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Billy Joel 52nd Street: Everybody’s Got a Story

Billy Joel 52nd Street - Carolyn Daughters 2

Listening to the Billy Joel 52nd Street album was a milestone experience for me. I learned that everybody’s got a story. I learned to listen.


I snuck into the basement of my aunt and uncle’s house. They lived in Chicago’s Dunning neighborhood on the city’s northwest side. My family was visiting for the day to celebrate someone’s birthday.

I was seeking silence. Upstairs, my extended family was fighting. About what, I can’t recall.

In the basement, I saw a teenage boy pacing. A distant cousin I had never before met. He set an album on a turntable, familiar whooshes, cracks, and scratches, then the unfamiliar sounds of a song I didn’t know. The boy sat on a bar stool and fanned himself with the album sleeve. I watched from the stairwell. It was summer, no working A/C. I was nine.

A song called “Big Shot” finished, led into “Honesty” and “My Life.” I could still hear the noise upstairs. I rested my head against the stairwell wall, watched the boy spin around on the stool.

“He’s a real songwriter, a real musician,” the boy said. I hadn’t realized I had been spotted. “He grew up in Oyster Bay,” he said. “You know that?”

I shook my head. I had no idea who “he” was.

“It’s in Long Island. Fifty-Second Street was one of New York City’s jazz centers mid-century. You know that?”

I shook my head again. I didn’t know anything about Oyster Bay or Long Island or jazz. I didn’t know I was listening to the Billy Joel 52nd Street album that would forever change the way I listened to music.

“Zanzibar” finished. The boy flipped the album and set the arm on the first track of side two.

“These songs, they’re stories,” he said. “Everybody’s got a story. Listen. I mean, really listen.”

And for the next 20 or so minutes, I did.

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