When I’m (Past) 64: Billy Joel’s Historic Madison Square Garden Residency

Photo by Myrna M. Suarez / WireImage

The (Arena) Piano Man: Billy Joel will play his record-setting 64th residency show at New York’s Madison Square Garden on May 9, which is also his 70th birthday. Here, Joel performs during his historic 100th show at Madison Square Garden on July 18, 2018.
When Billy Joel takes Madison Square Garden’s stage on May 9, 2019, for his 70th birthday, not only will he be extending his historic arena residency to 64 shows but he will be furthering his record-setting 110 shows at the estimable venue while burnishing his legacy in the live space in a way unlikely to be replicated.
“Everything every month is just unheard of,” says Artist Group International’s Dennis Arfa, Joel’s longtime booking agent. “The fact that it’s become what it is is just amazing. When it was 24 in a row, it was just, ‘Oh my God.’ And then we were at 50 and that was unheard of. It’s just incredible that it continues on.”
Indeed, Joel’s MSG shows have redefined the concept of residency, usually things attached to Vegas casinos for high rollers and tourists. But the scope and ambition of Joel’s residency, where he has played month after month at Madison Square Garden and turned “The World’s Most Famous Arena” into a boîte, is unprecedented.  Since his residency kicked off six years ago, in January 2014, Joel, according to Pollstar Boxoffice, has sold an astronomical 1.176 million tickets and grossed $138.4 million over 63 sold-out concerts – for now. It seems reasonable, then, that the genesis of such a lofty ambition would stem from a similarly massive undertaking. 
“The last time he played New York before the residency was Shea Stadium [in Queens],” Arfa says. “He closed Shea, which was a monumental success and the ultimate gig. It was monumental not only by the guests Billy had but just the spirit in the stadium, it was just something that was incredible. 
“And it was the closing of a venue that had started with The Beatles, which was the first stadium venue that really introduced music to a wider audence and which had a lot of iconic performances through its life. That Billy had the honor of closing it was incredible.” 
Joel’s two Shea concerts on July 16 and 18, 2008 before 110,000 fans featured guest appearances by Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, John Mayer, Steven Tyler, Roger Daltrey, John Mellencamp and, of course, Paul McCartney, who famously ended the night with Joel on “Let It Be.” 
The show also yielded the album Live at Shea Stadium: The Concert and a documentary that aired on PBS’ “Great Performances.”
“Billy Joel and Shea Stadium are two icons and it was such a major event, how do you follow that?” Arfa asks. “We were searching for something and trying to figure out how do you stay at that level. How do you top that?”
The genesis for the Garden residency concept didn’t actually begin in the Big Apple, Arfa explains. “It was at a dinner in Turks and Caicos with my family and [current AEG Presents chairman and CEO] Jay Marciano, who was then president of Madison Square Garden. It was at that dinner that the idea of Billy playing the Garden once a month first came up. It didn’t come to fruition until several years later, but that’s where the concept for the idea came up.” 
Even before the Shea concerts, Joel had a deep relationship with the Garden dating back to his first performance there in 1978. In 2006, he set the single-year record for most shows at MSG with 12 concerts, and the performances were turned into the album 12 Gardens Live. “Those 2006 shows got a lot of attention at the time,” Arfa recalls. “He had broken the Grateful Dead record for the most shows on a run at the Garden. That was a big deal. Bruce had 11 and now Billy had done 12 and it established Billy at another level. But nothing like what we’re seeing today.”
When Joel quickly sold out four monthly MSG dates in 2014, “the Garden came to me and said, ‘We’d like to make Billy a franchise, like the Knicks and the Rangers,’” Arfa says. But Joel took time to ramp up to the franchise concept.
“I remember just before the first concert, we were doing the press conference to announce that he would be the first franchise at Madison Square Garden,” Afra says. “Billy calls me up two days before we’re going there to do the press and says, ‘Are you sure this is the right thing? Are you sure that this will work?’ When he walked into the press conference with Governor Cuomo, Jimmy Dolan, heads of the Garden, some ex-Rangers, ex-Knicks, and some of their players, Billy was kind of blown away and understood the magnitude that he is a franchise here. He embraced it by how everybody else embraced it. It was bigger than he thought it would be. As he said in the press conference in New York, ‘Dennis had this idea, it was crazy but he was crazy right.’”
Arfa also attributes the residency’s success to the Garden itself. “It starts with the leadership of [Madison Square Garden Company executive chairman and CEO] Jim Dolan and goes down. It may be the World’s Most Famous arena, but they’re also one of the most efficiently run arenas. It’s really people like Darren Pfeffer, Laurie Jacoby and Josephine Vaccarello.”
“Billy is part of the fabric of the MSG family here at the Garden,” says Pfeffer, EVP of MSG Live. “It’s funny because month after month, when he walks in the building and we see the same faces it really does feel like one big family deep at the core. MSG is his second home here in New York and there’s always a buzz for his shows. His 70th birthday is going to be exciting.”
“In the inaugural year of the Garden’s first music franchise, we celebrated Billy Joel’s 65th birthday,” Dolan recalls. “Now, five years later, we continue to celebrate this hometown legend and all he’s done for music, his fans and New York.” 
Bruce Springsteen made a cameo at last year’s historic 100th MSG show, Tony Bennett appeared with Joel last month and previous star appearances have included everyone from John Fogerty and Paul Simon to Miley Cyrus, Itzhak Perlman, Kevin James and far beyond, so one has to wonder what Team Billy has planned.
“We have a few things up our sleeves for both the fans and for Billy backstage,” says Pfeffer. “You know, we never plan out who’s going to show up at one of the shows,” Arfa says. “We kind of wing it.”