At just 16, William Martin Joel of Hicksville, Long Island, got his first taste of chart success playing piano on the Shangri-Las’ #1 hit “Leader of the Pack,”. At 18, he dropped out of high school to pursue a full-time career as a professional musician. After several years moving from band to band, he released his first solo album at age 22 in 1971, and then four more in quick succession after that, with ever-increasing success. Finally, on this day in 1978, Billy Joel earned his first #1 album when his sixth release, 52nd Street, hit the top of the Billboard pop chart
52nd Street was the highly anticipated follow-up to Joel’s 1977 breakthrough album The Stranger, which had achieved Platinum status and made Joel a household name on the strength of singles like “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “Just The Way You Are” and “She’s Always A Woman.” The Stranger surpassed Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water as the biggest-selling album in Columbia Records history, but it just missed reaching #1 on the Billboard chart. 52nd Street, which included the radio hits “Big Shot,” “My Life” and “Honesty,” achieved that feat on November 18, 1978, and remained at the top of the charts for the next seven straight weeks, becoming the top-selling album of the year. It also went on to earn Billy Joel his first Album of the Year award at the 22nd Annual Grammy Awards in February 1980.
Nearly half of the songs that would make up Billy Joel’s 1985 21-times Platinum Greatest Hits Volume I and II (1985) were already under his belt with the release of 52nd Street. The rest would come from the albums Glass Houses (1980), The Nylon Curtain (1982) and An Innocent Man (1983)—albums that would all be certified multi-Platinum. With the additional success of Joel’s 10th, 11th and 12th albums, The Bridge (1986), Storm Front (1989) and River of Dreams (1993), Billy Joel ranks as the sixth best-selling recording artist in American history with nearly 80 million albums sold, trailing only The Beatles, Garth Brooks, Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin and The Eagles