I am sure that anyone who has perused my music articles here can readily discern that I am a jazz guy. My father was a musician and the earliest music I can remember hearing at home was jazz, from Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Mel Torme, Julie London, Keely Smith and Steve and Edie. Yes, Steve and Edie. I still have those LPs somewhere. Ninety percent of my listening is still jazz and I no longer see rock concerts live. However, that doesn’t mean that I have not enjoyed rock and pop concerts as I have. However, as I have gotten older and older, I just find jazz and classical to be of more interest to me, both intellectually and emotionally more than any other forms of music. When I do listen to rock it tends to be of the singer/songwriter genre. My favorite in this space is the subject of this article, Billy Joel.
It is somewhat ironic that I first found the music of Billy Joel surfing the radio dial looking for jazz. It was the night of April 15, 1972. I was still in 8th grade and was spinning the dial to get to the Temple University FM radio station, WRTI, 90.1, which played jazz. On the way down the dial, I stumbled onto a live radio concert from Sigma Sound Studio in Philadelphia that was being broadcast on WMMR 93.3. The artist was a total unknown, Billy Joel, who was touring in support of the ill fated Cold Spring Harbor album. The more I listened, the more I liked. This was a very energetic performance, if a bit raw an unpolished but showing a ton of potential. It was the version of Captain Jack that was pulled from that broadcast that made it into heavy rotation on WMMR which eventually led to Joel’s contract with Columbia Records and his eventual super stardom. I remembered that broadcast and was able to capture some of it on my portable cassette player and when the Piano Man album came out, I grabbed it. Billy was a regular on the college circuit in the Philly/Allentown area and built up quite a local following along with a guy named Springsteen. In my little circle of friends in high school, you were either a Bruce or Billy guy. I was a Billy guy. Still am to this day. With the release of The Stranger album in 1977 and then 52nd Street, Billy quickly rose to international stardom. While there are tons of great tunes on those and his subsequent albums, it is the lesser known and in my mind under appreciated album Turnstiles, that is his overall best album, my personal favorite and the subject of this piece.
As it turns out, there is quite a history behind the making of the Turnstiles album. I have been able to piece together this history from several sources including Wikipedia as well as interviews with those involved on You Tube. Billy’s first two Columbia albums were recorded in LA with session musicians. Columbia hired James William Guercio to produce the next album. Guercio was most well known for his work producing a string of very successful albums for Chicago. Guercio hired two former members of Elton John’s band for the session, Nigel Olson on drums and Dee Murray on bass, despite the fact that Billy had a touring band at the time. Work on the album began at Caribou Ranch in Nederland, Colorado but Billy was not happy with the results, fired Guercio and threw the tapes in the trash. I have no clue what tracks were recorded at that time or whether any of them ended up on the final product. Frustrated, Billy moved back to New York and met up with his touring bassist and fellow Long Islander, Doug Stegmeyer, and informed him he wanted to make his next album with his own band and wanted a New York style drummer. Doug knew just the guy, the drummer in his own local band Topper, Liberty DiVitto. Billy met Liberty, they clicked and all three went into Ultrasonic Studio in Hempstead, Long Island to lay down the basic rhythm tracks for all 8 songs that appear on Turnstiles. When it was decided that they needed to add guitar and sax and flute tracks to the songs, they hired the rest of Topper, namely reed man Richie Cannatta and guitarist Russell Javors, who laid their tracks down, ironically, all the way out at Caribou Ranch. Additional guitar work was added by Howie Emerson, percussion by Mingo Lewis and orchestration by Ken Ascher. The core musicians on Turnstiles remained in his band for years and played on The Stranger, 52nd Street, Glass Houses and An Innocent Man. Ritchie left before The Nylon Curtain on his own accord, to raise his family. Russell was let go in the late 80’s and Doug in the early 90’s. Doug tragically took his own life several years later. Liberty continued with Billy’s band until the Naughties when he was let go as well. Frankly Billy’s band, at least for me, has not been the same since Liberty’s departure.
I view Turnstiles as Billy’s best album as I find it to contain the strongest set of songs, songs that hold up damn well over 40 years later. There are no hits on this album. None of the songs ever made it to top 40 radio in the US. Curiously, James was released as a single in Australia and was a bit of a hit downunder. A couple of the tracks were played regularly on FM radio, particularly in the northeastern US, but the album went largely unnoticed across the rest of the country. I believe that, prior to the release of The Stranger, Turnstiles sold all of 50,000 copies domestically. In fact, if The Stranger did not prove to be a success, Billy in all likelihood would have been dropped from his label.
The strength of the songs on Turnstiles is really driven home by the fact that, despite all of the hits that followed, quite a few of the Turnstile tracks are still on his regular set list, tracks such as the apocalyptic rocker Miami 2017, the cynical and hard driving Prelude/Angry Young Man, the Phil Spector wall of sound inspired Say Goodbye to Hollywood, the almost jazz standard New York State of Mind, the beautiful look back at good times I’ve Loved These Days and one of Billy’s all time best tracks, Summer Highland Falls. The fact that six out of the eight tracks on one of his most obscure albums are still in regular rotation in Billy’s current live arena shows says a lot about these songs. This is an eclectic set dealing with mature subjects such as manic depressive disorder(Summer Highland Falls) and reflecting on days gone by. Jazz, hard rockers and rich beautiful melodies. It is all there. Even a song like James is a fine and underestimated tune and with the use of a Fender Rhodes, is a bit of a precursor to his break out hit, Just The Way You Are. This is the Billy Joel recording I return to the most when I am not listening to jazz.
As this is an audiophile site, I would be remiss not to comment about sonics. Frankly, this is not a great sounding record. At times, the sound is a bit too distant with too much reverb. Far too often, the vocal is too buried in the mix. The exception and best sounding track is Summer Highland Falls, where the vocal is clear and upfront as is the bass and drum tracks. I guess it is fitting that the best song has the best sonics. As one would imagine, I gave several versions of the album including the original LP, a Japanese import CD which is marred by pre emphasis and the overly compressed HDTracks 24/96 release. For me, the best sounding version of this album is the DSD layer from the MoFi SACD release. I find it to be clearer without being too harsh, excellent separation and instrument placement in the sound field, better bass and more dynamic drum tracks. If you can track this one down, it is the version to get.
Finally, if you are interested in hearing Billy’s band at its finest playing this material, I have several suggestions. The first is the CD of the 1977 Carnegie Hall concert that was released with the 30th Anniversary Edition of The Stranger. For some strange reason, they did not include the entire set and did not include Summer Highland Falls, which is a real head scratcher. The CD sounds pretty good but again, is far too compressed for my taste. I would love to hear a flat transfer of the master tape with a lighter hand on the compressor. This set was also released on vinyl for Record Store Day in 2017. The vinyl was sourced from the same digital file as the CD. As an as side, this concert features my favorite recorded version of Captain Jack , featuring a jazzy bluesy vibe.
Another good resource is You Tube where you can find the concert Billy Joel Tonight recorded for the Time Life video series in 1976 at the University of Connecticut. This concert also features the most obscure Billy Joel original of all time, the Spyro Gyra-esque jazz fusion instrumental Hand Ball. This is the only known recording of this song that I know of. Also, please check out the corrected speed adjusted radio concert at The Bottom Line from 1976 as well as the video of the concert at the Capital Theater. This is just scratching the surface on You Tube.
If you are not familiar with this Billy Joel album or the material therein, please check it out. Hopefully you will find it as worthwhile as I do. Happy listening!
Qobuz - LINK (24/96)
Tidal - LINK
Amazon Music HD - LINK