How Billy Joel Followed Up His Breakthrough With ’52nd Street’

It took Billy Joel more than half a decade and five albums to catch a break. Piano Man was a Top 30 hit in 1974, but it didn’t launch the singer-songwriter into any sort of career stratosphere.

Then came 1977’s The Stranger, and everything changed.

The hit LP not only made Joel a star, it also became a milestone record of the ’70s – a light-rock album packed with hits that skirted the line between big, operatic set pieces, piano-bar ballads and jazz-speckled sophistication. It was a winning formula for an artist who’d been looking for a break like that since the decade began. There was no way he was turning away from it.

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So when Joel entered New York’s A&R Recording studio in the summer of 1978, he was armed with a set of songs that played along the same lines as those found on The Stranger, but with bigger and more expansive (and therefore more ambitious) intentions. The album, released on Oct. 12, 1978, was reflected right there on the cover of 52nd Street: a streetwise punk moving up in the world through his music.

From the opening shot of “Big Shot” – a No. 14 hit – through the closing title track, Joel’s nine-song odyssey is jazzier, more tuneful and more confident than its predecessor. 52nd Street may not be a better album than The Stranger, but at times it comes really close.

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The greatest songs play out like a laid-back stroll through the city streets. There’s the defiant “My Life” (the album’s lead single and a Top 3 hit), the tugging ballad “Honesty,” the jazzy shuffle of “Rosalinda’s Eyes” and the six-and-a-half-minute mini-epic “Until the Night.” They rank among Joel’s best and best-loved songs, and for good reason. He wouldn’t sound this focused and comfortable on an album again.

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The sound of 52nd Street is warm and inviting. Joel is at ease guiding listeners through the slices of life he captures on the 40-minute album. After the record became a hit – reaching No. 1, the first of Joel’s four chart-toppers, and winning a Grammy for album of the year – Joel found the creative freedom to test out his rock-star moves, his political side and his nostalgic attic. There’s a sort of coming-of-age started on The Stranger that’s completed on 52nd Street.

Musically, Joel matured here. More importantly, he found his grownup voice.

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Gallery Credit: UCR Staff

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