Feb 21, 2024

The Piano Man

Guest Blogger Rick Kaller, Executive Director of The Discovery Orchestra, writes about his encounter with Billy Joel.

This month’s guest blogger is Rick Kaller, Executive Director at The Discovery Orchestra.

I didn’t really start listening to popular music until I was in middle school. Since my mother was a professional cellist and I didn’t have an older sibling to expose me to the rock and pop icons in vogue at the time, my musical experience was mainly limited to classical piano repertoire and what I heard, sang, and played in church. But around those middle school years, other styles started creeping into my awareness.

By high school, I had become rather enthralled with a few groups in the rock and pop genres of the time: Yes, Rush, the Police, Genesis, Steve Winwood, etc. However, my favorite musician, hands-down, was Billy Joel. Was it partly because I, as a pianist, was enamored with his fame – especially given his “ordinary guy” persona? Yes – but also because of his amazing piano and song-writing skills. His songs were just so captivating – and so full of brilliant piano parts: “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “The Piano Man,” and of course, that insanelyfast intro in “Prelude/Angry Young Man” – just to name a very few. One of my personal favorites I learned was his lesser-known solo piano piece “Root Beer Rag” … that always got me an audience. In short, Billy was my contemporary piano hero.

Piano was a dominant part of my life from age 4 (just like Billy!) through high school and college. I was fortunate to study with many gifted teachers growing up, and at some of the best music schools, including Juilliard Pre-College. I was a piano performance major in college for my first two years, but then came to terms with the fact that there were other things I was interested in pursuing too. My path began veering in the direction of education and business, and I rather logically ended up in the music education publishing industry. My first job was with Silver Burdett, a leading elementary school publisher that had published music curriculum products for decades.

I learned so much from the seasoned editorial team there, and still remember proudly when I was promoted to the position of Editor. I was assigned Grade 6 – a tough grade, as any 6th grade teacher can attest. And it’s a pivot grade: either top of the food chain in a K-6 school, or bottom of the food chain in a 6-8 middle school. And just a rough time in life in general…

Anyway – my task as editor for this grade level was to find songs and listening selections for the new program we were working on that would not only serve as great examples of the concepts and skills being taught, but that would also engage students. Not an easy task – especially when trying to acquire the licensing to print songs and include recordings by popular artists was nearly impossible. Realities aside, I got it in my head that we should have a recorded interview with Billy Joel, along with featuring one of his recordings. My boss laughed when I told him – though he did admit it was a good idea. He fully supported me and encouraged me to go for it – but to have a backup plan (or two) in place.

Thus began a three-month process of working all of our contacts to get to Mr. Joel’s manager. I was starting to focus on Plan B when I received a call one day. It was the manager, who explained that our project was of interest to Mr. Joel, but that we’d have to wait until he had a break in his schedule. More weeks went by. Plan B was revived. But then, somehow, Mr. Joel had some free time one Wednesday afternoon – in his studio in Montauk, NY. I was over the moon.

I’ll never forget piling into a car with another editor, our recording engineer, and a ton of recording gear. The drive to Montauk took nearly 4 hours from our NJ office, but was it ever worth it! Billy was amazingly hospitable, especially given how young and inexperienced this particular editor was. I had a whole list of questions that we recorded over the course of an hour. I still have a recording of the unedited interview. I cringe now hearing my voice from 30 years ago, and how quickly I was initially talking – clearly nervous in his presence. I asked him questions I hoped would be of interest to 6th graders: what it was like taking piano lessons as a child, what music he grew up listening to, how he described the style of his own music, how his love of history influenced his songwriting, etc.

Favorite classical musician? “Beethoven.”

When did he decide to become a musician? “When I was 14 or 15 and in a band, we played a dance at a church. At the end of the night, the priest came over and gave us $5 each. And that was it – I was in.”

Final closing line after I thanked him for the interview? “That’ll be $8.50…[laughs].”

It was all rather surreal. I don’t even remember the trek home.

That was in 1992. The following year Billy released his last studio album of popular music, River of Dreams, although he did produce a classical-influenced piano collection in 2001. So when Mr. Joel decided to premiere a brand new song at the Grammys on February 4th this year, I decided to tune in. I’m not a fan of award shows, and of course, his performance was nearly at the end – more than 3 hours in. Was “Turn the Lights Back On” worth the wait? This fan thinks so – and I hope there’s more to come.

“Sing us a song, you’re the piano man…”