"The Time a Stiff Caught Fire"
In early ’74 my roommate and I launched a small-town petition drive to rescue an obscure young pop artist whose first major-label record had debuted and, a few months later, quietly died, or “stiffed.”
The album’s unusual — and previously unexplained — rise from the grave and ascent to the top of the national charts was the subject of a short memoir I wrote for the August 1987 issue of Sacramento NPR station’s member’s magazine. The album’s producer, Michael Stewart, read my piece and called to corroborate some particulars and thank me for finally solving the mystery.
Before signing off, Michael asked if he should get word to the artist. I thought about it and said, well, maybe after I’ve written the full version of the story. Michael asked when that might be. “When he’s ready to retire,” I said.
With retirement around the corner, here it is, as promised over 30 years ago, the true story of how Billy Joel caught fire with Piano Man.
I WAS CALLING MYSELF HOOTER MCNABB and wrestling with a shelving crisis.
This was back when the stuff of the LP – oil – cost next to nothing, which only encouraged record companies to sign all manner of sketchy talent in the hopes that somehow one of them would catch on with the student crowd.
To my delight, these same companies were dishing out free albums to any scribbler who tacked “Music Critic” onto his letterhead – even small-town, wannabe Rolling Stone writers like me, hiding behind dodgy pen names in smudgy little weeklies like the Fresno City College Rampage.
The delivery man was dropping off 20 to 30 promo LPs a week.
When not in class or writing reviews, I was working the counter at Sun Records, on the back side of the Sun Stereo store on Blackstone Avenue. Lately – winter ’73 – a few customers had come in asking for my opinion about some new album or other, said they’d heard on the radio that Hooter McNabb had said this or that about it.
“Hooter McNabb?” I said. “Does that even sound like a guy’s real name to you? What kind of guy hides behind a pen name?”
It had its tingly moments, this new alter ego thing.
THANKS TO ALL THAT FREE VINYL rolling in and my liberal discount privileges at the store, I’d been on a year-long voyage of discovery, from Mahler symphonies to Bulgarian village music, Indian ragas and Indonesian gamelan orchestras, much of it on the Nonesuch Explorer label. My expanding musical horizons had created a pressing physical challenge: I’d exhausted my floor-to-ceiling shelving unit’s 2,000-LP capacity, found myself greedily leaning new acquisitions 200 deep against the bedroom walls, then stacking the rest in 2-foot high piles around my waterbed, until one day I had to acknowledge that my treasures had become tripping hazards.
* * *
I CALCULATED THAT SCOOTING MY WATERBED just three feet would clear enough space to extend the shelves down the full length of the room, increasing my total capacity to 10,000 albums, a prospect that was keeping me awake at nights.
So I saved up and one day in January ’74 I came back from the lumber yard, piled the bricks and boards in the living room, then fed the garden hose through the bedroom window so I could drain the mattress enough to horse the heavy, sloshing thing out of the path of progress.
With the siphon going I turned to the last remaining impediment: a 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 what would be my glorious wall, these dusty cast-offs had nothing left to look forward to but nocturnal relocation to the dumpster behind Pepe’s Tacos three blocks east.
I lugged the first armful of 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 haul, I noticed the album on top featured a close-up of a guy whose eyes seemed to bulge out a little, like a frog that had swum up from the bottom to take a look around.
When I bent over to hoist the third load, those eyes seemed to lock on mine just 7 or 8 inches away, unsettled me, like I’d violated the guy’s personal space or something. I got annoyed and a little defensive, thought, “What kind of aspiring artist stakes his career on a froggy cover photo?”
I decided to spin it up, get to the bottom of it while I continued working.
* * *
HALF-WAY INTO SIDE ONE I went back to the turntable, gave the album a wipe with my record brush, zapped it with my anti-static gun and spun it up again from the beginning. I turned up the volume and 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. Yet another seemed lifted from some lively new Broadway production. The genres were varied, but the song-craft surprisingly consistent.
It was nothing like my usual weekend fare – Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Sibelius symphonies – but the tunes were catchy and the mix of influences fresh. There was some Tin Pan Alley, Elton John Tumbleweed Connection, Mr. Bojangles, and ringing anthem-like choruses that seemed drawn from the same well that fed a new guy, Springsteen. There was evidence of a Randy Newman-like gift for melody and something like Tom Waits’ knack for lighting small, slice-of-life vignettes with an almost cinematic glow.
The whole vital and occasionally haunting thing was shot through with a confessional, regular-guy vibe that, though tinged with corniness now and then, was the perfect antidote to the sometimes-operatic bombast of my prog-rock indulgences of the day. This bulgy-eyed 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, like he hadn’t found his true voice quite yet, and almost annoyingly talented. In the meantime, he had me, a greenhorn posing as a heard-it-all music critic, singing along on the first play.
I stared back at those eyes. Who is this Billy Joel, and how had he wound up with the wretched and doomed at the bottom of my Tower of Scorned Flotsam?
* * *
MY ROOMMATE WANDERED IN, surveyed the lumber piled in the living room, the vinyl detritus clogging the path to his room, and the grimy garden hose in mine, and gave me an odd look.
“Take a seat, man,” I instructed. “You gotta hear this.”
He shrugged and 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?”
Now, arriving home to din and dishevelment, and denied passage to his own chamber, your standard, paid-up roommate might be forgiven for rising up and twisting the tonearm off your twitchy little turntable. But Marty Sherwood was mellower, and a better listener, than anyone I knew. And Marty kept his eyes closed, shut it all out, and just 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 Billy a Big Star. Marty had pulled it off a few years earlier, had a one-hit wonder band’s Gold Record on his wall from his days at Fresno’s big hit radio station. 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?
* * *
ON MONDAY MORNING I phoned Columbia Records’ promotion man up in San Francisco, Ken Reuther, thanked him for sending the album, said Billy might be the most natural talent I’d heard in my entire reviewing career – all ten months’ worth – but that somehow I guess I’d misplaced the press kit. I wondered if he could slip another bio and a couple of photos in the mail right away 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 artist’s first record, on a tiny label, a year or two earlier, and most of the few people who bought it were probably just friends and relatives. Said Columbia’s A&R [artists & repertoire] guys in New York heard some potential, signed him, but the new album had gone nowhere in the couple of months since its release.
“Well, you must have a photo of the album cover I can run with the feature. I need something.”
He countered that Columbia 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, like radio hooks, man. He deserves a second shot.”
Reuther seemed to consider Billy’s Columbia debut as that second and final shot.
“C’mon, Ken, you gotta promote him a little, he’ll take off,” I pleaded.
It was too late: The guys in the New York office had called in Billy and his producer, Mike Stewart, sat them down, said everyone gave it a good try, but it didn’t work out: It’s over. There won’t be a follow-up album.
Then the coup de grâce: The suits told Billy and Mike it was “time to go back to your day jobs.”
I was reeling. It felt like some squat washerwoman with huge hands was wringing my innards like they were sopping wet bath towels.
Reuther must have sensed I was shaken. “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 PLAYED SOME OF BILLY’S MELODIES in my mind, then replayed the “stiff” and “day job” insults.
“Stiff” was an industry term freighted with the same finality and fetid aroma that “liquidation bankruptcy” carries in banking. Point of no return. 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 99-cent clearance bins in the dim corners of record stores across the land. At Sun I’d come face to face with a breed of guy who’d catch the scent and descend on the dusty bins of the damned on Saturday mornings.
I had a vision of Piano Man, 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 end for a talent like Billy’s.
As I replayed “day job” and “stiff” it began to dawn on me that there was also a word for this alien thing that had steadily been welling up in me: Rage.
* * *
AFTER I SETTLED DOWN it occurred to me that I might be able to rectify matters by calling in a favor at K-FIG, a local FM station where Ray Appleton presided over the local rock scene, got to hang out with Bowie and other rock royalty I only scribbled about from afar. Appleton would occasionally quote my reviews on the air, and the Rampage had run my feature interview with him six months earlier. I figured he might consider a friendly request to work a track or two into his playlist. It was calming to contemplate that a guy like Appleton, an icon in town, would take my call, 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 was going to take more than a phone call to an industry colleague. It was going to take playing the one big card we had up our sleeve.
So I went to Marty, said it was time for him to call in a favor from his days at KYNO, that Top 40 station I mentioned.
* * *
ANYONE WHO KNEW POP RADIO in those days would say, “You’ve got an inside track at KYNO? Well, yeah, man, that ought to do the trick.”
To understand why they’d say such a thing, I need to explain something surprising 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, you faced a drab 3-hour drive down Highway 99 either way, enlivened only by volleys of large, colorful insects splatting 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, it’s gonna be a hit everywhere.” Like most kids, I grew up thinking there was something besides bugs in the thick Valley air, something invisible that somehow put us in the pop vanguard. It turned out that there was: KYNO.
It was in the ’60s, in Fresno of all places, that Top 40 programming – the 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, tuned, and ultimately turned into a machine that changed radio from coast to coast.
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 hold you, unmolested 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”). They set up listening panels to decide which songs made the cut, and slashed the time allotted for commercials to under 14 minutes an hour. They finessed the 2-second transitions between songs like Leonard 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 detail was designed to pull you through your day.
What seemed like a chemistry lab experiment came to be recognized as the beginning of disciplined “market research” in American radio. By the early ’70s Drake’s list of client stations had gone from one – KYNO – to 350, from powerhouse KHJ in LA to WOR-FM in New York. It was said that if you owned the most lucrative Top 40 station in your market, and one of your struggling competitors had just inked a deal with Drake-Chenault, you were probably 120 days away from bankruptcy.
The juggernaut was chronicled in Time, Newsweek and major newspapers across the land.
* * *
DRAKE SO PROFOUNDLY RESHAPED American radio programming that, a decade after he’d ditched Fresno for a mansion in Bel Air, even non-Drake stations were still monitoring what was getting air time back at KYNO, the old test lab where Drake had perfected the formula and loosened the reins on station management just enough so they could “break” a new song on their own now and then.
That was why, when record company sales reps dropped into Sun, they’d often mention that the Bay Area and LA pop radio stations “keyed” their programming on what was happening in Fresno. The big-market stations had too much to lose by making the wrong song choices. With all that history, and tucked away in the “demographically average” Valley, KYNO was the ultimate test lab. Just follow their lead.
* * *
IF WE COULD GET MARTY in front of his old KYNO comrades, persuade just one of them to slip Billy into rotation, get a toehold, there was a path for it to fan out to dozens, maybe hundreds of those other homogenized Drake-programmed stations across the land.
When I squinted just right, I could sorta make out that Marty’s still-fresh rolodex, together with the coincidence of being down the street from ground zero of the Drake Revolution, might be the ingredients to blast Billy into orbit. All we had to do was combine the two and strike the match.
The prospect made my heart pound. Might’ve been the first time I considered myself lucky to be from the buggy 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 track off the debut album of a couple of Americans living in England, convinced that these dopey, scraggly guys with their Neil Young Harvest vibe could be huge. Marty’s boss had the leeway to put it into rotation, but didn’t share his enthusiasm. The album had first been released in the UK, where it had stiffed. Marty was undeterred, kept going back until the boss threw up his hands, said OK, he’d refer it to Bernie Torres, Drake’s lieutenant in LA, who came back with a resolute “No.” After that, 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 Bill 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 told him.
In hindsight, Marty’s hope of persuading KYNO to roll the dice with Billy might’ve been about more than just reconnecting with the old gang. Might’ve been about redemption.
* * *
WHEN REUNION DAY CAME it was bear hugs and bonhomie all around. Marty beamed, suggested Billy and Piano Man 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 miss you and would do most anything to help, man, but you know the first rule of Top 40 radio because you drilled it into us here: Never program a stiff. It sounds like an adventure, but it’s so basic 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 Billy’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 cold stiff was another.
Marty shuffled off to pitch a few other program managers and music directors around town, with the same result: A stiff’s a stiff, nothing to talk about, but, hey, great to see you again.
* * *
IT WAS TIME TO REGROUP, 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 kick up some interest among the walk-ins, people who didn’t know that albums by new artists had an unofficial sell-by date. Chakerian went along, even offered to order a box or two so we’d have them to sell, maybe set up a display somewhere if I wanted. Looked like our luck was beginning to turn.
He took the album, disappeared into his office to make the call, re-emerged a few minutes later with a frown, handed it back to me. Piano Man had come and gone, he reported, no LPs available and no plans for it to go back into production. Sun Records was the biggest record store in the 400 miles between San Francisco and LA, and we couldn’t order a single album, let alone a few cartons of them.
I hadn’t seen it in the usual cut-out bin graveyards around town, which left me with a sinking feeling that the vultures might have already had their way with Billy and, if there were any last, unsold copies of his big-label debut they could be sliding around in the back of a dented pickup on its way to an oven somewhere.
I paced around the bins, until the reality sank in that Chakerian’s OK to play my promo copy was the only play I had left.
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 LIKED THE EFFECT, thought I’d take another lap around the bins for more inspiration. This time I noticed that the rough barnwood-clad walls gave the place a dingy feel just aching for some vibrant, inspirational wall art to make the spirit soar. I scratched around in the supplies closet, came up with some Marks-a-Lot pens and poster-size sheets of yellow construction paper to fill the void.
I wrote “Screw the Establishment, Get Behind the New Talent!” in six-inch high letters inspired by a Jefferson Airplane concert poster, and thumb-tacked my hortatory masterpiece to the wall, making sure it was a little off-kilter, like the album. Within 15 minutes I’d tacked up two more.
I found a legal-size notepad, scrawled “PETITION!” across the top in big, block 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. Seemed I was on a roll so I went with the first thing that popped into my head: I’d motion to the kitty-wampus album cover next to the turntable, then point to the posters hanging higgledy-piggledy on the pecky cedar walls, then to the speakers.
Then I’d say in a world-weary way, “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 his day job.” I’d let the insult hang in the air for a moment, then shake my head disapprovingly and finish it off with, “There’s the petition, man.”
It was surprisingly easy work. As customers came in and the pages filled up I started entertaining the strange notion that I might be a PR wiz-kid-in-the-making or something. 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 A COUPLE HUNDRED NAMES in barely two weeks. I felt like a regular Che Guevara, called Reuther, my heart pounding.
“I’ve been playing my promo album in the store and people are getting riled up down here, a petition sprang up with a couple hundred signatures already, still going. It’s like an underground movement kicked up out of nowhere, man, and we need albums to sell and I really need that bio and photo so I can write the review, gonna be my biggest feature ever, Appleton’s probably gonna read it on the air!” I boasted. They were outsize claims for a 135-pound freshman with a minimum-wage job and a borrowed soapbox from a community college journalism department.
Reuther ignored the news of the insurrection brewing down in the sleepy Valley, repeated that he didn’t have any PR kits to send, then divulged that, 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 added that Piano Man had dropped off that list a while back. 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. While that was sinking in, Reuther shifted gears, grew expansive, reminisced about growing up in New Orleans, said that Fats Domino was a regular in his dad’s floral shop. After 15 minutes I still hadn’t converted him to our side in the Epic Struggle, but I was warming up to him. Probably helped that he hadn’t dropped another S-bomb on me.
A couple days later Reuther called out of the blue, said he got some branch managers to poke around and one of them turned up a single left-over carton of 25 albums at Columbia’s Western US pressing plant down in Santa Maria, near Santa Barbara. He could get it shipped to the store.
“That’s it, there aren’t any more anywhere. And you understand that we can’t do another pressing run just for you guys in Fresno, right? We’re clear, right?”
When the carton showed up I grabbed my Marks-a-Lot, wrote “Billy Joel” 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 Billy’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 Piano Man as well.
Bit by bit, Billy’s bin space shrank. Then it was gone.
* * *
IT WAS TIME TO FACE FACTS. Our pals in local radio wouldn’t touch it. The petition drive had grown stale. Columbia’s cupboard was bare, and so was Sun’s. We’d given it our best shot, but we’d reached the end of the road.
I quietly slipped my promo album 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 wrapped up with rage and righting wrongs. Something forgettable.
* * *
A WEEK OR TWO WENT BY, then on a Saturday morning one of the stereo guys rang the Records department, said one of the salesmen, Steve Reimann, was stranded at home, couldn’t get his big Norton started, said they needed me to cover for him as it was their big annual “midnight madness” sale day. Even though I would just be pinch-hitting for Steve, it was the “promotion” to the audio department I’d been hoping for for months. It was my chance to pitch in, become part of the team.
On my way I picked up an intriguingly resonant voice off to my left, made a little jog in that direction to see if I could put a face to it. The voice turned out to belong to Dave Butler, an engineer in town who’d dropped by to have another listen to the 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 grim account, every time he popped in, the sticker was still stuck at a little over $1,400 and his salary hadn’t changed for the better, either. He couldn’t swing it but wanted to know how the strange, accordion-like tweeters worked so he’d be informed “when the time comes.”
It was a pleasant enough chat, two audio propeller-heads 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 figured it was time to wait on someone who’d come in intending to buy something. I excused myself, got half-way to the sales counter, then had an idea. From his questions, it didn’t seem Dave had ever gotten a demo of what the system could do. I made a quick detour to the main sound-room, came back with Joe Walsh’s solo album, the one with “Rocky Mountain Way.” I spun it up, cranked the volume, made the whole store pulse to Walsh’s slashing guitar and whiney-nasal singing:
Crying ’cause the story’s sad
Is better than the way we had.
Not ten seconds in, Dave and I were both hunching forward and staring fixedly at those big, squat, thumping 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 long-haired Valley yokels suffering mild, upright seizures of some kind.
When the episode subsided we launched into a spirited discussion of the 12-inch woofers. Dave’s voice was booming. That’s when it hit me: This guy standing in front of me, my new buddy, wasn’t just some generic engineer, he was a broadcast engineer, and an occasional on-air announcer.
That’s where I’d heard that voice: Sunday afternoons on KFYE, Fresno’s “soft rock 94 FM.” And our random encounter afforded me one last chance, a Hail Mary pass that I knew could end my hi-fi sales career in the first half-hour of its first day.
* * *
MY HEAD WAS RACING. I motioned to the front door. Dave followed me out to the parking lot, where I paced around the parked cars, my heart beating like crazy, until I’d calmed down and worked up my courage, then I abruptly turned around and declared 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 seven, maybe seven-fifty out the door.
The guy who spent his Sundays purring into a microphone went silent, stared kind of vacantly, maybe 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 was still shaking a little, took a breath, asked if he might consider, well, doing me a personal favor in return: Play my favorite 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 the regular DJs had been announcing Carly Simon’s new album all week as the upcoming feature, no way could he pull a last-minute switch. Awkward silence. Then he must’ve gotten 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 three questions:
“Now this album, it is soft rock, right?”
“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 it is a new release, right?” That one paralyzed me for what seemed like forever, then I had a thought.
“Hasn’t even hit the airwaves yet!”
Dave 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. While he hauled out his checkbook I dashed back to the record department to grab one of the five Piano Man albums from the reserve stash under the counter.
* * *
WITH NEW LIFE breathed into The Epic Struggle, that evening, Marty, and his taciturn friend Veg and I convened at the house to talk strategy. I laid the petition list on the kitchen table. We quickly looked it over and agreed that everyone who’d coughed up a number needed to get a call. Marty laid out the plan: Remind them they’d signed the petition; ask them to call the station next Sunday, a little after 2 o’clock, when Dave’s New Album Preview show starts; have them write down the time and call-in number; and 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 managed to get through the first part of the call OK, considering. Then a stricken look came over him.
“Marty, the lady wants to know what to say if the station asks her 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 The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s.”
Veg shredded the syntax, but somehow the Sergeant Pepper’s part came through and she was satisfied.
He took the whole petition home with him, said he’d try his best.
Six days later Veg rattled into Sun’s parking lot in the spastic Vegmobile, said in a quiet, tentative voice that he’d dialed every number, managed to get 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. 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. 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 something 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 cow-town counter-culture cause.
DJ Dave didn’t need any of those things: He needed a song. Marty and I had never had that conversation.
“Gimme a second,” I said, my heart racing as I fast-forwarded through the most tuneful tracks in my head, but 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 pick the wrong one, blow it at the end.
“Marty used to break singles at KYNO, got a Gold Record on his wall, man. I’ll ask when I see him and call you right back,” I said.
The quiet engineer with the mahogany vocal cords positively bellowed: “I need the answer now!” I froze, a deer in the headlights, my heart thumping. I ended up defaulting to the safest option:
“Think maybe you could just play the title track until Marty tells us what the hit’s gonna be?”
I figured if that cut 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 before I got the sentence out.
After a few moments of dead air, Dave seemed to relax a little, said, “Well, OK, I guess I can run with that. Call me right away if Marty says it’s a different song.”
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, “Piano Man,” was in heavy rotation on 94 FM.
About two hours later one of Marty’s old KYNO colleagues called to see if the new song in hit rotation on 94 was by the same guy Marty had pitched a while back, the one that stiffed. I told him Marty was out, will call him back, but, yeah, same artist, Billy Joel.
Same guy called again less than an hour later, rattled, said he just got off the phone with Columbia, and they had nothing to send, no album, no single, nothing. They’re KYNO, for God’s sake, and Columbia is the biggest record company in the world, and somehow the soft rock station got hold of a copy, put it into heavy rotation, and KYNO can’t? What the hell is going on?
Marty returned, confirmed “Piano Man” was gonna be the hit song, then dialed KYNO from the phone near the cash register, held the receiver out a little so I could lean in and hear, then said simply, “I’m on my way.”
He reached down and pulled the last four copies from the reserve stash. We looked at each other, thinking the same thing: “Oh my God, it’s happening!”
After his KYNO stop, Marty dropped off a copy at three other, now-forgotten pop stations in town. When he rolled back into the parking lot there were no albums left. Billy’s future wasn’t in my hands, or Marty’s, or Columbia Records’. It was in the hands of a very particular radio station in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley.
* * *
KYNO PUT ‘PIANO MAN’ INTO HIT ROTATION around noon. By the time I connected with Reuther at the end of the day he’d already relayed the breakthrough to his boss, Terry Powell down in LA, who’d relayed it up the chain to Columbia in New York. 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 in Santa Maria, where it was all-hands-on-deck.
Albums and the single would start shipping within 24 hours.
“Hooter,” he said, “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” finally broke into Billboard’s Top LPs chart at number 99, then gained 35 positions in the next 14 days and kept climbing the national chart as it spread throughout the Drake-programmed network and, station by station, those non-Drake outlets that kept a watchful eye on KYNO.
Its sudden and unusual rise after months of obscurity was the subject of an article in Billboard’s March 9 issue, with a photo of Billy 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 part about Columbia’s “faith” and “dogged promotion” caused a few paroxysms of eye-rolling at Sun, 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 that title track proved to be more than just a radio hit with that infectious “sing us a song, you’re the piano man” hook. Eighteen months later, the RIAA certified the album Gold. Platinum certification followed, then Double-Platinum, Triple-Platinum and Quadruple-Platinum. It’s still going, been reissued, special deluxe editions, the works. An amazing journey for an album that started its rise from the bottom of my Tower of Scorned Flotsam.
* * *
PIANO MAN WAS ONLY THE FIRST of a string of Billy Joel hits spanning five decades. He’s gone on to sell over 150 million records for Columbia, become one of the biggest pop artists of all time. He’s still selling out concerts around the world.
* * *
IN FALL of ’74 I sold almost all my records and moved away to university. One of the albums I took with me was that promo copy of Piano Man, a reminder that, with a few good friends and a little small-town luck, you can channel passion into fire, and fire into magic.
I still have it.
— END —
The first person I need to thank 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. Ken started his career in New Orleans as Southeast and Southwest Regional Promotions Manager at Paramount Records, a small company that put out Billy’s first release, Cold Spring Harbor.
Thanks also to Ken’s Columbia colleague in New York, George Chaltas, who worked to promote Piano Man’s release in the Northeast. 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, then going back into his office and 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.
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 I offered DJ Dave Butler that killer deal on the ESS AMT-1b 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 a diseased 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 conversation with Piano Man’s producer, Michael Stewart, who called after he’d read my shorter account of this story in the August 1987 issue of Sacramento NPR affiliate KXPR’s program guide. He confirmed he and Billy had been told it was “time to go back to our day jobs,” but once the album took off, seemingly out of nowhere, Columbia insisted on using their in-house producers instead of him for Billy’s subsequent albums. Despite that disappointment, Mike said Piano Man was the high point of his career. He 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)).
© 2018-22, Keith Yates. All Rights Reserved.