In 1967, Billy Joel was a senior at Hicksville High School in Nassau County, New York. He was a solid student, but he was also moonlighting as a piano man at the local watering hole. After a late night gig, Billy missed a critical English exam and fell just a few credits shy of graduation.
Rather than attend summer school, he launched headlong into a music career.
Harry and the Hassles
While Billy Joel was missing exams, a Long Island bar band called the Hassles was doing just well enough to score a contract with United Artists. Sadly, their keyboardist, Harry Weber, was not doing so well.
Just as they got their first taste of success, the Hassles were forced to fire Harry for excessive drug use. (Some years later, he was found deceased from an overdose on a railroad track.)
Billy Bails on School
The Hassles recruited their replacement keyboardist from the local scene. In lieu of graduating high school, Billy Joel joined the Hassles for their 1967 debut record. The self-titled album plays like an above-average Rascals tribute act.
A collection of soul and R&B covers, The Hassles includes some genuine high points, particularly the minor hit cover of Sam and Dave’s “You’ve got Me Hummin’.”
“Hummin’” fell just short of the Billboard Hot 100.
An Aside on the Liner Notes
Liner notes from the ’60s were not exactly an art form. The Hassles’ debut offers an awesome demonstration of exactly this point.
The liner notes are authored by Tom Shannon of Radio Station CKLW, Detroit. Tom was a legendary DJ who passed away at the age of 82 in 2021. He was well-regarded in the Buffalo and Windsor, Ontario listening areas where he spent most of his time.
A writer, he was not.
“I suppose if you said soulful, dynamic, fun-loving, exciting, serious, you would be correct, but just scratching the surface of The Hassles.”
“How does a hot group find a sound, a future? What do they go through before they hit the charts, and what do they have to really make it big? This great album of sounds is only the beginning, but if you listen with open ears, it’s enough to answer all those questions and then some.”
Shannon had a point, I think.
Indeed, The Hassles was just one stepping stone for Billy Joel on the way to said bigness.
Attila the Huh?
In 1969, after a second and less successful Hassles album, Hour of the Wolf, Billy Joel and drummer Jon Small would depart to form heavy metal duo Attila.
You’re probably thinking “Heavy Metal duo? That must be terrible.” You shouldn’t make assumptions…but in this case, you would be correct. In fact, Attila’s 1969 debut was so terrible that, according to legend, Billy Joel would eventually buy and destroy every copy he could find.
Also notable, Hassles bassist Howie Blauvelt would later join with Lemon Pipers guitarist Bill Bartlett to form Ram Jam. In 1977, Ram Jam reached #18 on the U.S. charts with a hard rock reworking of Lead Belly’s “Black Betty.”
Billy’s Big Break
Of course, by the time Ram Jam was scaling the charts, Blauvelt’s former bandmate was already a superstar. Billy Joel released his solo debut, Cold Spring Harbor, on Family Records in 1971. Though he was famously displeased with the mastering of his first album, it was enough to land him several high profile opening slots on tour with the Beach Boys, Badfinger, and the J. Geils Band.
When Philadelphia radio station WMMR began spinning a live recording of “Captain Jack” in 1972, Joel came to the attention of Columbia Records. The rest is history.
But don’t take it from me. Tom Shannon predicted it before anybody. Behold, the prescient liner notes from the Hassles’ inconspicuous debut.
“Look for the name, The Hassles, to take its place in the pop stardom Hall of Fame. I’m proud to say I knew them when… and so will you.”
So will you indeed.