For The Longest Time: Billy Joel & Dennis Arfa’s Record-Setting 100th Madison Square Garden Performance

Billy Joel And Dennis Arfa On The Eve Of Their 100th Madison Square Garden Concert
Kevin Mazur/Courtesy MSG
– Billy Joel And Dennis Arfa On The Eve Of Their 100th Madison Square Garden Concert
I really can’t get my head around it,” says Billy Joel of his record-setting 100th show at Madison Square Garden set for this July 18. This could be in part because he’s “still jet-laggin’,” as he puts it, having just returned from three sold-out European stadium dates at Old Trafford in Manchester, Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion and Aviva in Dublin. More likely, however, it’s as difficult for him as it is everyone else to get a perspective on something as historic and seemingly impossible.
Joel recalls that for the longest time his goal was to play The Garden before he turned 30. That he pulled off in spectacular fashion in December 1978 with a three-night stint just under the wire at 29 1/2.
“Those shows don’t seem so far away from when we started doing the residency at Madison Square Garden, which was already an unreal concept to me,” Joel says. “Now I’m a franchise at MSG, like a sports team? And now we’re at 100, it’s all very surreal.”
Perhaps strangest is that for Joel, more than any other artist in the world, the Garden, the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” is essentially his local.
He’s been playing it for 40-plus years, ever since his longtime agent, Dennis Arfa, CEO and founder of Artist Group International, booked his first Garden stint in ‘78.
“The shows were three nights of euphoria,” says Arfa, who has repped Joel for 42 years (“Billy always says I’ve been with him longer than his four wives combined,” Arfa jokes). “I made a deal with [then-Garden president] Sonny Werblin. He’s the guy who signed Joe Namath to the New York Jets. Those first shows made a huge statement.”
Dressed to Kill Or For Studio 54:
Courtesy Bill Joel Archives
– Dressed to Kill Or For Studio 54:
Dennis Arfa (left) and Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden circa 1978. The duo has worked together for 42 years but met some eight years earlier at a club in Long Island where Joel was playing with his band the Hassles and Arfa managed a band called Salvation Navy.
Indeed, Joel’s bold live performances with the help of Arfa are numerous as they are mind-boggling and include: a three-night-stand in 1976 at Carnegie Hall before Joel broke nationally; that first trio of MSG shows in 1978; a barrier-smashing 1987 jaunt to Russia before the fall of the Soviet Union (“A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia” documentary is a must-see); two sold-out 1990 Yankee Stadium shows; a 1994 stadium run with Elton John that marked the debut of the duo’s recurring “Face to Face” tour; a millennium show at the Garden; a 12-night MSG stand in 2006; the closing of Shea Stadium over two nights in 2008; his “12.12.12” MSG performance for Hurricane Sandy relief; the 2014 launch of an unheard-of monthly MSG residency; and now an annual baseball stadium residency that’s sold out Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Citizen’s Bank Park for the past five years (and this year will include his first show at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium).
Internationally, Joel’s played before 63,000 in Wembley Stadium, done nine shows at the Tokyo Dome and played Australia 11 times.
Pollstar Boxoffice numbers reflect Joel’s prodigious live career. Over just the past decade, he’s grossed nearly $500 million and sold more than 4.2 million tickets. And the numbers have only gotten stronger: Over the last four years, Joel’s remained a fixture of the Top 20 of Pollstar’s Year End Top 200 North American Tours. In 2014, he hit No. 6 on the chart with a gross of $72.2 million, No. 9 in 2015 with $69.9 million, No. 11 in 2016 with $68 million and back to No. 9 again in 2017 with his highest gross at $82.3 million. At the mid-year mark he’s already at $34.2 million and counting.
These days, Joel performs less, earning more and, at 69, putting on some of the best shows of his career.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” Joel says. “People show up, we throw ‘em on the stage. We change up the set list, dive into the obscurities. We do covers, we do silly stuff. We try to be as spontaneous as possible. If I start to get an idea for a song that I want to do at the moment, not even my song, we just go ahead and do it.”
Joel’s rollicking MSG residency has included a panoply of guests. Steve Miller turned up on multiples doing “The Joker” and “Living in the U.S.A.;” Paul Simon and Miley Cyrus together performed a foot-stomping medley of “You May Be Right” and Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll;” AC/DC’s Brian Johnson belted out “You Shook Me All Night Long;” jazz pianist Chick Corea added incredible piano runs to “New York State of Mind” (which Joel seemed to match); and Felix Cavaliere did his Young Rascals hit “Good Lovin’” among others (Itzhak Perlman, Jimmy Fallon and Howard Stern).
The concept of an MSG residency, it turns out, grew from the demise of another iconic (if far less beloved) New York City building across the East River. “After we played Shea Stadium in ’08, it was like how do we follow this?” Arfa asks. “Shea was a monumental success. McCartney came to close it with Billy and you had Roger Daltrey, Steven Tyler, Tony Bennett, John Mayer and all these superstars show up. So the idea was, how do you follow Shea?
“One night,” Arfa continues, “my family and Jay Marciano [former MSG president and current chairman/CEO of AEG Presents] were having dinner in Turks & Caicos and that’s the night the idea of making a Garden residency came up. It didn’t come to fruition until several years later. I remember Billy saying to me, ‘Are you sure this is the best move?’ And I would say, ‘Billy, this will end up being a great addition to your legacy.’”
One of a Hundred:
Waring Abbott / Getty Images
– One of a Hundred:
Billy Joel performing at Madison Square Garden for the first time, December 1978, as part of a three-night stand.
The high-concept arena residency happened organically after the “12.12.12 Concert For Sandy Relief” at the Garden. Joel, who hadn’t played much after 2010, put on a fiery performance and, soon after, went out with four MSG dates that in quick succession sold out. “That’s when the Garden came to me and said, ‘We’d like to make Billy a franchise, like the Knicks and the Rangers,’” Arfa says. “We had a press conference and announced we were adding a fifth show and then sold out three, which made seven. Now we’re at 59 through December for the residency and counting.”
At the core of Joel’s success is a catalog of stone-cold classics which over the course of nearly a half-century have become an essential part of the American popular music canon and, more importantly, a part of people’s everyday lives.

An entire generation sang “Just The Way You Are,” “Piano Man,” and “She’s Always a Woman” from the hatch of their families’ wood-paneled station wagons; while songs like “Movin’ Out,” “Only The Good Die Young,” “New York State of Mind” and “Honesty” were sung full-throated alongside alcohol-soaked jukeboxes and, later, karaoke bars.
These days, “You May Be Right,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” “Uptown Girl,” and “The Longest Time” and other hits from his repertoire are massive group experiences sung in unison at sold-out arenas and stadiums around the world.
It’s a catalog that’s earned him six Grammy Awards, 33 consecutive Top 40 hits as well as a Tony Award for the Broadway musical “Movin’ Out” based on his music. He’s also the sixth best-selling recording artist of all time and the third best-selling solo artist. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall and received Kennedy Center Honors. And now he’s about to cap off a centennial worth of MSG shows. 

  Not So Private Parts:
Kevin Mazur/WireImage
– Not So Private Parts:
Howard Stern & Billy Joel on Joel’s 65th birthday at MSG on May 9, 2014.
Some 50 years earlier, long before the industry accolades, best-selling anythings and historic performances, Billy Joel and Dennis Arfa met by happenstance. “I’m a Bayside, Queens, guy and Billy’s a Hicksville boy,” Arfa says of the two quintessential bridge-and-tunnel New Yorkers. Then 19, Arfa was managing an act called The Salvation Navy that opened for Joel’s band The Hassles at a venue in The Hamptons called The Eye. “We were two young guys,” he says. “He was the guy in the band who had a local reputation of being someone very talented. I was a young, energetic guy and we had a connection.”
That bond became a working relationship when Arfa, then 23, began working for Sutton Artists (an agency whose clients included Dave Brubeck, Herbie Mann, and Arlo Guthrie). There he was able to book two colleges, New York State University of New Paltz and Queens College, to supplement his “meager income” and where he booked Joel into, allowing him to keep their relationship active. 
Arfa, at one point, attempted to put Joel in a rock trio with the drummer from the Salvation Navy and guitarist Dick Wagner (who worked with Alice Cooper and Lou Reed) which lasted all of one rehearsal before Joel moved to L.A. There, he recorded his first album and famously worked in a piano bar in Hollywood called The Executive Room where he penned his first big hit, “Piano Man.”
Six months before Arfa would become his agent, Joel offered him a tour manager job, which he turned down because, “I didn’t want to live a life on the road. And I just thought it was a dead end. A little later I became his agent.”
Joel, at the time, was in between albums: Turnstiles, which though it had several classic songs (“New York State of Mind,” “Angry Young Man”) wasn’t a commercial success, and his blockbuster, The Stranger, had yet to be released. While still opening for (and sometimes blowing off the stage) a slew of more popular artists including the likes of Olivia Newton-John, J. Geils, Doobie Brothers, Yes, The Beach Boys, Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Hall & Oates, Arfa mapped out a new strategy.
“He is one of the greatest entertainers and performers there is,” says Arfa. “Billy is the kind of act you see and then come back and bring a friend. When I started out with him we had a philosophy that we only headlined. We don’t open for anyone. We ended up doing 108 dates on that first tour in 1977 and capped it off with three nights in Carnegie Hall. We didn’t even have a hit album yet but we had lines around the block. There were no Ticketmasters, just an old lady sitting in a box office.”
“My goal was always to be as good as Billy was musically,” continues Arfa, 69, whose clients also include Metallica, Rod Stewart, and Def Leppard.
“He’s so amazing, so talented and so smart and I just wanted to be that good and successful. I want to do the job my artists would do if they were doing it themselves.”
He’s Got a Way:
Photo by Mike Colucci
– He’s Got a Way:
Billy Joel performing at Madison Square Garden on August 20, 2015, in New York City, the 20th of his unprecedented residency. For that performance, Itzhak Perlman turned up to play violin on “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” and “The Downeaster Alexa.”
Arfa’s worked with many of the titans of the live business and in conversation mentions luminaries like Bill Graham and Frank Barsalona. Like all the good ones, he understands the importance of putting the needs of his artists first. “There is a philosophical understanding with Billy,” he explains.
“One, is to never overbook him. Don’t put him in a place where he’s not going to do well the second night. He also wanted me to get as much as he could for him financially, but not be an asshole.’”
His role as Joel’s agent is even more critical considering Joel hasn’t had a manager since 1989 (having one squander a reported $30 million dollars does that to a person) or released an album in the last 25 years (he hasn’t wanted or needed to).
“I show Billy what I’m doing, what I’m thinking, and he’s the guy that says ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Arfa explains. “He’ll ask me questions like, ‘Why are we doing this? Why are we doing that?  Why are we charging this? What are you thinking is the next move?’ I always come to him with a strategy and the reason we’re doing something, so he understands my thinking and I understand his and so I can execute it the way he would.”
In addition to Arfa, Team Joel includes his longtime associates: soundman Brian Ruggles and lighting designer Steve Cohen, tour director Max Loubiere, production manager Bobby Thrasher, attorney Lee Eastman, business manager Todd Kamelhar and publicist Claire Mercuri. They’ll all be there the night of the 18th. 
“Jim Dolan called me up a week ago and said, ‘This is the biggest, this is bigger than Madison Square Garden,’” Arfa says of MSG’s current CEO and chairman. “‘What Billy’s accomplished here is bigger; this should go down as one of the biggest things that’s ever happened. This is one of the greatest things ever in show business.”

You May Be Right?
Myrna Suarez
– You May Be Right?
Paul Simon and Miley Cyrus turned up on Sept. 30, 2017, for show No. 44 of Billy Joel’s record-breaking residency.
Indeed, selling out roughly 19,000 seats (now up to 20,789 with its recent renovation) 100 times means Joel is closing in on selling 2 million tickets. “That’s five Woodstocks,” Arfa says. (The runner-up, by the way, is Joel’s longtime friend and sometime tour partner Elton John who, at 65 MSG performances, isn’t even close).
All of which begs the question of what to expect at the Garden.
“We’re just planning on doing our show, like we always do,” Billy Joel says. “If someone shows up and wants to play, that’s great, but so far I’ve got no plans. If something pops into my head, I’ll do it. The crew may be planning some kind of surprise that I don’t know about, they love to do that. They love to throw me off guard. I may get a pie in the face, who knows?”