‘The Stranger’ Turns 40: Inside Billy Joel’s Commercial Breakthrough And First Collaboration With Phil Ramone

Billy Joel's The Stranger turns 40 years old

Billy Joel’s biggest selling studio album is 40 years old. Joel’s commercial breakout, The Stranger, was first released on Sept. 29, 1977, by Columbia Records. It was Joel’s fifth studio release, and while his four previous albums were successful, nothing prepared the Bronx-born singer for the massive success of The Stranger. Out of nine songs on The Stranger, four of them were Billboard Hot 100 singles: “Movin’ Out,” “Only the Good Die Young,” She’s Always a Woman” and “Just the Way You Are,” which was Billy’s first-ever No. 1 single.

According to In the Studio with Redbeard, at the time of its release, Billy Joel’s The Stranger even knocked out Simon and Garfunkel’s classic, Bridge Over Troubled Water, as the top-selling album in Columbia Records history. Forty years later, The Stranger remains Billy Joel’s best-selling non-compilation album to date.

Billy Joel hadn’t set out to become a ’70s superstar with the release of The Stranger. According to CNN, at the time he was just happy to still have a record label.

“I don’t recall feeling this was going to be the breakthrough,” Joel is quoted as saying in press materials for a rerelease of The Stranger.

“We were just happy with the album we were making at the time. I didn’t know this at the time but had it not been a successful album, the label probably would have dropped me. ‘Cause you have to remember, this was my fifth album without having had a major hit.”

The Stranger came to fruition after Joel interviewed several producers, including the Beatles’ George Martin. He found his match with Phil Ramone, who was coming off Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years and the Barbra Streisand A Star Is Born soundtrack.

The Stranger was recorded in three weeks after Joel and Ramone ironed out their deal over an extended dinner at a New York eatery. But early on, it looked like The Stranger could be a flop.

“They put out ‘Movin’ Out’ [as the first single], and it [failed],” Ramone told CNN in 2008. “And then out of nowhere came ‘Just the Way You Are.'”

The Billy Joel ballad got a major boost when Joel appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live in February 1978. The song later won Grammy Awards for song and record of the year.

The Stranger was the beginning of an eight-album run for Billy Joel and Phil Ramone. The pair went on to make seven more albums together, including the No. 1 records 52nd Street and Glass Houses.

After Phil Ramone’s death in 2013, Billy Joel paid tribute to him in an essay for Rolling Stone. Billy revealed that his initial dinner meeting with Ramone served as the inspiration for one of the most iconic songs on the album.

“I first met Phil Ramone when I played Carnegie Hall in 1976,” Joel wrote.

“It was my first time headlining there. There used to be an Italian restaurant across the street called Fontana di Trevi where a lot of the classical musicians and opera stars from Carnegie Hall would dine. I had dinner with Phil there, and it really was the inspiration for ‘Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.'”

Joel added that he had “so many great Phil stories from the recording of The Stranger,” including one about the title song in which he felt the tune needed an introduction and Ramone told him to just whistle the opening.

“I hadn’t even considered that,” Billy said.

“I’m not the greatest whistler in the world, but he said that’s what should be on the recording…I never considered stuff like that. So his musical prowess really came into play there.”

Billy Joel also revealed that Phil Ramone had to talk him into putting The Stranger’s biggest hit, “Just the Way You Are,” on the album.

“I didn’t want to do the song,” Joel admitted.

“I didn’t believe in it. I thought it was a gloppy ballad that would be done at weddings, which it is now. It became a wedding standard. He just wanted that song on there. He thought it was a great song. He believed in it. He thought it was gonna be an important song on the album.”

Billy Joel ultimately wanted Phil Ramone on the back cover of The Stranger with the rest of the band.

“By the time we got to the end of making the whole album he was one of the guys in the band,” Billy revealed. “He was probably the most important guy in the band as far as I was concerned. He brought it to life, he made it all happen on a recording which had never happened before.”

[Featured Image by Express Newspapers/Getty Images]