Billy Joel

Billy Joel

by Fred Schruers


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780594761907
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/28/2014
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 47,639
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

FRED SCHRUERS enjoyed a successful high-profile career as a writer at Rolling Stone, chronicling an impressive body of musicians and actors, including Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, Jack Nicholson, Sheryl Crow, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Chris Rock. His writing has also appeared in Premiere, Entertainment Weekly, Men’s Journal, GQ, the Los Angeles Times, and Columbia Journalism Review.

Read an Excerpt

Billy Joel

By Fred Schruers

Random House LLC

Copyright © 2014 Fred Schruers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8041-4019-5



In the late 1960s, as the British Invasion led to an expanding galaxy of stateside rock groups, Billy and his chronically unnameable band ended up being dropped from Mercury Records but played the Plainview, Long Island, nightclub My House frequently. The Island was as warm with fledgling bands. Billy had often watched My House's resident band, the Hassles, who were relied upon, if hardly coddled, by club owner and sometime restaurateur Danny Mazur. Danny—recalled by Billy as "a typical Long Island club owner, kind of a tough, older Jewish guy, pinky ring, very heavyset, kind of gruff"—sometimes kept company with some beefy types Billy surmised were wise guys. Working alongside him—and as the Hassles' manager—was his son Irwin. Though Irwin would later, via Danny's connections, be briefly employed by industry legend Morris "Moishe" Levy (of whom Irwin freely says, "He was Jewish Mafia"), at this time he was helping Danny audition and book bands. He had returned to Long Island for that purpose from Philadelphia, where he was studying dentistry at University of Pennsylvania.

The Hassles were drawing big crowds at the time. "We could draw a thousand people a night to a place," recalls drummer Jon Small, already a cover-band veteran when he formed the group. "We were very, very popular." They had a keyboard player named Harry Weber, and Small was married to Harry's sister Elizabeth and had a son by her, Sean, born in April 1967. Billy would never know Harry well—he recalls the infamously dissolute musician had a "lot of issues"—but of course he would come to know Elizabeth very well indeed.

Finally one night Harry and Jon had a serious set-to triggered by Harry's deepening immersion in glue-sniffing, even onstage, where he'd catch half-hidden snorts from a poly bag while crouched on the low bench behind his keyboard. Harry finally exploded backstage after being rebuked one last time. As Small describes it: "He had his feet on my shoulders and was pulling my hair out. What it came down to was either him leaving or me leaving. And the other guys stuck with me."

Harry, as part of a gaggle of Weber siblings who were raised in tony Syosset but lived a cursed history that most would associate with a less privileged lifestyle, would not land happily. A few years after being discharged from the band, he was found dead on a railroad track, the re- ported victim of an overdose.

In what Small smilingly calls "a very crafty" maneuver, he put an ad in the local paper in the spring of 1966 saying My House was seeking a second house band. "What they"—the Echoes, the key auditioning band that included Billy—"didn't know was that I was sitting there looking to steal their keyboard player." As Small sat in the otherwise empty club with Elizabeth, Hassles guitarist Richie McKenna, lead singer "Little John" Dizek, and Irwin, the Echoes—with Billy on Farfisa organ—performed a few songs. Small remembers, "I instantly loved this keyboard player. He wore a little bebop hat, and he actually got down on one knee and sang 'Soul and Inspiration,' the Righteous Brothers song.

"So I convinced the other guys that this is the guy, and I went to Billy and sat him in the room and said, 'The reason you're here is—how would you like to join the Hassles?' And he looked at me and said, 'Nope, not interested.'

"So I had to use another tactic. I knew these guys—nobody had any money. I had to bribe him is what it really came down to. I said, 'So what is it going to take for you to get in the band?' He said, 'Look, I'm loyal to my band, I've been with these guys, grew up with these guys.' I said, 'Well, I have a Hammond B3 organ.' That's what everybody wanted. 'You join the band, it's yours.'

"It didn't take more than a glimmer in his eye to think about it, and he said, 'Okay, I'll come in the band. But you have to take the bass player from my band, Howie Blauvelt.' "

Billy didn't want to be responsible, as Weber had been, for playing the bass line on the Hammond's bass pedals. "The Hassles were only a four-piece band," says small. "But I thought, Okay, why not? We'll just branch out; we'll be a five-piece band. So Billy and Howie joined."

The Hassles offered Billy $250 a week, which in 1967—when the minimum hourly wage was a little more than two dollars—was good money, especially given the added benefit of being drafted into a top local band. "You're working fifty-two weeks a year if you want," Mazur added to Jon Small's pitch, "guaranteed." For someone who had worked in an inking factory blacking typewriter ribbons; and had worked winter mornings on the wet, greasy deck of an oyster dredge; and had even written a few rock reviews for Changes magazine for the twenty-five-dollar fee they earned him, it all sounded quite satisfactory.

"Nobody was worried about having a real job then," recalls Billy. "I was happy just to be a musician with enough money to buy some food and have my own place."

As for that Hammond B3 Jon said they'd give Billy? They'd be de- ducting fifty dollars a month from his pay to cover the cost.

What his new band mates soon found out was that their new keyboardist—still singing backgrounds while the band worked the crowd with a raspy-voiced and marginally talented (but very Mick Jagger-like) front man, Little John—was interested in little else but the music. "What was important to Billy besides music was smoking cigarettes," says Small. "He smoked cigarettes like a chimney, and I hated smoke—and he didn't have a driver's license. Billy didn't even have a wallet. He was this funny guy. You could tell he was very smart, but the thing young guys craved were to have their first car—but he had no craving to have one. So I became the chauffeur."

As Little John was slowly being edged out, Small and Billy bonded over music, cruising the Island clubs, drinking in the emerging local bands like the Pigeons, who would become Vanilla Fudge, and the Vagrants featuring Leslie West, later of Mountain—both signed to the Atco label. The slate of local groups included the Good Rats, the Illusion, and the Rich Kids. But to Billy, the defining band of that moment was the Young Rascals, led by organ virtuoso Felix Cavaliere: "Anybody that played covers in bars for a living had to know their Rascals. They were out of northern New Jersey, but they were cool with the Long Island fans, as well as great musicians in that hybrid genre that was known as 'blue-eyed soul.'"

There were forays into Manhattan and, conveniently close, the borough of Queens: "I'll never forget sneaking into the Jimi Hendrix gig at the Singer Bowl, which is now the Louis Armstrong Stadium," Billy says. "We did the same at Randall's Island Stadium," now Carl Icahn Stadium.

Jon Small remembers regularly teaming with Billy-who used his gift for mimicry to sound British-to sneak into Carnegie Hall shows for the likes of Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, until they were exposed and all but literally booted out of the hall by notoriously thuggy British manager (and Sharon Osbourne's dad) Don Arden. When the Beatles played Shea Stadium in August 1965, the Hassles even had the delirious notion of jumping onstage as an uninvited warm-up act. With manager Irwin Mazur's connivance, they gave one of the Hassles' roadies a dark suit and a skipper's cap belonging to Irwin's dad, Danny, and arrived in Danny's Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. Promoter Sid Bernstein sniffed out the ruse—though the band lore insists he was leaning toward allowing it until Beatles manager Brian Epstein vetoed them for not having the needed membership in the musicians' union-but the scheme got them as far as privileged seats in the dugout. (Of course in 2008, Paul McCartney would jump onto Billy's stage there by invitation, as recorded in the Last Play at Shea film.)

During 1965 and 1966 the Hassles honed their live chops via steady gigging at My House and, during the summer of 1966, a series of dates at a Hampton's club called the Eye. "We played all summer long," re-called Blauvelt in an interview for the Great East Coast Bands website two decades later. "We used to play five sets a night. That got the band really tight." Some two years of steady live work led to recording sessions in May 1967.

Billy considers the two albums he made with the Hassles unmemorable other than their role as part of his education in the music business. The Hassles were signed by United Artists, which had been formed as a label to put out sound tracks for the film side of the company and ended up with a few notable acts, including Traffic. In fact, the Hassles' self-titled 1967 debut had a cover of "Coloured Rain," which Stevie Win-wood and his bandmates in Traffic had sent to UA as a demo track and would soon record, but which label mates the Hassles were also given a crack at. The lyrics were full of adolescent yearning: "Yesterday I was a young boy, searchin' for my way / not knowing what I wanted, living life from day to day."

"Stevie was an early hero," says Billy, "a multi-instrumentalist especially good on the Hammond organ, and about a decade later I persuaded him to be a guest player on my [1986] album The Bridge." Billy had his own Hammond sound, much in evidence in a Hassles love song collected on the 2005 My Lives box set, called "Every Step I Take (Every Move I Make)," a brew of Rascals and Zombies influences. (The similarly titled and musically kindred Police song quite innocently resembled it—and was the best-selling single of 1983.) The two producers of that first Hassles album, Tony Michaels and Vinny Gorman, took two-thirds of the copyright and publishing credits for the songs Billy had written—his first taste of larceny in the music business.

Billy and the band also recorded one of their live favorites, Sam and Dave's "You Got Me Hummin,'" which labored its way to number 112 on the Billboard "Bubbling Under the Hot 100" singles chart (and reached number 71 in Record World). It was an energetic stab at blue-eyed soul and the original's gospel-rooted, highly improvisational Stax studio sound, but in Billy's words, "it wasn't going to make Sam or Dave quit the business."

ON OCTOBER 28, 1967, about eight months after the first single had hit and as the band was completing their debut album, the leading Long Island daily Newsday published staffer Harvey Aronson's "Look What Grew on Our Lawns," a three-page celebration—leavened with some wry asides about suburbia—of the Hassles and their homegrown success. Occupying much of the opening spread was a sprawling group shot of the band clutching their instruments in front of the Dizek family's Syosset home. Framed in the foreground were the impatiently squinting Danny and Irwin Mazur, who sported suits and ties. Arrayed behind were friends and family, all on "the neatly clipped lawn in front of a split level." Text and photo worked the same conceit, as summed up in a pull quote—"The Hassles are all heart and all suburban. And they stand for the universality of rock 'n' roll"—and further text: "A group of sprouts native to Long Island has blossomed into one of the area's hottest rock 'n' roll combos, feeding on fees of $1,000 a night. With a little more care—and a hit record or two—the Hassles could begin to resemble a high-rising money tree."

Portrayed as working twenty-hour days roaming between the Island and Manhattan clubs (including Steve Paul's the Scene, where Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix actually once got on stage together with the Young Rascals), and even needing a police escort from an unnamed Queens venue, the group was said to have sold ten thousand copies of "You Got Me Hummin'" in the first week in such cities as New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Providence, and Pittsburgh. The single is described as "a glorious mélange of wham-bam-boom with lots of moans and a sensational scream," though whether Aronson was aware of the Sam & Dave original seems dubious. The writer notes that "Irwin talks in terms of The Hassles' grossing $250,000 this year," but today Irwin recalls that he had to stretch his own finances to provide $30,000 (presumably less Billy's fifty dollars per week for the B3) to buy the band's equipment.

The piece recounts the band's reaction to hearing their song on the radio. "I was in the back of the truck," says Richie ("a phlegmatic kid who gets animated when he talks about the record"), "... It's the best feeling there is to ride in a car and hear the record on the radio. Everybody started screaming and banging on the walls.... We almost hit another car."

The band member whom the article calls "Billy Joe" and equips with an erroneous added name (which dogged him for years), "William Martin Joseph Joel," is correctly depicted as age eighteen and from Hicksville. He's described as lead singer (though Dizek is cited as "front man" and, per Irwin, "the group's sex symbol") as well as piano and organ player, and as the groups "most learned musician ... He likes Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, but they don't pay off for longhairs anymore."

In a sentiment he would echo throughout his career, Billy advised the reporter that "playing rock 'n' roll isn't hard; getting new ideas is the hard thing." Most of the current rock songs, he conceded, would be unsung and unremembered a generation hence, unlike—and apparently these are Billy's examples—"White Christmas" and "I'm in the Mood for Love." The point that "we squares should try to grasp," wrote Aronson, teeing Billy up for some hipster jargon, is that (Billy declared) "our music is all part of the today scene—we're not trying to add anything to posterity."

Things would work out a little differently, but who could have said so then?

As Irwin and Danny estimated for the piece, since they'd auditioned the Hassles in August 1966, Long Island had come to boast more than four hundred "discotheques" (a term that embraced rock clubs as well as dance venues) and one thousand groups. Despite the long odds, the Mazurs had sold My House in July 1967, annexed the first album's producers (Michaels, twenty-six, and Gorman, twenty-one) as part of Mazur Enterprises, and added two road managers. A UA spokesman said of the Hassles, "We're going all out with them. We're giving them a lot of promotion; we're getting them as many TV shows as possible."

In fact, their breakout hit, "You Got Me Hummin'," would be squandered as a commercial point of entry. Irwin told Aronson that he wanted to send the boys to drama school and "make them bigger than the Monkees." And yet he almost seemed to foresee problems with the dysfunction that was built into the band—front man Little John had the moves, but Billy, hidden behind his Hammond, had the voice. Irwin knew, he said, that "it has to happen with a record—if not this one, the next one." The article included a round of parents' musings. "I always knew he would be in show business," said Billy's mom. "He sang before he could talk."

Finally, Aronson describes their appearance on The Clay Cole Show, a dance show starring the local rock-on-TV bellwether—who'd once hosted a pairing of the Beatles and Stones—that typically featured lip-synching bands and a cast of regular dancers à la Dick Clark's national counterpart, American Bandstand. Cole would quit in January 1968, simply walking away from a scene that he—a self-described "black-tie, tuxedo guy ... adrift ... in 'the quicksand of psychedelic acid rock' "—felt alienated from. Virtually all the shows are lost to pop history, erased so the tape could be reused. With "Billy Joe sporting an Indian shawl" and Little John in a paisley print shirt, the Hassles may have spooked Cole with what Aronson called the "flying hair and the flying hips, and the big-beat stridence that makes young people of today jump, scream, and spend money." Aronson concluded with "Make it? Why not? And just think-it all happened right here on our lawns."

Perhaps the article was a jinx in its own right. In any event, the Hassles' slide into obscurity—or at best, to getting the occasional nod as one of Billy's early bands—was already quietly awaiting.

THE BAND'S SECOND album, Hour of the Wolf, was made with an underground legend named Thomas Jefferson Kaye, who had disputably claimed to have produced Question Mark and the Mysterians' 1966 classic "96 Tears," and who later worked with Steely Dan. As much as Billy would be a fan of the latter group, the eccentric Kaye was probably not the best producer for the Hassles.


Excerpted from Billy Joel by Fred Schruers. Copyright © 2014 Fred Schruers. Excerpted by permission of Random House LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Billy Joel 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
dreplogle More than 1 year ago
I have a secret, but it's probably one shared with millions of people worldwide for over 40 years, that Billy Joel's music never seems to get old. It's always like I'm listening to it for the first time. Joel can go from cockey, to romantic to wistful and it all works. A listener can tell Joel is speaking from his own life or heart - very personal, and probably very painful. So when I saw that this Biography was available on NetGallery, I had to read it; and I wasn't disappointed in it, not for a minute. While there are several Joel biography's out there, this one is the one that Joel started and then had his biographer finish. There are over 100 hourse of interviews with Joel himself, and hundreds of hours of interviews with his friends, three ex-wives, co-musicians, etc. It comes across with a lot of names, and dates, concert venues and other data which had times can be overwhelming. A bit of an information overload. The author also used the Billy Joel archives (who knew?) and other sources. It really is very thorough, although I sometimes felt like I was seeing his career through a glass wall in a museum. I can't describe what that personal touch that was missing is, however. Perhaps it was that is biographer was trying to stay objective about his subject. Lyrics to particular songs are included, especially those ones that were very personal to Joel. It would be great if the ebook version of this was supplemented with the audio, but I played my cds instead. All in all, it was a very satisfying read. (  )
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
onlyminordetails More than 1 year ago
My Thoughts I love Billy Joel. Like seriously love him. So getting the chance to read more about him and his life was great. There were some things I already knew, but I found out a lot of new stuff, too. Billy Joel is an exceptional person. I'm glad to have gotten the chance to read more about him from Fred Schruers. My Rating: Very Good
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My daughter gave this to my husband for Christmas not knowing that he had bought the same book for our oldest daughter for Christmas too !!! It was a fun coincidence and a great choice !! They both love the book and it's photos. 2 thumbs up !!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Billy Joel is one the greatest musical artist of his generation, there is no one like him.  The book was hard  to follow in places, but very interesting and informative nonetheless.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My (adult) daughter asked for this on her Christmas list this year. I ordered it but won't give it to her for another, oh, 4 weeks. But it's what she wanted and I expect she'll love it. I'm anticipating her review of FIVE STARS.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved it!!!!!!!!!