National Press Club

Billy Joel Dazzles Sold-Out Luncheon Crowd

October 24, 2008 | By Richard Lee

He was supposed to talk about celebrity endorsements of political candidates at his sold-out Press Club Luncheon appearance on Thursday, but Grammy award-winning singer, songwriter and pianist Billy Joel dispensed with all that right away in two or three comments. And he wasn’t there to endorse anybody for president, either, although he recently performed at a fundraiser for Barack Obama. He went straight for the questions, of which there were many, from Club President Sylvia Smith and an audience full of long-time fans.

“I get insulted when I’m at a show and somebody starts talking to me about political stuff,” Joel said. “I didn’t come here to hear that song, you know? In a way, it’s condescending. My politics have been my own in the sanctity of the voting booth. But, it’s bad for business too, you know? Half your audience may disagree with you and then, ‘I’m not gonna come see him again. The hell with him.’ ”

The epitome of affluent, aging, urban cool in a medium gray suit and black t-shirt, the 59-year-old Joel was self-deprecating about his performing abilities.

“I am a piano player, and not all that good, despite what people might think,” Joel said. “The guy in the lobby is probably a better pianist than I am. I happen to be able to figure out how to write songs, and I can sing in key when I try.”

He told amusing stories of the pop legends he has worked with—including Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Elton John and, recently, Bruce Springsteen, often punctuating the stories with snippets of their songs he played at the gleaming black grand digital piano brought in for his use.

Joel performed some of his own songs as well, including “Summer, Highland Falls” at the end.

He said he had no idea any of his songs would be hits. “I’ve had a lot of success in the recording industry, although I have to give Columbia Records the credit because I wouldn’t pick a hit if it bit me in the butt. I didn’t think ‘Piano Man’ would be a hit.”

As for the political content of some of his songs, “You know, in a way, everything’s political,” he said. “There’s a lot of politics involved in relationships. There’s politics with friendships. There’s politics with family.”

And he knows some long-time fans are “not thrilled” as he’s veered away from his rock and roll roots and is doing more classical music. “I’ve never tried to second guess what an audience wants,” he said. “I don’t write for fans. I write for me. I don’t write for the record company. I don’t write for the radio. I don’t write for critics. I write for me, or I’ll write a song to a friend or I’ll write a song to a woman I’m in a relationship with, or a woman I want to be in a relationship with. Because that always—it works great. Yeah.”