Master songwriter Billy Joel, above, wrote one hell of a gem with his breakthrough mega-hit "Piano Man" in 1972. Like with all great songs. this one comes from personal experience. After moving to LA in 1972, he was actually working for a few months as the "piano man", in a piano bar on Wilshire Boulevard. He was obviously inspired by all the characters he encountered and proceeded to write this classic song which was released the following year on his second album, appropriately called "Piano Man".
That album actually had some pretty incredible songs in addition to the title cut. Other ones I really enjoyed off that record were "Travelin' Prayer", also covered by quite well by the Earl Scruggs Revue, then later by Dolly Parton, the love song "You're my Home", and "Captain Jack". With this album Billy Joel came out of nowhere, rose to the top, and subsequently conquered the world, never to look back.
Back to the song, "Piano Man" is a ballad about all the characters that drift in and out of a piano bar, with some keen insight and speculation as to their motives and lives in general. The lyrics are beautifully written; short, concise, and descriptive. They paint a really vivid picture of character, and listener can easily place himself in a quiet booth in the corner of this bar observing as the night unfolds. This is master songwriting.
Imagine yourself watching all this. An old man sitting next to you, John lighting up his cigarettes, the businessman, and the waitress "playing politics". We've all see these exact characters and their actions before, in any one of a number of bars or restaurants that we've been to through the years. We can picture every one. Incredible writing.
While working with David Kershenbaum on my first record, he had me do a exercise that was similar to this. We went around the corner to local coffee shop and sat out on their patio. Then he asked me to start telling him about the people around us, and and anyone that came and went. To concoct a story, a narrative about them and get as detailed as I could. For example, I picked out one guy sitting with an obviously younger lady and invented the story of how this guy was cheating on his wife at secret rendezvous. You get the idea. It was a hell of an exercise, and certainly improved my songwriting skills. I couldn't help but flashback to this iconic song by Billy Joel during that exercise. It really opened my eyes to storytelling.
Musically, this song is relatively simple, written in the key of C, with great use of the major chords, C, F & G. Billy also penned a great melody to this song, one that the listener can easily sing along with. And that melody really helps the listener follow and remember the words. And the same applies double to the fabulous chorus. Everyone knows those words... " sing us a song, you're the piano man, sing us a song tonight".
The bridge in this song is partially a musical interlude, then the lyric part, which is simply "la la la di da da, la la di di da da dum" with a switch to the minor, Am, and a seventh, D7, creates a great transition, particularly mood wise, between the verse and the chorus. This is what a good bridge is supposed to do, it "bridges" two sections. The lyrics of the bridge let the melody float along without detracting in any way whatsoever from the great lyrics of the verse and chorus. Perfect musical and lyrical combination in this bridge. Just Perfect.
Billy Joel had given us a timeless classic in this excellent example of master songwriting. So without any further adieu, let us enjoy him performing it live, from a show in 1984.