This black and white photograph autographed
by Billy Joel is among the memorabilia of Denny Somach
and Dave Sestak.
On Nov. 28, 1973, when Billy Joel arrived in the Lehigh Valley to perform here for the first time, he was a piano-playing singer-songwriter scuffling to establish himself.
His first album, 1971’s “Cold Spring Harbor,” had been largely ignored, and the follow-up, “Piano Man,” had just been released. He was the opener for acts like the Beach Boys and the Doobie Brothers and most nights, he was lucky to get 30 minutes of stage time and a modicum of attention from audiences primed for sun-dappled pop or long-hair West Coast guitar rock.
However, from the moment he walked into WSAN-AM in Whitehall Township, hours before his area debut at Northampton’s Roxy Theater, he was treated like the major star he would become before the decade ended.
That Roxy gig - organized by a young Allentown disc jockey named Denny Somach - was something Joel never forgot. Along with the five Lehigh Valley shows that followed over the next four years - all but one put together by promoter Dave Sestak of Bethlehem-based Media Five Entertainment - it helped create a bond between Joel and local residents that continues to this day.
Joel’s familiarity with the area undoubtedly inspired the naming of one of his best-known songs, “Allentown,” which was released 25 years ago this week.
“He was so excited to be here,” recalls Somach, a radio and TV producer and rock historian, of that Roxy show. “He had no idea what he was in for.”
In 1973, Somach worked at WSAN, an “underground” station where the DJs picked the music they played and helped produce concerts at the Roxy featuring many of those artists.
“I made up a special poster with a picture of him, which he saw when he came into the station lobby,” says Somach. “It said: WSAN presents The Piano Man in concert at the Roxy Theater. Two shows, 7 and 10 p.m. He was like, `Oh, wow.’”
Somach interviewed Joel on his afternoon radio show - “he told the story about working in L.A. at the piano bar” - and after his shift ended, drove him to the Roxy. During the trip, Somach says Joel’s attitude was “Oh, this is so different. Everywhere else, nobody’s paying any attention to me. This is exciting.”
Somach remembers that he took “a back route” to Northampton, where during the 20-minute drive they passed “a lot of factories with smokestacks. Billy thought that (area) was Allentown, maybe even Bethlehem Steel, because of the smokestacks. It was all Allentown as far as he was concerned.” (This could help explain some of the lyrical discrepancies in “Allentown.”)
For Somach, meeting Joel, one of his favorite artists, was “the ultimate.” He had become an instant fan two years before, when, as a Moravian College freshman, he was “blown away” by Joel’s half-hour performance at a music industry convention for college broadcasters in New York City.
“It was him at the piano backed by a four-piece band,” remembers Somach, who over two nights had seen Loggins & Messina, Tanya Tucker, The Hello People with Todd Rundgren, Randy Burns and the Sky Dog Band and Jake and the Family Jewels.
“Billy closed with `Captain Jack,’ which didn’t come out until `Piano Man,’ and he got an encore. But `She’s Got a Way,’ the opener on `Cold Spring Harbor,’ that’s the one that got to me.”
When Somach began working at WSAN part-time on weekends, he started playing “Cold Spring Harbor.” “Other jocks got into it,” he says. “I had to buy another copy.”
In early 1972, as WSAN began preparations to begin its Roxy concerts series, Somach tried to book Joel. “I was told by an agent at his publicity firm that he was going to L.A., that he doesn’t want to do anything,” says Somach. “`Cold Spring Harbor’ was selling in Allentown because we were the only area of the country that was playing it. (The agent) couldn’t believe it. He told me, `Nobody has called for this guy.’”
The record disappeared, and Joel went underground in L.A. But WSAN continued to play “Cold Spring Harbor.”
In June or July of 1973, the agent called Somach to report that Joel had resurfaced, was opening for the Beach Boys and the Doobie Brothers, and that he had a day off - Nov. 28 - to play at the Roxy.
“When I said I want (Joel) to headline, the agent said, `Oh, that’s a first. Let me package him with this other guy, Henry Gross,’ who had a hit with `Shannon’ at the time,” says Somach.
“I told (the agent) that we get a dollar (a ticket), and that there are two shows and 500 seats. ... (Joel) agreed to (be paid) $500. But he wanted a grand piano. I said, `Why?’ No one had ever asked for one before. They were content with the upright at the theater. So we had to go get a baby grand. ...
“Tickets sold out in a matter of hours. People in the area knew every song on those first two albums.”
According to Somach, Joel was amazed at what he saw outside the Roxy, where people were lined up around the block for both shows. “And when we let the people in - it wasn’t assigned seating - and he saw people scrambling for a seat, he said, `I can’t believe this!’ After I introduced him, and people started screaming out songs, he said, `I can’t believe you people know these songs! How do you people know these songs?’”
Not used to being a headliner, Joel ran out of material after 30 minutes. So he filled time improvising on two hits of the day, Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful,” and chatting up the crowd.
A year later, Somach again tried to book Joel, but was outbid by Sestak, who had access to bigger venues.
Ironically, Sestak first heard Joel’s music listening to WSAN. He didn’t attend either of the Roxy shows, but says, “I heard about the reaction. The airplay and the live show equaled an incredible buzz in the music community in the Lehigh Valley.”
Sestak first booked Joel on Feb. 10, 1974, at Northampton County Area Community College in Bethlehem Township. “We paid him $1,800. Tickets were $2.50 in advance and $3.50 at the door. We sold out all 2,300 seats.”
One of Joel’s contract requirements was a nine-foot grand, which Sestak had trucked in from Reading. The show was further complicated by the gas rationing in effect at the time. “Billy Joel and his band were traveling in vans, coming in from Pittsburgh, and all the stations were closed by law because it was a Sunday,” recalls Sestak. “The booking agent said, `You gotta get us a gas station to open so we can get out of Bethlehem.’ My business partner, John Eisenhard, knew the owner of a station in Easton and finagled him to illegally pump gas on Sunday after dark.”
Joel was pleased with the show because, for the first time, in addition to his flat guarantee, he earned a percentage of the door. “When my partner was giving him the extra money at settlement, he didn’t know what was going on,” says Sestak.
Eisenhard also made Joel happy by supplying him with Manhattans, mixing the bourbon, vermouth and bitters in the gym’s locker room and then bringing them on stage.
The next area gig followed the release of Joel’s “Streetlife Serenade,” album and required a bigger venue. And on Nov. 17, 1974, Joel played at Agricultural Hall (now the Agri-Plex) in Allentown.
“This time he wanted $5,000,” says Sestak. “Four thousand people would be a sellout. Tickets were $5 in advance and $6 at the door. We told people to bring a blanket, because the floor and walls were concrete.”
Before this show, Joel got his biggest taste of Allentown. He walked along Hamilton Street, stopping with his band for Chinese food and doing a 20-minute interview at the TV-2 Service Electric studios.
“Everyone on the staff of TV-2 was ecstatic he was there,” says Sestak. “This was a big deal for Billy, too, signing autographs and taking pictures. This is the first time he was in center city, as far as I know.”
Joel drew 3,500 people and was brought back for so many encores that he had to repeat “Rootbeer Rag.” But he so disliked Ag Hall’s ergonomics that he refused to play there again.
So next time, on March 6, 1975, Sestak booked him at Muhlenberg College’s Memorial Hall, which had 4,200 seats.
“In some cities, he was playing 500- to 1,000-seat halls,” says Sestak. “But here he is playing in a field house. The show sold out in advance, and he did five encores.”
The triumphant mood carried over to the after-party at Bill Daniels Rock Palace. “He was definitely in the mood to celebrate,” says Sestak. “Billy was cordial. He liked to drink. He liked to tell stories.”
Sestak booked Joel again at Muhlenberg following the release of “Turnstiles” in 1976. Because of his burgeoning reputation, “now he’s getting $11,500,” says Sestak. “Although the ticket price is the same, we had to reduce the number of seats to 4,000, and now it’s `An Evening with Billy Joel.’”
The Dec. 11, 1976, show sold out in advance. “Billy is really happy,” says Sestak. “At the sound check, he does an Elton John song, and all of sudden he starts singing, `Well we’re living here in Allentown, and they’re closing all the factories down ...’
“I wondered if he changed the lyric for every town he played, and never thought anything about it afterward. Who would know it was part of a song that several years later would be the first track on his `Nylon Curtain’ record?”
According to Sestak, at a post-show news conference Joel said how much he loved playing in Allentown and that he was thinking of doing a live record and perhaps recording it in Allentown. “We were all smiling,” Sestak says. “Then `The Stranger’ came out and took him to a whole other place.”
Before Joel became an arena attraction, he played one final time in the area - at Lehigh University’s Grace Hall in Bethlehem. “They wanted him so badly, they promoted him in a 3,000-seater for astronomical money,” says Sestak. “It could have been $25,000 or more. It was major money.”
Sestak attended that show, and visited Joel’s dressing room afterward. “I popped my head in and said hello,” says Sestak. “It was a hit-and-run thing. That was it.”
With Joel rocketing to superstar status in the late `70s and early `80s, Sestak realized he had no chance of booking him. But late in the summer of 1982, he was at the Jersey shore on business and heard “Allentown” being played on Wildwood station WZXL-FM. “I couldn’t believe it. It had the exact same chorus I heard Billy sing six years earlier at Memorial Hall.”
“Now,” thought Sestak, “there’s a reason we can get him back to Allentown to play.”
Sestak went to WZZO-FM music director Bruce Bond and convinced him to start a petition drive asking Joel to play in Allentown. (More than 10,000 people eventually signed it.) Sestak then started calling newspapers to boost the drive.
When Joel’s fall tour was announced, there was no Allentown date. However, the song’s lyrics were drawing some negative reaction (Bob Pearce and his daughter Joanne eventually wrote “We Love Allentown,” which was premiered by The Allentown Band at West Park as a sort of rebuttal). That prompted Philadelphia TV reporter Sheila Allen to come to Allentown to interview Mayor Joseph Daddona. Her report was picked up by network affiliates. Then AP and UPI did a story, and the controversy over “Allentown” spread to Europe.
Sestak had been collecting news clippings and sending them to Joel’s publicist, Elaine Shock, who apparently passed them on to Joel. The musician was so affected by them, that one night in October after a rehearsal, he called WZZO and spoke with program director Tom Kelly for more than an hour to clear the air - and to say he wanted to play Allentown right after Christmas. (A 10-minute version of the conversation was broadcast several times the following day, and can be heard at www.mcall.com.)
So, on Dec. 27, Joel performed for 6,300 people at Lehigh University’s Stabler Arena. “Everyone was there,” says Sestak wistfully. “Billy Joel finally played `Allentown’ - in Bethlehem.”