By Neely Tucker The Washington Post
Billy Joel, the regular guy from Long Island who insists he’s not a very good piano player, will be next recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the U.S. Library of Congress announced Tuesday.
He joins good company — the previous honorees are Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Sir Paul McCartney, Carole King and the songwriting duo Burt Bacharach and Hal David. It’s the second major Washington-based award for Joel in two years, this coming on the heels of his being named a Kennedy Center honoree last year.
Calling Joel a “storyteller of the highest order,” Librarian of Congress James 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 prize, to be formally awarded with a luncheon and musical performance in Washington in November, is given by the Library as a lifetime achievement award to a living musical artist.
Joel, 65, has been a force in pop music since the early 1970s. He had a dazzling string of hits over three decades, such as “Piano Man,” “New York State of Mind,” “Movin’ Out,” “Uptown Girl,” “River of Dreams,” and “Just the Way You Are.” He has sold more records than any solo act except for Garth Brooks and Elvis Presley. His “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is a massive sing-along favorite of concert crowds.
Joel’s father played classical music informally, and his younger half-brother, Alexander, has been the musical director or conductor of a number of orchestras in Europe. Joel, in an interview with The Post last November, said he composes his songs by ear and says he cannot score the music, leaving him, in his estimation, “not so good” at the instrument.
In a statement, Joel saluted one of the prize’s namesakes, 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.”