Last Friday, in my interview series with Phil Woods, I asked the alto saxophonist about his iconic solo on Billy Joel's Just the Way You Are (1977). In my post, I referred to the hit as "sudsy." A cascade of e-mails from Billy Joel fans followed. Most took me to task for implying the song was soft and for saying that Phil's soaring alto sax solo contributed mightily to the song's timeless popularity.
First, let me apologize if my post conveyed the impression that Just the Way You are or the album on which it appears, The Stranger, is lightweight or that jazz is somehow superior to Billy Joel's style of narrative-rock. My use of the word "sudsy" in the original post referred not to the song's heft or importance but to its washing-machine beat. I should have been clearer.
Personally, I love The Stranger (I own three copies—the LP, the remastered 1998 CD, and the 30th anniversary set released last year). I think it's probably impossible for anyone my age not to appreciate the album's significance and impact. I was in college in Boston in 1977, which pretty much says it all. The Stranger was considered a coming-of-age soundtrack then, which is why it's so revered today.
But enough of all that. Let's move on to the points I raised in my post and the claims made by e-mailers:
1. In my interview with Phil Woods, the saxophonist said he recorded just two takes of his solo. E-mail writers inferred that there were many more (upward of six).
2. I indicated in my post that Billy Joel considered abandoning the song after hearing it on playback. E-mail writers took me to task for this comment, saying it simply wasn't true.
3. Lastly, e-mail writers inferred that producer Phil Ramone spent the day following Phil Woods' solo splicing together many different versions of the solo to create the one we hear on the recording.
Rather than have me argue these points, let's let Phil Ramone tell the story. Here's an excerpt from his superb autobiography (with Charles L. Granata), Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music:
"One day I told Billy Joel that we could use another ballad for The Stranger. 'Well, here's a song we'll never record,' he said. 'But you should hear it.'
"Billy prefaced his live demo of the song by explaining that he had performed it a few times in concert but no one in the band—including him—was overjoyed with it. He then sat at the piano and halfheartedly played me a tune called Just the Way You Are.
I liked the song—a lot—and despite Billy's trepidation, we agreed to run it down at the next session.
As Billy recalls:
'We originally played Just the Way You Are as a cha-cha... Well [drummer] Liberty DeVitto got so pissed that he threw his drum sticks at me... It was a chick song, and we really weren't sure about it from the start. But Phil lobbied hard to include it on The Stranger... '
"A big concern was that it was too schmaltzy, and that it would brand Billy a 'wedding singer.' After hearing the first few takes, I was inclined to agree...
"Originally, the beat that the band was using on Just the Way You Are sounded much like Elton [John's] Daniel or Stevie Wonder's You Are the Sunshine of My Life. But I saw the possibilities of the song, and felt that if we found the right groove it could work.
'The cha-cha thing didn't work, so when we started recording Just the Way You Are, I played the loose bossa nova rhythm that I'd be playing all along. After a run-through, Phil came out of the booth. He walked over to me and quietly said, Lib, I think I know what the problem is. That rhythm isn't cutting it. This song needs a more sensuous feel.'
'Phil suggested trying a South American Byonne rhythm, and tapped out the pattern to show me what he meant... The new rhythmic pattern made a tremendous difference...
"But after making a rough mix, Billy and I sensed that something was still missing. The song needed more dimension, and my next suggestion unwittingly caused the first scrape between the band and me as their producer...
"Although Richie Connata's tenor sax playing on Scenes From an Italian Restaurant and Only the Good Die Young was dazzling, I felt that the solo in the bridge of Just the Way You Are needed the throaty texture of an alto sax.
"When I think of alto saxophone I immediately think of Phil Woods [pictured]—one of the top jazz session men in New York. And so I called on him, and his exceptional solo lent Just the Way You Are a sublimity that was greater than anything I had imagined...
"Despite all the time we spent tweaking Just the Way You Are, Billy still wasn't sure that he wanted it on the album—until the night Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow visited the studio.
"We were talking about the album, and I played Just the Way You Are for them. They were floored, and when Billy mentioned that he wanted to eliminate it, neither Linda nor Phoebe withheld their opinions. 'Are you crazy?' they asked. 'That's the hit. You're out of your minds if you don't put it on the album.'
Thank God we listened: Just the Way You Are won a Grammy for the Song of the Year (1978). Next to Piano Man, it's Billy's most requested tune, and at many a wedding it's been played, I'm sure."
That covers point No. 2—that Billy Joel wanted the song off the album, even after hearing it played back with Phil Woods' solo.
As for claim No. 1—that there were upward of six solo takes—I think I'll let Phil Woods' own statement stand that there were just two. Anyone who is vaguely familiar with Phil Woods' reputation in the studio knows that what he blows is perfect on the first run-through. If indeed there were six, only Phil Ramone would know for sure, and this point doesn't turn up in his autobiography.
As for claim No. 3—that Phil Ramone worked the entire next day splicing together a solo from Phil Woods' many efforts—this statement also remains unsubstantiated from those who actually were there.
One e-mail writer who asked to remain anonymous did offer this:
"I'm so used to Billy Joel being slagged and pilloried for that song that I tend to overreact. I apologize. I am not insinuating that Woods' work was in any way inferior or missed the mark. On the contrary, [from what I understand] he played multiple solos—each one was different and each one was brilliant.
"[I understand that] Phil Ramone felt he was missing the definitive solo for the record, so he ended up combining all six of Woods' solos into one. It's a testament to Ramone's genius as a producer and Woods' brilliance as a player that it sounds as if it was done all in one fell swoop.
"[From what I know], Woods was not in the studio on the day that Ramone did the editing. Billy Joel was there, and Billy told me that he was scared to death that the razor might slip while slicing the tape, and that some of those wonderful sax notes might end up somewhere out in the analogue universe. But Ramone didn't slip, and the result is the classic solo that everyone knows to this day.
"How do I know all of this? I know Billy Joel very well. He's a true artist and never seems to get the appreciation that he deserves from the music press. I apologize if I was unclear about my information. I'm sure that Phil Ramone would verify what I have written here. Billy Joel was honored to work with Phil Woods as he was to work with Freddie Hubbard, Ray Charles and Tony Bennett."
I'd love to hear from Billy Joel or Phil Ramone on this to clear it up. Until then, we'll never know. Either way, the song remains a powerful, evocative hit (with Billy Joel's music, lyrics and vocal). And if we're being completely honest, much of the song's momentum still comes from anticipating and hearing Phil Woods' impassioned alto sax solo.
This is from a CNN article posted on the web in July 2008 about Joel and The Stranger:
"[Billy Joel] acknowledges that The Stranger could have been his last stand: 'I didn't know this at the time, but had it not been a successful album, the label [Columbia] probably would have dropped me. 'Cause you have to remember, this was my fifth album without having had a major hit,' Joel says."
Clearly, Phil Woods' solo—regardless of how many were recorded late that night or how much splicing Phil Ramone had to do the next day—helped make Just the Way You Are and The Stranger a hit, putting Billy Joel in a whole new league at Columbia Records in 1978.
And that was my only point.
JazzWax clips: For those unfamiliar with the Billy Joel song, Phil Woods' solo or why it's such a wonderfully produced package, here's a clip...
And now I have a confession. My second-favorite version of this song has always been Barry White's (OK, settle down), who with the Love Unlimited Orchestra recorded it in 1978 with tremendous soul and, yes, schmaltz. And before you start with the e-mails, just sit back and dig it. Here it is...