October 13, 1978 – Billy Joel: 52nd Street is released.

ON THIS DATE (33 YEARS AGO)
October 13, 1978 – Billy Joel: 52nd Street is released.
# ALL THINGS MUSIC PLUS+ 4/5
# Allmusic 4/5 stars
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
# Billboard (see original review below)

52nd Street is the sixth studio album by Billy Joel, released on this date in 1978. It was also the first of many Joel albums to top the Billboard charts, along with his third and fourth Grammy win. 52nd Street also became, in 1982, the first commercial album to be released on compact disc (by Sony Music Entertainment).

Three songs reached the Top 40 in the United States, helping to boost the success of the album. “My Life” reached #3, “Big Shot” reached #14, and “Honesty” reached #24.The album was also successful with critics, winning the 1979 Grammy for Album of the Year.

Allmusic credits Joel for expanding on the style of The Stranger, making it “more sophisticated and somewhat jazzy.” (Jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard guests on “Zanzibar.”) The title is a reference to 52nd Street, which was one of New York City’s jazz centers in the middle of the century. Joel’s label was headquartered on 52nd Street (in the CBS Building) at the time of the album’s release. The studio in which 52nd Street was recorded was also on 52nd Street, a block away from the CBS Building.

In 2003, the album was ranked number 352 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

ORIGINAL ROLLING STONE & BILLBOARD REVIEWS
On 52nd Street and The Stranger, Billy Joel is the quintessential postrock entertainer: a vaudvillian piano man and mimic who, having come of age in the late Sixties, has the grasp of rock and the technical know-how to be able to caricature both Bob Dylan and the Beatles as well as “do” an updated Anthony Newley, all in the same Las Vegas format. Joel seems to have been born knowing what many Seventies pop stars have had to find out the hard way: that rock & roll was always part of show business. Being a pianist (and a bravura one), he’s also been more aware than many of his guitar-based peers that rock has always been a species of popular music and not a totally separate art form.

52nd Street, produced by Phil Ramone, is more rock-oriented than The Stranger and quite different in spirit. Whereas The Stranger — particularly its centerpiece, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” — captured the texture of urban neighborhood life in an Edward Hopper-like light, 52nd Street evokes the carnivalesque neon glare of nighttime Manhattan, using painterly strokes of jazz here and there to terrific effect.

The characters in Joel’s new compositions — a Puerto Rican street punk (“Half a Mile Away”), a social climber (“Big Shot”), a sexual bitch (“Stiletto”), a barfly sports fan (“Zanzibar”) and a Cuban guitarist (“Rosalinda’s Eyes”) — comprise a sidewalk portrait gallery of midtown hustlers and dreamers. The likenesses, though roughly sketched, are accurate and sometimes even tinged with romance (“Rosalinda’s Eyes”). The artist’s fault-finding songs are among his least interesting, and “Stiletto,” a psychologically trite bit of misogyny, is the LP’s one outright failure. Even the numbers that aren’t portraits fit nicely into Joel’s scheme. “Honesty,” a big, brazen, Anthony Newley-type ballad, laments the cynicism and loneliness behind the facade of Gotham glamour, while “52nd Street” is a fragmentary pop-jazz picture post card. “Until the Night” niftily re-creates Phil Spector’s New York.

Joel tried once before to imitate Spector (in “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” on the self-produced Turnstiles), but failed to build a mighty enough wall of sound. This time, his caricature of that master pop caricaturist works splendidly. The singer is as keenly aware as Spector of the ridiculousness as well as the sublimity of the big-city teenage sexual jungle, and because his Righteous Brothers imitation is as tongue in cheek as it is reverent, “Until the Night” works as both tribute and joke. Billy Joel and Phil Ramone are the first artist/producer combination to capture the precarious balance between the ludicrous and the monumental in Phil Spector (how can anyone take Spector more than half-seriously these days?), and Joel’s lyric — simultaneously nonsensical, self-parodying and romantic — is as charming as it is bogus. “Until the Night” is the formal piece de resistance of an album that, though far from great, boasts much of the color and excitement of a really good New York street fair.
– Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 12-14-78.

*****
Joel follows his platinum breakthrough The Stranger, still in the top 15 after a year on the chart, with an equally well-designed mix of punchy midtempo tunes and pretty ballads. An all-star cast of backup musicians assists this time out, including Freddie Hubbard, Mike Mainieri, David Spinozza, Steve Khan, Donnie Dacus, Peter Cetera, Ralph MacDonald, Eric Gale, Dave Grusin and the Brecker Brothers. Joel, who shines on piano and vocals, has blossomed into a consummate record craftsman for the hipper half of the mass audience. There is no shortage of singles candidates here, which should continue the string of four Top 40 hits Columbia was able to lift off The Stranger. Best cuts: “Big Shot,” “My Life,” “Honesty,” “52nd Street,” “Until The Night.”
– Billboard, 1978.

TRACKS:
All songs written and composed by Billy Joel.
Side one
“Big Shot” – 4:03
“Honesty” – 3:53
“My Life” – 4:44
“Zanzibar” – 5:13

Side two
“Stiletto” – 4:42
“Rosalinda’s Eyes” – 4:41
“Half a Mile Away” – 4:08
“Until the Night” – 6:35
“52nd Street” – 2:27

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