In this uptempo track from his sixth studio album, Billy Joel sings about an irresistible but dangerous woman who wields emotional manipulation like a sharp blade.
In 2016, Joel told SiriusXM that the song's staccato piano riff was inspired by the riff that opens Traffic's 1969 song "Shanghai Noodle Factory."
On 52nd Street, a jazzy send-up to Manhattan's night life, Joel reunited with Phil Ramone, who produced his breakthrough album, The Stranger, the previous year. For its follow-up, Ramone encouraged him to shift his musical direction and experiment with jazz. The album won two trophies at the 1980 Grammy Awards: Best Pop Vocal Performance - Male and Album Of The Year.
According to Ramone, the funky bass lines, finger snaps, and cliffhanger breaks were incorporated after Joel listened to the first playbacks and decided the song needed a visceral hook to create the necessary tension. "Memorable fills, phrases, and breaks - such as the one heard on 'Stiletto' - are what set the best records apart," Ramone wrote in his 2007 book, Making Records: The Scenes Behind The Music. "These devices are especially effective when they're heard at the beginning of a song; if you can come up with something spicy and unique, you've got a better chance of getting (and holding) the audience's attention."
Ramone explained how drummer Liberty DeVitto unexpectedly nailed the sound effect of a switchblade clicking open: "It had rained that day, so we got an umbrella and Liberty practiced opening it so the timing would be right. We begin recording... here comes the take... and SNAP! The umbrella flew right off the top of the handle. The timing - and the sound - couldn't have been better."