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Liberty DeVitto

Interview by Sean Mitchell // December 02 2008
Liberty DeVitto

I don't really care if other drummers like the way I play. I want guitar players and bass players and keyboard players and singers to like the way I play, because I found out a long time ago the odds of me going into a recording studio with another drummer are really small.

When I think about my introduction to drumming, there are two very vivid memories. The Buddy Rich vs Animal drum battle and the Glass Houses album. If Buddy and Animal introduced me to drums, Liberty DeVitto introduced me to music. When I was a kid, my dad used to crank up his Hi-Fi and throw on the old Glass Houses album. (Yeah, this was the 80’s) Who didn’t love that album? Front to back a musical masterpiece. And behind it all, relentlessly pushing that groove as if to drive the band forward, is Liberty. The man in the driver’s seat. I would listen to that record for hours and emulate Liberty’s playing, even though I didn’t have any lessons yet. But it didn’t matter; the music felt so damn good. The best that my coordination could handle at the time was to nail the 2 and 4. I would try and stay up at night when my folks threw a party and hope to heck dad would throw on that record. I loved the pulse of “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” And the groove on “You May Be Right”? Fuggetaboutit! When I was offered a chance to interview Liberty DeVitto I was extremely nervous. Here was the guy who made me want to play drums. Hands down the first drummer to influence me. And in meeting Liberty I was not disappointed. That man can play, period. What a musician, never mind drummer.

Here is a guy who can lay it down so hard that, as we watched him play, all three rows in the theatre were blinking on his 2 and 4. The power he has is inhuman, but he exudes musicality. For Liberty, there is no greater gift than the gift he gives to the song, and that is so evident in his playing. Even if he has to lay back and play the brushes, Liberty is in for the long haul. As a drummer interviewing a legend, I wanted to blurt out, “Dude, I freaking play drums because of you!” But instead of freaking the guy out, I maintained my composure, did the interview, and had the greatest 25 minutes of my life. As an added bonus, Liberty was interviewed by a camera crew right after our interview, and the host happened to ask about the old Billy Joel albums. I sat and listened as Liberty described the songs and the soundtrack of my life as an eight-year-old kid.

In listening to that interview and the one he and I shared, I realize that Liberty has taught me so much more than the huge 2 and 4. He has taught me that it’s not the sticks you choose but what you choose to do with them that makes you who you are as a player. That it doesn’t matter what you bring to a tune as long as you remember that it is always about the tune. It’s the song that is your mark on history, not how well you played a buzz roll. In his selfless career Liberty has and continues to give so much to the music industry, so much so that when my children are eight years old, I too can play Glass Houses and create new memories of our own. In doing something Liberty loved--playing drums--and by giving to the music, he actually gave so much more. Thanks, Liberty.

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Liberty, you’re working on a really interesting book with Jules Follett about New York City drummers. Tell us about that.

Jules loves drummers, first of all. She’s been photographing groups and stuff like that for years, and she says that it’s the hardest to take a picture of the drummer. The drummer is always up on a riser, so when you’re standing in front of the stage, he’s high up. There’s so much stuff in front of the drummer like cymbals and drums, you can’t see his whole body… you barely see his face, you know. So she decided to do a coffee table book on drummers because a band is only as good as the drummer. The drummer drives the whole thing, and he doesn’t get the recognition that he should. I mean, I feel we’re kind of like the bottom feeders of the music world (laughing) because we don’t have any melody and we can’t copyright anything. So she’s giving us all this recognition of being the middle of the band, the whole centre of the band. She’s actually gone around getting guys in a studio or in casual situations, just sitting in chairs. She went to Shawn Pelton’s apartment where he practices and took pictures of him there. She went to a Letterman rehearsal and took pictures of Anton Fig there. Stuff like that.

Tell me about your NY project The NYC Hit Squad.

We play once a month or something like that because the guys in the band are all from other bands. There’s me and Ricky Bird (Ricky Bird played with Joan Jett and The Black Hearts). We started this [project]. We were playing somewhere once and he started to play this little funky R&B song and I said,” You know, why don’t we start a band in New York?” So we put this thing together and we’ve had Will Lee come through and play bass. We’ve had Hugh McDonald from Bon Jovi’s band play bass, but then he went out with Bon Jovi. Now we’ve got Muddy Shews who plays with Southside Johnny and a bunch of guys like that. And Christine Ohlman who sings on Saturday Night Live, so if we get a Saturday night gig, Christine can’t do it (laughing). It’s that kind of band.

Where did you learn to play?

I’m self taught. I tried to take lessons, but I wanted to learn how to play like Ringo and it was 1964. The jazz guys were the ones that were teaching then and they hated the way Ringo played. When I was a kid, I wanted to play drums when I saw Ringo on TV. Actually, I tried to play drums when I was in the sixth grade, which would have been… I was 12 years old… it was ’62, but I couldn’t do the buzz roll for the “Star Spangled Banner,” and the music teacher said, “Put down the sticks, you’ll never do anything with the drums.” So it was like, how was he to know that I was going to be a bad drummer if I just couldn`t do that buzz roll? He was actually a bad teacher for saying that to me. So when the Beatles came out, it was then I said, “I want to do that,” and it wasn`t to play the buzz roll, it was to be in a band if it made girls fall over. So that`s how I started, playing 2 and 4. Everybody loved it. I don`t really care if other drummers like the way I play. I want guitar players and bass players and keyboard players and singers to like the way I play because I found out a long time ago the odds of me going into a recording studio with another drummer are really small.

Give me your take on the “schooled versus nonschooled” topic?

Let me start by saying this, I don’t think a drummer should take lessons at least for the first 5 years because you have to learn groove and feel; you have to listen more than read. When you buy a book and you learn notes off a book, it’s stiff; it’s just whatever’s written down there. You’re just playing it with no feel, no nothing. I do a thing in the clinic where I’ll show them how I learned to play and I’ll show them what I used to do when I was home and I was a kid and I would take “Hide Your Love Away” by the Beatles, and I’d play to that. Because I’m playing to the timing of John’s voice, the way he sang ‘cause that’s where that emotion is—in his voice rather than just notes on a page. Then later, learn paradiddles and stuff like that because nobody really uses those things except in drum festivals.

You were with Billy Joel for over 30 years. How have you branched off and redefined Liberty DeVitto?

I’ve been doing a lot of clinics. The thing is when I was a kid and I saw Buddy Rich, I felt very insecure in my playing. The first clinic I ever saw—and I saw Dom Famularo play—I was very insecure in my playing even though I had gold albums on the wall and everything because I don’t play like that. So my clinic is to tell kids, “Look, you don’t have to play like that. If you can’t play like that, that’s fine. Two and four, two and four, man. That’s where it’s at.”

Any plans for a new book?

I am writing a book. It’s a basic book because I’ve noticed that a lot of drummers today are listening to Dave Weckl and stuff like that, and they’re going into stores and they’re buying their videos, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, I think in rock ‘n roll, the basic beats that you play you take with you for the rest of your life. Those are the beats that you play. The difference between a young kid learning just a basic 2 and 4—and hearing that same 2 and 4 on an AC/DC record—is just the way the guy’s playing it. I mean, he’s playing the same thing that the kid first learned. It’s time for them to get back to basics again; it’s time for kids to learn from the beginning again. I feel fortunate that I grew up when the Beatles were out. Ringo played a song. He was a song writer’s drummer; he played songs. I like music better than I like drums. I love the drums but I like music better.

How did the Billy Joel band line-up come to be?

I was in a band called Topper at the time. There was me, Russell Javors, Doug Stegmeyer and Howie Emerson. That was Topper, and Doug got called to play bass on the Streetlife Serenader Tour. Billy already had out Piano Man and Streetlife Serenader. [Billy] was living in LA. Doug gets called to do that tour. On the tour, Billy tells Doug, “I’m thinking about getting rid of the band that we tour with now and moving back to New York because I want the same musicians that play in the studio to play with me on the road.” (At the time, Billy was using studio musicians and then taking different guys on the road). So Doug said, “Well, I know a drummer.” And I had known Billy since I was 16 years old. We played in the same club but in different bands. [Billy] said, “I remember Liberty.“ So I went out and auditioned for him. It was great and everything like that, so we went in to record Turnstiles, which is Billy’s fourth album—just me, Doug and Billy. Then when Billy said, “Well, we need guitar on this,” me and Doug said, “Well, we know guitar players.” We brought in Howie and Russell. We added Richie Cannata on saxophone, so Topper became Billy’s band with Richie Cannata.

If you could put together the Liberty DeVitto All-Star Band, who would be in the line-up?

On bass would probably be my friend David Santos. He plays with John Fogerty and people like that. I did an all-star band with him a while ago. We were the Northwest Airlines All-Star Band. It was me, Billy Preston, Mark Farner, Steve Cropper, and Felix Cavaliere. David Santos is probably my favorite bass player. Then on keys and vocals I would want Steve Winwood because I’ve always admired his voice. I think he’s fantastic. Who would I want to play guitar? Let’s see, I have a friend George Marinelli who lives in Nashville—played with Bonnie Raitt for a long time. He’s fantastic. Guys like that.

What has parenthood taught you?

I’ve got three daughters, so parenthood has taught me that when you’ve got a son you worry about one penis; when you have a daughter, you worry about all penises. (laughing) My daughter is actually doing very well. I have three daughters. One is 27. She mixes sound on Long Island, in clubs on Long Island, and she was a tour manager for a group call Antigone Rising—they were an all female group out of New York. The middle one is the actress. She just finished season five on One Tree Hill, and I just went to see a movie that she made in the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. It made it to the festival, so she’s doing good. She lives out in LA. The little one, she’s 19. She is licensed to cut hair in Michigan, and she just graduated from theatrical makeup school in Orlando.

How did you balance being a dad and a high profile rock drummer?

It’s hard to do that you know because it’s almost a selfish thing to be walking out your front door and have these little girls grabbing your legs and saying, “Daddy, don’t go!” And you look down and say, “Don’t worry. Dad will be back in eighteen months,” and expect them to go, “Oh, okay,” and just go play with their coloring books and stuff like that. But that’s why, when I talk to kids in clinics, I say you have to be dedicated to what you’re doing because there’s going to be times that even your wife will not realize and not understand that she will never be first. She’ll be second, a close second, but never first. I mean, my drums have been there for everything. You think about me and my drums as a great thing, like it was fantastic—play Madison Square Garden, play everything around the world and stuff like that. I also know them as I got divorced. But when I sit behind the drums and play with the band I feel better; it’s ok. They’re always there.

What is it about Little Kids Rock that makes you want to be part of the program?

The fact that they give free lessons to inner city kids. It’s a great thing because these kids have nothing to do today. They took all the music programs out of the schools. What are the kids going to do? What if you’re not into sports? What if you don’t like them? What if you can’t play them? What’s your option? Go hang out in the mall? Go hang out on a street corner? So, this guy Dave Wish, who started Little Kids Rock, he was a teacher and he saw these kids hanging out and said, “Look, I’ll give you guitar lessons for free.” When he got the manufacturers involved, he got the guitars donated to Little Kids Rock. The kid takes the guitar, and if he keeps taking the lessons for a year he keeps the guitar. So it’s a great thing for these kids. Pro Mark is a part of it. They give me drumsticks to bring into the kids. You hand them out; these kids freak out. They think you’re Santa Claus. Then they see you play, and it’s like, “I wanna do that.”

You also support Camp Jam, what is that?

It’s a camp in the United States, started in Atlanta by a friend of mine Dan Lipson and another friend of mine Jeff Carlisi, who is a founding member of 38 Special. It started in Atlanta 5 years ago and now it’s in 14 cities. It’s for kids from 11 to 17 (actually, there’s one for the little kids too). We call them the Bedroom Players; they practice in their bedroom. But like I said before, the reason why my friends and I took up instruments, and the reason why most kids take up an instrument, is because they saw something on MTV or they heard something on the radio and said, “I wanna do that.” And it wasn’t a paradiddle that they saw, it was a band. They want to be in a band. So Camp Jam puts them in a band with players that are equal to their ability and for a week they rehearse 2 or 3 songs. They play AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Beatles… whatever they wanna play. It’s funny, young kids playing that classic rock. And then by the end of the week, they do a full on concert, on a big stage with the PA and the monitors and everything, in front of their parents and all the other students and their friends. And they feel like rock stars. It’s actually a team-building thing. They say sports is a team-building effort, but in baseball the ball is hit, it gets hit to the outfielder, he catches it on one bounce, he throws it to the second baseman, they tag the guy out. Two guys on the team are playing in that play. In music, the drummer counts to four, and everybody’s in the game.

Let’s turn to your influences for a bit. Why has the music of The Beatles transcended multigenerations?

All of them were great songwriters. Even “Octopus’s Garden”. You gotta say, Ringo wrote a great song there. It’s good. But their melodies are wonderful and they played as a band like a little orchestra. An orchestra has its parts: the strings don’t play over when the oboes are playing, they don’t walk over them. Like Ringo. That’s why he was such a great drummer—because he made up parts. If you have a great song, like the Beatles do, or like I had with “Just the Way You Are” with Billy Joel... Billy could come in, play it on the piano, and you could hear it, just him and the piano, and go, “That’s a great song.” Now I’m gonna put drums on it. My job is to make it better, not to walk all over it. And anything Ringo played on a Beatles’ song he made better. He created sounds in the studio that were never created before, that were never done before. His licks like in “A Little Help From My Friends,” try putting a different fill there. Doesn’t work. So it’s like he played the perfect fills. I mean, his stuff was well thought out. Billy Preston told me when he was in the studio with them, he said it was cool when one or two of them were in there, but when all four of them were in there, it was actually scary. It was so much creativity in that room that it was magical. I mean, they were great. They were really good. And they grew, they progressed. A lot of bands from the 60’s that came out with them, didn’t progress—the way the Beatles wore those suits and they had the floppy hair—[these bands] stayed there. The Beatles all of a sudden decided, “We don’t want to be that anymore. Let’s move on. It’s time to move on.” And when they did Sergeant Pepper, or even Revolver and Rubber Soul; it was different. So all their stuff, they just kept evolving.

Have you had a chance to work with any of The Beatles?

I’ve actually worked with Paul. There’s a CD out in England called Beautiful Night and actually Ringo plays on the album, but he had done demos of it over the years. I was in the studio with him and did it once. So on this thing, Paul’s explaining this song “Beautiful Night,” and how he started to play it on the piano, wrote it on the piano, and it eventually goes into me playing with him, and then, it goes into Ringo playing with him—the one that went on the album. And the great part about it is that you read the credits and it says: bass and vocal, Paul Mc- Cartney; drums, Ringo Starr. And then you read underneath: bass and vocal, Paul McCartney; drums, Liberty DeVitto. (laughing) It was really cool! I met Ringo twice. I actually got to play with him. I played “A Little Help From My Friends” with him while he sang it. That was cool. But the first time that I met him, I said, “Ringo, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now.” And he said, “Well, at least you’re not blaming me for it.” (laughing) Who is your favorite Beatle? Ringo’s my favorite Beatle. I loved the way Paul sang, and I really in later years have learned to appreciate John and George as songwriters. But Ringo is the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing now.

 

Visit Liberty online: http://www.myspace.com/ldthedrummer




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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.



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