This was inspired by Joel’s experiences playing at The Executive Room, a piano bar in Los Angeles. He worked there for six months in 1972 after his first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor, tanked. The characters in the song are based on real people Joel encountered while working at The Executive Room.
The line “Paul is a real estate novelist” is about a real estate broker who was a regular at the bar who always claimed to be working on a book. Joel figured Paul would never finish because he was always in the bar.
The “waitress practicing politics” is Elizabeth Weber, who ended up becoming his first wife when Joel married her in 1973 (they divorced in 1982).
Billy played under the name Bill Martin, which explains why the patrons in the song call him Bill. Martin is his middle name.
This is the first song and title track to Joel’s breakthrough album, which he released after signing with Columbia Records. His first album was released by Family Records in 1971, and the contract Joel signed to get that deal came back to haunt him. As is often the case with young musicians, Joel did not understand the contract, and it bound him “for life” to the label. Joel was forced to pay royalties to Family for years after breaking the deal and signing with Columbia.
“It was a gig playing the Executive, I did for about six months just to pay rent. I was living in LA and trying to get out of a bad record contract I’d signed. I worked under an assumed name, the Piano Stylings of Bill Martin, and just bulls–ted my way through it. I have no idea why that song became so popular. It’s like a karaoke favorite. The melody is not very good and very repetitious, while the lyrics are like limericks. I was shocked and embarrassed when it became a hit. But my songs are like my kids and I look at that song and think: ‘My kid did pretty well.'”
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