Although he was mostly an obscurity during his life, in the last few years, beginning with an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1964, Mississippi John Hurt became a star of the folk and blues scenes.
He had originally recorded back in the Twenties, but nothing much came of it, and by the time the Great Dperession killed Okeh (his label), he was back in Avalon, Mississippi, sharecropping. He would have stayed there if not for the efforts of musicologist Tom Hoskins, who tracked him down and convinced him to give it another go, with much better results.
But Hurt was already in his seventies by then, and his life had been marked by poverty and suffering. He died of a heart attack in 1966, although not before recording a few more sessions.
“Piano Man” was Joel’s first bona fide hit – in the years since its release, it has become so synonymous with him that he is now frequently called ‘the piano man.’ The song was written by Joel in 1973, as he played barroom piano under an assumed name and licked his wounds after the commercial failure of his first album, and draws on that experience heavily, although most of the characters in the song are composites or entirely fictional.
The single version of the song was cut down for time by the record company, who spliced two verses together in an effort to get it down to what was considered a commercial length. Ironically, today it is far more likely that the full album version will be played on the radio, and the song is a staple of golden oldies stations everywhere.