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Billy Joel's New Prize for Popular Song

The Piano Man receives the nation's highest musical honor

By Richard Chin

One of the pleasures of watching Billy Joel: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize is seeing the list of amazing guest performers who’ve been recruited to serenade Joel with his own songs. The diverse group of megastars have a lot of material to work with. Joel, 65, wrote and performed 33 Top-40 hits.
Before watching the show, airing on PBS Friday Jan. 2 (check your local listings), you might wonder if Tony Bennett will choose to croon Scenes From an Italian Restaurant, or if Boyz II Men will do Just the Way You Are, or whether LeAnn Rimes will belt My Life.
Well, we won’t spoil the surprise on what selection from the extensive Joel songbook these singers actually chose, except to say that John Mellencamp makes a good case for Billy Joel as a protest songwriter with a mournful, gravel-voiced version of rust belt ballad Allentown. And Kevin Spacey plays the harmonica.

(MORE: 15 Songs That Defined The Boomer Generation)
Also appearing are Josh Groban, Natalie Maines, Michael Feinstein and Gavin DeGraw. But it’s not just singing. There are also a couple of dance performances choreographed by Twyla Tharp, who developed a Broadway show, Movin’ Out, based on Joel’s music.
About a third of the show features the Piano Man himself up on stage. After receiving the prize for popular song at the Washington, D.C. ceremony from a group of presenters including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Joel parked his new medal on a grand piano and made a case that he’s the best interpreter of his own songs.
Who’s to argue? Despite early career mismanagement that almost left him broke, messy and public divorces played up in the tabloids and a stop to writing new songs, Joel has experienced a strong comeback of late. For the past year, he sold out monthly concerts at Madison Square Garden. He’s the sixth top-selling artist of all time and the third top-selling solo artist of all time, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Photo courtesy of Myrna Suarez


The Highest Honor
The Gershwin Prize, described as “the nation’s highest honor for popular song,” is only the latest in honors Joel has won in a career spanning five decades. He was nominated for 23 Grammies and won six and presented with a Grammy Legend Award in 1990. He was inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1992 and presented with that organization’s Johnny Mercer Award in 2001. In 1999, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2013, he was among those receiving the 36th Annual Kennedy Center Honors.

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Joel is the sixth Gershwin Prize honoree. The previous winners are Carole King, the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon.

(MORE: Carole King: Her Story)
The award show features videos of some highlights from Joel’s performing career, including an emotional version of the National Anthem at his “Last Play at Shea” show in 2008, the last concert in Shea Stadium before its demolition.
There’s also video of him jumping off a piano and singing Only the Good Die Young, before an audience of rock-crazed Russians in Leningrad during his 1987 “Bridge to Russia Tour.” At the climax of the Cold War, Joel became the first American pop star to bring a full rock production to the Soviet Union.
Singing Along
The Washington attendees were a little less frenzied at The Gershwin Prize ceremony. Audience shots in the awards special showed lots of Beltway insiders in full D.C. uniform: suits and ties. But no one was shy about singing with the performers to Vienna or You May Be Right.
“Importantly, as with any good storyteller, the recognition experienced in a Billy Joel song is not simply because these are songs we have heard so many times, but because we see ourselves in them,” according to Librarian of Congress James Billington.
And when the camera focused on Joel, sitting in a box next to a Supreme Court justice, he was singing along, too.

Richard Chin is a Twin Cities newspaper reporter who has written for publications including the Wall Street Journal, and Stanford Magazine. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and once won the Wisconsin Wife Carrying Championship. Read More
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