FOR the past four years, Elio Pace has built The Billy Joel Songbook into a show attracting worldwide attention, so there’s little surprise to hear that he’s heading to Gateshead’s Sage and claiming that Joel is an all-time great singer-songwriter.

“I declare on stage every night that I truly believe that Billy Joel is the greatest singer-songwriter ever. Elton John, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Sting or John Lennon might be your opinion, but I try to explain why it’s my opinion during the show. I’m not going to explain it now, so you’ll have to come and see the show,” jokes Pace.

“I can back up my beliefs with some facts and, still, it comes down to taste. Quite a lot of people clap when I say it, but then I’ll say, ‘That’s 30 of you, that means there’s a lot of work to be done.”

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He’s aware that part of the audience is probably there because a partner or friend is a fan of Billy Joel. “They’re sitting there thinking, ‘I’d rather see Elton John’. And I say that and get a laugh. I think Billy is best because of his variety and nobody had written such a far-reaching genre of music. I love the fact that he didn’t stick to one sound and many people say, ‘I never realised that was a Billy Joel song’. That’s said to me after every show,” says Pace.

He considers Joel to be the equal of an actor who is celebrated for playing many roles. “People say, ‘Look at Robert De Niro, he can do serious, threatening and funny’. But musicians are supposed to stick to one thing... their identifying sound. I think that’s baloney. Billy Joel is like an actor because he has the palate of colours in his musical brush and that’s because he understands music from the viewpoint of a classical musician. That’s his first love.

“He brings all that knowledge of a classical composer to the world of rock’n’roll and he knows how music, harmony and melody works and nobody is better at bringing it to the three-minute pop song.”

As a result, Pace found adapting some of Joel’s songs to live performance quite challenging. “I have to say that a piece called the Root Beer Rag, which is an instrumental, is a pretty tough piece of music. Musically challenging is something like Scenes From An Italian Restaurant where you try to stay true to Billy’s original song. Trying to play that live takes hard work because you have to decide what makes the instruments so beautiful on the album track.

“Emotionally the toughest song is The Lullaby. I say on stage that this is my favourite song. Not my favourite Billy Joel song, my favourite all-time song. I’ve got a little eight-year-old daughter and at 49, I’m a late starter. Singing that song kills me because I have to draw on all my professional powers to take myself away from the lyrics to deliver the song.”

The bedtime song from father to child is Joel’s most touching creation. “You want your child to know that one day we’ll all be gone, but lullabies go on and on... that’s how you and I will be,” says Pace, quoting the lyrics. He adds a reminder that the song is actually called Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel) because that’s equally important.

Pace has switched between musical performer, music director, creating a 15-piece orchestra as backing to greats like Art Garfunkel and joining forces with Shakin’ Stevens, Suzi Quatro and Albert Lee. Pace’s profile was raised with a contract on Radio 2’s Weekend Wogan show and his Billy Joel Songbook has grown from venues in the UK and Ireland to offers of tours to Holland and Israel and, possibly, Australia.

Pace admits another reason he wants to keep Joel’s songs alive is the lack of vocabulary in the current chart hits. “I find a lot of today’s music rather bland and boring and predictable. Billy wasn’t the only one, he was like Elton John, Sting, Stevie Wonder, the Doobie Brothers and Earth, Wind and Fire who came up with beautiful and colourful music. So, I find myself on some kind of mission to keep this kind of music alive. I am, literally, putting my money where my mouth is – and this is a massive investment for me. I also feel like a contestant on Dragon’s Den with Peter Jones asking me what my figures are for the first four years, because they look embarrassing. I knew I had to keep going because things are starting to pay off.”

Pace feels he’s reaching people who aren’t aware of Joel’s work because the performer didn’t tour enough to the UK to attract wider interest. “People have told me that they were a grumpy guy who came and sat with their arms folded, but have come again and again”

Of course, the ultimate accolade for Pace is a personal endorsement. “He’s not the type of guy to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey man, just to let you know you’re doing a great job’. There are people who do, but Billy’s not one of them. I have been told by people who know him that Billy is fully aware of what I do and he is very grateful that I’m keeping his music alive. That’s what I’m told.”

  • The Billy Joel Songbook performed by Elio Pace and his band at Sage Gateshead on Tuesday, September 19 and Wednesday, September 20. Box Office: 0191 443 4661 or sagegateshead.com