When Billy Joel rocked the Roxy

Ex­cited crowd that helped launch ‘Pi­ano Man’s’ ca­reer heard on re­dis­cov­ered tape.

The Morning Call (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By John J. Moser

On Nov. 28, 1973, a lit­tle­known, 23-year-old singer/pi­anist played two tri­umphant shows at Northamp­ton’s Roxy The­atre. Over the years, the per­for­mances have be­come lo­cal le­gend.

That artist, Billy Joel, cap­ti­vated the crowds largely with new songs from what would be­come his break­through and per­haps his sig­na­ture disc, “Pi­ano Man.”

The show’s pro­moter, Denny So­mach, cap­tured it all on a cas­sette tape recorder he sur­rep­ti­tiously placed on stage. Then promptly lost it.

For 45 years, de­tails of those shows were cap­tured only in the ex­haus­tive records kept by So­mach — a col­lege stu­dent in 1973 work­ing for ra­dio sta­tion WSANAM, and now a renowned rock mu­sic ar­chiv­ist, au­thor and ra­dio and TV pro­ducer — or in the mem­o­ries of the 1,000 or so peo­ple who saw them.

Un­til now.

This year, while work­ing on a years­long trans­fer of his li­brary of rock in­ter­views, ra­dio shows and con­certs to dig­i­tal stor­age, So­mach dis­cov­ered the lost, un­la­beled tape of the Roxy shows.

As the 45th an­niver­sary of the con­certs looms Wed­nes­day, So­mach is mak­ing por­tions of the tape pub­lic for the first time. He’s also con­sid­er­ing how to use them to cel­e­brate the con­cert — which was part of a se­ries WSAN pre­sented at the Roxy by mu­si­cians, some of whom would be­come among the big­gest names in the in­dus­try.

The tape cap­tures a piv­otal mo­ment in the ca­reer of one of the most renowned mu­si­cal artists of our time.

“I think it’s a his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment,” So­mach said. “… It’s re­ally a por­trait in time.”

Dis­cov­er­ing Billy Joel

Joel has be­come a mu­si­cal icon. He has sold 105 mil­lion copies of his al­bums, mak­ing him the 12th best-sell­ing artist of all time. In a record­ing ca­reer of 47 years, he’s had 40 Top 40 hits on var­i­ous charts.

He has sold out New York’s Madi­son Square Gar­den monthly since 2014.

But Joel was a strug­gling pi­ano artist in 1971 when So­mach first saw him at a New York show­case for new artists So­mach at­tended for Mo­ra­vian’s stu­dent ra­dio sta­tion.

“I had al­ready seen Log­gins & Messina and Tanya Tucker, then I saw an­other act called The Hello Peo­ple with Todd Rund­gren,” So­mach said. “And this guy named Billy Joel.

“And he came out, was pretty much by him­self, sat at the pi­ano, started play­ing — he had like a half-hour set. And I was cap­ti­vated. I couldn’t be­lieve it. This guy just blew me away,” he said.

Two years later, while So­mach was work­ing at WSAN, the sta­tion de­cided to book con­certs at The Roxy, fea­tur­ing mostly acts about to break out.

So­mach had got­ten a copy of Joel’s de­but al­bum, 1971’s “Cold Spring Har­bor,” at the con­ven­tion. And while the disc barely scratched Bill­board’s Top 200, So­mach said he played it on WSAN and got an en­thu­si­as­tic re­sponse.

“Back then you could play what­ever you wanted,” So­mach said. “And every­body started say­ing, ‘Hey, that guy’s amaz­ing!’ and we started get­ting calls.”

The first per­son So­mach called for the con­cert se­ries was Joel’s agent, Chip Rach­lin.

“His agent goes, ‘Are you kid­ding me? No­body has ever called for this guy,’ ” So­mach said. “And I told the guy, ‘We’re play­ing [his al­bum]. The guy’s a star here.’ ”

Rach­lin told him Joel was tak­ing time off from the busi­ness and had ab­sconded to Cal­i­for­nia, where — in a now-fa­mous episode in his life — he se­cretly was work­ing at a pi­ano bar while “go­ing through some mu­sic busi­ness prob­lems” and deal­ing with the poor re­cep­tion for “Cold Spring Har­bor.”

“I couldn’t reach him for six months or so,” Rach­lin, who went on to be­come head of tal­ent re­la­tions at MTV and re­mains a prom­i­nent mu­sic busi­ness agent, said in a phone in­ter­view.

Rach­lin dis­cov­ered Joel when an as­so­ciate asked him to see the singer per­form.

“I was lit­er­ally as­ton­ished at how good he was,” Rach­lin said. “And later that night I went back stage to meet him, we shook hands, and I was his agent for the next four years.”

WSAN’s con­certs started in March 1973 with folk singer John Her­ald. Later, they booked Todd Rund­gren and Man­fred Mann’s Earth Band. Rock band Nazareth played its first Amer­i­can date in the se­ries.

Rach­lin even­tu­ally re­con­nected with Joel and got him signed to Co­lum­bia Records, where he recorded the “Pi­ano Man” al­bum and started look­ing to go out on the road. Rach­lin booked him as an open­ing act for other acts he rep­re­sented, “which I found out later he hated. Any other act would have killed to have a tour with The Beach Boys. To have a run of dates with Chicago. I think I even had him on a date with Crosby, Stills & Nash.

“But he told me from stage at [the New York Club] Max’s Kansas City he didn’t like those shows,” he said. “So we were scram­bling to find any shows that he could head­line.”

So­mach said Rach­lin called him and said, “Hey, you still want Billy Joel? Here’s the deal: I got one date when he’s not do­ing any­thing.”

So­mach agreed to pay Joel $500 for two shows. The open­ing act was Henry Gross, who was a found­ing mem­ber of Sha Na Na, had re­cently had gone solo and three years later would have a No. 1 song, “Shan­non.” Gross was paid $250.

Tick­ets to the Roxy shows were $1, mean­ing WSAN had to sell out both shows to make money.The tick­ets sold out in a cou­ple of hours.

Ready for The Roxy

The Roxy had been bought in 1970 by Rick Wolfe, then a young busi­ness­man who wel­comed the WSAN con­certs.

Wolfe, who still owns the Roxy, was par­tic­u­larly ex­cited about the Joel shows. “Pi­ano Man” was re­leased less than three weeks be­fore the show, but Wolfe said he owned both of Joel’s al­bums.

The Roxy usu­ally only pro­moted con­certs with black-and­white, 8-by-10 pho­tos in its glass cases.

But, Wolfe said, “I thought he de­served more, so I had an ac­tual poster made — reg­u­lar movie size, with his pic­ture at­tached.”

Joel told So­mach no one had ever made a poster for one of his shows.

Joel’s road man­ager brought him in a sta­tion wagon to WSAN, where Joel did an in­ter­view, So­mach said. So­mach then drove Joel to the theater, tak­ing the back roads through White­hall Town­ship to Northamp­ton.

“And along the way, we’re pass­ing all the fac­to­ries, and he says, ‘What is this place?’ ” So­mach said. “And I said, ‘Well, this is Al­len­town, but the theater is ac­tu­ally in Northamp­ton.’ ”

Joel was con­cerned about hav­ing enough ma­te­rial to fill out his 50-minute play­ing re­quire­ment. The pro­moter told him he could play ma­te­rial from the first al­bum be­cause the Le­high Val­ley knew it.

“But he said, ‘My band doesn’t. We’ve only been re­hears­ing the new al­bum.’ ”

Gross, who con­tin­ues to per­form, said he re­mem­bers open­ing the show.

“My best rec­ol­lec­tion is that we were out there strug­gling, all of us,” he said in a phone in­ter­view.

Gross re­mem­bers Joel played “Trav­elin’ Prayer” in Northamp­ton. He was a fan of that song, which was on the “Pi­ano Man” al­bum.

“I thought it was very the­atri­cal,” Gross said. “I thought the guy was like a Broad­way singer.

“I al­ways en­joyed play­ing with Billy,” Gross said. “He was from Long Is­land and I grew up in Brook­lyn. He was a reg­u­lar guy. … He’s re­ally a hell of a player. He’s a mas­ter pi­ano player — just bril­liant. And he al­ways was at those gigs. His shows al­ways brought down a storm.”

The lost tape

“For some rea­son I just thought, ‘I’ve got to tape this show,’ ” So­mach said. “’Cause I think it’s go­ing to be a great show, and I just want to have it in my car.”

So­mach said he had a re­mov­able cas­sette player from his car, and put a it on stage. He sim­ply used the de­vice’s built-in mic.

The tape starts with So­mach in­tro­duc­ing Joel. The singer starts alone on his pi­ano so he could play mu­sic that his band hadn’t re­hearsed.

“The band will be out in a lit­tle while,” he tells the crowd. “I’m go­ing to warm up the pipes.”

And he opens with a song that has never been re­leased, “Ros­alinda.”

Af­ter­ward, he says, “Bring the band out and get away from this ‘sen­si­tive artist at the pi­ano jazz.’ ”

The 13-song set list of the first show in­cludes eight of the 10 songs from “Pi­ano Man,” leav­ing out “Ain’t No Crime” and “If I Only Had the Words (To Tell You).” He also sings “She’s Got a Way” from “Cold Spring Har­bor.”

He also plays a new song, a boo­gie-woo­gie in­stru­men­tal that later be­came “Root Beer Rag” on Joel’s third disc, “Street­fire Ser­e­nade.”

The tape’s sound qual­ity is very good. Joel’s voice has very much a younger tone.

And he’s very en­gaged with the au­di­ence. Be­fore “Sou­venir,” which also showed up on “Streetlife Ser­e­nade,” he says, “I’ve been out of this busi­ness for about a year and a half, I guess. Hav­ing all kinds of le­gal has­sles and just kind of mu­sic busi­ness crap in gen­eral. And I wrote a song about it.”

He com­plains about how, tour­ing with The Beach Boys and The Doo­bie Broth­ers, he’d been in­tro­duced as “Billy Jello. Let’s re­ally hear it!”

“And the whole au­di­ence,” Joel con­tin­ues, “is, ‘Beach Boys! Beach Boys! Doo­bie Broth­ers!’ ” as the crowd laughs.

At one point, he tells the crowd, “I got to tell you, you’re one of the most po­lite au­di­ences I ever had. I was play­ing and I could hear my­self. Re­ally weird. Just nice and quiet, it was great.”

He closes the first show with “Cap­tain Jack,” and the en­core is “Every­body Loves You Now” from “Cold Spring Har­bor.”

So­mach said that when the first show was over, he flipped over the cas­sette to record the sec­ond show, which starts with “She’s Got a Way.”

In that show, Joel again jokes about be­ing misiden­ti­fied by an­nounc­ers, this time say­ing he was in­tro­duced as “Bobby Jow­ells.”

He also com­pli­ments The Roxy and the crowd, say­ing, “Where are we, Northamp­ton? We’ve got to move here.

“Re­ally, you’re the nicest au­di­ence we’ve come across. And we’ve been all over the last few weeks. … This is a good place, I’m telling you. This is a real good place. I like it. How much is it? I want to buy it. No, re­ally …”

Late in the sec­ond show, Joel is stalling for time to meet the show’s length re­quire­ment. When a voice tells him he has 15 min­utes left, Joel says, “Fif­teen min­utes left, huh? See this band’s only about 3 weeks old — how much ma­te­rial we got, man? I’m try­ing to think of things. Fif­teen min­utes more left?”

Some­one in the au­di­ence then yells out for the song “Cap­tain Jack.”

“Well, we’ll get to that,” Joel says. “That’s our big punch ’em, get ’em at the end. You know that song, huh? Any­body know the old al­bum, ‘Cold Spring Har­bor’ al­bum?”

And there is loud ap­plause. “OK, wow, that’s weird,” he says. “We never worked out all them old songs … Let me do ‘She’s Got a Way,’ ’cause I can do that on my own. OK, John, we can do 15 min­utes now. ’Cause usu­ally I run into the au­di­ence, ‘She’s got a waaaay,’ it’s like, ‘[Blows a rasp­berry] what is that crap, man?’ ”

He then does “She’s Got a Way” to rap­tur­ous re­sponse.

“Damn, you know that record? Wow, that’s weird. We did a six-month tour last year … And ev­ery store we went into — this is for six months, we hit ev­ery ma­jor city. We’d walk into the store and see if the record was there. ‘You got the Billy Joel al­bum?’ ‘Who? Billy Joel Royal? BJ Thomas? You know, Tony Joel White.’ Every­body but Billy Joel.

“That’s re­ally sur­pris­ing. I guess the ra­dio sta­tion must have had it and played it. God bless you, man, re­ally,” he says.

The tape cuts out af­ter nine songs, miss­ing an en­core in which So­mach said he re­mem­bers Joel com­ing back out and say­ing, “I got to tell you — we don’t have any more songs.” He played “Good­bye Yel­low Brick Road” by El­ton John, the Joe Cocker song “You Are So Beau­ti­ful,” and one or two other songs.

“And the place was on its feet — would not let him leave,” So­mach said.

Af­ter­ward, So­mach said Joel stayed at the theater to sign au­to­graphs and al­bums for 30-40 peo­ple.

Joel soars, and the tape is lost

So­mach lis­tened to his tape on the way home in his car, think­ing, “This sounds great; it’s amaz­ing. Then I think I might have played it for some other peo­ple, then I just put it in a box. ’Cause who was Billy Joel then?”

So­mach said Rach­lin, Joel’s agent, told him the Roxy shows cre­ated tur­moil. Joel’s man­ager the next day, he said, “was yelling at every­body, say­ing, ‘See, I told you Billy should be head­lin­ing the­aters, he shouldn’t be an open­ing act!’ ”

“That to­tally changed the course of his ca­reer,” So­mach said.

For his next tour, Joel played the­aters. So­mach tried to book him again, but in­stead Dave Ses­tak at Le­high Val­ley tal­ent agency Me­dia 5 booked him at Muh­len­berg Col­lege. Joel also played Al­len­town Fair­grounds’ Agriplex.

“We only had about four or five mar­kets that Billy could head­line back then, and Al­len­town, God bless it, was one that we counted on,” Rach­lin said.

Ef­forts to reach Joel for this ar­ti­cle were un­suc­cess­ful. Joel’s 2014 bi­og­ra­phy “Billy Joel,” which was writ­ten with Joel’s co­op­er­a­tion, talks about his for­ma­tive years play­ing in the Al­len­town area.

“Be­cause it was just a bit in­land from two of Billy’s big au­di­ences, New York and Phil­a­del­phia, Billy and the band played the Le­high Val­ley over and over again,” the book said. “As Billy re­calls, ‘It was our bread and but­ter for a while.’ ”

Joel re­counts in the book, “And I re­mem­ber that when I was start­ing get­ting big, there was no large venue in Al­len­town, and some kid came up to me af­ter the show and said, ‘You’re never com­ing back here.’

“I asked him why, and he said, ‘Be­cause any­body who gets big never comes back here.’

“I was re­ally touched by that, and at the same time it stirred up a bit of guilt. I thought, ‘God­damn it, I’m not go­ing to let that hap­pen.’ Yet it did hap­pen. He was right: There was no venue big enough to play in Al­len­town,” he said.

The book tells how that in­ci­dent spurred Joel to change a song he had been writ­ing about his na­tive Le­vit­town, N.Y., to “Al­len­town,” which be­came one of his big­gest hits. It used the Le­high Val­ley as a sym­bol of a dy­ing Rust Belt in­dus­trial city.

“I was try­ing to tell a story that young fan and peo­ple across the Le­high Val­ley could re­late to: They thought they knew how their lives would go, and it just didn’t work out that way.”

Joel played the Le­high Val­ley one last time, Dec. 27, 1982, at Le­high Univer­sity’s Stabler Arena in Beth­le­hem. That was three months af­ter Joel re­leased “The Ny­lon Cur­tain,” his al­bum con­tain­ing the song “Al­len­town.” He played the hit twice that night.

WSAN con­tin­ued its con­cert se­ries through 1976, bring­ing in tal­ent such as Rush, Mon­trose with Sammy Ha­gar, Styx, Peter Framp­ton, Hall & Oates and KISS. Bruce Spring­steen played less than a year af­ter Joel, on Aug. 29, 1974, but only drew about half a house for each of two shows.

So­mach, who moved to Phil­a­del­phia in 1975, hopes to use the tape for a cel­e­bra­tion, per­haps in spring, of the WSAN con­cert se­ries. Or per­haps get it to Joel, or even to have it re­leased com­mer­cially.

“Who knew?” So­mach said. “Within a year [af­ter the Roxy show], he was hap­pen­ing, and by the time ‘The Stranger’ came out, he was un­touch­able.”

“And along the way, we’re pass­ing all the fac­to­ries, and he says, ‘What is this place?’ And I said, ‘Well, this is Al­len­town, but the theater is ac­tu­ally in Northamp­ton.’ ” — Denny So­mach

Billy Joel


Northamp­ton's Roxy The­atre still dis­plays a poster for the 1973 con­cert by Billy Joel with open­ing act Henry Gross. Theater owner Rick Wolfe re­mem­bers think­ing he had to do more than the usual 8-by-10 photo to pro­mote the mu­si­cian's show.


A se­ries of WSAN con­certs in the 1970s at Northamp­ton's Roxy The­atre fea­tured a num­ber of artists who went on to be­come stars.

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