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Billy Joel or Elton John? Jim Witter gives you both and more to open the Grand Rapids Symphony's 2016-17 Pops Series

Do you prefer Billy Joel or Elton John? It didn't matter with Jim Witter and the Grand Rapids Symphony to open the 2016-17 Fox Motors Pops Series, in DeVos Performance Hall, September 23-25.
Canadian pianist Jim Witter performs the music of Billy Joel and Elton John in "The Piano Men."

Canadian pianist Jim Witter performs the music of Billy Joel and Elton John in "The Piano Men." /Greg Malo

Billy Joel vs. Elton John

  • Elton John has sold more than 300 million records and tallied 50 Top 40 hits. His song Candle in the Wind 1997, updated to honor Diana, Princess of Wales, has sold over 33 million copies worldwide, becoming the best-selling single in the history of the UK and US. He's a five-time Grammy Award winner who has been nominated 34 times.
  • Billy Joel has sold more than 150 million albums including 33 Top 40 hits in the United States. He's a six-time Grammy Award winner who has been nominated 23 times.
"The Piano Men" is a multimedia look at the decade from 1970 to 1980 in music plus visual images from the 1970s.

"The Piano Men" is a multimedia look at the decade from 1970 to 1980 in music plus visual images from the 1970s. /Greg Malo

Jim Witter first appeared with the Grand Rapids Symphony at Cannonsburg Ski Area for the 2015 D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops

Jim Witter first appeared with the Grand Rapids Symphony at Cannonsburg Ski Area for the 2015 D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops /Terry Johnston

Billy Joel or Elton John?

It’s a musical variation of the question, “Coke or Pepsi?” Which musician do you prefer?

The two piano-playing, singer/songwriters have a lot in common with dozens of hit songs and millions of records sold. They’re also plenty different, as you’d expect from a Brit and a Yank.

So if you can’t choose between the two, who better to combine them into one package than a Canadian, eh?

The Canadian of choice should be Jim Witter, who was in DeVos Performance Hall on Friday for “The Piano Men,” the opening of the Grand Rapids Pops’ 2016-17 Fox Motors Pops Series.

Witter, who has had 10 Top 10 radio hits in Canada, is a master at recreating the music of both entertainers who happen to have a first name for a last name. And having the Grand Rapids Symphony – ready, willing and able to rock on stage, made it even better.

Songs spanning the 1970s from Elton John’s “Your Song” to Billy Joel’s “Don’t Ask Me Why” filled more than two hours of music along with stories, jokes and friendly banter.

Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt led the Grand Rapids Symphony in subtle accompaniment on songs such as “Daniel” and “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” and in all-out rock mode on songs such as “Philadelphia Freedom.”

The Fox Motors Pops program repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24 and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25.

Witter, who appeared outdoors with the Grand Rapids Symphony for the 2015 D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops, brought his show indoors to the DeVos Performance Hall with the added value of projected visuals recalling TV shows, commercials, famous actresses, pop/rock acts and even toys from the 1970s.

The sum total was a walk down memory lane in bell bottoms and platform shoes or a drive through the country in a Gremlin or a Pinto, past young people on a grassy mountain, holding bottles of Coke and singing about how they’d like to teach the world to do the same.

“The music we listen to as teenagers we carry with us for the rest of our lives,” Witter told the audience before launching into a story of a high school dance, a girl, and Billy Joel’s song, “Just The Way You Are.”

Pops, after all, is about nostalgia – where you were, what you were doing and who you were with when this song or that song by this artist or that artist was all over the radio.

Tribute shows are tricky. Especially when the artist not only is alive and kicking, but singing, playing and touring. It’s double the challenge when you’re trying to do two at once.

Elton John, who has sold more than 300 million recordings and scored 50 Top 40 hits, certainly was more flamboyant and had showmanship on his side. Billy Joel, who has sold more than 150 million and tallied 33 Top 40 hits, is more of a brazen, Big Apple kind of guy.

If you imitate an artist too closely, your show becomes a parody. If you fail to capture the essence of the original recording, the audience checks out.

Jim Witter threads the needle beautifully. He doesn’t sound like Elton John, but he has a certain lilt on songs such as “Daniel” and “Candle in the Wind” that’s unmistakably identifiable as the voice of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. He doesn’t quite imitate Billy Joel, but he attacks “Don’t Ask Me Why” with a cockiness that puts you in a New York state of mind.

What’s more, Witter gets the audience clapping and singing along on songs such as “Crocodile Rock.” After all, they already know the words.

Some of the best fun of the evening had nothing to do with Elton John or Billy Joel.  After launching into a version of “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island,” Witter took requests for more TV theme songs, which ranged from “Green Acres” and “Beverly Hillbillies” to “Welcome Back, Kotter” and “The Jeffersons,” often with the audience singing along.

Best of all was a duet of “Those Were The Days” from “All in the Family” between Witter, singing Archie Bunker’s part, and his bass player, Ian Tanner, as an astonishingly convincing Edith Bunker.

It was so good, you should come hear it for yourself.

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