In 1981, Billy’s contract with Columbia was up. Having spent so much money and time, and then having earned so much money, Columbia wanted to keep him. And so negotiations were begun.
As Elizabeth had backed away from the business and Frank Weber took more and more control of the reins, the team that Elizabeth had put into place was slowly supplanted. One person who went was attorney Ina Meibach, whom Weber replaced with attorney Frank Tannen. By all accounts (including his own) CBS president Walter Yetnikoff intensely disliked Tannen. As Weber and Yetnikoff sat down for initial parlays about the contract, Yetnikoff let Weber know that he would be easier to negotiate with if Weber had a different attorney. On Yetnikoff’s recommendation, Weber hired Alan Grubman from Grubman, Indursky and Schindler. Grubman had done legal work for Home Run, but he was also one of Yetnikoff’s yes-men.
“I liked controlling Alan Grubman,” Yetnikoff declared, “which is why I set him up with some of our biggest artists. In short order, the Grubber was representing Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. Dealing with a non-confrontational lawyer made my life easier. I’d never have to worry about Grubman suing me. ‘I don’t know how,’ he’d joke, though I believed the joke.”
One of the key negotiating points was the 25 cents that went to Artie Ripp and Michael Lang from every Billy Joel record sold. Up to that point, it had been a recoupable expense on Billy’s side of the record-company ledger. “The only way Billy signed again to Columbia was they said, ‘We’ll pay the quarter to them. It doesn’t come from your money anymore,'” says Sandy Gibson. “Artie still gets a quarter from every Billy Joel record sold, as does Michael, but Columbia pays it now, not Billy. And you know who told me this? Tony Martell.”
Tony, who had run the Gulf & Western record entity, had returned to Columbia after the demise and dissolution of Gulf & Western. His son, T.J., had passed on after his battle with leukemia. Martell had gone on to become a senior VP at Columbia and even interim president for a time, as well as the spearhead of the music industry’s anti-cancer initiative, which he named after his son: the T.J. Martell Foundation.
The negotiations between Billy’s machine and Columbia were, by all reports, fierce. During the negotiations, for example, Walter Yetnikoff literally shredded one of Alan Grubman’s shirts in a moment of heat. Yet when Grubman, Weber, and Columbia finally brought the deal they hammered out to Billy, he wasn’t even concerned with what was in it. He effectively just asked, “Where do I sign?”
At the 1981 Grammy Awards, Billy won Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male for Glass Houses. But Billy still hadn’t found what he was looking for on a record. “For years, I didn’t think our records were up to the standards of our concerts,” he said. “They’re kinda hard for me to listen to.”
To prove the point, he eschewed a studio album as his first on his new Columbia contract, in 1981. Instead, he released a live recording. However, rather than just the standard “greatest hits live” package, Billy opted for something a little different. Throughout the previous tours, he had recorded many shows. Into each show, he slipped in one of the “songs that got away,” including songs from Cold Spring Harbor that even his more serious fans had never heard. Thus, he was able to compile an album of pre-Stranger songs like “Miami 2017” and “Los Angelenos.” Two of the songs actually went on to become hits. Even Ronnie Spector, backed by Steve Van Zandt and members of the E Street Band, hadn’t been able to make a hit of “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” but the live version finally took the song into the Top 20. Further, a refugee from Cold Spring Harbor, the ballad “She’s Got a Way,” fulfilled a decade-old destiny and finally made the charts, peaking at #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart.
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