“Don’t ask me why.” One of Billy Joel’s own lyrics might answer anyone baffled that he hasn’t been recognized by the Kennedy Center Honors until now. As the 40th-anniversary year of his seminal album “Piano Man” draws to a close, the singer-songwriter of numerous hits of wide-ranging styles is among those saluted for his contributions to the performing arts as CBS airs the 36th annual special at 9 tonight.
“I was surprised,” six-time Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Joel recalled. “I honestly, really thought there were a lot of people who were deserving before I was going to get this … jazz musicians, classical musicians, just other people. I’ve had so much fun, it’s like I’m getting an award for doing something I love. Which is an award in itself.”
Taped Dec. 8 in Washington, D.C., the Glenn Close-hosted event sees four other entertainment legends also feted by friends, colleagues and admirers including President and Mrs. Obama: Oscar and Emmy winner Shirley MacLaine; two more music icons, Herbie Hancock and Carlos Santana; and opera great Martina Arroyo.
“It’s a really good lineup,” Joel said. “I’m still kind of ‘Wow!’ because I admire all those people. I’m happy I don’t have to speak at this; I’d just be, ‘Homina-homina-homina,’ like Jackie Gleason.”
Joel performed when sometimes tour mate Elton John was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 2004. Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks and Don Henley are among those appearing for Joel, who is aware of how such occasions work in television terms.
“I know they like to get that same face when people win or lose the Oscar,” he said. “And I had to get new clothes; I don’t have clothes for this kind of thing.”
Nevertheless, the artist who has given untold numbers of listeners classic tunes from “She’s Always a Woman,” “Just the Way You Are” and “An Innocent Man” to “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “Tell Her About It” and “Only the Good Die Young” has deep respect for what the Kennedy Center Honors represent.
“I guess it’s our version of knighthood,” Joel reasoned. “It would be kind of cool if you could kneel before the president and get tapped on the shoulder with a sword and receive a helmet and a banner. It’s fine, though.”
The timing of Joel’s honor is significant, and not just because of “Piano Man’s” four-decade mark. “Next year will be my 50th year in show business,” he noted, “and we’re starting to do some gigs, so I guess it’s all just kind of dovetailing.”
One of those gigs for the Bronx native is a New Year’s Eve show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Then, starting in January, he becomes a “franchise” of Madison Square Garden in a unique arrangement that will see him perform one concert there per month, for as long as both he and audiences want that.
“That’s my favorite room in the world,” said Joel, whose songs fueled an episode of Fox’s “Glee” in November. “It’s a world-class venue, the sound is great, and the audience has always been great for us there. And it’s New York City, which is the most exciting city in the world.”
After a recent concert mini-tour in England and Ireland “to put my toe back into the water,” Joel vacationed in Florence, Italy, “which I loved … but coming back into JFK, we flew over Manhattan. And I said, ‘Well, now, that’s a city!’ ”