Joel recorded this as a duet with Ray Charles, who was his favorite piano player/singer (in addition to their musical talents, the pair share something else in common: last names that sound like first names). When Charles showed up at the session, they met for the first time, and Joel was in awe. To break the ice and get to know each other, they each played piano for a while before recording the song.
When Ray Charles would meet someone for the first time, he would touch that person's face. When he did this do Joel, he said, "relax," since he could tell Billy was nervous.
In a 1986 promotional interview, Joel said he was sitting at home trying to find inspiration for the song in his surroundings when his baby grand sparked his imagination. "I began looking around at things that have been consistent in my life, and in this age of synthesizers and electronic keyboards the piano has almost become an old-fashioned instrument," he recalled. "I glanced at the baby grand piano and realized that I had a lot of love for that thing. The piano has provided me with a nice living, a career, and happiness. It's gotten me women, and it's gotten me through some strange times."
He continued: "Sometimes at night I'd sit down and give myself a concert, and it's almost like the piano did it - I didn't even have anything to do with it. When I was thinking about a theme for Ray and me, it seemed apropos: you know, Ray Charles, piano player. Billy Joel, piano player. Let's talk about a real love in our lives - the baby grand. 'Baby Grand' is really a love song to an instrument."
A baby grand is a type of piano, the instrument of choice for Joel and Charles. In 2016, Joel told Sirius XM part of the reason he chose the baby grand was because he and Christie had just welcomed their baby and she was on his mind.
At first, Joel thought he didn't have enough in common with Charles to write a song for him to sing. But then he remembered two things: They both had their fair share of trouble with the ladies (Charles was married twice and fathered 12 children with 10 different women), and they both played the piano.
"But if you're a piano player, women may come and go, but that piano will stay there," he said. "That piano ain't movin'. That'll always be there. And I thought, 'This is good subject matter for two singers.'"
Joel has a bunch of hits, but he also has a lot of lesser-known songs like this one that many of his fans love. "Baby Grand" was not released as a single in the UK and was only a minor hit in the US.
After the first take, Joel realized there was a misprint in Charles' Braille lyrics and fretted over having to bring it up to him. Phil Ramone, Joel's producer, encouraged him to simply apologize and explain the situation. He recalled in his 2007 book, Making Records: The Scenes Behind The Music:
"Billy explained, and Ray seized the opportunity to kibitz with us. 'Yes - the mistake is right here,' he said, as his fingers scanned the page. 'You wanna read it yourself?'
Once the problem was fixed, they did another set of vocals - this time in front of two stationary mikes. You could see that Billy and Ray shared a warm bond, and the reason that 'Baby Grand' works is because it's heartfelt and simple. It's just two giants who admire each other, singing and playing together."
Joel's daughter that he had with supermodel Christie Brinkley, Alexa Ray, was named after Ray Charles.