This was inspired by Joel's experiences playing at The Executive Room, a piano bar in Los Angeles. He worked there for six months in 1972 after his first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor, tanked. The characters in the song are based on real people Joel encountered while working at The Executive Room.
Joel played under the name Bill Martin, which explains why the patrons in the song call him Bill. Martin is his middle name.
Joel recalled to the Metro newspaper July 6, 2006 his time playing at The Executive Room: "It was a gig I did for about six months just to pay rent. I was living in LA and trying to get out of a bad record contract I'd signed. I worked under an assumed name, the Piano Stylings of Bill Martin, and just bulls--ted my way through it. I have no idea why that song became so popular. It's like a karaoke favorite. The melody is not very good and very repetitious, while the lyrics are like limericks. I was shocked and embarrassed when it became a hit. But my songs are like my kids and I look at that song and think: 'My kid did pretty well.'"
Regarding the limericks statement, Joel points out that this is best heard in the following verse, which if you read with a sprightly pace, does sound like one:
Now John at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me my drinks for free
And he's quick with a joke or to light up your smoke
But there's someplace that he'd rather be
This is the first song and title track to Joel's breakthrough album, which he released after signing with Columbia Records. His first album was released by Family Records in 1971, and the contract Joel signed to get that deal came back to haunt him. As is often the case with young musicians, Joel did not understand the contract, and it bound him "for life" to the label. Joel was forced to pay royalties to Family for years after breaking the deal and signing with Columbia.
The line "Paul is a real estate novelist" is about a real estate broker who was a regular at the bar who always claimed to be working on a book. Joel figured Paul would never finish because he was always in the bar.
The harmonica part was inspired by Bob Dylan. Dylan was the first person Joel saw use a strap to hold the harmonica so he could play another instrument at the same time.
This song is one that every piano bar player has to deal with, since unimaginative patrons will inevitably ask for it. Joel points out, however, that the song can be quite dull when played in this format. He told Howard Stern in 2014: "I think it's a decent song. It doesn't change too much. When they play it on the piano as an instrumental, it gets really boring because it's the same thing over and over and over."
Joel often plays this as the encore at his live shows.
The album version runs 5:37, but the single was cut down to 4:30 to make it more attractive to radio stations, which favored shorter songs.
Elton John makes reference to a piano man in his 1971 song Tiny Dancer
. He and Joel became friends and have toured together. (thanks, Brandon - Peoria, IL)
The lyrics, "And he's talkin' with Davy who's still in the Navy and probably will be for life" were inspired by David Heintz. His daughter Lisa explains: "He met Billy Joel in a pub in Spain in 1972 while he was in the Navy. He married while he was in the navy, had three children. He passed away in 2003 of ALS. It really hurts when I hear this song played on the radio and they leave this part out."
Weird Al Yankovic did a parody of this song called "Ode to a Superhero," which describes events from the Spider-Man movie. The original chorus line, "Sing us a song, you're the piano man" is turned into "Sling us a web, you're the Spider-Man."
The Spanish singer Ana Belen made a version of this song in Spanish called "El Hombre Del Piano." The lyrics of her song are quite different from the original. They talk more about The Piano Man's past with his wife and of his depression. The people in the bar are hardly mentioned. Use the link above to see her lyrics under the English ones. (thanks, Sergigres - Barcelona, Spain)
At the end of the video for his song "Second Wind," Joel walks off the bridge playing the harmonica phrase from this song after saving a young man from suicide. (thanks, Chet - Saratoga Springs, NY)