"... but hey, you have to start somewhere, right?"
Howard Emerson, 1976 Mitglied der Billy-Joel-Band ("electric and acoustic guitars"), erinnert sich im piano-man.de-Interview an alte Zeiten
Howard Emerson who was a member of the Billy Joel band in 1976 remembers the old times

Es gab Zeiten, da bestand die Billy-Joel-Band aus mehr als nur einem Gitarristen - so zum Beispiel 1976, als Billy Joel sein wegweisendes "Turnstiles"-Album einspielte und mit einer erstklassigen Live-Band auf Welttournee ging. Einer von ihnen war Howard "Howie" Emerson. Der heute 52-Jährige war neben Russell Javors (Emerson: "I first met Russell when I was fifteen"), Doug Stegmeyer und Liberty DeVitto ein Mitglied der Band "Topper", die in den frühen 70er-Jahren auf Long Island recht erfolgreich war und 1976 schließlich zur Billy-Joel-Band avancierte. Emerson, der in den 70er-Jahren auch für Richard Supa ("Supa's Jamboree", 1971, "Homespun", 1972) und Eric Andersen ("Be True To You", 1974) im Studio war und für Al Koopers Doppel-Live-Album "Soul of a Man: Live" (1995) die Saiten zupfte, veröffentlichte 1998 sein erstes und bislang einziges Solo-Album "Crossing Crystal Lake". "Howard Emerson is one of those guitarists we all wish we could be", resümieren die Musiker des Internetportals "Shoreline Acoustic Music", und Richard Arfin, selbst Musiker auf Long Island, nennt Howard Emerson "a wizard, an artist and a joy who happens to express himself on six strings". "When it comes to fingerpicking or slide guitar, Emerson is the man", so Arfin. Emerson, der heute mit seiner Frau und seiner Tochter in Huntington Station, NY, lebt, erinnert sich im folgenden Interview, das exklusiv für die Billy-Joel-Fansite piano-man.de durchgeführt wurde, an die alten Zeiten als Mitglied der Billy-Joel-Band und spart auch nicht mit kritischen Tönen. An dieser Stelle ein herzliches Dankeschön an Howard Emerson!

There were times when there were more guitar players than only one in the Billy Joel band - in 1976, for example, when Billy Joel recorded his important "Turnstiles" album and when he toured the world together with a first class live band. One of these guitar players was Howard "Howie" Emerson. Like Russell Javors (Emerson: "I first met Russell when I was fifteen"), Doug Stegmeyer and Liberty DeVitto Howard Emerson - today 52 years old - was a member of the Long Island based band "Topper" that was kind of successful in the early 70's and finally became the Billy Joel band in 1976. Emerson, who recorded for Richard Supa ("Supa's Jamboree", 1971, "Homespun", 1972) and Eric Andersen ("Be True To You", 1974) in the 70's and who was a guitarist on Al Kooper's double-live disc "Soul of a Man: Live" (1995), released his first solo album "Crossing Crystal Lake" in 1998. "Howard Emerson is one of those guitarists we all wish we could be", the musicians of the "Shoreline Acoustic Music" website stress, and Richard Arfin, who is himself a musician on Long Island, calls Howard Emerson "a wizard, an artist and a joy who happens to express himself on six strings". "When it comes to fingerpicking or slide guitar, Emerson is the man", Arfin underlines. In the interview, that can be exclusively read on piano-man.de, Emerson, who lives today with his wife and his daughter in Huntington Station, NY, remembers the old times as a member of the Billy Joel band and has some critical words to say, too. Thank you very much for time and effort, Howard Emerson!

Howard, during which period of time have you worked for Billy Joel?
I joined up with Billy in January of 1976.

When, where and how did you meet Billy Joel the first time?
I had actually met Billy in the fall or early winter of 1975, but I don't remember exactly.

How was working with Billy Joel and the other members of the Billy Joel band (in the studio and live on stage)? Which kind of working - touring or working on songs in the studio - did you prefer?
The simple fact is that Liberty, Doug and I were Russell's band, Topper, to begin with. Working together with them, in that context, was almost always a pleasure. Russell and I would work many nights, until morning, on guitar parts for the songs that Russ had written. These would then be integrated into working with the rhythm section.
We made some great studio recordings, but playing out live, at that time, was tough because it was the disco era, and we played originals and reggae! Try selling that to a bar crowd on Long Island in 1975...
Now once I got with Billy, things changed because of many reasons, but basically it was a different kind of music, and a different 'political system', if you will. When I was brought into the studio to do the guitar tracks for 'Turnstiles', I was told what to play, almost note for note, by Doug.
He was referred to, for years, as Sargeant. Doug, by the way, had gotten with Billy back in 1972 as I recall.
As far as playing live with Billy goes, it was exciting at first because of the large crowds, etc. As time passed, however, it got really tedious.
It was bad enough having to play the same parts, note for note, every night. However, Billy's idea of 'exciting' is playing a song much faster than it was recorded :-\
My idea of really good live music is to play it a little slower and really find a groove to lock into. Billy has no idea about this concept as it applies to a live performance.
Also, early on I was reprimanded for not playing a guitar solo, one night, in a particularly fast 'country' style song (can't remember the name). Instead of being sympathetic to my having difficulty with a fast flatpicking solo (I'm a fingerstyle player), I was admonished for giving an extra solo verse to Rich Cannata.
Basically, I told Billy that I wouldn't, under any circumstances, be forced to embarrass myself by trying to play something that I could not play well.
It was to be a very telling moment about Billy and what his priorities were.

Together with Liberty, Doug and Russell you played in an early Long Island based band project called "Topper". Liberty mentioned some years ago that "Topper" became the Billy Joel band in the 70ies. How was "Topper" founded and how did it become the successful Billy Joel band?
I don't remember how Russell met Lib and Doug, but I met all three of them at Russ' parent's house around 1967. Not long after that I started playing with them, though it was pretty much a studio thing. Doug got with Billy around 1972 and that was the beginning of Topper 'infiltrating' Billy's musical world.

As a member of the Billy Joel band you travelled all over the world. Do you have any special memories from touring? What was good and what was bad?
The only thing that sticks out in my mind as a good memory is when we toured Australia. It was three weeks of completely new sights and sounds, driving on the wrong side of the road, getting the royal treatment in general, etc.
Come to think of it, yes, there was typical rock and roll moment one time in the US. We were on our way to North Carolina to play some college, and we picked up some fireworks on our way through South Carolina.
The evening had a very auspicious beginning to it. I was driving the rental car with Billy, Doug and our tour manager, Jeff Shock, when I was pulled over by the State Patrol.
Living in the US and having watched "Easy Rider" when it came out several years earlier..., well... you can just imagine what my imagination was imagining at that moment :-I
Anyway..., the patrolman has me get in his car and asks for my license and registration, but my wallet was back at the hotel... oooh...
After finding out, via computer, that I was who I said I was, he gave me a ticket for 69mph in a 55mph zone and warned me to make sure I'd pay it, or else...
Whew... So on to the gig, which sucked big time. Half full, and they really didn't know who we were, so it was kept as short as possible.
Add to this frustration some alcohol, etc, and some fireworks, and bam!
The motel had set us up in our own wing, thank god, and there were smoke bombs, mats of firecrackers and roman candles going off everywhere.
What a mess, but we were peeing in our pants laughing.
The next morning, with the thick, acrid smell of gunpowder still hanging in the air, we were almost loaded up, just waiting for one more guy to get in the car, when the first maid showed up...
The motel manager was dialing the police when our tour manager grabbed his hand, hung up the phone and told him," Hey, we'll pay for it: Cash".
We all had $50/week taken out of our paychecks for a few weeks, but it was worth it without a doubt.
Keith Moon would have called us amateurs, but hey, you have to start somewhere, right?

The "Turnstiles" album wasn't a big success for Billy Joel as a pop star, but received great respect from the songwriting critics. What was your impression: Was it Billy Joel's intention to concentrate only on a high quality songwriting and composing or on commercial success?
I always thought of Billy as a very good "tunesmith". He has a knack for taking in other music that he hears, from all styles, and then he spits it back out.
Most of his music never sounded very original to me; that is to say I could hear the influences more loudly than I could hear Billy really saying something that moved me.
He produced the Turnstiles album, essentially, and I think a bunch of it was overdone. Somewhere in my 'archives' (junk drawer) I have a copy of 'New York State of Mind' basic tracks without the orchestra and the sax, and it just works so well.
I was dissapointed in the final mix of that song in particular, but hey: What the hell do I know. He's famous, and I'm not, but you wanted to know my opinion.
Ultimately I'm certain that Billy doesn't write with commercial success in mind, rather he is like the rest of us writers, compulsive. I'm no where near as prolific as Billy, but I don't sit down to write because it's my job, but rather because I have something musical to say and I need to get it out.
I think that when Phil Ramone got involved with Billy, it was a good fit because Phil understands the basic place that Billy comes from and he was able to focus that onto tape.
By the way, just so you know: My idea of a couple of real high quality writers is Randy Newman and Leon Russell... and I love their voices as well!
Obviously there are dozens, but these two have always struck me as being able to say huge things, deep things, poignant things, with the least amount of words and with an incredible sense of originality and style.

Why did you leave the Billy Joel band before the "Stranger" album was released? Were there any problems with Billy Joel or his new producer Phil Ramone?
Easy to answer this one: I got myself fired.
A couple of months earlier while we were on the road, I called a woman who use to manage a club where I'd performed while touring and playing with Eric Andersen, a very well known folk singer.
While talking to her it came out that she'd heard, through the grape vine, that a replacement was being sought to take my place.
I was actually quite relieved to hear this because even though they never went through with it, I was ready to leave the band because I just wasn't enjoying myself anymore. It wasn't my kind of music and I just wasn't a good team player and I didn't drink enough... :-|
So a couple of days later I sat down at the breakfast table with the tour manager and I made sure I looked unhappy. Of course he asked me why and I told him," I heard I'm being fired, but I really don't care because I just can't take being out on the road anymore".
So the tour continued, and we ended it with 3 nights at Carnegie Hall. The last night, ironically was June 4, 1977 which was my 26th birthday.
Billy's wife, Elizabeth, didn't want the orchestra to play 'happy birthday' for me, because (she claimed) we were being taped and they were running short on tape.
Bullshit, of course... but as luck would have it, I broke a string for the first time while on stage with Billy. They had to kill some time, so the orchestra played, I smiled and life went on.
As I left the backstage exit that night, I was introduced to Phil Ramone, who was just walking in as I was leaving.
A couple of weeks later I got a phone call, from Billy himself, and he told me he had to let me go because he heard I was unhappy with things, and I told him that it was absolutely true. So we wished each other luck and that was it.
The interesting thing is that I'm the only one, that I know of, who's ever been fired by Billy himself, because some of the other guys were told by management or heard it on the radio! Can you imagine.
In September of '77 I got a call from Doug and Liberty when they were out again touring with Billy, and they asked me to rejoin the band because they were really unhappy with the guy who'd replaced me (I can't remember his name).
I think they'd auditioned 27 or so guitar players and they ended up with a guy they didn't like.
I basically said thanks for thinking of me, but there was no way I was going out on the road with them again.
There have been times where I wished that I had been a better political player and stayed with them to enjoy some of the money, but you know something: I didn't miss it much at all. I was able to keep my marriage together and finally started working harder on other aspects of my life.
It was a very good decision in the long run.

"The Stranger", Billy Joel's album after "Turnstiles", was a very big success and made Billy Joel very popular all over the world. Do you regret that you had left the band at that point of time?
No, not really. As I said earlier, I'd been fired because I wanted to be fired (collecting unemployment can't happen if you quit) and then I was asked to join again when they were unhappy with the replacement guitarist. I certainly had enough time to think about it, and no matter how I looked at it, it just didn't sit well with me.
It wasn't my kind of music, and I just could not view it from the point of view of the money that I could potentially make.

Concerning the "Turnstiles" album: Do you have a favorite song and why, and which one don't you like?
I always liked Summer Highland Falls because it had a real 'organic' feel to the piano; almost as if he were fingerpicking a guitar. It kind of reminded me of something that Jackson Browne would write.
As I said earlier in the interview, I was quite disappointed in the way the New York State of Mind turned out in the end. I liked the basic piano-vocal-drums-bass prior to anything else being added.

How was working on the "Turnstiles" album? Was it like any other recording session or something special? Was the band somehow involved in the development of several songs?
Working on the Turnstiles album was very cut and dried: Doug pretty much told me what to play and I didn't have much input into anything. Liberty and Doug probably had some input into how the basic tracks were done, but I came into the studio after that point in time.

What do you think about Billy Joel's career and his music after "Turnstiles"? Do you think he chose the right way?
I think that Billy's career has been much more troubled than it needed to be. Although he's obviously a very bright man, there is something in his psyche that allows him to be screwed by people close to him, and so he's been taken to the cleaners too many times. He should have learned many, many years ago after he made that deal with Artie Ripp and Family Productions.
Perhaps if he'd looked up 'perpetuity', he would have known how long he was signing his life away for...
Russell often told me, and he was right, that Billy should be doing Broadway. Duh!
Ultimately, Billy is a singer/songwriter/performer, and I don't know if he could have done it any differently than he has. He certainly has the financial security to do nothing, but I know what it is to feel that you have something to say, and it's going to get said come hell or high water.

Could you please sum up your work after you have left the Billy Joel band? What are you doing today?
I played in a duo with a friend of mine for a while, and then I gave up playing altogether for what seems like 4-5 years. I had my own business doing bathroom renovation as well.
Sometime in the late 80's though, I was asked to come play at a music store where they had a program that showcased 'what the oldtimers' played.
Anyway, about 60 people showed up, and although I only had a couple of weeks to get back into shape, I realized that I really missed playing and that I definitely had something musical to say.
I got back into playing out, and I finally did a cd in 1998 called Crossing Crystal Lake. It sells well just from word of mouth and it got very good reviews from Guitar Player, Acoustic Guitar and Dirty Linen Magazine.
The reviews, as well as sound clips, can be accessed at my web site at www.howardemerson.com. The cd is available there as well.
I teach guitar here at home in Huntington Station, N.Y. (fingerstyle, open tunings and bottleneck) and I also teach via video tape. I have students all over the United States, and it's really an enjoyable way for me to share my knowledge with others.
I'm married to the same woman, Marcela, since 1979 and we have a 17 year old daughter named Nicole who's about to graduate high school.

Billy Joel, Liberty DeVitto, Russell Javors, Doug Stegmeyer: Have you met them later again?
I ran into Billy a couple of times many years ago at a Tennis club when he had just started dating Christie Brinkley. Yes: she even looks good sweating with no makeup on :-)
I've been in touch with Russell on a fairly regular basis, though we really haven't done any music together since then.
Liberty has pretty much disappeared from my life altogether after he moved to Florida.
I did a lot of recording at Dougs home studio over the years. It was always different stuff that he'd get me hooked up with, and he was a really talented man.
When he killed himself back in 1996, I was terribly saddened. Although I wasn't social with Doug, I could tell that he lived for being in Billy's group.
When he was fired, it was basically on the pretext of him 'not looking good in the band anymore'. I know this from band members, first hand.
This is THE Thing that let me down about Billy. I feel that if he'd really cared about Doug, that he should have had a heart-to- heart talk with him to discuss his concerns about Doug not taking better care of himself (as if the rest of them did, right!) and maybe he could have gotten his act together.
Instead he fires him, and not face to face...
Doug never showed the hurt, at least not to anybody who I've spoken to, but it really hurt him in the worst, possible way.
I'm very, very lucky in that I don't gauge what kind of person I am by my outward successes. Instead I make that judgment based on how much of my life is centered around my family and making a living doing what I love to do.
I just wish that Doug had had that kind of outlook on life. He had so much to give in terms of musicality and passion. He was worth more without Billy than with, but he just didn't know it.

Thank you very much for the interview!

Interview von N. Finke
interview by N. Finke
(mit Dank an Alexander Knoll)
(with special thanks to Alexander Knoll)
Fotos mit freundlicher Unterstützung von Howard Emerson

Interessante Links:
www.howardemerson.com (die Website von Howard Emerson)
www.lirock.com/topper.html (Topper - der Vorläufer der Billy-Joel-Band)
www.liglobal.com (Review des Soloalbums Howie Emersons)
13thfret.com (Howie Emerson beantwortet Fragen zu seiner Art, Gitarre zu spielen)

Howard Emerson heute...

... und 1976 - live on stage, während eines Auftritts mit Billy Joel

Schicke Brillen: Howie Emerson (rechts) mit Doug Stegmeyer, Billy Joel und Liberty DeVitto (1976, während des Aufenthaltes auf der "Caribou Ranch" in Loveland, Colorado, anlässlich der letzten Aufnahmen zum "Turnstiles"-Album.

"... one of those guitarists we all wish we could be": Howard Emerson

Die Billy-Joel-Band 1976 (v.l.n.r.): Richie Cannata, Howie Emerson, Doug Stegmeyer, Liberty DeVitto und Russell Javors.

"I'm the only one, that I know of, who's ever been fired by Billy himself..." - Howie Emerson

Howard Emerson heute: "Billy's career has been much more troubled than it needed to be"

Howie Emerson (links), zusammen mit seinen Bandkollegen Doug Stegmeyer und Liberty DeVitto (im Hintergrund) - während eines Billy-Joel-Konzertes 1976

"When it comes to fingerpicking or slide guitar, Emerson is the man"

1976, live auf der Bühne mit Richie Cannata (links) und Doug Stegmeyer (rechts), während eines Billy-Joel-Konzertes

Erfolgreiche Band: hier 1976 mit Billy Joel (am Rednerpult, außerdem im Bild: Clive Davis) bei der Verleihung der goldenen Schallplatte für 36.000 verkaufte "Turnstiles"-Platten in Australien (H. Emerson: 3. v. l.). Erst im Mai 1980 erhielt "Turnstiles" in den USA eine goldene Schallplatte; mittlerweile hat es Platin-Status erreicht.

Emerson, heute 52, war 1976 einer der Gitarristen in Billy Joels Band.