THE BEAST UNLEASHED-DRUMMER LIBERTY DEVITTO By Sandra Castillo
…and on the eighth day, the rafters of Heaven opened up to shake loose the thunder which came to this Earth as the back beat of Rock N’ Roll.
One cannot assume that music, with all its glorious, unpredictable fury, is always safe in the hands of the one who pounds away on an instrument designed to withstand the brutalities of its owner. Hence, the drummer-that beast of a man who wields his drumsticks like a weapon-provides the salvo and foundation for which Rock is untethered and revered.
The mighty warrior allows himself to feel the burn, that creative fire which sears his senses and causes him to throw all caution and inhibitions to the wind. His need to unleash his passions, fears and desires on the drums is the reason why so many of us groove and sway to some of the greatest music on the planet.
When this writer had first composed these words for “And On The Eighth Day,” the prose had been inspired by a video I had seen of superstar Billy Joel performing his Top-10 hit, “I Go To Extremes,” from the 1989 album Storm Front. The black-and-white footage captured the show-stopping energy of the singer, clad in a black leather jacket and Ray Bans, wielding a mic stand, while exhibiting some very impressive moves atop his piano. However, as exciting as it was to watch one of Rock’s most renowned artists in motion, it was just as thrilling to witness the prowess, jaw-dropping showmanship of the one providing the electrifying back beat to the song. Because if you’ve ever had the opportunity to see this human dynamo in concert, then you will certainly agree that Liberty DeVitto is the undisputed champion of drummers.
The legendary drummer has established himself as one of the most distinguished, well-respected musicians in the industry. After five decades in the business-beginning with his youth spent playing gigs in his hometown of Seaford, Long Island to his present-day positions with The Slim Kings and the newly reunited The Lords of 52nd Street-DeVitto is still very much in-demand for those exclusively seeking the kind of raw, explosive musical mojo that can only be found in the likes of the incomparable drummer.
DeVitto’s 30+ years as the drummer for Billy Joel helped catapult the Piano Man from obscurity into international stardom, whose massive fame has amassed sales of more than 160 million albums worldwide. Currently, the Grammy Award-winning singer has taken up permanent residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where he continues to sell out concerts there, month after month, year after year.
Aside from having played, recorded and toured the world a dozen times with Billy Joel, DeVitto has also collaborated with a myriad of recording artists, including Carly Simon, Bob James, Phoebe Snow, The Beach Boys, Meatloaf, Stevie Nicks, Paul McCartney, Ronnie Spector, Karen Carpenter and the 60’s British sensation Billy J. Kramer, with whom he recently performed, in concert at the 2017 San Diego Beatles Fair, earlier this year.
I was fortunate enough to contact Liberty DeVitto and ask him a few questions regarding his incredible career, as one of the most successful drummers in Rock and Roll, the concept behind the very clever, sexy Slim Kings’ video for their hot rocker, “Dirty Minds,” and the time he made the historic trek, along with Billy Joel and the band, to the Soviet Union in 1987, to play a series of concerts for the Russian people. Here is what he shared with RG Magazine…
You are now touring with The Lords of 52nd Street, whose members include your comrades, Richie Cannata and Russell Javors, from the original band that backed up singer Billy Joel at the very beginning of his career. What does it personally mean to you to be able to revisit and, once again, deliver the music of a generation of fans that grew up on those hits which shaped the soundtrack of their youth?
Well, let’s give credit where it is due. Billy had a career with the cult hit, “Piano Man,” from the album by the same name and a semi-hit called “The Entertainer” from the album Streetlife Serenader. We came in on Turnstiles. He finally had the band that would, with the help of Phil Ramone, take him to the top. It’s a great feeling to realize the longevity that the band has had and how it affected peoples’ lives. I always say, that if it wasn’t for the success of The Stranger and all the albums that followed, no one would be singing “Piano Man” today.
Is it true that the late, great producer Phil Ramone bestowed the title “Lords of 52nd Street” upon you and the guys in Billy’s band?
It is. Phil gave us the name when they listed the credits on the 52nd Street album. We recorded in A & R Studios which was on the corner of 7th Avenue and 52nd Street in New York City.
What was the catalyst behind the reunion of you, Richie and Russell to form The Lords of 52nd Street and start playing together again?
We were inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. The night of the induction, we were slated to perform two songs. The audience loved it, and we ended up doing five songs. That’s when we decided to take this to the next level.
Where are The Lords touring in 2017?
We play theaters on Long Island, Florida, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, upstate New York and are expanding to other markets.
What is it like having Andy Gilmartin, who has been a lifelong fan of the band that backed Billy Joel, as a manager and overseer of The Lords of 52nd Street?
Andy is great. He’s a hard worker. He loves us and has always been a big fan of the music. He dabbled with the drums in his youth, and when he was younger, he was me for Halloween one year.
In October 2014, the original band for Billy Joel was inducted into The Long Island Music Hall of Fame, including the posthumous induction of bassist Doug Stegmeyer. How would you describe that moment, as you, Richie, Russell and Doug were recognized for your contributions to music?
It’s great to be recognized for anything you do. For it to happen for me with Russell and Richie, it was a total thrill. To have Doug included was a very emotional experience. His mother, Peg, and his sister, Susan, were there to accept his place in Rock and Roll history.
Looking back at your invaluable contributions to the music that launched Billy Joel into stardom, what are some of your favorites songs to unleash your “inner beast” on and why?
I can’t tell you which are my favorites, but I can tell you the ones I don’t like starting with-“My Life.”
Here’s a bit of trivia for those who may not realize about the iconic sound of a car engine revving up and a spectacular set of wheels squalling in “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” It was you and Doug, who provided the noise for this, when a tape recorder was hooked up to the bumper of Doug’s car and captured the blast of noise, as you guys sped off down the road. Talk a bit about that and who came up with the idea to record that moment.
Someone had mentioned that it would be cool to have the sound of a car peeling out at the end of the song. For some reason, Phil didn’t have a recording of one. So, the next day, I took a Panasonic cassette player that Russell had given me, and we taped the cheap, plastic microphone to the bumper of Doug’s vintage Corvette and took off around the streets of Northport, Long Island.
Your daughter, Torrey DeVitto, stars on the NBC hit show, “Chicago Med,” as Dr. Natalie Manning. What is it like for you, as a parent, to be able to turn on your TV and see her on one of the best shows on the peacock network?
I sit with my wife, Anna, and watch the show. I say to Anna, ‘Pinch me. I can’t believe what I am seeing.’ It is truly amazing. I am very proud of her and, equally, as proud of her sisters.
Besides drumming, what else thrills your heart and soul?
It has been often noted that Ringo Starr is your favorite drummer. Is that correct? If so, what is it about Ringo’s style of playing that you admire?
That is correct. I have other favorite drummers, such as Dino Danelli, from the Rascals, Jim Capaldi, from Traffic, Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie and Hal Blaine, the most recorded drummer in Rock and Roll, who played on all the recordings I practiced, to become the drummer I am today…and so many more. Dom Famularo is another favorite of mine and an amazing teacher and inspiration to all.
What are some of your favorite cities, here in the U.S. and abroad, to entertain the masses and why?
New York City, obviously…Philly. That’s the first city to break in Billy Joel. Anywhere in Australia. A definite highlight was playing Havana, Cuba in 1978 and the Soviet Union in 1987. That’s a whole interview.
Perhaps, but we aren’t going to wait until the next interview to reflect on that historic trek to the Soviet Union, when you, Billy and the band travelled to Moscow and Leningrad to do a series of concerts. Looking back on the significance of this groundbreaking moment in Rock history, which, literally, liberated thousands of the Russian people from the chains of cultural, musical oppression, it is important to know that you and your band-of-brothers were responsible for offering such an incredible, life-changing gift for these concert-goers. Talk a bit about that time in your life-
I can tell you that I was very nervous thinking about performing for what was then considered the enemy. I am from the generation who hid under the desk in school, for fear of a nuclear attack from the Soviets. I really played up the American theme. I wore a shirt with an American flag on the chest. I had American pins on my jacket, the flag, Mickey Mouse, etc., and I had American flags on my drum riser. I was so “American,” Billy asked me to tone it down a little! Of course, I didn’t. I think he was worried that the audience would see me as the ugly American, boasting of who we are.
On the 25th-anniversary filming, I had told this to Oleg Smirnoff, who was Billy’s interpreter on stage. He said, when I played the drums and the people saw the American flag on my chest, to them, I represented “ultimate freedom.” I was free to do what I love…my arms flailing, showed them what it was like to think and express myself outside the box. A box they had to live in. It was a very emotional experience.
A few years ago, you, and several other prominent Italian-Americans, were given recognition for your outstanding achievements to the community/arts with an “Italian-American of Distinction Award,” by Assemblyman Andrew Raia, during a ceremony held in conjunction for “Italian-American Day,” in Albany, New York. As someone who has been involved with music for many years, what were your thoughts about being honored for your contributions to Rock and Roll on that day?
It’s wonderful to be recognized for anything you do, but when you are the product of a people who came from Italy to make a better life and, now, two generations later, I am being honored, it has to make my family, who came before me, very proud. My grandparents and my parents worked very hard to have me be a success. I think I made all their hard work worth it.
I was in the house band at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for many years. One year, they celebrated the “Women In Rock.” Ronnie was one of the women honored, along with Mavis Staples, Cyndi Lauper and others. A few days after that show, I got a call from Ronnie’s manager, and he asked if I would be interested in playing with Ronnie. I said “yes,” before he finished his sentence. I did that for about seven years. She told me she loved how I played the bass drum. I once got a review in a newspaper that said I nailed the parts on her Ronettes’ recordings. How could I not? The great Hal Blaine was one of my teachers. Listening to those records is how I learned to play. It was an honor playing alongside him at the 2017 NAMM show during Ronnie’s set.
How do you like to unwind after working a particularly strenuous gig or tour?
When I’m onstage or on the road, I’m Liberty DeVitto, the drummer. When I’m home, I’m Lib, “Take out the trash,” Lib, “Feed the baby,” etc.
Last summer, you and your band, The Slim Kings, were invited on the set of “The Staten Island Comedy Show.” At one point, the host, Nevin Cummings, interviewed you guys and aired the video that was filmed for the song “Dirty Minds.” Who was the mastermind behind this very clever video, which truly does reveal, by the nature of its subject matter, that most people are intrinsically hardwired to think in a sexual manner, whether it’s consciously done or not.
That was me and Michael Sackler-Berner (The Slim Kings’ lead singer/guitarist) brainstorming. The real help came from Michael’s uncle, who is a professional camera man, and Michael’s father, Fred Berner, who is a director on some of the most popular TV shows and movies. In fact, he sometimes directs my daughter, Torrey, and her crew on “Chicago Med.”
You were once asked about what kind of music you do not like. For those inquiring minds that just need to know, what genre of music do you not enjoy?
Actually, I love all music, if it is played well. I don’t like music that has been over-produced and has no feel or passion to it.
In a matter of weeks, there is a documentary set for theatrical release, nationwide, that features you and many other musicians in the industry that helped in establishing the careers of the main artist, by way of the support of the backing musicians, those unsung heroes. For most of the general population, the songs on which you and countless others recorded are very familiar; some even became Top 10 hits. However, the names and faces of those who helped support the main artist-in-the-spotlight along the way may not be so familiar to those same fans. “Hired Gun” takes an in-depth look at the careers and contributions of those supporting musicians and brings them out of the shadows. As a result, this film is going to bring much deserved recognition, exposure to the musicians who were instrumental in this process, giving millions of people the chance to know who they were listening to, when they grooved to their favorite songs. How did Director Fran Strine go about contacting you to be a part of “Hired Gun?”
The concept for the documentary was created between Fran and Jason Hook (Five Finger Death Punch). Jason told Fran if he wants someone, who has had an amazing career as a “hired gun,” he needed to contact me. I was the first one Fran called, and I immediately said “yes!”
What was it like to be a part of the filming for “Hired Gun?” And, what was it like for you when you saw yourself, for the very first time, on a forty-foot screen?
Doing interviews is cool, but playing with some of the best “Hired Gun” musicians in the world was amazing. One of the highlights for me was playing double drums with the always amazing Kenny Aronoff, to the Ted Nugent song, “Just What The Doctor Ordered,” as Derek St. Holmes sang lead. It’s kind of strange to see yourself that big on the big screen.
This is a question that will pique your memory, but do you have any specific recollections of moments in your career where someone offered words of encouragement that will forever remain with you?
My Dad gave me the best advice, when I was young. He said, ‘Make sure you work for a tall boss. It makes it easier to kiss his ass.’
All kidding aside, when people think what you’re doing is a foolish idea, it makes you more determined to do it. In the 60’s, the thought of being a musician was throwing your life away, according to my WWII veteran Dad. So, it’s like swimming upstream to prove yourself. One of the best things I ever heard was when singer Dion (“The Wanderer,” “Run Around Sue,” “Ruby Baby”) said he had once met Buddy Holly and asked Mr. Holly what he should do to achieve success. Mr. Holly told Dion, ‘I can’t tell you what to do, but I can you what not to do-try to please everyone.’
You are a voracious reader and are known to “devour” books of significance, including the massive tome “The Complete Beatles Chronicle,” by author Mark Lewisohn. Is there any “stone left unturned” that you have yet to discover about The Beatles that you did not know about this band and hope to one day find the answer for?
I have the honor of working with Billy J. Kramer. Billy had many hits in the 60’s-the first four of his hits were written by Lennon and McCartney. He was also managed by the great Brian Epstein. I was on the plane with Billy, reading Mark’s book, and Billy asked me if it was good. I said, ‘It’s great.’ Then, Billy tapped the page and said to me, ‘I was there.” To me, the Beatle fan, at that moment, I realized I had everything I wanted to know about the Beatles, sitting right next to me.
The one thing Billy told me, that I can only imagine, is when he said, ‘You have never seen The Beatles, if you didn’t see them before they started to wear the suits.’ I can only imagine, in the way Billy explains it, they were a Rock and Roll force ready to explode.
If you could host a dinner party and invite ten guests (past and present), who would you summon to the occasion?
The Beatles, my Mom and Dad, who supported me in my musical adventure, my four daughters and this brings it to 11, my wife. But, if I have my wife there, I’ll have to invite U2. That’s her Beatles! So, now, we are way over the limit, and I’ll have to get a bigger place, ‘cause I can’t leave anyone out!
Liberty, where do you hope your career takes you that you have yet to be or hope to be?
I have accomplished much being the drummer to the star. I would like to have some success as a drummer in a band…kind of like Ringo. Maybe I can do this with The Slim Kings.