir Horowitz. I didn't even want to be one of those guys. I wanted to compose, and it's not unusual for a composer to not perform his own work... "

For Joel the composer, the keys are the alphabet of an emotional language. "They (mean) different colors, different emotions: cooler, warmer, more passionate, more philosophical." Many of those elements are evident in Fantasies & Delusions, with song titles like "Soliloquy (On a Separation)" and "Waltz # 3 (For Lola)."

Joel's inspirations -- or motivations -- for writing music vary. "Sometimes I'm writing to a particular person and I want to convey an emotion. And usually it's a woman. All my life (I've been) writing for women. But they seem to like that. Girls like that. They like it when you write stuff for them."

"Or sometimes (there's) something that's troubling me that I have to work out. Or sometimes something for a friend, but it's usually something based on a personal relationship or personal thoughts." But he says he doesn't want his fans to read too much into his songs: "I'm not trying to make any grand, eloquent socioeconomic statements with these things."


Previous NPR Coverage

audio buttonListen to a Performance Today feature on Billy Joel's Fantasies & Delusions album.


Other Resources

Visit the official Billy Joel Web site.

Read a Billy Joel timeline.

Read about Joel at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Read about Joel at RollingStone.com.

Visit classical pianist Richard Joo's Web site.