Billy Joel Gets Gershwin Prize, Rocks the House, Senate at Constitution Hall

The Library of Congress presented Billy Joel with the 2014 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song during a tribute concert at DAR Constitution Hall Nov. 19, after a luncheon on Capitol Hill the day before with the nation’s lawmakers. At the concert, one heard America — and a uniquely Washington crowd — singing his songs, now etched into national memory.

The 65-year-old Joel was seen as a unifying force for Congress with Democrats and Republicans — some of whom were in the audience — singing his praises for a 50-year musical career. Indeed, one observer noted that House minority leader Nancy Pelosi ditched President Barack Obama for the rock-and-roll icon. The White House held a meeting on Obama’s new immigration directive the same night as the Gershwin Prize concert, which Pelosi chose to attend.

After all, it’s not every day that a group of musical talents gathers on stage to sing Billy Joel songs and then have the man himself and his band take control and rock the house with some classics — just three blocks from the White House.

“Billy Joel is a true example of this vision for the library’s Gershwin Prize.” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who added that Joel is “a storyteller of the highest order.” The award, created by Congress, is named for the songwriting team of George and Ira Gershwin.

At the beginning of the show, Billington sat with Joel and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — also from New York like the awardee. Later, she presented Joel with the Gershwin Prize and said, “Billy Joel has inspired new generations of performers, musicians and singer-songwriters,” she said. “Tonight we recognize Long Island’s favorite son, even if he is a Mets fan.” Also at the award presentation were Billington, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, Pelosi, Rep. Gregg Harper and Rep. Candice Miller.

“Kind of verklempt,” began Joel as he held the prize in his hand and said that Gershwin was his hero. This year has brought, he said, “a bounty of blessings. I want to ensure everyone I don’t have a terminal illness.”

Performers sang one piece each from the singer-songwriter’s songbook: Boyz II Men, LeAnn Rimes, Gavin DeGraw, Josh Groban, Natalie Maines, John Mellencamp and Tony Bennett, who got the biggest applause of the night before the honoree stepped on stage.

Kevin Spacey offered opening remarks: “I think even a man like Frank Underwood would be pretty excited about a night like tonight.” The actor — who can sing, too — was referring to his character at the Netflix show, “House of Cards.”

Dancers from “Movin’ Out,” choreographed by Twyla Tharp, got the party going with their high energy moves from the Broadway musical that is based on Joel’s music.

It was when Joel and his band owned the stage and the hall with “Movin’ Out,” “Vienna,” “Miami 2017” and “You May Be Right” that it all came together to see who was in charge here and also see Washingtonians singing and bopping to the music.

At the very end, all the performers came on stage as Spacey played the harmonica and sung “Piano Man” with Joel. It was a perfect mix of music and moments for Joel and the kind of evening that only the nation’s capital can give to the American people.

PBS will broadcast the Gershwin Prize Tribute Concert for Billy Joel on Jan. 2.


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