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Nov 19, 2014 9:57 PM

Library honoring Billy Joel with pop music prize

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) Billy Joel has more than a few powerful friends in Washington with a musical legacy powerful enough to draw cheers from both sides of the political aisle Wednesday.

The Library of Congress honored the singer and songwriter behind "New York State of Mind," ''Allentown," ''Piano Man" and numerous other hits with the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The lifetime achievement award created by Congress is named for the songwriting duo of George and Ira Gershwin.

The 65-year-old Joel performed in a concert celebrating the prize near the White House along with Tony Bennett, Gavin DeGraw, LeAnn Rimes, John Mellencamp, Natalie Maines, Boyz II Men and other entertainers. The show will be broadcast Jan. 2 on PBS stations.

Joel's tunes were enough to have Republican and Democratic congressional leaders sitting side by in the divided capital, clapping to the same beat.

Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor saluted Joel, a fellow New Yorker, for creating an enduring lyrical and musical legacy for the nation.

"For more than five decades, Billy Joel has inspired new generations of performers, musicians and singer-songwriters," she said. "Tonight we recognize Long Island's favorite son, even if he is a Mets fan."

Kevin Spacey took up the harmonica and led a rendition of "Piano Man" with the night's lineup of performers and Joel at the keyboard.

"I think even a man like Frank Underwood would be pretty excited about a night like tonight," Spacey said, referencing his familiar character from the Netflix political drama "House of Cards."

"So Billy, here's to you."

Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney and James Taylor filmed special tributes for Joel.

At a luncheon in his honor Tuesday, Joel said he was thinking about his mother, Rosalind Joel, who died this year.

"I keep seeing this through her eyes now," he said. "She would have just gotten such a kick out of this."

Joel's father was an accomplished classical pianist who left the family when Joel was 8, and his mother struggled to support Joel and his sister on New York's Long Island. In high school, Joel played at a piano bar to help support his family. When he didn't have enough credits to graduate, he began his career in music.

Clive Davis signed Joel to a deal with Columbia Records in 1973, and "Piano Man" was his debut album, inspired by his real-life experiences.

Joel said some of the most exciting concerts he ever played were in 1987 when he was the first American pop star to bring a full rock concert to the Soviet Union. He didn't know if any Russians would know his songs, but he used George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" to help open the concert.

"We wanted people to know we're America. This is our stuff. This is what we're going to give you," he said. "I wanted to introduce that idea. This is our music. This is who we are."

At the sound of Gershwin's famous tune, everyone in the Russian crowd relaxed a bit. "It made a big difference," Joel said. "Everything after that is somewhat anti-climactic."

By 1999, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He continues to tour and for the past year has been performing monthly in a residency at New York City's Madison Square Garden for as long as fans will have him.

Through the years, Joel has influenced many musicians, and many of them sing and play covers of his greatest hits. But don't tell singer Gavin DeGraw that Joel is only a "Piano Man."

"Personally, I think he's about the most underrated singer there is," DeGraw told The Associated Press. "People always say Billy Joel, the singer-songwriter, the Piano Man, and I say yeah, I agree, but he's a great singer."

For the past year, DeGraw has been opening concerts for Joel, his idol. The huge catalog of songs Joel has written himself sets him apart as a musician, DeGraw said.

In Washington, DeGraw sang "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" in Joel's honor. DeGraw said he once planned to go to medical school but attended a Billy Joel concert when he was 15, and that turned him back to music.

"I was looking at these people in this arena, just overwhelmed with joy," he said. "And that was the first time in my whole life where I thought wow, music is medicine."

Past winners of the Gershwin Prize include Carole King, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder.


Follow Brett Zongker on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DCArtBeat .


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