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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Concerning the "Turnstiles" album: Do you have a
favorite song and why, and which one don't you
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
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
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
What do you think about Billy Joel's career and his
"Turnstiles"? Do you think he chose the right
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
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
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,
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
Website von Howard Emerson)
(Topper - der Vorläufer der Billy-Joel-Band)
(Review des Soloalbums Howie Emersons)
(Howie Emerson beantwortet Fragen zu seiner Art,
Gitarre zu spielen)