Billy Joel’s first hit (and by a distance his most played song on Spotify) was based on his experiences working in a piano bar in LA while lawyers at Columbia Records in New York tried to get him out of his first record deal.
It features various characters he met there, and the lyrics tell their stories, mainly in limerick form.
I’m writing about it today because for me, it’s a classic example of a song that people think is easier to play than it actually is.
The chords are fairly straightforward, as is the melody, and it has a sing-along vibe that can lull piano players into a false sense of security, but there are plenty of quirks to the song that will keep you on your toes.
The two hardest parts to play are probably the intro and the solo before the third chorus.
The intro consists of two jazz-style licks over the II and the V chords in the song’s key (C) – Dm7 and G7. He throws a flat 9 into the G7 chord to give it an extra jazz tonality. The solo starts at 3:25 and is played largely over the A blues scale – these would be nice challenges for many piano players.
The form of the song is the stickiest part however. It’s mainly an AABA structure, with the first two As representing verses, the B the bridge, and the last A the chorus, which is the same melodically and chordally as the verse. There are 4 of these AABA forms throughout the song. However it’s never that simple however. I’ll try to explain below.
The first AABA is preceded by a piano intro, a harmonica intro and then another piano intro. There is a 10-bar harmonica solo between the first two As.
The second AABA is preceded by a shorter harmonica intro and a piano intro. There is no harmonica solo between the first two As but there is no last A (chorus) this time.
The third AABA has no intro but does again feature the harmonica solo between the first two As. The B section is 4 bars longer than usual here and features a piano solo instead of the regular vocals.
The fourth AABA is preceded by the same short harmonica intro and piano intro as the second AABA. Also like the second AABA it has no harmonica solo between the first two As but it does have a chorus.
The song then finishes with a short harmonica solo, and the usual piano intro theme closes out the song.
Never underestimate a song. It will often be harder to learn than you think. Certainly Piano Man is.