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Librarian of Congress Awards Billy Joel the Gershwin Prize

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington named Billy Joel the next recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the Library of Congress (L.O.C.) announced today, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. “Billy Joel ranks as one of the most popular recording artists and respected entertainers in the world. His piano-fueled narratives take listeners into the relatable and deeply personal moments of life, mirroring his own goal of writing songs that ‘meant something during the time in which I lived … and transcended that time.’ ‘Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,’ ‘The Entertainer,’ ‘Piano Man,’ ‘Big Shot,’ ‘New York State of Mind,’ ‘You May Be Right,’ ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,’ ‘Allentown,’ ‘[and] Uptown Girl’ ... are among many other classics in a rich and deep catalog of songs that have acted as personal and cultural touchstones for millions of people.”

Singer/songwriter Billy Joel performs at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday, June 7, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  On July 22, 2014, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced Joel would receive the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in November.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Billy Joel will receive the prize in Washington, D.C., in November and be feted with a series of events, including an honoree’s luncheon and musical performances. The Gershwin Prize honors a living musical artist’s lifetime achievement in promoting the genre of song as a vehicle of cultural understanding; entertaining and informing audiences; and inspiring new generations. Previous recipients are Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Sir Paul McCartney, songwriting duo Burt Bacharach and the late Hal David, and Carole King.

"Billy Joel is a storyteller of the highest order," Mr. Billington said. "There is an intimacy to his songwriting that bridges the gap between the listener and the worlds he shares through music. When you listen to a Billy Joel song, you know about the people and the place and what happened there. And while there may be pain, despair and loss, there is ultimately a resilience to it that makes you want to go to these places again and again.

"Importantly, as with any good storyteller, the recognition experienced in a Billy Joel song is not simply because these are songs we have heard so many times, but because we see something of ourselves in them," Billington added.

Mr. Joel said, "The great composer, George Gershwin, has been a personal inspiration to me throughout my career. And the Library’s decision to include me among those songwriters who have been past recipients is a milestone for me."

With a career spanning fifty years in the entertainment industry, Joel is the sixth top-selling singer and the third top-selling solo singer in the history of the audio recording industry, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. His multiple Grammy wins include Song of the Year ("Just the Way You Are," 1978), Record of the Year ("Just the Way You Are," 1978), Album of the Year (52nd Street, 1979), and back-to-back wins for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male for two of his thirteen multi-platinum albums, 52nd Street and Glass Houses in 1979 and 1980, respectively. Among other best-known songs are "She’s Always a Woman," "Only the Good Die Young," "She’s Got a Way," "Tell Her About It," "You’re Only Human (Second Wind)," "A Matter of Trust," and "The River of Dreams."

In December of 2013, Madison Square Garden announced Joel as its first-ever music franchise. Joining the ranks of the Garden’s other original franchises, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer kicked off monthly performances, as long as there is demand, starting January 27, 2014. The monthly shows are sold out through November.

The L.O.C. stated, “Joel’s life and work has reflected his abiding interest in history. In 1987, he accepted an invitation from the former Soviet Union to perform there, becoming the first American pop star to bring a full rock production to the Soviet Union.” In a recently released documentary about the two-week tour, Billy Joel: A Matter of Trust–The Bridge to Russia, he notes that he decided to go in part because "I wanted to have an answer when my daughter said, ‘Dad, what did you do during the Cold War?’"

Joel has had thirty-three Top-40 hits and twenty-three Grammy nominations since signing his first solo recording contract in 1972. In 1990, he was presented with a Grammy Legend Award. Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1992, Joel was presented with the Johnny Mercer Award, the organization’s highest honor, in 2001.

In 1999, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has received the Recording Industry Association of America Diamond Award, presented for albums that have sold more than 10,000,000 copies. In 2013, he was among those receiving 36th Annual Kennedy Center Honors.

In 2010, Joel released The Last Play at Shea. The L.O.C. stated, “The intersecting histories of a city, a team and a music legend are examined in a documentary feature film that charts both the ups and downs of the New York Mets and the life and career of Long Island native Billy Joel, the last performer to play Shea Stadium before its demolition in 2008.”

New York’s quintessential son, Joel performed six songs at the historic 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief, joining other music greats to raise awareness and money to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy. The show, which included tributes to first responders and those affected by the storm, was broadcast to an estimated 2 billion viewers and raised $32 million in funds before anyone took the stage. Billy, who is proud of his personal connection to Long Island and the tri-state area impacted by the storm, told the audience, ‘We’re going to get through all this. This is New York and New Jersey and Long Island, and we’re just too mean to lay down and die.’

Steinway & Sons honored Joel with a painted portrait that hangs in Steinway Hall in Manhattan. Joel, who has been a Steinway pianist for almost twenty years, is the first non-classical pianist to be immortalized in the Steinway Hall collection.

His portrait hangs alongside those of legendary musicians including Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943); Franz Ritter von Liszt, T.O.S.F. (1811-1886); Arthur Rubinstein, K.B.E. (1887-1982); and Ignace Paderewski, G.B.E. The portrait of Joel, painted by artist and musician Paul Wyse, is one of only two living artists to be inducted into the collection, the other being Leon Fleisher.

Movin’ Out, a Broadway musical based on Joel’s music—choreographed and directed by Twyla Tharp—was nominated for ten Tony Awards and took home two including Best Orchestrations—Billy’s first Tony Award win—and Best Choreography. Joel has earned three Awards For Cable Excellence and has received numerous A.S.C.A.P. and B.M.I. awards, including the A.S.C.A.P. Founders Award and the B.M.I .Career Achievement Award and, in 1994, was given the Billboard Century Award. Among his many other awards and honors, Joel has been given a Doctor of Humane Letters from Fairfield University (1991), an Honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music (1993), an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Hofstra University (1997) and a Doctor of Music degree from Southampton College.

The L.O.C. stated, “Joel has donated his time and resources to a variety of charitable causes outside the realm of his musical career. A longtime advocate for music education, he first began holding ‘master class’ sessions on college campuses more than 20 years ago, giving sessions at colleges across the country and around the world. In addition, he has held classes as a benefit for the STAR Foundation (Standing for Truth About Radiation) and to establish the Rosalind Joel Scholarship for the Performing Arts at City College in New York City.”

For his accomplishments as a musician and as a humanitarian, Joel was honored as the 2002 MusiCares Person Of The Year by the MusiCares Foundation and the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.

The L.O.C. stated, “The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song honors living musical artists whose lifetime contributions in the field of popular song exemplify the standard of excellence associated with George and Ira Gershwin, by promoting the genre of song as a vehicle of cultural understanding; entertaining and informing audiences; and inspiring new generations.”

In making the selection for the prize, the Librarian of Congress consulted leading members of the music and entertainment communities, as well as curators from the Library’s Music Division, its American Folklife Center and its Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.

The Gershwin name is used in connection with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song courtesy of the families of George and Ira Gershwin. GERSHWIN® is a registered trademark of Gershwin Enterprises.

[1] Brothers George Gershwin (1898-1937) and Ira Gershwin (1896-1983) made a major impact on 20th Century music. George was a composer and Ira a lyricist. George, who showed no great aptitude as a student, surprised his family by learning to play the piano in secret and left high school in 1914 to become a Tin Pan Alley song plugger. This means he helped popularize songs for New York City songwriters and music publishers by playing the songs on the piano in stores. After three years, he began to publish songs of his own. In 1919, Al Jolson (1886-1950) made a hit of “Swanee,” which George Gershwin composed with lyrics by Irving Caesar. In 1924, George started a partnership with his elder brother Ira to write musical comedies for Broadway. Their string of hits started with Lady, Be Good! (1924) for Fred and Adele Astaire, and included Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), Strike Up the Band (1927, 1930), Girl Crazy (1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931). The last was the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize. Their songs have appeared in films including Shall We Dance (1937), which starred Fred Astaire (1899-1987) and Ginger Rogers (1911-1995), and An American in Paris (1951), which starred Gene Kelly (1912-1996) and Leslie Caron. Writers have even written new musicals around Gershwin songs, namely My One and Only (1983) and Crazy for You (1992). One of George’s best known pieces of music is “Rhapsody in Blue.” Conductor Walter Damrosch commissioned him to compose the piano concerto “Concerto in F” for the New York Symphony Society. Inspired by DuBoise Heyward’s novel Porgy, he wrote the opera Porgy and Bess with his brother and Heyward. After a preview in Boston in September of 1935, it debuted on Broadway in October and has been revived in 1942, 1952, 1976, and 1983 and adapted as a film released in 1959. Before and after George’s untimely death due to a brain tumor at age thirty-eight, Ira collaborated with other composers, including Jerome Kern (1885-1945). On August 17, 1983, Ira Gershwin died at Gershwin Plantation, the Beverly Hills home that he shared with his wife Leonore, to whom he had dedicated his book Lyrics on Several Occasions (published in 1959 and re-issued in 1997). In 1985, the United States Congress awarded the Gershwin brothers the Congressional Gold Medal.

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