After more than 50 years of playing music, and 25 of teaching at Merrick Avenue Middle School, Richard Gilley keeps returning to the music of Billy Joel.
“I’ve been a classical musician all my life,” Gilley said. “I’ve always been surrounded by it. But when I first heard Joel, I was totally taken by this genius of it. I thought, ‘This is amazing. This is just something else.’”
Joel’s mixing of classical piano and classic American pop — second only to George Gershwin’s fusion of classical and jazz in the national canon, in Gilley’s opinion — has informed his teaching for decades.
However, it was only during one of his final band classes that Gilley, who retired this year, gave his students a glimpse of his pop-rock persona, playing a video of himself performing in a rock band, in a telethon, circa 1979.
“They hadn’t seen me in that capacity before, and when I showed it to them, they were a little shocked,” Gilley said with a laugh. He waited until his last class to show the video because he knew that “once you show kids something like that, they look at you in a different light.”
“They think, ‘He’s a rock guy; we can get away with more,’” Gilley said.
During an interview last month, as he cleaned out his classroom and pulled photos down from a bulletin board, Gilley looked back at a life in music — and a career that took a new direction when he started performing Joel’s music in 1977.
Almost as soon as he discovered the singer-songwriter, Gilley, who was then studying at the University of Miami, decided to create a mock Billy Joel concert, conscripting the school’s best jazz musicians and writing them parts for bass and saxophone.
The concert — the first of what would be many in Gilley’s career — was held on April 22, 1977. “Everybody really loved it,” he said, and he was asked to return, and then to perform the show twice a year for the school’s alumni association.
“They paid for and moved one of the grand pianos out of the band room to the Rat,” Gilley said, rferring to the campus pub, and he soon became a fixture there. “I was so excited . . . I wasn’t a singer — I was a piano player. So it was crazy, but Billy Joel inspired me to learn how to start singing. I wanted to do what he was doing.”
That same year, Joel came to the university’s Gussman Hall, and Gilley only had to wait about 20 minutes after the show to spy Joel — “It wasn’t like it is now, at the Coliseum, with security shooing people out,” he said.
Joel emerged from a side door by the stage, and Gilley took a breath and introduced himself.
“I called him, ‘Mr. Joel’ . . . He kind of rolled his eyes,” Gilley recounted. “I said, ‘I just wanted you to know, I used to be a classical pianist, but you’ve changed my whole outlook on music,’ and he looked at me, raised his hand over his head, and he said, ‘May the prophet bless you, my son.’”
Gilley went on — in the span of only a few minutes — to breathlessly bring Joel up to date on the tribute shows the young musician had been performing, and, finally, asked him for one thing he should remember if he wanted to be successful.
“He gave me this strange look — there was a kind of silver glow in his eye,” Gilley said. “And he said, ‘If you believe in yourself, you’ll do it.’ I’m telling you, I drove home in a daze.”
In the years since he graduated from Miami, Gilley has taught music for stints on the South Shore, including in Manhasset and Seaford, as a chorus teacher, but it was at Merrick Avenue Middle School that he made his home.
In his 25 years of teaching there, Gilley, who became known as “Gilley Joel,” stuck to a few basic rules: He played the pieces he loved, and he made sure the students understood that “music is not just notes on a page.”
“It’s about something beautiful,” he said. “It’s teaching the language of emotion . . . when words fail us, music begins. And that’s what I’ve been teaching the kids here.”
Gilley needed look no further than his last classes to see that his teaching philosophy paid off. Students didn’t want the class to end. In Gilley’s words, for the last few days of school, he was “surrounded” by crestfallen students.
“I was like, ‘It’s OK — you’ve gotta go on. Life has to continue,’” he said.
The Central District bade Gilley farewell with a concert in May and a retirement party in June, as he moves to join his family — including his father, a classically trained opera singer and band teacher — in the Daytona, Fla., area.
Merrick Avenue Principal Dr. Taryn Johnson said last week that Gilley was a consummate professional, as well as a consummate gentleman.
“He connects with kids on a different level,” she said. “He’s surely going to be missed. He’s dedicated — that’s all I can say.”
In Florida, Gilley said, he plans to keep the music going — “maybe in a cocktail bar, or a very nice restaurant, or I’ll form a ‘Gilley Joel’ band and play around with guys my own age, or be an adjunct professor at Daytona. I’ve got a couple of things I can do.”
As he leaves Long Island, it is his students that Gilley will miss the most. “They’re just so great,” he said. “They seem like they’ve got better and better as the years have been passing by. They’re more polite, more fun, more respectful . . . They taught me so much.”
Gilley acknowledged that he has probably changed some lives in his classroom, but said that he is just now realizing that his students have changed him as well.
“They’ve given me a far greater and deeper perception of human beings,” he said, “because these students, who are like diamonds in the rough, who we help shape along the way, they show us empathy and understanding and, most of all, how to have fun.”
And that, Gilley has found over the years, is what music is all about.