Billy Joel: 52nd Street (1978)

220px-Until_The_NightGrammy Award for Album of the Year, and for Best Pop Performance. Chart topping album, sold seven million copies.  Not bad.  Of all the Billy Joel albums, this is my favorite.  The Stranger was a good album, it was pop, and put Joel on the radar as more than just a ballad singer.  Even though The Stranger would sell more albums, 52nd Street was a huge step forward, it was a complete album and it maturely showcased a variety of styles.

The name of the album came from where Joel’s record label and recording studio were, but also it was a jazz pocket of New York City.  Joel embraces a trumpet on the album cover.

This was the second album Joel made with producer Phil Ramone, and they worked well as a team.  Ramone helped Joel paint on a broader canvas musically, and this album shows a sophisticated styling, not only showcasing Joel’s songwriting, but his ability to be comfortable sliding from a ballad to a rocker to a jazz flavored song.

I bought The Stranger on vinyl because I liked “She’s Always a Woman.”  I never dug “Just the Way You Are” which became the record and song of the year at the Grammy Awards. It was too middle of the road and schmaltzy for me.  His rockers, “Movin’ Out” and “Only the Good Die Young” weren’t anything special.  The production was too slick, too formulatic. What I liked about 52nd Street was Ramone let some air into the songs, he didn’t polish the life out of them.  In the 1980s, Joel would become a superstar as he shifted styles from album to album and achieve success with each of them.  In my opinion, it all started with 52nd Street.

For 52nd Street, Joel used his regular band, but augmented them with some stellar session players like Eric Gale, Steve Khan, David Spinozza and Hugh McCracken on guitars, in addition to Mike Manerini, Ralph McDonald and Freddie Hubbard. Jazz musician and composer Dave Grusin arranged the horns.  Ramone spared no expense to bring A players to the sessions, and it paid off.

Side one

“Big Shot” – 4:03  The album opens with a guitar riff and one of the hardest rockers Joel

had written.  The piano is in the background for a change, but the guitars upfront was a very strategic idea. Great horn arrangement on the chorus.  It made a for a great single.

“Honesty” – 3:52  The piano balladry that Joel was known for, and a great vocal performance.  Ramone provides a solid arrangement, shifting to a mid tempo song, this was a big hit all over the world.

“My Life” – 4:44  A rollicking, upbeat song, the first single from the album, a number hit in the U.S.  Easy to sing along to this song, it has an infectious melody, but not cloying or too sweet.  This song was used for the Tom Hanks television sitcom, Bossom Buddies.  Ramone uses the background vocals effectively to give the song different shadings.  Members of Chicago sang background.

“Zanzibar” – 5:13  A shuffle beat, the song changes style several times, making it an interesting song to listen to, as it shifts from rock to jazz.  There are many sports references in the lyrics, the song being about a sports bar.  Like Paul McCartney and Paul Simon, Joel was becoming adapt at writing pieces of music that bent the traditional pop structure, and painted broad lyrical landscapes.  The bridge section is a trumpet run by jazz musician Freddie Hubbard.  In five minutes this song covers a lot of ground. The final section of the song returns to a fast-paced jazz groove.


Side two

“Stiletto” – 4:42  More horns and a pensive piano intro before a bass groove line kicks the song into high gear.  Another song that goes through multiple style and time changes.  The middle section includes a bass and piano duet until the horns come roaring in.

“Rosalinda’s Eyes” – 4:41 A soft, jazzy intro, shifting to a slow shuffle.  Nice acoustic guitar punctuates the verses, with a distinctive marimba solo.

“Half a Mile Away” – 4:08  An upbeat, horn flavored song, with a strong beat and Joel’s own vocal harmonies.  Strong arrangements by Ramone. Not released as a single but could have been a good one.

“Until the Night” – 6:35  A single overseas but not in the U.S.  Probably my least favorite song on the album.  Joel often took inspiration from 1960s song styles, this one is a Righteous Brothers type song that he would revisit on a later album.  This is rather overblown for me.

“52nd Street” – 2:27  A jaunty piano driven rocker, Joel alters his voice, a jazzy vocal and horn arrangement.

Allmusic wrote: Consequently, 52nd Street unintentionally embellishes the Broadway overtones of its predecessor, not only on a centerpiece like “Stiletto,” but when he’s rocking out on “Big Shot.” That isn’t necessarily bad, since Joel’s strong suit turns out to be showmanship — he dazzles with his melodic skills and his enthusiastic performances. He also knows how to make a record. Song for song, 52nd Street might not be as strong as The Stranger, but there are no weak songs — indeed, “Honesty,” “My Life,” “Until the Night,” and the three mentioned above are among his best — and they all flow together smoothly, thanks to Ramone’s seamless production and Joel’s melodic craftsmanship.

I would agree with that. Joel and Ramone crafted a mature and textured album delivering the signature Joel story-songs with some complex musical ideas. It’s pop, but it is more than that.

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