It's hard to believe it's been 40 years since I first saw Billy Joel at Albright College in Reading, PA. In anticipation of this anniversary, I've had some time to reflect on the impact it's had on my music career and my life in general. To say it was a moment that changed my life would be an understatement. This event ironically coincides with another special anniversary – the 20th year of Danny V's 52nd Street Band.
Danny V. – 1994
Danny V. – 2014
Many of you know some of my story about how I met Billy Joel and how it inspired me to do the tribute to the Piano Man. But what I would most like to do in this brief memoir is to provide specific details of that day in May, to share them not only with fans of the 52ndStreet Band, but with Billy Joel fans everywhere. I basically recall the day as a series of moments, almost like a time line of photos. Hopefully you will enjoy it.
In 1974, I was a freshman in college. My only knowledge of Billy Joel at that time was the hit song Piano Man and, of course Captain Jack. Billy actually got an early boost to his career stardom from Philadelphia, even before his home state of New York due to playing a live recorded concert at Philly's famous Sigma Sound Studios in 1972.
Bruce backstage with Ed Sciaky, Janis Ian and Billy Joel at the Academy Of Music on the evening of November 25, 1974. https://brucebase.wikispaces.com/1974-11-26+-+RADIO+STATION+WMMR-FM,+PHILADELPHIA,+PA
WMMR "the Radio Station" in Philly aired the show and it was hosted by the beloved DJ, Ed Sciaky, who was known for helping up and coming talents of the times like Janis Ian and Bruce Springsteen. The version Billy did of Captain Jack at that show was so inspired that it impressed Sciaky enough for him to push WMMR to have this Captain Jack "Live" version played in regular rotation. I can remember hearing it all the time on the radio and it is still a coveted bootleg song by collectors although Billy has since re-released it.
Captain Jack – 1972 = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqjGPIYJsh0
Captain Jack – 1973 = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqjGPIYJsh0
Captain Jack's story of suburb struggles struck a chord with the youth in Philadelphia's surrounding Delaware Valley and he gained local popularity from the radio play… becoming a favorite at the top area venues of the time like the Main Point in Bryn Mawr. By 1974, Billy was on tour promoting the newly released Piano Man album. His main concert tour in those days was the college circuit. He was originally scheduled to perform at Albright earlier that year, but the show was postponed until May because a throat operation.
My first recollection of actually seeing Billy Joel was during the sound check in the school gymnasium. I can't recall all of the songs during sound check but I do remember he did an Elton John imitation playing Benny and the Jets. Who knew that much later in his career Elton and Billy would tour together.
As part of the campus event crew I was in a great spot to interact with the band. They gave me the job of being a liason with the musicians and college personell. I eventually got up the nerve to approach Billy between songs and ask him about the band. His responses were somewhat short mainly because he was focused on the sound check. Later, I had a chance to spend more time with him hanging out in the dressing room which was the gym locker room. I remember members of the band and his entourage were also there.
Billy hadn't enlisted his long-time band members yet like Liberty Devitto and Richie Canatta. At that time I believe he was touring with some top session guys like Don Evans on guitar, bassist Larry Russell, Rhys Clark on drums and Johnny Almond on keys & sax.
Billy was wearing a black tee shirt with a picture of the band Foghat on the front and the words " I am a loyalist" of a certain radio station on the back. I asked him if he was into Foghat. He said no, he just liked the tee shirt.
https://www.hws.edu/alumni/pssurvey/winter09/memories.aspx = pic1
http://fuckyeabillyjoel.tumblr.com/image/73973334416 = pic2
I noticed that he was playing a new baby grand piano during sound check, so I asked how he liked it. He said that is was okay, but he wanted to perform on grand piano for the concert. There was a reporter from a local newspaper doing an interview with Billy. I remember his first question to Billy was " What's a question that no one has ever asked you before?" I was thinking to myself " is that the best question you have?" In true Billy fashion, he jokingly gave a quick response about his manliness. Eventually the reporter did ask him about his career and his background. I remember Billy wanted to get a hair cut and was asking where he could find a barber. He said that he used to have long hair down to his chest but now he liked his hair short. The reporter said that he knew a barber and the eventually they left.
http://www.wolfgangsvault.com/billy-joel/photography/fine-art-print/JSP0247-32.html photog: Joe Sia
The opening act for Billy Joel was Martin Mull and his Fabulous furniture. Martin Mull started his career in the early seventies as a comedian and was touring with Billy doing a one man comedy show. He would have a living room set of furniture on stage and perform songs on a ukulele and tell jokes. I remember it was definitely entertaining.
After a brief intermission, Billy came out and immediately rocked the sold-out audience. He ran through a list of songs from Piano Man and Cold Spring Harbor. I had a stage side seat and his high energy at the piano was truly captivating like nothing I had ever seen in a performance before. The light bulb went off inside my head, and I knew at the moment, that's exactly what I want to do…be the center-piece of a great rock band. There had been guys in the 50's like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles but nobody for at least a 20-year span was the focus of a rock band until Billy and Elton brought it back in the 1970's.
http://joespakeblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/16-Billy-Joel-March-1974-10.jpg = pic1
http://www.tcnjmagazine.com/wp-content/gallery/70s-campus-concerts/billy-joel-74009.jpg = pic2
During the show, he introduced a new single yet to be released called “The Entertainer”. He explained that there was the theme from the movie “The Sting” called the Entertainer and he played a few bars from the classic rag time song.
Then he performed his "Entertainer" and the crowd loved it. As the concert continued, I was amazed at both his power at the piano and his vocal performance. In those days, he used to perform Piano Man early in the show because he felt it was too predictable to finish the show with his hit song. Unfortunately, I can't recall what his final song was, but when he left the stage, the place was going wild… so it was likely Captain Jack.. the song he would often close with in Philly for years to come.
This is the set list from his show at Carnegie Hall the same month.
That year, the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team were in the playoffs and went on to win the Stanley Cup. I remember a security guard asked me to tell Billy that the Flyers had won that night. So I went back stage to let Billy know. Surprisingly, Billy came out for his encore with a Flyers jersey on and the place erupted in immediate applause. 32 Years later, Billy would have his own Flyers jersey hanging in the arena rafters high above the ice the Flyers play on from a record number of Philadelphia sould-out shows.
Flyers Champs in 1974
-Billy Joel honored by team in 2006
After the concert I had the opportunity to spend a little more time with Billy. There were a lot of people asking him questions, congratulating him on a great performance. I remember telling him I played piano too and that I wanted to be a musician. We talked about both being classically trained but loving ‘Rock & Roll' music. I told him that I always got nervous whenever I had to perform. He gave me some warm words of encouragement and told me to stick with it. Little did I know then where it would lead me to today. There is one more humorous memory about that night that I would like to share. During the breakdown of the stage after the concert, I was playing on the piano that Billy used during the concert. I remember thinking that the action of the keys felt really broken in. Billy worked the new piano so powerfully during the concert that the keys felt easier to play.
But that's not the funny part. When Billy left the dressing room, he had to walk through the gym to get to his ride. When I saw him enter the gym, I started playing Piano Man on the piano to get his attention. Well I not only got his attention but I got a roadie yelling at me to knock it off. Thinking back on that moment, I am surprised how I had the nerve to do something that. I was lucky I wasn't thrown out of the gym right then and there. Ah, the ignorance of youth.
In the years following that concert I began playing coffee houses at colleges… doing the music of Billy Joel, and singer-songwriters of the era. My first show was at Albright that very next fall in 1974. People seemed to like my style and I earned the moniker "The Piano DAN." Over the following years, I was blessed to meet and even open up for some wonderful musical talents like Dave Mason, Richie Havens and Janis Ian. Whether original music or cover projects, I always pushed to perform a number of Billy Joel songs in all the bands I was with as a personal tribute to Billy in thanks for helping me on my way.
Many people often told me that I sounded just like Billy Joel. Little did they know, it took hours of practicing and studying to sing like Billy and learn his music. It took another 20 years before took my personal tribute public and started the 52nd Street band. With 52nd Street I've got to play some of the top venues in the nation and even open up pre-show party concerts at one of Billy's shows at the Flyers new arena, the Wachovia Center as well as his smash hit Broadway play, Movin' Out.! It's been full-circle.
Today 52nd Street is the longest running Billy Joel tribute band in the country. And, in all deference to Willie and my friends in the Bruce Springsteen tribute the BStreet Band, the longest running tribute band ever, my idea for a tribute band began on a night in May 1974, a night I will never forget.
There are not enough words of gratitude I could say to Billy Joel to thank him for spending a few moments with me back then. It gave me the opportunity to use my humble classically trained piano beginnings to create Danny V's 52nd Street. To all of our fans, thank you for your support and friendship over the past 20 years. You make it all worthwhile. Keep the Faith.