30 Days Out Exclusive Interview: Liberty DeVitto, former drummer for Billy Joel

Whenever I would buy a ticket to see BIlly Joel, I was also buying a ticket to see his drummer, Liberty DeVitto. DeVitto has always been my favorite drummer. I started taking lessons after I saw him play. He plays with power and passion and always looks like he is having the time of his life behind his kit. To me, he was the heart and soul behind Billy Joel’s music.

After years of recording and touring with Joel, the two had a falling out and he is now no longer part of the “Billy Joel Band.” I was always curious about what happened because they seemed to have a great rapport, both on and off stage.

Hunting around MySpace the other night I came across DeVitto’s page. I sent him an email and told him how much he inspired me and how I thought Joel’s current band wasn’t the same without him. I never thought I would get a reply, but I did. It’s quite a thrill when you can converse with one of your heroes and find out he’s one of the good guys. Anyway, DeVitto has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his days with Joel, his split with Joel and what he’s doing now.

30DaysOut: When did you first get together with Billy Joel?

Liberty DeVitto: Billy and I used to play the same club in Plainview, Long Island, called “My House.” He was 17 and in a band called The Hassles and I was 16 and in a band called The New Rock Workshop. We would watch each other play and acknowledge each other in passing. In 1974, he was living in Los Angeles and had already released Piano Man and Streetlife Serenade. He used studio musicians for the recording and different guys out on the road. I was playing in a band called Topper with Doug Stegmeyer and he got the gig to play bass with Billy on the “Streetlife” tour. He told Doug that he wanted to move back to New York and find a permanent band he could record and tour with on a regular basis. Doug recommended me because Billy was looking for a New York-type drummer, aggressive and hard hitting, and the rest is history. The three of us recorded the basic tracks for Turnstiles and we both recommended Russell Javors and Howie Emerson, who played guitars in Topper and with the addition of Richie Cannata on saxophone, the “Billy Joel Band” was born.

30DaysOut: What was it like touring in one of the biggest bands of the 70s, 80s and 90s?

Liberty DeVitto: It didn’t suck! Wine, women and loud happy song!!

30DaysOut: Did you, Billy or the producer come up with your drum parts?

Liberty DeVitto: Phil Ramone, our producer through The Bridge LP, really taught us how to play in the studio. All of us came up with our own parts. You can listen to “Scenes from An Italian Restaurant” on the recently released Carnegie Hall concert (part of the 30th Anniversary Edition of The Stranger), which was recorded four months before we went into the studio, and it’s the exact same arrangement that turned up on the album. What was great about Phil was that he knew when something was good and didn’t try to mess with it. We really were a family when we were making those records. In fact, we used to refer to him as “Uncle Phil.”

30DaysOut: My favorite drum fill of yours is during the third verse of “Prelude/Angry Young Man” when you do the “flams” around the drum kit? What is your favorite drum part?

Liberty DeVitto: The “Prelude” fill is not on the recording, it came about while we were on the road. I really like the beginning of “I Don’t Want to be Alone,” on Glass Houses. “Scandinavian Skies” on The Nylon Curtain was also pretty cool.

30DaysOut: How was playing in Russia?

Liberty DeVitto: It was very intense. The “wall” was up and they were the enemy, so it felt like another world, something I was not familiar with. Most of people didn’t have much in the way of physical possessions, but they had the biggest hearts you can imagine. I was very moved. In fact, the trip really made me re-think my life.

30DaysOut: After that historic tour, most of the band members, except you, were let go. What happened?

Liberty DeVitto: We were on a tour of Australia and Japan and Billy pulled me aside one day and said it was just going to be me and him in the studio with some new players for the upcoming album, which turned out to be Storm Front. It was tough on me. I couldn’t look at the guys in the face anymore.

30DaysOut: You and Billy always seemed to have such a good rapport, both on stage and off. What happened? Why are you not part of his band anymore?

Liberty DeVitto: To be totally truthful, I have no idea why. I know there might have been a few things that I did that pissed him off, but nothing that we couldn’t have worked out if we would have talked about it. I still love the guy. Hey, after losing Christie Brinkley, losing me must have been easy. Honestly, he did me a favor. I will always be known as the drummer that helped him create all his biggest hits and perform on his most memorable tours. The only new thing he has put out since River of Dreams is a song called “All My LIfe.” If I was with him, I would have asked him if it was okay *not* to play on that one…..Billy does Vegas!!!!

30DaysOut: Joel’s band doesn’t have the same feel without you in the band. I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t feel right. It didn’t feel that way when Stegmeyer, Javors or David Brown left. What are your thoughts when you see Billy touring without you?

Liberty DeVitto: I can understand why Doug ended his life (Stegmeyer committed suicide in 1995). It’s hard to see someone else playing your parts, especially when it wasn’t your decision to leave the band. You give your heart and soul to the music, and then someone says “Hey, I don’t need you anymore, but I’m keeping everything that you did.”

30DaysOut: What are you doing nowadays?

Liberty DeVitto: I am part of “Little Kids Rock” .  I do drum clinics around the world for Mapex Drums, Sabian Cymbals, Pro-Mark Drumsticks and Evans Drum Heads. I also work with Camp Jam, a summer camp in 16 cities this year for musicians under age 17.

30DaysOut: Have you toured with any other big name acts?

Liberty DeVitto: I tour with The Beatles on my iPod every time I travel.  Seriously, I love being independent.  It’s fun to pick and choose what I want to do, whether it be touring with a band, or playing the bar down the block. I am still doing what I love…drumming.

If you want to stay on top of what is going on with Liberty DeVitto, check out his MySpace page.

“I Don’t Want To Be Alone” by Billy Joel (song only)

“Scandanavian Skies” by Billy Joel

YouTube: Liberty DeVitto 2007 Career Achievement Award

Liberty DeVitto’s MySpace page

Camp Jam

Little Kids Rock

Check out our two exclusive interviews with Trans-Siberian Orchestra vocalist  Tommy Farese , Toto lead singer Bobby Kimball, Brian Wilson backup singer and solo artist Taylor Mills and two interviews with “Undercover Angel” Alan O’Day

28 Responses to “30 Days Out Exclusive Interview: Liberty DeVitto, former drummer for Billy Joel”

  1. […] out our other exclusive interviews with former Billy Joel drummer, Liberty DeVitto, TOTO lead singer Bobby Kimball Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)G-Soul […]

  2. […] first interview with Tommy Farese and other exclusive interviews with former Billy Joel drummer, Liberty DeVitto, Toto lead singer Bobby Kimball and Brian Wilson backup singer and solo artist Taylor Mills. […]

  3. It’s very simple to understand why Billy Joel no longer wanted to work with Liberty DeVitto. He has a big mouth and a tendency to overestimate his contribution to others music. I know for a fact that many of his drum parts were directed by Billy Joel himself. And if he felt so bad about other members of the old band being replaced, then why did he stay on? I’ll tell you why – FOR THE MONEY. He was very well paid over the years by Billy Joel and now seems to disregard that aspect of his relationship. DeVitto’s loyalty is and always has been TO THE MONEY. Move on, Liberty

  4. That’s right Liberty-blame Billy Joel for Doug Stegmeyer’s suicide. Didn’t you leave Doug too? That’s one hell of a terrible accusation. No wonder Billy won’t have anything to do with you anymore.

  5. bill brady Says:

    I like your music and appreciate what you do. I just found your website and wanted to say hello. I went to Seaford and graduated in 1974. I knew your brother Vinny and was saddened to hear of his passing so long ago. I wish you well. Bill B…..

  6. I fell in love with Billy Joel’s music the first time I literally stumbled upon him opening for J. Geils & Captain Beefheart in 1972 or so. His drummer at the time was Rhys Clark. Frankly, I was upset when Rhys was replaced. I think Liberty was a better showman than Clark and a steady performer, but he in no way helped make Billy Joel the superstar he became.

  7. I was a Liberty fan until 90 seconds ago. Essentially blaming Billy for Doug’s suicide indicates that Liberty is either: A) an idiot or B) hateful for the sport of it.

  8. Jenny Gardner Says:

    Please the Rhys Clarke that is spoken of here …Is he the same Rhys I knew many many years ago ????? …He was from NZ and then to Australia to play in a Band called The Executives around 1967 to 1969 ….as I often wondered what happened to him Jenny

  9. Liberty still rocks!! I,ve seen Joel with and without him….no comparrison!!!

    Play it like it is Liberty!

  10. Jenny,

    Yes, it is the same Rhys Clark you knew. He is still in the USA and has played with many bands since the Billy Joel days. You can contact him at rhys@highseasmusic.com. Good luck reconnecting.

  11. Jose Ortiz Says:

    There will never be another line up like the one Billy Joel had in the 70’s & 80’s. To me, they were the best!! Liberty was, and still is, a driving force! You can see how Billy and Liberty reacted to each other in the concert footage. That was always cool. But, come on Liberty, blaming Billy for Doug’s death is way overboard. I hope you guys work out your issues and make more great music.
    By the way, which were the songs that Liberty claims he co-wrote with Billy Joel?

  12. Anthony Molinari Says:

    no question billy was always writing —as good as he was there are always changes being made and when he was stumped —he would always throw it back to his band members for help –he himself admitted to this and i believe it to be true also …this is from billy himself in an interview and said when he was playing the music to honesty —he didnt have all the words in the studio and the band helped him …iam sure this happened alot …..lets put it in perspective all these yrs later after billy in the beginning l signed his music rights away to artie ripp… he today owns all his music ….so you would think after all the money hundreds of millions of dollars that joel has –to remember when he was broke a million or two to all his bandmembers who made even his live shows so successful -even 10 mil for them all to split would just give him a write tax write off and still be comfortable w/ all his royaltys for yrs to come …

  13. Randy Caruso Says:

    Don’t we all do what we do for the money.Why should Lib be any different.There will never be a Billy Joel Band like they had when Lib was part of it.Too Bad.

  14. How can Harry O say Liberty’s loyalty was always to the money. I know for a fact that Liberty put his heart and soul to the music. It’s pathetic that BJ treated Doug and Liberty the way they got dismissed from the band.

  15. Fuck you Liberty. You are such a whiner. You fucked your friend in the back bigtime!! There are so many drummers who can do what you do.

  16. It’s the same as Mellencamp. It’s not same without Kenny Aronoff. Liberty rocks…shitty comment about the suicide though.

  17. Sounds like the old phrase “familiarity breeds contempt”… Remember, the blank musical page was filled in by Billy Joel, not Liberty. That said all fans hurt when familiar relationships splinter and players cast or tossed aside without notice or cool gratitude… A simple thank you would have helped everyone, followed by “I want a new sound, new vibe, new direction, new anything”. It is the right of an artist’s creative choice “to create and with whom”. That it feels like an F U moment toward Liberty, diminishes Billy’s well honed everyman image and for me leaves a sour taste toward him and his talented though derivative music. Billy’s the man…”Honesty is such a lonely word” We look to our musical leaders to act with Honesty and Truth. Lay it out for Liberty and he and we will move on with it.

  18. Gylfi Hilmisson Says:

    As a musician myself I can relate to how members of a band become a second family and a part of the creative process. Nothing lasts forever. After all, no matter how great the band was, it was still Billy’s backing band. When success comes knocking in a big way, how does one gracefully deal with family when one feels being held back merely by repetition. Not lack of quality or sense of friendship but stagnation of creativity. As far as songwriting goes I don’t believe for a second that credit wasn’t given where credit was due but.., let’s get real. Was Steve Gadd given songwriting credits on “50 ways to leave your lover” for one of the most memorable drum grooves on a hit song ever? I think not.
    Does he resent Mr. Paul Simon for it? Perhaps, but at least he’s not airing it in public. Reading Mr. Devitto’s comments about this tragic suicide, blaming it on the music and pointing fingers like that is just wrong. Biting the finger that fed you and gave you the best years of your life. Way to go dude. I’ve been been a great fan of Mr. Devitto’s drumming for Billy for many years but I’ve just lost respect for the man I’m sorry to say. There’s no groove in this crap at all.
    No wonder Billy is so cynical in a lot of his work. Everyone wants a piece of you when you reach there. Even your “friends” just judge and question !! Most of my favorite B. J. songs don’t even have drums in them HA !
    Rock on Billy.

  19. I’m not a Huge follower of BJs music, beyond a good best of, but I’m a big fan of his band and of liberty and this was a great, great interview.

    Bizarre that the Elton John band went thru the exact same thing. After years of hits and a core group, EJ sporadically axes the rhythm section, and to this day they still say “no idea” when asked why. Still, if EJ and Nigel Olssen can get back together perhaps there is hope for Liberty and BJ too.

    Also, I think you guys are being a little harsh re his comment about Doug’s suicide. He stopped short of accusing Billy Joel of anything. Pointed, yes. But accusative, not really.

  20. i remember seeing these guys at the spectrum in philly. awesome band. rock on billy and liberty.

  21. wiley coyote Says:

    I worked with Rhys for years in The Freddy Fender Band. I recall him saying that home in the Hamptons that Liberty has should be his. Billy was Rhys best man at Their wedding.

  22. Here’s a little jewel that Liberty sent me via Myspace a few years ago…

    Ian, I have to start this email by saying I have joined the priest hood of the roman catholic church…………… Ha I’ll bet I had you for a moment !!!! FUCK THAT !!!!!!….. yea, fuckin drummers , we’re all alike we make excuces like I dont like reggae and shit like that just to get out of a band…… HA got you again… we just hate the people in the band… like Tommy Byrns.. he’s the biggest prick in the bizz.. no talent… he couldnt suck david browns asshole !! . Max , Nigel, all of them…. great guys … and each a great drummer in their own… Collage huh… gettin laid… when we played collages it was a given !!
    God I miss those days…
    Well have fun..
    cheers

  23. Yeah, Liberty can’t spell worth two shits and proved himself to be a complete tool on the Billy Joel Completely Retold FB page. Glad he left. Seriously, “collages”? Go and perfect your spelling skills like you’ve perfected your asshole routine, Lib. You’re not missed.

  24. Liberty Devitto is no Steve Gadd….by a fucking longshot. Actually, I felt that Stegmeyer was a more essential element to BJ & his music and mourned his loss deeply.

  25. I enjoyed and still do enjoy the music. I can’t do what they do and am grateful for all the contributions anyone made to make it happen.

  26. Todd Turner Says:

    tHE ACTUAL STORY IS THAT BILLY OWED LIBERTY MONEY FOR PAST ALBUMS, HE WOUND UP SETTLEING WITH LIBERTY. tHYE WILL NEVER WORK AGAIN. IT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH DOUG STEG

  27. Thank you liberty and beautiful fam! Met you in cancun for little kids rock! We didn’t know it was going to be more fun for us than for our 17, 15,15, 12 year olds! Thank you for giving back! It was so much fun and a memory I will have forever! Want to gather friends and come to my very rural small community in colorado? It would be amazing! we can make it a sweet family vacation!Steamboat springs co

  28. Listen – I totally get where Liberty is coming from with the suicide comment. I make a living as well as a professional musician and have worked with big acts. It’s a sad fact that there is no loyalty in music at all. Big names let musicians go all the time with no explanation. I’ve been let go with other musicians and not given a reason. Hell, I had a female friend on tour as a backing vocalist with one of the biggest artists in the world who was one day let go in the middle of the tour with the other two backing vocalists (all three in total) and were simply told that the artist was tired of the vocal sound and wanted to hear three new voices instead. It’s lousy but it happens.

    That being said, don’t be too hard on Liberty – it’s not like he’s the first to think that. Unless you’ve made a living as a musician you can’t understand. It sucks to be part of a unit for a long time and to make contributions – any contributions, large or small – not count for anything. It hurts to be let go, even for a simple reason as the artist wanting a new sound or direction, but it hurts even more to sit by the sideline and watch someone else enjoy and reap the benefits of what you came up with. I can’t imagine what it felt like for Doug to have to watch someone else play his basslines.

    As for Liberty not quitting when Billy let the band go – I do agree that was wrong. I wouldn’t have been able to continue without the rest of them. Hell – one time I was sent out to audition for a semi-national act and during the audition the lead singer let it be known to me that the guy I was auditioning to replace wasn’t even aware of his impending departure, nor was he present at or aware of the auditions. As a professional courtesy to the guy I was supposed to be replacing, I walked out of the audition and called my agent and told him to never send me out on an audition like that ever again.

    So I can understand how hypocritical it comes off when Liberty preaches about how Billy’s screwed the band over but Liberty stayed on so I agree that wasn’t cool. If Liberty walked when the band was fired that would give him the right to talk shit.

    But as a professional musician, I’d be lying by saying that if I was in Doug’s position, watching someone else ride my coattails and reap the benefits, it’d be painfully hard to not want to end it myself.

    And I bet deep down inside Billy probably feels some kind of responsibility for it. Who knows – maybe it’s why he continues to drink….

    Paul

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