Billy Joel exhibit rocks and rolls

‘My Life: A Piano Man’s Journey’ puts you in the mood for a melody

Toni Gallo
Posted 12/7/23

Opening the doors to the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame felt like I was entering a mini-Graceland exhibit; but I was far from Memphis.

When I mention the expo’s strong …

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Billy Joel exhibit rocks and rolls

‘My Life: A Piano Man’s Journey’ puts you in the mood for a melody

Posted

Opening the doors to the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame felt like I was entering a mini-Graceland exhibit; but I was far from Memphis.

When I mention the expo’s strong similarities to the attractions I witnessed at the late Elvis Presley’s home to 65-year-old Kevin O’Callaghan, designer and creator of the Billy Joel exhibit, he smiles and says, “That is the biggest compliment you can give me.”

As I enter, I immediately run into a woman with a license plate around her neck. It said, “My heart belongs to Billy Joel.”

Christopher Collora, a public relations representative for the Hall of Fame, joked, “Oh, her? She’s been here all day!”

“I have been a Billy Joel fan since I was 8. The first song I heard was ‘Big Shot,’” said 52-year-old Massachusetts native Marnie Thomas, who drove to Stony Brook for the occasion.

I asked if she’s ever been to one of Joel’s concerts.

“Ohhh, a few. Like, 120. So, yeah, a couple,” she laughed.

Thomas said they met in 1996, at a questions-and-answers night he held at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and was able to give him a St. Christopher’s medal “so he would always be safe.”

When I casually mention that I’ve seen him don a St. Christopher’s medallion in numerous photos, she exploded with excitement.

“Do you think it’s mine?” she said.

As I walked through the exhibit, I could hardly keep my own emotions in check. There is a life-size album cover of 1980’s “Glass Houses” to my left: one of the first albums I have memory of. It was stored in a canvas-covered CD holder, in my mom’s black Chevy Malibu. The  album’s case was cracked, perhaps in some sort of poetic irony. The first sound you hear on that album is the breaking of glass, and the CD’s back photograph is designed to look shattered.

As visitors entered, they can stand on a platform, and be Billy. You can even pretend to throw a rock through the massive glass windows. Or lean against that grimy, 52nd Street wall Joel immortalized on the cover of his 1978 album, “52nd Street.”

There is a life-size cutout of a 15-year-old Joel, standing on Meeting Lane, in Hicksville—an obvious homage to his Long Island roots—just before the exhibit’s official entrance, just in case there was any doubt where he is from.

His is a Long Island story, after all, and the exhibit, does not forget that.

O’Callaghan said the exhibit has been in the works for more than a year.

“Our first exhibit a year ago was the iconic [music] clubs of Long Island. But of course, Billy Joel was always in the back of our minds,” he said.

“Last February, on Valentine’s Day, we finally got a way to get to see him. I developed some drawings… but he’s kind of a humble guy and was not crazy about the idea. But, I said to him, ‘Billy, this wouldn’t be about you. It would be about your influences, Gershwin, Ray Charles. It would be about the people you inspired, and who inspired you…’ And he loved that idea… He said. ‘Oh, it’d be like a party with my friends,’” he laughs (meaning Beethoven, The Beatles, Gordon Lightfoot, etc.)

O’Callaghan said that he emphasized to Joel that “Long Island really, really needs this,” and that once he gave the “thumbs-up… he couldn’t have been more gracious. He opened his storage facility to us.”

He said that one of the most special things about this exhibit’s experience is its interactiveness.

“We have a collection of records that were inspiring to him [growing up]. And, in this area, you can physically take them, and listen to them [on record players].”

We laughed about a couple of children who, a few minutes before, attempted to place a record on the turntable.

They looked mystified, as they each placed needles on the large acetate discs.

In addition to listening to Joel’s influences, visitors can listen to snippets of each of Joel’s albums, at a sprawling station that spans his musical output from the time he was a teenager in Nassau County-based band, The Hassles (1967), to his last commercial release; a classical record of instrumental compositions, entitled “Fantasies and Delusions” (2001).

Sprinkled throughout the walk are biographies of Joel’s biggest idols, and explanations of how each individual guided his musical development, interspersed with the story of Joel’s life, laid out on the walls.

As for the artifacts included, they came from a wide array of sources.

Besides the unprecedented access to Joel’s archives, which provided the museum with things like the piano Joel played alongside Elton John on their late ‘90s “Face to Face” tour, the saxophone Richie Cannata played on “New York State of Mind,” Joel’s personal book of every song he has ever written (which he jokingly refers to as the “Old and New Testament”), and unfinished, handwritten sheet music of hit songs, such as “Tell Her About It,” a great deal of the included items were donated from collectors.

“I can’t believe some of the stuff people had… they called us up… someone had a seat from one of Billy’s shows in the U.S.S.R., signed by his entire band. Some people brought in bootlegged recordings which are extremely rare,” O’Callaghan said.

“When you’re dealing with fans, they know more than you do. I’ve already been called out 16 times today,” he laughed, referring to small inaccuracies about his life.

Even Joel was shocked to see so many of his intimate belongings on display—some of which he has not seen in years.

“So, Billy came the other night and he stopped… and said, ‘That’s my accordion… Am I going to get that back?’”

The anecdotes about Joel’s life, and particularly his lifelong residency on Long Island, truly provide visitors with a glimpse into Joel’s effect on Long Island, and Long Island’s effect on him.

“This is Long Island, and he is Billy Joel. When this museum first opened, people said, ‘What’s in there? Billy Joel?’ It’s really like no one else came from here,” laughed O’Callaghan.

And, maybe, that is because with 150 million records sold worldwide, Billy is, arguably, one of the music industry’s biggest living stars.

A guy from Hicksville.

Toni-Elena Gallo is a reporter with The SBU Media Group, part of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism’s Working Newsroom program for students and local media.