Billy Joel Gets Special Award at Grammy Kickoff

Billy Joel 

Billy Joel Gets Special Award at Grammy Kickoff

It's Grammy week here in Los Angeles, and it's a little weirder than in previous years. Maybe it has something to do with the economy or with Sept. 11, but the buzz is missing and with it a lot of the people who comprise the Grammy ethos.

Of course, then again it might be that the recording industry is in chaos, sales are down, and the head of the Grammy Awards is under intense press scrutiny.

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) Person of the Year dinner kicked off Grammy Week last night, and the honoree was Billy Joel. This is a huge annual black-tie affair held at the Century Plaza Hotel, and as usual the place was packed  although some of the people's identity is still a mystery.

One guest of honor was the King of Swaziland, who's in town to drum up interest in a charity album to raise money to fight AIDS in Africa. His highness's presence was so odd that emcee Paul Reiser managed to get off a good joke about it. "I've been to Swaziland," he quipped, "but the rides are better at Swazi-World."

Among the many guests who also performed later was Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora. Commenting on his marriage to Heather Locklear, which seems to be going the distance, Sambora said: "When I met my wife, that was it. It was like a skunk losing his scent." Sambora told me that his parents had just stayed with him, Locklear, and their young daughter for several weeks in California. "My wife is something else," he said. "Can you believe that?"

The honoree of the night usually performs after sitting through renditions of his songs by guest artists. Last year Paul Simon took the stage at the evening's conclusion. But Billy Joel declined, and instead accepted his award with a rambling semi-coherent speech. Part of the speech touched on the ways he'd been ripped off financially in the last few years. He thanked his lawyers, including John Eastman, for saving him. The crowd was a little stunned during this portion, since Joel had a public fight with the entertainment attorney, Alan Grubman, who is close friends and associates with Tommy Mottola, the head of Sony, Joel's record label. Mottola was notably absent from the proceedings, although many other Sony execs were present.

Joel was allegedly swindled by his wife Elizabeth and her brother, then was allegedly mishandled by his lawyer. Regarding his finances, Joel continued: "My grandfather was a wealthy man but the Nazi's took his money. My father was a great pianist." That story, like some of his others, never ended so it was unclear what that was all about.

In fact, Joel's remarks only got odder. After Reiser sat down at the piano and played a credible version of the Joel song "Souvenir" Billy explained their connection. It turned out he'd met Reiser through Jerry Seinfeld, who plunked down $35 million for Joel's home in the Hamptons. Joel kept making reference to some actress whose number Reiser promised him, and that it didn't work out. Later he suggested that he'd like to write songs for Nicole Kidman and to meet her. He called the NARAS award a "tchotchke" and said he didn't know where to put it since, "I'm a renter now, thanks to your friend Jerry." He did a dead on impression of Seinfeld, however.

Joel also recognized in his speech that he hadn't turned in a new album of songs to Sony since 1993, because that one — "River of Dreams" — had entered the charts at No.1. "And I figured that was it, I was finished," he said. "Instead, I turned in an album of piano pieces and it sold what? 500 copies." You could see the Sony execs reaching for their Mylanta.

Still, Billy is a real guy and a lot of fun, and at least he says what's on his mind. Commenting on Melissa Etheridge's version of "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me," he said: "Melissa Etheridge? Where did she come from?" And after Garth Brooks mauled one of his old numbers, Billy quipped: "I give you credit for doing that one, Garth. Even I don't sing that song anymore."

But the real measure of the night was how well many of Billy's songs did hold up. Stevie Wonder probably stole the night with his version of "Just the Way You Are," although Natalie Cole was no slouch on "Leave the Tender Moment Alone." After hearing that Billy said, "That's not a bad little song."

Richie Sambora and Jon Bon Jovi also put over an energetic version of "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," that featured Sambora's surprisingly supple vocals. Other performers included Rob Thomas, Diana Krall and Tony Bennett. Pianist Richard Joo, who performs Joel's classical numbers on his Fantasies album, was also a winner, and raised the question of why Sony Classical hasn't signed him to record his own albums.

Also spotted in the house were Beck, who was explaining to his tablemates that his assistant programs his phone; singer Eric Benet, who's married to Halle Berry; former Eagle Don Henley, his manager Irving Azoff, and AOL Time Warner co-chair Steve Case, who sat prominently at the Warner Records table with producer David Foster and wife Linda Thompson Foster. For someone who's not supposed to venture far from Virginia, Case looked very comfortable and happy to be in the best seat in the house.

Less pleased perhaps might be NARAS/MusiCares chairman Michael Greene, who was recently lambasted in the New York Post for making $2 million a year plus perks while dispensing far fewer funds to indigent musicians. Greene took the stage to understated applause, then proceeded to make a long announcement about NARAS's good deeds. The audience did not seem impressed. Later he told me it didn't matter what the Post wrote since they could "make anything up, like I [expletive deleted] goats." At least he has a sense of humor.