Billy Joel wins the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song


Billy Joel poses for a portrait in 2013 in his motorcycle shop, 20th Century Cycles, in Oyster Bay, N.Y.  (Jesse Dittmar/For The Washington Post. )

Billy Joel, the regular guy from Long Island who insists he’s not a very good piano player, will be the next recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the U.S. Library of Congress announced Tuesday.

The 65-year-old performer joins some pretty heady company; the prize’s previous honorees are Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Sir Paul McCartney, Carole King and the songwriting duo Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

The Gershwin is the second major Washington-based award for Joel in two years, coming on the heels of Kennedy Center Honors last year.

Calling Joel a “storyteller of the highest order,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in a statement that “there is an intimacy to his songwriting that bridges the gap between the listener and the worlds he shares through music. When you listen to a Billy Joel song, you know about the people and the place and what happened there.”

The library gives the prize — to be formally awarded with a luncheon and musical performance in November in Washington — to a living musical artist as a lifetime achievement award.

Joel, by coincidence, will be playing at Nationals Park this weekend.

In a statement, Joel saluted one of the men for whom the prize is named — the composer George Gershwin (the other is Ira, George’s brother and collaborator) — as a “personal inspiration to me throughout my career. And the Library’s decision to include me among those songwriters who have been past recipients is a milestone for me.”

Joel was born in the Bronx in 1949 to Jewish immigrants who were musical: Howard Joel, who came from Germany, played classical piano, and he and Rosalind Joel, from England, loved to sing Broadway show tunes. They introduced young Billy to the Gershwins’ work.

But his parents soon divorced, and his father moved back to Europe. Joel, who grew up in Long Island, dropped out of high school just shy of graduation. He knocked around bands, took various gigs and had a couple of stillborn albums before his career took off in the mid-1970s with the album “Piano Man,” which, as its hit title song, featured a fictionalized version of Joel’s true stint as a lounge singer.

Joel became a force in pop music with such hits as “New York State of Mind,” “Movin’ Out,” “Uptown Girl,” “River of Dreams” and “Just the Way You Are.” He was the first rock act to tour the Soviet Union; he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Ray Charles; and has sold more than 150 million records — more than any solo act except Garth Brooks and Elvis Presley.

Joel hasn’t released a pop album in two decades, but the power of his reach is such that “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” a track from his album “The Stranger,” is still a massive sing-along favorite at his concerts.

He and supermodel Christie Brinkley, who married at the height of their careers, had one child, Alexa Ray Joel, during their nine-year marriage. (Brinkley and Joel remain friends; she wrote a tribute to his mother when Rosalind Joel died this month.) Two other of Joel’s marriages also ended in divorce.

“I think I’m pretty much a happy guy,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post late last year, before pausing. “Or a contented guy, anyway.”

Given his father’s devotion to classical music — and considering that his younger half-brother, Alexander, has been the musical director or conductor of a number of orchestras in Europe — Joel has always been modest about his musicianship. In the Post interview, he said that he composes his songs by ear and that he cannot score the music — leaving him, in his self-effacing estimation, as “not so good” at the instrument.

Neely Tucker is a staff writer in the Sunday Magazine. He has reported from more than 50 countries around the world and from two dozen of these United States.

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