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
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