William Martin “Billy” Joel (born May 9, 1949) is an American musician and pianist, performer, singer-songwriter, and classical composer. Since releasing his first hit song, “Piano Man”, in 1973, Joel has become the sixth best-selling recording artist and the third best-selling solo artist in the United States, according to the RIAA.
Joel was born in Bronx and raised in Hicksville, New York. His father, Howard (born Helmuth), was born in Germany, the son of German merchant and manufacturer Karl Amson Joel, who, after the advent of the Nazi regime, emigrated to Switzerland and later to the United States. Billy Joel’s mother, Rosalind Nyman, was born in England to Philip and Rebecca Nyman. Both Joel’s parents were Jewish. They divorced in 1960, and his father moved to Vienna, Austria. Billy has a sister, Judith Joel, and a half-brother, Alexander Joel, who is an acclaimed classical conductor in Europe and currently chief musical director of the Staatstheater Braunschweig.
Joel’s father was an accomplished classical pianist. Billy reluctantly began piano lessons at an early age, at his mother’s insistence; his teachers included the noted American pianist Morton Estrin and musician/songwriter Timothy Ford. His interest in music, rather than sports, was a source of teasing and bullying in his early years. (He has said in interviews that his piano instructor also taught ballet. Her name was Frances Neiman, and she was a Juilliard trained musician. She gave both classic piano and ballet lessons in the studio attached to the rear of her house, leading neighborhood bullies to mistakenly think he was learning to dance.) As a teenager, Joel took up boxing so that he would be able to defend himself. He boxed successfully on the amateur Golden Gloves circuit for a short time, winning twenty-two bouts, but abandoned the sport shortly after having his nose broken in his twenty-fourth boxing match.
Joel attended Hicksville High School with the class of 1967. However, he did not graduate from Hicksville. Due to playing at a piano bar, he was one English credit short of the graduation requirement; he overslept on the day of an important exam, owing to his late-night musician’s lifestyle. He left high school without a diploma to begin a career in music. “I told them, ‘To hell with it. If I’m not going to Columbia University, I’m going to Columbia Records and you don’t need a high school diploma over there’.” Columbia did, in fact, become the label that eventually signed him. In 1992, he submitted essays to the school board and was awarded his diploma at Hicksville High’s annual graduation ceremony, 25 years after he had left.