Billy Joel, as a young pianist, singer and sometime songwriter, learned a lot of about life, music and a life in music, working in a piano bar.
That was the inspiration for his song, “The Piano Man,”
Jim Witter, as a young pianist, singer and sometime songwriter, traveled the same path and learned the same lessons, playing in bars and clubs in his native southern Ontario.
“I learned an awful lot about entertaining,” he told the Marshall Independent in Minnesota earlier this year.
That’s what led to Witter’s show, “The Piano Men.”
Witter returns to Grand Rapids this week with the music of Billy Joel and Elton John along with the Grand Rapids Symphony to open the Fox Motors Pops.
Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt leads the Grand Rapids Pops in songs made famous by two of the most famous pop/rock pianists of all time.
Shows are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 23-24 and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25, in DeVos Performance Hall, 303 Monroe Ave. NW.
Hear songs including Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) and She’s Always a Woman to Me by Billy Joel and Rocket Man and Your Song by Elton John.
Jim Witter, who previously appeared with the Grand Rapids Symphony’s D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops in July 2015, returns to West Michigan to open the 2016-17 Fox Motors Pops series in DeVos Hall.
“I was always a big fan of acoustic music, especially the folk of the ‘70s – James Taylor, Harry Chapin,” Witter told the Chicago Tribune earlier this year. “But my real mentors were Billy Joel and Elton John.”
For many years, Witter pursued a similar career path that Billy Joel and Elton John once did. In 1990, one of his demos led to a record deal with Sony Music Canada. Another demo led to a multi-record deal with Curb Records in Nashville.
Eventually, Witter logged 10 Top 10 radio hits in Canada and seven videos on CMT and charted in the United States on Billboard as well as R&R.
Some 15 years ago, Witter became nostalgic for the music of his youth in the 1970s, which led to “The Piano Men,” a musical journey through the 1970s from Elton John’s “Your Song” in 1970s through Billy Joel’s “Don’t Ask Me Why,” released in 1980.
A few of the big hits include Billy Joel’s My Life and Just the Way You Are and Elton John’s Crocodile Rock and Candle in the Wind.
"I really honestly did not expect it to go beyond a few local shows," Witter told The Independent. "It's absolutely turned into a full-time gig for myself and the guys in my band."
Elton John, originally from northwest London, and Billy Joel, who was born in the Bronx, and grew up in Levittown, New York, are among the most successful acts in pop/rock history.
Working with lyricist Bernie Taupin, Elton John, age 69, has sold more than 300 million records and tallied 50 Top 40 hits. His song Candle in the Wind 1997, updated to honor Diana, Princess of Wales, sold over 33 million copies worldwide, becoming the best-selling single in the history of the UK and US.
Billy Joel, age 67, a six-time Grammy Award winner, has sold more than 150 million albums including 33 Top 40 hits in the United States.
The two have toured together several times.
Witter, originally from Hamilton, Ontario, has received awards and nominations from the Canadian Country Music Association, Dove Awards, and Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent of Grammy Awards).
The Canadian musician enjoys the music of both, but Witter told Camerose Canadian.com that, at first, he had an easier time playing Billy Joel’s songs than Elton John’s.
“I remember my brother had a copy of the Piano Man album, and I would literally put the album on, listen to it, sit at the piano and plunk away completely by ear,” he said. “Playing his music is a no-brainer.
“It’s a little bit more work for me to emulate Elton’s style,” he said.
Nonetheless, he enjoys performing both.
“People ask me, ‘Do you ever get tired of playing these two artists over and over again,’ and I honestly can tell you that I don’t,” he told Camerose Canadian.com. “There’s something about their music, to me, that just reaches deep down inside and touches a special place in my soul that reminds me of all these different times in my life growing up.”
“Here I am 15 years later, and still, every night, I get excited when the house lights go down and the opening video for the show plays,” he said. “I get this wonderful exciting feeling that we’re about to share a special evening together.”