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Billy Joel to Receive Library of Congress Gershwin Prize

  • Katherine Cole

FILE - Billy Joel performs at Madison Square Garden in New York, May 9, 2014.

FILE - Billy Joel performs at Madison Square Garden in New York, May 9, 2014.

The Library of Congress has announced this year’s winner of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song: singer, piano-player and songwriter Billy Joel.

Library of Congress Librarian James Billington calls Joel a "storyteller of the highest order." Billington said his songwriting carries "an intimacy" that bridges the gap between the listener and the worlds in his songs.

With a career spanning five decades, Joel, known for his piano-driven compositions, is one of the most popular recording artists in the world.

On his current tour, Joel has been poking fun at those lyrics to “The Entertainer,” noting that he has broken all the rules for success he sings about. Now he’s being honored with The Gershwin Prize for a career that includes 33 Top-40 hits, and six Grammy wins out of 23 nominations. His hits, including "Piano Man," "New York State of Mind" and "Uptown Girl," have made him the sixth top-selling artist of all time.

Joel has been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His touring history includes a groundbreaking 1987 sojourn in what was then the Soviet Union. Not bad for a guy who doesn’t like his own singing voice.

Named for composer George Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira, the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize is handed out yearly to a living artist in recognition of his or her lifetime achievements. But this isn’t an award given to just any pop-star.

“We’re not looking for an artist who’s simply popular in one genre," said Suzanne Hogan, the executive in charge of production for The Gershwin Prize at the Library of Congress. "The Gershwins, George and Ira, were remarkable in not only symphonic music, but also gospel and jazz and country and pop and blues. The type of artist we’re looking for also for also embodies those same qualities.”

Hogan says Joel was chosen because he is a great storyteller and writes songs everyone relates to. For example, his song “Allentown” showed what happened to a small American town after the factories there closed down, putting people out of work.

Previous winners of the Gershwin Prize are Carole King, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon, a group Hogan calls responsible for “the world songbook.” She says Joel was honored to join their ranks.

“He was very surprised. He was humble. He wants to live up to the legacy that was established by the Gershwins," she said. "He has been a longtime admirer and studied the Gershwins, particularly George Gershwin, so he was quite honored by it. I think most importantly he was honored that his country has recognized his contribution to American culture.”

The Library of Congress will present Billy Joel with The Gershwin Prize in November. The events will end with an all-star concert featuring some of Joel’s former touring partners, along with other artists he’s inspired.

Some information for this report was provided by AP.

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