Discovering Billy Joel
Joel has become a musical icon. He has sold 105 million copies of his albums, making him the 12th best-selling artist of all time. In a recording career of 47 years, he’s had 40 Top 40 hits on various charts.
He has sold out New York’s Madison Square Garden monthly since 2014.
But Joel was a struggling piano artist in 1971 when Somach first saw him at a New York showcase for new artists Somach attended for Moravian’s student radio station.
“I had already seen Loggins & Messina and Tanya Tucker, then I saw another act called The Hello People with Todd Rundgren,” Somach said. “And this guy named Billy Joel.
“And he came out, was pretty much by himself, sat at the piano, started playing — he had like a half-hour set. And I was captivated. I couldn’t believe it. This guy just blew me away,” he said.
Two years later, while Somach was working at WSAN, the station decided to book concerts at The Roxy, featuring mostly acts about to break out.
Somach had gotten a copy of Joel’s debut album, 1971’s “Cold Spring Harbor,” at the convention. And while the disc barely scratched Billboard’s Top 200, Somach said he played it on WSAN and got an enthusiastic response.
“Back then you could play whatever you wanted,” Somach said. “And everybody started saying, ‘Hey, that guy’s amazing!’ and we started getting calls.”
The first person Somach called for the concert series was Joel’s agent, Chip Rachlin.
“His agent goes, ‘Are you kidding me? Nobody has ever called for this guy,’ ” Somach said. “And I told the guy, ‘We’re playing [his album]. The guy’s a star here.’ ”
Rachlin told him Joel was taking time off from the business and had absconded to California, where — in a now-famous episode in his life — he secretly was working at a piano bar while “going through some music business problems” and dealing with the poor reception for “Cold Spring Harbor.”
“I couldn’t reach him for six months or so,” Rachlin, who went on to become head of talent relations at MTV and remains a prominent music business agent, said in a phone interview.
Rachlin discovered Joel when an associate asked him to see the singer perform.
“I was literally astonished at how good he was,” Rachlin said. “And later that night I went back stage to meet him, we shook hands, and I was his agent for the next four years.”
WSAN’s concerts started in March 1973 with folk singer John Herald. Later, they booked Todd Rundgren and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. Rock band Nazareth played its first American date in the series.
Rachlin eventually reconnected with Joel and got him signed to Columbia Records, where he recorded the “Piano Man” album and started looking to go out on the road. Rachlin booked him as an opening act for other acts he represented, “which I found out later he hated. Any other act would have killed to have a tour with The Beach Boys. To have a run of dates with Chicago. I think I even had him on a date with Crosby, Stills & Nash.
“But he told me from stage at [the New York Club] Max’s Kansas City he didn’t like those shows,” he said. “So we were scrambling to find any shows that he could headline.”
Somach said Rachlin called him and said, “Hey, you still want Billy Joel? Here’s the deal: I got one date when he’s not doing anything.”
Somach agreed to pay Joel $500 for two shows. The opening act was Henry Gross, who was a founding member of Sha Na Na, had recently had gone solo and three years later would have a No. 1 song, “Shannon.” Gross was paid $250.
Tickets to the Roxy shows were $1, meaning WSAN had to sell out both shows to make money.The tickets sold out in a couple of hours.
Ready for The Roxy
The Roxy had been bought in 1970 by Rick Wolfe, then a young businessman who welcomed the WSAN concerts.
Wolfe, who still owns the Roxy, was particularly excited about the Joel shows. “Piano Man” was released less than three weeks before the show, but Wolfe said he owned both of Joel’s albums.
The Roxy usually only promoted concerts with black-and-white, 8-by-10 photos in its glass cases.
But, Wolfe said, “I thought he deserved more, so I had an actual poster made — regular movie size, with his picture attached.”
Joel told Somach no one had ever made a poster for one of his shows.
Joel’s road manager brought him in a station wagon to WSAN, where Joel did an interview, Somach said. Somach then drove Joel to the theater, taking the back roads through Whitehall Township to Northampton.
“And along the way, we’re passing all the factories, and he says, ‘What is this place?’ ” Somach said. “And I said, ‘Well, this is Allentown, but the theater is actually in Northampton.’ ”
Joel was concerned about having enough material to fill out his 50-minute playing requirement. The promoter told him he could play material from the first album because the Lehigh Valley knew it.
“But he said, ‘My band doesn’t. We’ve only been rehearsing the new album.’ ”
Gross, who continues to perform, said he remembers opening the show.
“My best recollection is that we were out there struggling, all of us,” he said in a phone interview.
Gross remembers Joel played “Travelin’ Prayer” in Northampton. He was a fan of that song, which was on the “Piano Man” album.
“I thought it was very theatrical,” Gross said. “I thought the guy was like a Broadway singer.
“I always enjoyed playing with Billy,” Gross said. “He was from Long Island and I grew up in Brooklyn. He was a regular guy. … He’s really a hell of a player. He’s a master piano player — just brilliant. And he always was at those gigs. His shows always brought down a storm.”
The lost tape
“For some reason I just thought, ‘I’ve got to tape this show,’ ” Somach said. “ ’Cause I think it’s going to be a great show, and I just want to have it in my car.”
Somach said he had a removable cassette player from his car, and put a it on stage. He simply used the device’s built-in mic.
The tape starts with Somach introducing Joel. The singer starts alone on his piano so he could play music that his band hadn’t rehearsed.
“The band will be out in a little while,” he tells the crowd. “I’m going to warm up the pipes.”
And he opens with a song that has never been released, “Rosalinda.”
Afterward, he says, “Bring the band out and get away from this ‘sensitive artist at the piano jazz.’ ”
The 13-song set list of the first show includes eight of the 10 songs from “Piano Man,” leaving out “Ain’t No Crime” and “If I Only Had the Words (To Tell You).” He also sings “She’s Got a Way” from “Cold Spring Harbor.”
He also plays a new song, a boogie-woogie instrumental that later became “Root Beer Rag” on Joel’s third disc, “Streetfire Serenade.”
The tape’s sound quality is very good. Joel’s voice has very much a younger tone.
And he’s very engaged with the audience. Before “Souvenir,” which also showed up on “Streetlife Serenade,” he says, “I’ve been out of this business for about a year and a half, I guess. Having all kinds of legal hassles and just kind of music business crap in general. And I wrote a song about it.”
He complains about how, touring with The Beach Boys and The Doobie Brothers, he’d been introduced as “Billy Jello. Let’s really hear it!”
“And the whole audience,” Joel continues, “is, ‘Beach Boys! Beach Boys! Doobie Brothers!’ ” as the crowd laughs.
At one point, he tells the crowd, “I got to tell you, you’re one of the most polite audiences I ever had. I was playing and I could hear myself. Really weird. Just nice and quiet, it was great.”
He closes the first show with “Captain Jack,” and the encore is “Everybody Loves You Now” from “Cold Spring Harbor.”
Somach said that when the first show was over, he flipped over the cassette to record the second show, which starts with “She’s Got a Way.”
In that show, Joel again jokes about being misidentified by announcers, this time saying he was introduced as “Bobby Jowells.”
He also compliments The Roxy and the crowd, saying, “Where are we, Northampton? We’ve got to move here.
“Really, you’re the nicest audience we’ve come across. And we’ve been all over the last few weeks. … This is a good place, I’m telling you. This is a real good place. I like it. How much is it? I want to buy it. No, really …”
Late in the second show, Joel is stalling for time to meet the show’s length requirement. When a voice tells him he has 15 minutes left, Joel says, “Fifteen minutes left, huh? See this band’s only about 3 weeks old — how much material we got, man? I’m trying to think of things. Fifteen minutes more left?”
Someone in the audience then yells out for the song “Captain Jack.”
“Well, we’ll get to that,” Joel says. “That’s our big punch ’em, get ’em at the end. You know that song, huh? Anybody know the old album, ‘Cold Spring Harbor’ album?”
And there is loud applause.
“OK, wow, that’s weird,” he says. “We never worked out all them old songs … Let me do ‘She’s Got a Way,’ ’cause I can do that on my own. OK, John, we can do 15 minutes now. ’Cause usually I run into the audience, ‘She’s got a waaaay,’ it’s like, ‘[Blows a raspberry] what is that crap, man?’ ”
He then does “She’s Got a Way” to rapturous response.
“Damn, you know that record? Wow, that’s weird. We did a six-month tour last year … And every store we went into — this is for six months, we hit every major city. We’d walk into the store and see if the record was there. ‘You got the Billy Joel album?’ ‘Who? Billy Joel Royal? BJ Thomas? You know, Tony Joel White.’ Everybody but Billy Joel.
“That’s really surprising. I guess the radio station must have had it and played it. God bless you, man, really,” he says.
The tape cuts out after nine songs, missing an encore in which Somach said he remembers Joel coming back out and saying, “I got to tell you — we don’t have any more songs.” He played “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John, the Joe Cocker song “You Are So Beautiful,” and one or two other songs.
“And the place was on its feet — would not let him leave,” Somach said.
Afterward, Somach said Joel stayed at the theater to sign autographs and albums for 30-40 people.
Joel soars, and the tape is lost
Somach listened to his tape on the way home in his car, thinking, “This sounds great; it’s amazing. Then I think I might have played it for some other people, then I just put it in a box. ’Cause who was Billy Joel then?”
Somach said Rachlin, Joel’s agent, told him the Roxy shows created turmoil. Joel’s manager the next day, he said, “was yelling at everybody, saying, ‘See, I told you Billy should be headlining theaters, he shouldn’t be an opening act!’ ”
“That totally changed the course of his career,” Somach said.
For his next tour, Joel played theaters. Somach tried to book him again, but instead Dave Sestak at Lehigh Valley talent agency Media 5 booked him at Muhlenberg College. Joel also played Allentown Fairgrounds’ Agriplex.
“We only had about four or five markets that Billy could headline back then, and Allentown, God bless it, was one that we counted on,” Rachlin said.
Efforts to reach Joel for this article were unsuccessful. Joel’s 2014 biography “Billy Joel,” which was written with Joel’s cooperation, talks about his formative years playing in the Allentown area.
“Because it was just a bit inland from two of Billy’s big audiences, New York and Philadelphia, Billy and the band played the Lehigh Valley over and over again,” the book said. “As Billy recalls, ‘It was our bread and butter for a while.’ ”
Joel recounts in the book, “And I remember that when I was starting getting big, there was no large venue in Allentown, and some kid came up to me after the show and said, ‘You’re never coming back here.’
“I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because anybody who gets big never comes back here.’
“I was really touched by that, and at the same time it stirred up a bit of guilt. I thought, ‘Goddamn it, I’m not going to let that happen.’ Yet it did happen. He was right: There was no venue big enough to play in Allentown,” he said.
The book tells how that incident spurred Joel to change a song he had been writing about his native Levittown, N.Y., to “Allentown,” which became one of his biggest hits. It used the Lehigh Valley as a symbol of a dying Rust Belt industrial city.
“I was trying to tell a story that young fan and people across the Lehigh Valley could relate to: They thought they knew how their lives would go, and it just didn’t work out that way.”
Joel played the Lehigh Valley one last time, Dec. 27, 1982, at Lehigh University’s Stabler Arena in Bethlehem. That was three months after Joel released “The Nylon Curtain,” his album containing the song “Allentown.” He played the hit twice that night.
WSAN continued its concert series through 1976, bringing in talent such as Rush, Montrose with Sammy Hagar, Styx, Peter Frampton, Hall & Oates and KISS. Bruce Springsteen played less than a year after Joel, on Aug. 29, 1974, but only drew about half a house for each of two shows.
Somach, who moved to Philadelphia in 1975, hopes to use the tape for a celebration, perhaps in spring, of the WSAN concert series. Or perhaps get it to Joel, or even to have it released commercially.
“Who knew?” Somach said. “Within a year [after the Roxy show], he was happening, and by the time ‘The Stranger’ came out, he was untouchable.”This article originally appeared in The Morning Call. To view the full article, click here.