"The Time a Stiff Caught Fire"
Last fall I sent Billy Joel an early draft of my memoir recounting how, after sputtering and stiffing on its release in 1973, his first major-label release inexplicably rose from the grave and raced up the charts, launching his first national hit. He responded and invited my wife Hanne and me to be his guests at his November 10, 2018 concert at Madison Square Garden, and for the three of us to meet backstage in his private suite beforehand.
At the end of the meeting Billy quietly asked, “Why did you do what you did for me all those years ago?”
It was a warm, natural question, but it caught me off-guard. “I liked your music, Billy, still do,” I confessed, “but the truth is, it wasn’t just the music. It was when your record company called you in …” – and here I faltered, got a little choked up – “they called you in and told you it was over, said it’s, quote, ‘time to go back to your day job.’ I’d never heard that phrase, and it filled me with something I’d never felt: Rage. I knew I had to do something.”
The “day job” quote changed the look on Billy’s face, too. We stood there, looking at each other, damp around the eyes. He thanked me and asked that I call him next time I’m in town to continue the conversation. We hugged, then he headed down the hallway to take the stage. The sold-out crowd roared.
So after 45 years, here it is, the true story of how Billy Joel’s stiff, Piano Man, finally caught fire. And how I learned that, with a little small-town luck, rage can be turned into fire, and fire into magic.
I WAS THE COLLEGE MUSIC CRITIC, called myself ‘Hooter McNabb,’ and, really, was just trying to solve a shelving problem.
This was back when record companies were dishing out free albums to anyone who printed up letterhead with “Music Critic” below his name – even small-town, wannabe Rolling Stone scribblers like me, hiding behind hokey pen names in smudgy little weeklies like the Fresno City College Rampage.
They were also dishing out recording contracts to all sorts of sketchy talent in the hopes that one of them would take off.
The delivery man was dropping off 20 to 30 promo LPs a week. When not in class or writing reviews, I worked the counter at Sun Records, on the back side of the Sun Stereo store on Blackstone Avenue.
Thanks to all that free vinyl rolling in and my discount privileges at the record store, I ran out of shelf space, found myself piling new arrivals around my waterbed, then started leaning them 200-300 deep against the bedroom walls, until I finally had to admit that my treasures had become tripping hazards.
So one weekend in early ’74 I came back from the lumber yard with the bricks and boards to extend my 4-foot by 8-foot high shelving unit down the full length of the bedroom wall, a weekend DIY project that I calculated would bring my total storage capacity to 10,000 records, a number that kept me awake at night. I piled the boards in the living room, fed the garden hose through the bedroom window, connected it to the waterbed, got the siphon going so I could drain the mattress enough to horse the heavy, sloshing thing a couple feet away from the wall, out of the path of progress.
Then I turned to the last remaining impediment: the ragged, chest-high pile of promo albums I’d dismissed as beneath reviewing, selling or even giving away. Stacked and abandoned at the far end of my intended wall of shelves, these obscure artists were bereft of any future other than imminent nocturnal relocation to the dumpster behind Pepe’s Tacos three blocks east.
I lugged the first armful of skulking rejects from the top of the pile to the hallway that ran between my room and my roommate’s, now a temporary staging area for the midnight run to Pepe’s.
When I returned from my second hallway haul, I noticed the album now on top of the stack featured a close-up of a guy whose eyes bulged out on him, like a frog that had swum up to take a look around. When I bent over to hoist the third load, those eyes seemed to lock on mine, unsettled me a little, like I’d violated the guy’s personal space or something. I got a little defensive, thought, “What kind of aspiring artist stakes his career on a froggy cover photo?” I spun it up, figured I’d get to the bottom of it while I continued working.
* * *
HALF-WAY INTO SIDE ONE I went back, restarted it from the opening cut, turned it up, took a seat on the splintered wood frame that corralled my flaccid mattress.
One of the tracks could’ve pumped up the crowd on Joe Cocker’s bluesy Mad Dogs and Englishmen live album; another could’ve slotted right in on a chiming Gordon Lightfoot album; and another seemed lifted from some lively new Broadway production. The genres were varied, but the song-craft surprisingly consistent.
It wasn’t my style, exactly, but the tunes were undeniably catchy and the mix of influences fresh – Tin Pan Alley, Elton John, Mr. Bojangles, and ringing anthem-like choruses that seemed to be drawn from the same well that fed Springsteen. Aside from Elton and Bruce, this Bulgy guy seemed to have something like Randy Newman’s easy gift for melody and Tom Waits’ knack for lighting small, slice-of-life vignettes with an almost cinematic glow.
The whole fresh-faced thing was shot through with a confessional, regular-guy vibe that, though edging toward corniness now and then, was the perfect antidote to the sometimes-operatic bombast of King Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and my other art-rock indulgences of the day. This Bulgy guy didn’t take himself all that seriously, made it sound easy, like the songs had just popped into his noggin and out his fingertips while he effortlessly sang along. He sounded young and almost annoyingly talented. He had me, a kid trying his hand at being a heard-it-all music critic, singing along on the first play.
I stared back at those eyes. Who is this guy and how had he wound up with the wretched rejects in my Tower of Scorned Flotsam?
* * *
MY ROOMMATE WANDERED IN, surveyed the lumber in the living room, the vinyl detritus clogging the path to his room, and the grimy garden hose in mine, and asked, “Uh, what’s happening here?”
“Take a seat, man,” I instructed. “You gotta hear this.”
He hunkered on the bed frame while I dropped the needle on the last track, side 2, nursed the volume up.
“OK, here we go, Marty,” I barked over the music. “Listen how he’s playin’ with us, settin’ us up, something’s coming, hear it? OK, hold on, here comes the hook, OK, Marty, listen right … right … there! My God, isn’t that brilliant?”
Having come home to din and dishevelment, your standard, paid-up roommate would’ve been within his rights to rise up and twist the tonearm off your twitchy little turntable. But Marty Sherwood was mellower, and a better listener, than anyone I knew. And he just closed his eyes, shut it all out, and listened.
By the time we’d played through both sides, and with my waterbed still draining onto the lawn, Marty and I had resolved to make Bulgy a Big Star. Marty had pulled it off a few years earlier, when he was working at Fresno’s hit radio station, had a Gold Record on his wall to show for it. And I was Hooter McNabb, making a stop at the Rampage on my way to Rolling Stone someday.
So, really, with credentials like those, and material this strong to work with, how hard could it be?
* * *
THE NEXT MORNING I phoned Columbia Records’ promotion man up in San Francisco, Ken Reuther, thanked him for sending the album a while back, said Bulgy was the most natural talent I’d heard in my entire reviewing career – all eight months’ worth – and that somehow I must’ve misplaced the Bulgy press kit, asked him to slip the bio and a couple photos in the mail for my upcoming feature in the Rampage.
Reuther said he didn’t have anything to send. I didn’t understand.
He backed up, said he’d worked the same artist’s first record, on a tiny label, a year or two earlier, and most of the few people who bought it were probably close friends or relatives. Said somehow Columbia’s A&R [artists & repertoire] guys in New York heard some potential, signed him, but the new album had gone nowhere in the two-plus months since its release – considered “forever” in the pop record business.
“Well, you must have a photo of the album cover I can run with the feature. I need something.”
He countered that the company was busy pushing out seven or eight new pop and rock releases a week, and that I “should’ve written it up when it was fresh, maybe it would’ve made a difference.” Once in a while a new artist takes off. The others disappear.
“Just the way it works,” he said.
“But this guy’s got talent, songs, and he can sing,” I protested. “A couple cuts have big hooks, Top 40 stuff, man. He deserves another shot.”
Reuther seemed to consider Bulgy’s Columbia debut as that second shot.
“C’mon, Ken, you gotta promote him a little, he’ll take off,” I pleaded.
He said it was “too late,” that the guys in the New York office had called Bulgy in, sat him down, told him there wouldn’t be a follow-up album. Everyone gave it a good try, they told him, but it’s over.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was reeling. Then the coup de grâce: “They told him it’s time to go back to the day job.”
It was the first time I’d heard the phrase, and it felt like some washerwoman with huge hands was wringing my innards like they were sopping wet bath towels. Columbia was dismissing Bulgy’s God-given gift as if it was worthless? I couldn’t think, couldn’t talk, felt myself filling up with something deep and unfamiliar, felt like I was going to explode from it.
Reuther must have sensed I was shaken by the news. “Hooter,” he said, as if to console me, “you work in a record store, right? When was the last time you saw a stiff catch fire?”
* * *
I COULDN’T GET THE DOUBLE-BARRELLED insults out of my head. “Time to go back to the day job” was personal and cruel and felt like they were saying Bulgy didn’t have the talent to make it in the big leagues, like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and a few other Columbia artists had.
The other, “stiff,” was an industry term freighted with the same finality and fetid aroma that “liquidation bankruptcy” carries in banking. Dead and stinking.
Stiffs were melted down to make more vinyl for some other random hoser’s albums. Or, worse, they wound up as “cut-outs” in those wobbly, bedraggled 99-cent clearance bins set in a corner somewhere. At Sun Records I’d come face to face with a breed of guy who’d catch the scent and descend on the bins on Saturday mornings. I had a vision of Bulgy’s album, maimed by a clipped, notched or perforated corner, being picked at by the yellow-toothed carrion eaters in stained trousers.
Either way, oven or clearance bin, it was a soul-crushing, stomach-churning end for a talent like Bulgy’s.
The more I tried to process “day job” and “stiff” the more I came to understand that there was a name for this alien churning and welling up in me: Rage.
* * *
I THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO EXPLODE, needed to think it through, then do something. I’d been hanging around a local FM station, KFIG, where Ray Appleton presided over the local rock scene, got to hang out with Bowie, Supertramp and other rock royalty I only scribbled about from afar. Appleton would occasionally quote my album reviews on the air, and I’d run a little interview with him six months earlier, figured he might consider a friendly request to work a Bulgy track or two into his playlist. It was calming to know that a guy like Appleton would hear me out.
“Yeah, probably great stuff,” he said, “but didn’t it stiff? It stiffed, right? Bring me something fresh and I’ll try to help.”
There it was again, the S-word. This time I took it in stride, figured KFIG was just a warm-up, we still had our best card up our sleeve. So I went back to Marty, asked him to call in a favor from his days at KYNO, the hit radio station I mentioned. Anyone who knew radio in those days would say, “KYNO? Yeah, that ought to do the trick.”
To understand why they’d say that, I ought to explain a little something about Fresno and the radio business.
* * *
SET IN THE MIDDLE OF CENTRAL CALIFORNIA‘s vast San Joaquin Valley, Fresno is surrounded by the most fertile agricultural land in the world, but little else; if you want to escape the flat-lands for, say, San Francisco to the north or Los Angeles to the south, it’s a drab couple hours’ drive either way, enlivened only by the splatting of insects on your windshield.
In the ’60s and ’70s we young Fresnans assuaged our hipness deficit by reminding each other, “Well, yeah, but if a song takes off here, look out, man, it’s gonna be a hit everywhere.” I’d been hearing that since I was 9 or 10 years old.
It was as if there was something besides bugs in the Valley air, something invisible that put us in some kind of pop vanguard. It turned out that there was: radio. It was in Fresno in the 1960s that Top 40 radio programming – the precise formula of what songs, in what order, separated by what kinds of transitions, DJ chatter, commercials, news breaks, announcements, station jingles, and so on – was broken down, rearranged, retested, and ultimately turned into a machine.
Bill Drake and his business partner, KYNO owner Gene Chenault, came up with “music sweeps” timed to get underway when competing stations went to the news break at the top of the hour, so when you punched through your station presets they’d snare and keep you, undisturbed by commercials, for up to 40 minutes at a stretch.
Drake and Chenault drilled “boss jocks” on how to be smooth and brief (“less talk, more rock”). Their listening panel decided which songs made the cut. They slashed the time allotted for commercials to under 14 minutes an hour. Transitions between songs were fussed over like Bernstein blending the brass with the string sections of the New York Phil.
The result was a palpable sense of velocity and forward momentum: Every market-researched detail was designed to pull you through your day.
By the early ’70s Drake’s list of client stations had gone from one – KYNO – to 350, spanning from powerhouse KHJ in LA to WOR-FM in New York. It was said that if you owned the strongest, most lucrative Top 40 station in your market, and your weakest competitor just inked a deal with Drake-Chenault to program his station, you were probably 120 days away from bankruptcy court. The juggernaut was chronicled in Time, Newsweek and major newspapers across the land.
Drake so profoundly reshaped American radio programming that, years after he’d ditched Fresno for a mansion in Bel Air, even non-Drake stations were still monitoring what was getting air-time at KYNO, where, in acknowledgment of its being the original test lab, local management was granted leeway to “break” a new song now and then.
* * *
WE FIGURED that if Marty could get in front of his old KYNO comrades, convince just one of them to slip Bulgy into rotation, get a toehold, there was a chance it could fan out to dozens, maybe hundreds of those other homogenized Drake-programmed stations across America. We could see KYNO blasting Bulgy into orbit. The prospect made my heart pound. Might’ve been the first time I considered myself lucky to be from the dusty San Joaquin.
* * *
MARTY HAD HIS OWN REASONS to look forward to a reunion. As KYNO’s music director two years earlier, he’d pushed to get into rotation a cut off the debut album of a couple of Americans living in England, convinced that these dopey, scraggly guys with their Neil Young vibe could be huge. Management had a listen but didn’t share Marty’s view. He kept going back until his boss finally agreed to refer it to Drake’s lieutenant in LA, who served up a resolute “No.” Each of Marty’s subsequent entreaties must have come off like, well, a broken record.
Later, another station in another market took the risk. Turned out that they, not Marty, KYNO and Drake, were the ones to break America’s first single, “A Horse with No Name,” went to Number 1 nationally. By then Marty had been let go, a victim of “automation,” they said.
In hindsight, Marty’s hope of getting KYNO to roll the dice with Bulgy might’ve been about more than just reconnecting with the old gang. Might’ve been about redemption.
* * *
THE APPOINTED DAY CAME. Marty basked in the bear hugs and bonhomie, suggested Bulgy could be huge. “KYNO has a special place in radio history. This guy could be part of that story,” he said. “Let’s do this together.”
The senior KYNO guy went first: “Marty, we’d do most anything to help, but you know what the first rule of Top 40 radio is because you were one of the guys who drilled it into us: Never program a stiff. It sounds like an adventure, but we’d lose our jobs over it.”
No one else said a word, nor needed to. It hadn’t been just days or weeks since Bulgy’s big-label debut had dropped; it’d been months. Picking hits off a new release from some fresh new artist was one thing; breaking out shovels to disinter a stiff was another.
Marty shuffled off to pitch a few other program managers and music directors around town, with the same outcome: A stiff’s a stiff, nothing to talk about, but, hey, great to see you again.
* * *
IT WAS TIME TO LOWER our gaze from galactic to grassroots. I toted my promo copy to Sun, asked my manager, Mike Chakerian, if I could give it a spin on the house system, try to create some interest with the regulars. He did me one better, offered to call the supplier, place an order so we’d have them to sell. He took my album, disappeared into his office, re-emerged a few minutes later, handed it back to me. Bulgy had come and gone, he reported, no LPs available and no plans for it to go back into production.
I hadn’t seen the album in the usual cut-out bin graveyards around town, which left me with a dark, churning feeling that maybe the vultures had already had their way with Bulgy and, if there were any last, unsold copies of his big-label debut they could be sliding around in the bed of some dented pickup on its way to an oven somewhere.
I paced around the bins, my stomach doing flip-flops again, finally had to accept that the only thing I had to work with was Chakerian’s OK to play the album. I plopped it on the Garrard and dropped the froggy-eyed jacket in the “Now Playing” holder. Somehow it got stuck at a funky angle. While jiggling it to square it up, it dawned on me that it might draw more attention if I left it crooked. I got a couple of the stereo guys to come back to have a look and they agreed.
Energized, I took another lap around the bins for more inspiration. This time I noticed that the barnwood-clad walls gave the place a dingy feel just aching for some vibrant, inspirational wall art to make the spirit soar. I rummaged around in the supplies closet, came up with some Marks-a-Lot pens and bright yellow, poster-size sheets of construction paper to fill the void. I scrawled “Screw the Establishment, Get Behind the New Talent!” in six-inch high letters inspired by a Jefferson Airplane concert poster, and thumb-tacked my masterpiece to the wall, making sure it was a little off-kilter. Within 10 minutes I’d tacked up two more in a similar vein.
I scrounged up a legal-size notepad, wrote “PETITION!” across the top in big, bold letters, made columns for names and phone numbers, and set it down in the middle of the counter where customers stood to pay.
It was time to outline some kind of presentation. Feeling like I was on a roll, I went with the first thing that popped into my head: I’d motion to the kitty-wampus album cover next to the turntable, point to the posters hanging higgledy-piggledy on the pecky cedar walls, then to the speakers, and enunciate as casually as I could, “Hear that? Music that solid and the guy’s own record company won’t press any more albums, told him it’s time to go back to the day job. There’s the petition, man.”
It was surprisingly easy work. As the pages filled up I started wondering whether I might be some kind of PR wiz-kid-in-the-making. But it turned out that, with Watergate in the papers every day, there was enough of a stick-it-to-the-Man vibe in the air to get a protest signature out of pretty much anyone without saying a word – all you had to do was make sure there was a pen on the counter, then turn around and fumble with the cassette tapes or rolling papers display while they waited to pay.
* * *
WE SNAGGED 200 NAMES in barely two weeks. I called Reuther.
“People are getting riled up down here, man, a petition drive sprang up with a couple hundred names already and people are demanding that album. And I really need that bio and photo so I can write the review, gonna be my biggest feature, Appleton’s probably gonna read it on the air” – spectacularly confident claims for a 140-pound freshman with nothing but a minimum-wage job at a small town record store and a borrowed soapbox from a community college journalism department.
Reuther ignored the news of the insurrection brewing down in the Valley, might’ve figured I’d instigated the caper, repeated that he didn’t have any PR kits to send, then disclosed something new: Like everyone in the company, he had to “work what’s on the priority list” handed down from the corporate office on Monday mornings. He said Bulgy disappeared from that list a while ago. I gathered from the way he said priority list that he could get himself fired for spending time on something that had been stricken from it.
Nevertheless, a couple days later Reuther called to announce a minor breakthrough: He and some of the branch managers had poked around for me and turned up a left-over sealed carton of 25 albums. He could get it shipped to the store.
“This is it, there aren’t any more. And you understand that we can’t do another pressing run just for you guys in Fresno, right?”
When the carton showed up I grabbed my Marks-a-Lot, wrote the artist’s name on a white plastic record divider and crammed it and 20 albums in the bin. The remaining five I stuffed behind the counter as “reserve stash,” as if it was a precious cache of exotic weed or something.
Marty and I started calling petitioners, announced we’d scored the last of Bulgy’s pop masterpiece, strictly first-come, first-served, then they’re gone forever. People were mellow, even gracious about it, said they’d drop in next time they’re cruising down Blackstone, but precious few rolled up with the $2.99. After a couple of days I started bugging random customers who’d come in for Dark Side of the Moon or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or whatever to spring for Bulgy as well. And bit by bit, his bin space shrank. Then it was gone.
* * *
IT WAS TIME TO FACE FACTS: Columbia’s cupboard was bare. So was ours. Our pals in local radio wouldn’t touch it. The petition drive was growing stale. At some low point I slid my promo copy back in its jacket. Dumped the posters, stowed the petition behind the counter, next to the reserve stash. Resumed playing established artists on the house stereo. Moved on to something else, something not so mixed up with rage and teenage adrenaline. Something forgettable.
Maybe a week later, mid-morning on a Saturday, one of the stereo guys rang the Records department, said they needed me to help out: One of the salesmen was stranded, couldn’t get his big Norton started again.
On my way up front I picked up an intriguingly resonant voice off to my left, jogged in that direction to see if I could put a face to it. The owner, David Wayne Butler, turned out to be the back-office engineer at KFYE, “soft-rock 94 FM,” who’d dropped by to have another listen to the big ESS floor-standing speakers and the amplifier and turntable packaged with them.
It was a righteous rock rig in the day but by Dave’s account, every time he dropped by, the sticker was still stuck at $1,240, and his engineer’s salary hadn’t changed for the better, either. He asked how the strange, accordion-like tweeters worked so he’d be informed “when the time comes.” It was a pleasant enough chat, two sound geeks indulging in a Saturday exploration of a shared passion, though there was a gauzy, “one-of-these-days” dreaminess about it.
At some point the conversation began to peter out and I thought maybe I should wait on someone who’d come in intending to buy something. I excused myself, started towards the sales counter, but then had an idea, made a quick detour, came back with Joe Walsh’s solo album, the one with “Rocky Mountain Way.” I cranked the volume, lit up the whole showroom with it.
Not ten seconds in, Dave and I had our hands stuffed in our front pockets, were hunching forward and staring fixedly at those big, walnut-tower speakers while sporadically making short kicking motions with our feet, and dipping a shoulder now and then – displaying what a big-city culture snob might characterize not as dancing per se, but as a couple of valley yokels experiencing mild, upright seizures of some kind.
When the episode subsided we launched into a spirited discussion of the dual 10-inch woofers. Dave’s voice was booming. That’s when it hit me: This guy standing in front of me, my new buddy, may be a full-time engineer, but he was also an occasional on-air announcer. That’s where I’d heard that voice: Sunday afternoons on the radio. And our random encounter afforded me one last chance, a Hail Mary pass.
* * *
I GOT FIDGETY, motioned to the front door. Dave followed me into the parking lot until I’d worked up the requisite courage, then abruptly turned around and announced I was going back in there to sell him the system of his dreams at the store’s direct cost. Said I’d show him the dealer cost sheets, would probably come to six, maybe seven hundred out the door.
The guy who spent his Sundays purring into a microphone went silent, stared at me, presumably lost in calculating how much he had in his checking account, or possibly meditating on the obvious cynical question, “Why would a stranger risk getting fired to make such an offer?”
I took a breath and asked if he might consider doing me a personal favor: Play my favorite new album in its entirety the next day, Sunday, during his weekly New Album Preview show.
Dave acknowledged that he’d been doing that show for a while, but they’d been announcing another album all week as the upcoming feature, no way could he pull a last-minute switch. There was an awkward silence. Then he must’ve had a vision of those walnut towers pumping “Rocky Mountain Way” into his living room because his next sentence was, “How about if I play it next Sunday?”
He stared down at the asphalt, shifted from foot to foot, appeared to be organizing his thoughts. He straightened up, looked me in the eye and asked me three questions:
“This album, it is soft rock, right?” “Yup.”
“It doesn’t have language that could get me in trouble with my boss or the FCC, does it?” I thought about the last track on side two, took a moment to choose my words. “Major-label artist, man. Who’s cleaner than Columbia Records?”
“And you said it’s a new release, right?” I was stumped for a moment, then had a thought. “Hasn’t even hit the airwaves yet.”
He didn’t ask whether it happened to be a certified stiff, and I kept my mouth shut for once.
We split up, walked separately back into the store, milled around aimlessly, like two guys pretending not to know each other, two guys about to steal something. When the coast was clear we squirted behind the counter where I showed him the cost sheets for his new system. He nodded and I dashed back to the record department to grab one of the five albums from the reserve stash.
* * *
WITH NEW LIFE breathed into The Epic Struggle, I, Marty, and his taciturn friend Veg convened at the house for a strategy meeting. I laid the petition list on the kitchen table. The three of us looked it over and agreed that everyone who’d coughed up a phone number needed to get a call. Marty laid out the process: Remind them they’d signed the petition; ask them to call the station next Sunday, a little after 2 o’clock, when the New Album Preview show starts; have them write down the time and call-in number; make sure they tell whoever answers that they love the album.
Veg was eager to help his best friend but didn’t have much of a cranium for the fine points of sequencing and phraseology. After rehearsing for half an hour with only modest progress we agreed a live practice run might help loosen things up. Marty picked a name on the list, dialed the number, handed Veg the phone. He seemed short on confidence, as usual, but managed to get through the first part OK, considering. Then a stricken look came over him.
“Marty, the lady wants to know what to say if the station asks why she likes the record,” he said, his eyes big. Marty offered some platitude or other, which Veg did his best to repeat into the phone.
The lady balked. Veg was starting to panic. I saw our moonshot stalling on the launchpad. Finally, I leaned forward and whispered, “Just tell her to say it’s the greatest album since Sergeant Pepper’s.” Veg shredded the syntax, but somehow the Sergeant Pepper’s part came through and she was satisfied.
He took the whole list with him, said he’d try his best.
Six days later Veg rattled into the parking lot in the spastic Vegmobile, reported that he’d dialed every number, managed to get a little over a hundred people to promise to call in on Sunday afternoon. I was having trouble believing such an introverted guy could’ve found the grit to ask that many strangers for a favor. Marty wasn’t convinced either. But Veg insisted he was telling the truth, offered to call some of them back on Sunday morning to remind them before the album went on the air.
Marty and I looked at each other. Yeah, that sounded like a real good idea.
* * *
SUNDAY CAME. Per the show’s standard format, Dave played the album straight through. I tried to call him at the station later in the day to thank him, couldn’t get through.
He called me Monday morning.
“The switchboard was lit up for hours, jammed, man, never seen anything like it!” he boomed, betraying no sign that it could’ve been the result of anything other than a spontaneous groundswell. I was feeling pretty clever again, but, like the previous time, it didn’t last.
Dave’s next sentence was, “Tell me, what’s the single, which cut am I running with?”
In that moment I realized that neither Marty Sherwood, owner of that Gold Record, nor I, Hooter McNabb, Music Critic, had a clue what we were doing. I’d been trumpeting an artist. Marty had been promoting an album. Together we’d been leading some small-town counter-culture cause. Dave didn’t need any of those things: He needed a song.
“Gimme a second,” I said, my heart racing as I fast-forwarded through the most tuneful tracks in my head, but I kept getting stuck: There were a couple of radio-worthy cuts on the album, and I was getting freaked out that we were this close and I could blow it at the end.
“Well, Marty used to break singles at KYNO, I’ll ask when I see him and call you right back, I promise.”
The quiet engineer with the mahogany vocal cords positively bellowed: “I need the answer now!” I froze, my heart thumping. I didn’t know what to do, ended up defaulting to the safest option: “Could you just play the title track until Marty tells us what the hit’s gonna be?” If the song didn’t take off, it’d be Columbia’s fault for picking the wrong song for the title of the whole album. It was an act of cowardice and I knew it.
“Well,” he said after a pause, “I guess I can run with that.”
Then, in a quizzical tone that still rings in my ears, he asked, “Do you think the album sounds like Sergeant Pepper’s? I don’t hear that. Funny, almost all the call-ins mentioned it.” I felt my face turn red.
* * *
WITHIN AN HOUR, the title track was in heavy rotation on 94 FM.
That afternoon one of Marty’s old KYNO colleagues called to see if the new song over on 94 was by the same guy Marty had pitched, the one that had stiffed. I told him Marty was out, will call him back, but, yeah, same artist.
Same guy called again 20 minutes later, rattled, said he’d just gotten off the phone with Columbia, who reported they had nothing to send. How was that even possible? They’re KYNO, for God’s sake, and Columbia is maybe the biggest record company in the world.
Marty returned, dialed KYNO from the phone near the cash register, held the receiver out a little so I could lean in and hear, then said, “I’m on my way.”
He reached down and pulled out the last four copies from the reserve stash. We looked at each other, thinking the same thing: “Oh my God, it’s happening!”
After the KYNO drop, Marty left a copy at three other, long-forgotten pop stations in town. When he rolled into the parking lot an hour later we were completely out of albums. Bulgy’s future wasn’t up to us, Columbia Records, the three other stations, or anyone else. It was in KYNO’s hands.
Reacting to 94 FM’s lead, KYNO put the title track into hit rotation that afternoon. By the time I connected with Reuther he’d already relayed the breakthrough up the chain throughout Columbia nationally. No one there needed reminding as to what the consequences of the KYNO/Drake connection could be. They were already scrambling to pull together the stampers, masters, artwork, everything needed to do another press run down at Columbia’s western US plant in Santa Maria, near Santa Barbara. Reuther said albums and the single would start shipping within 24 hours.
“Hooter, if it catches on in the Bay Area and down in LA, that little stiff of yours could go national!”
* * *
TWO WEEKS AFTER KYNO INTRODUCED IT to local Top 40 radio, our “little stiff” broke into Billboard’s Top LPs chart at number 99, then gained 35 positions in the next 14 days and kept climbing the chart as it spread throughout the Drake-programmed network and, station by station, non-Drake outlets as well.
Its unusual rise from months of obscurity was the subject of a featurette in Billboard’s March 9 issue, with a photo of Bulgy and a lead that read: “It took some three months of dogged promotion by Columbia to get the writer-singer-pianist’s first single on their label charted. But their faith is repaid as the album jumped 25 chart positions in a week.”
The record company’s “three months of dogged promotion” caused a few paroxysms of eye-rolling at Sun Stereo, KYNO, and Reuther’s office up in San Francisco. As he’d said at the beginning: “Just the way it works.”
That title track – the cut I suggested DJ Dave play as a stalling tactic “until Marty tells us what the hit’s gonna be” – entered the Billboard Top 25 on April 20 and is enshrined in Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
But it proved to be more than just a single hit with a sing-along hook. The album itself kept selling and resonating. Eighteen months after its escape from my Tower of Scorned Flotsam, the RIAA certified the album Gold. Platinum certification followed, then Double-Platinum, Triple-Platinum and Quadruple-Platinum. After 45 years it’s still going, been reissued, special deluxe editions, the works.
* * *
THE ALBUM TURNED OUT to be the first of a long and continuing string of hits for the singer-songwriter with the bulgy eyes. He became one of the biggest pop artists of all time, went on to sell 150 million albums for Columbia. Reuther rewarded me by offering albums by other artists, large and small, whatever I wanted. Dozens of them merited repeat listening. A few even became favorites. But none kindled the same fire in me that Billy Joel’s Piano Man had.
— END —
The first person to thank in all this is my old roommate, Marty Sherwood. We hadn’t connected in 44 years but when I finally found him – in a Bay Area hospital recovering from a heart transplant – it felt like it’d been a week or two. He’s enjoying life with new vigor and a muscular new ride in his garage. Ride on, Marty!
I owe a special thanks to Ken Reuther of Columbia Records. Ken had a 40-year music business career for major labels in New Orleans and San Francisco, where he still lives and is a former president of the San Francisco Tour Guides Guild. He’s also the Guild’s unofficial city historian – something that didn’t surprise me, given his sharp memory of the details of our interactions 45 years earlier. Thanks also to Ken’s Columbia colleague in New York, George Chaltas, who also worked to promote Piano Man’s release. Ken and George gave me general record-company context, corroborated details of what was on/off Columbia’s weekly priority lists in late ’73/early ’74, and clarified how long a new release could go without charting before it was written off as a “stiff” in those days.
When I reconnected with my manager at Sun Records, Michael Chakerian, his first recollection was of relaying the bad news that there were no more Piano Man albums available or planned, going back into his office, then re-emerging 20 minutes later, only to be confronted by my electric-yellow protest posters on the walls and a noisy petition campaign in full swing. Mike, your vivid description of the scene made my fury and frenzy feel fresh again.
Special thanks to the old Sun Stereo team who shared memories and details with me after decades of radio silence: owners David Dwelle and Tom Wirht; audio manager Larry Henderson, salesmen Steve Reimann and Glenn Kumagai, and engineer Tim Johnson, all of whom I managed to connect with for this story. Steve, if you’d bought reliable transportation instead of that troubled Norton Commando, I wouldn’t have had to pinch-hit for you that Saturday, and the rest of this story simply wouldn’t have happened. In a roundabout way, your questionable transportation decision had the effect of giving Billy one last chance at stardom. It was all he needed.
I’m indebted to several long-time Fresno radio people who took my calls, shared their recollections, and read drafts of this story along the way. Greg T. Elliot, along with Dave Butler, was one of KFYE station owner Dick Ingram’s first hires when he launched the station in ’72. Sean Conrad was program director at KYNO during Marty’s days there; his recent memoir, Kickin’ Out the Jams, captures the zany spirit of the times. Central Valley rock legend and radio historian Ray Appleton put me in touch with other radio personalities who filled in various background details. And KFYE’s Karen Franz dug into the history of station personnel for me. Thank you, all four, for taking my many calls, many of which ended with my “That should do it … oh, just one last question …” routine.
I never achieved my dream of writing for Ben Fong-Torres when he was famously editing Rolling Stone, but he graciously connected me with Top 40 radio archivists who offered useful background. Thanks, Ben.
Heartfelt thanks to each of my editor friends who took time to read and critique earlier drafts: Lisa Chakerian, Scott MacClelland, John McWade and Nick Sharp.
Special thanks to my high school buddy, Mark Harry, whose memories of “The Billy Joel Caper” brought some of the color and vibe of those days back into sharp focus. Mark, I’m sorry I had to cut so much detail to make the story readable by a general audience. I’ve added a Comments section at the end so we can all share details.
Lastly, extra special Thanks to my spirited wife, Hanne, who’s been hearing little pieces of this story since she agreed to stand outside a concert venue in Munich with me one freezing night in late ’77 or early ’78, hoping to catch a glimpse of Billy when he emerged after his concert. We didn’t see him, but it was while standing there in the snow with our arms around each other that I decided that someday, when Billy’s about ready to hang it up, I just had to write down my Piano Man story.
Marc Fisher, Something in the Air: Radio, Rock and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation (Random House, 2007).
Ben Fong-Torres, And the Hits Just Keep on Coming: The History of Top 40 Radio (Backbeat Books, 1998).
Sean Conrad, Kickin’ Out the Jams: The Purple Haze of my Crazy Daze in Radio (Black Opal Books, 2013).
Derek Thompson, Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular (Penguin Books, 2017).
The New York Times, December 1, 2008: www.nytimes.com/2008/12/02/business/media/02drake.html.
Billy Joel website: www.billyjoel.com
Some of the people who played important roles in the story are no longer with us.
I’d left Fresno for UC Santa Barbara shortly after DJ Dave Butler and I made that killer deal on the ESS AMT-3 Rock Monitor speakers, Sony STR-7065, and Dual 1218 turntable in Sun’s parking lot that fateful Saturday. I can only assume that, when he took delivery, one of the first cuts he played was “Rocky Mountain Way.” When I started filling in the chronology for this story back in November 2017, Dave was one of the first people I tried to get in touch with. I was saddened to learn that he’d passed away a few years earlier, at the age of 66. (https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/fresno-ca/david-butler-6139542).
Veg’s real name was Samuel Jeffrey Boghosian. He acquired the “Veg” moniker due to his strikingly dilapidated VW Beetle – the Vegmobile – sporting the color and complexion of an avocado skin. Although he never officially worked at Sun Stereo, Veg and his iconic transport were the closest thing the store had to a mascot. We all loved him. He passed away February 3, 2003 (http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/name/samuel-boghosian-obituary?pid=819383&view=guestbook).
Though not mentioned directly in the story, Chuck Inman was the Columbia Records branch manager who found that left-over box of 25 Piano Man albums. He made his career at Columbia and Capitol Records and retired to the tiny Sierra foothills town of Volcano, California, where he was proprietor of the Gold Rush-era St. George Hotel. Chuck passed away in 2012 at age 86.
Lastly, I had only a single, hour-long phone call with Piano Man’s producer, Michael Stewart, after he’d read my much shorter account of this story in the August 1987 issue of Sacramento NPR affiliate KXPR’s program guide. He said the album “must have set a record for rising from the grave,” and that he’d “heard a few rumors that it started in central California,” but no one knew more than that. He said that once it took off, Columbia wanted to use their in-house producers rather than him for Billy’s subsequent albums. Despite that disappointment, he said Piano Man was the high point of his career. Mike was previously the leader and chief songwriter of The We Five folk-rock group, whose 1965 single “You Were on My Mind” reached #3 on the Billboard singles charts. It remains a staple of oldies stations. He passed away November 13, 2002 at age 57 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Stewart_(musician)).
© 2018-19, Keith Yates. All Rights Reserved.