A candid and irreverent Billy Joel delivered lessons in music and life Monday night to an SPC-only, sold-out crowd of 850 at the Palladium Theater. Intimate college settings dubbed “An Evening of Questions and Answers ... and a Little Music,” have replaced Joel’s concert performances recently, giving music students an inside look at what it takes to make it.
“When I was starting out, there was no one to ask how to do my job," Joel said in his opening. "I said if I ever get the chance, I’m going to help someone out. I’ve made every mistake in the business, and I’m still here.”
Joel bounded between the the Palladium's Steinway Concert Grand and an electric piano to punctuate his points with song. Running the soundboards and lighting alongside Joel’s team were students from SPC’s Music Industry/Recording Arts (MIRA) program.
“They’re getting to work with world-class people,” said Mark Matthews, lead instructor for MIRA. “Theory is great, but there’s no substitute for an experience like this. This is big. He wants to focus on the students.”
At 62, the six-time Grammy Award winner has not had a rock or pop hit for nearly 20 years, but has returned to the music that first inspired him as a piano student. His 2001 release, Fantasies & Delusions, was a collection of his classical piano pieces that debuted at No. 1 on the classical charts.
MIRA student Chris Hill introduces Billy Joel
For MIRA student Chris Hill, who introduced Joel on stage, Joel’s piano playing partly inspired him to study music at SPC. Hill, who has a bachelor’s degree in business, found his previous profession lacked passion.
“I’m trying to stay calm.” Hill said before the show. “The first album I ever bought was The Stranger on LP. I can remember how big he was ... and still is.”
The Stranger, released in 1977, was Joel’s fifth effort and the one that catapulted his career. That level of patience from the music industry is now long gone.
“Today, if you don’t have a hit the first time out, you won’t get another record,” said Joel. “Record companies don’t spend money developing musicians anymore.”
His advice to up and coming musicians: “Make a demo tape, and put your best stuff up front. Send it to record companies and if you get asked, play for them where they can see you. You may have to do a little traveling.”
While Joel was one credit shy of graduating from high school, the game changer in his own life was a teacher. Cutting class to play piano in his high school auditorium, Joel impressed his chorus teacher who overheard him.
“This guy was a really good teacher and I really respected him,” Joel said. “This was the first time an adult said this to me: ‘You should consider becoming a professional musician.’ It was like a door opened and the light shone. Kaboom! … And then it all became possible. So other than musicians I admired, that teacher changed my life.”