By Beau Jones
Two things I never saw myself doing:
1. Attending one of those rock music fantasy weekends where mostly middle-aged guys
and gals relive their glory days by jamming with the legends of yesteryear.
2. Listening to a copious amount of Billy Joel tunes in one sitting.
I swore off the Piano Man’s entire catalog after hearing his tenured and faithful sideman
tell the most heart-wrenching tale of betrayal this side of Bill Shakespeare’s version of
“You scratch my back and I’ll stab yours”. I figured it was safe to assume I’d never again
be in a New York State of Mind.
But now, mere days into my fifties, both of the above items have been scratched off a bucket
list I never knew existed – and in one fell swoop.
On a night when I would have otherwise watched my umpteenth Atlanta Braves game, I was
instead asked by a fellow writer to cover a Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp Master Class featuring
Liberty DeVitto, the long-time Billy Joel drummer and session timekeeper for the likes of Carly
Simon, Stevie Nicks, and Paul McCartney. Given the state of the world, this event would be
conducted via Zoom, so no need to pack my drumsticks, blue jean jacket and bandana and head
off to some school of rock for big boys and girls. Instead, I spent a couple of hours wearing
earbuds doing homework for my first ever writing assignment. And as I navigated the vast Billy
Joel hit parade with a more critical and mature ear than I had from ages 7-16, I realized the
truly versatile, musical, and stylistically-diverse nature of Liberty DeVitto’s drumming.
According to the email I received from the event, each of the handful of participants in the one-
hour online drumming workshop was promised at least one question, so I came up with a query
designed to get the studio vet talking about how he came up with so many nifty beats for songs
that ran the stylistic gamut from raucous and hard-hitting (“Say Goodbye To Hollywood” and
“Pressure”) to upbeat and swinging (“You’re Only Human”) to those which featured tastefully
textured and understated percussive parts (“Just The Way You Are”).
And so the Zoom screen appeared, and already sitting behind his kit visibly eager to take on our
group of adoring rock fans and/or drummers, was the man I had seen so many times perched
on the riser behind the Long Island legend. The man who enthusiastically anchored arguably
one of the best backing bands in rock history: Mr. Liberty DeVitto. There he was in my drum
As a bonus, the event’s unofficial host was Billy Amendola, Editor-At-Large for Modern
Drummer magazine, founding member of ‘70s disco group, Mantus, and the session man
responsible for the drum tracks on some of Debbie Gibson’s biggest smashes.
Before I had the chance to click the “raise hand” button, Mr. DeVitto was already answering my
unasked question as he shared stories about his legendary experiences working with famed
producer Phil Ramone. It was in those fateful recording sessions that the man behind the
control room glass would go back and forth with Mr. Joel’s band members allowing them to
workshop different ideas for what DeVitto called “pieces of songs” that were brought into the
studio. The drummer then discussed experimenting with various feels for a song and described
the process during which ideas would ultimately become a shuffle, or have a Latin beat, or be
built on a traditional two-four rock chassis. He made the point that this means to an end
differed drastically from the production style of a standard Nashville hit factory. In that neck of
the woods, musicians are typically told exactly what to play and precisely how to play it. For the
most part, he established that Music City producers hire musicians to record songs as
instructed whereas Devitto and his fellow Joel sidemen were fortunately paid to first help build
songs from the ground up – and then lay them down on tape.
Since my question had been properly addressed, I warmed up to the online group dynamic
secure in the knowledge that my planned topic of discussion was the first bullet point our
online mentor felt compelled to share with our intimate group of fewer than ten pupils. But I
needed to dig a little deeper.
When I was finally called on by the group’s moderator, I felt the “why” of Liberty’s drumming
approach had already been answered. The featured guest had pointed out that Billy Joel wrote
tunes that covered so many different styles, and that as his drummer, he was encouraged to
contribute his take on how each track should pulsate. But I still needed to know about the how.
How was Liberty DeVitto, a self-taught drummer who eschewed formal lessons from day one so
able to masterfully sculpt an assortment of spot-on rhythms for countless hits? How was he
able to be a veritable Swiss-army knife for Joel’s production team and effortlessly add just the
right flavor of drumming to so many different styles of songs? From whence did all that
inspiration and talent come?
His answer could have come off as predictable if not for the passion with which he expounded
on it. For the next several minutes, DeVitto humbly explained away any sort of mastery of
technique stating: “I’m not a drummer – I just play one on stage”, and that his experience
covering myriad genres in wedding bands provided a solid foundation for eventually being able
to comfortably insert numerous styles of drumming into the record-making process. Then he
went back further. Back to when he was a kid in Brooklyn wanting to master the traps without
actually suffering through so much rudimental learning. Like nearly every drummer of his
vintage, the desire was ignited after seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. DeVitto
explained that he learned how to play the drums by simply listening to the lyrics of songs. Not
the drum parts nor the bass lines or guitar riffs. The words. Coincidentally, he attributed Ringo
Starr’s method to the same madness.
It was this holistic song-based approach that prepared him to most aptly suggest the feel for
countless Billy Joel songs – but only after the prolific hitmaker discussed his lyrics with his
drummer. Moreover, Liberty said he still learns more about music from friends who aren’t
musicians than those who are – a statement a less-grounded professional would never dare
admit. And when the names of drummers like Stewart Copeland (The Police) and Alan White
(Yes) were tossed about in our group discussion, it wasn’t us wannabe-rocker attendees whose
pulses quickened, it was Liberty’s. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and Devitto proudly
owned up to the saying: “Good drummers borrow and great drummers steal.” After all these
years, Liberty Devitto is, at his core, one of the world’s biggest fans of multiple genres of music
and of those who made it come to life. Throughout the Zoom session, his unbridled enthusiasm
was both contagious and inspirational.
DeVitto, who turned 70 last month, is a consummate journeyman who continues to make music
and has recently released his autobiography, Liberty: Life, Billy, and the Pursuit of Happiness,
with a foreword written by none other than his former boss and would-be Brutus, Billy Joel. The
Rock and Roll gods have obviously smiled and the two have reconciled, an achievement that’s
not surprising after witnessing the humility and gracious appreciation Liberty showed us, his
apprentices for the evening whom he’d just met. His enthusiasm for drumming and music is
matched only by his warm, amicable personality. In fact, after viewing the segment of the
rockumentary film Hired Gun, in which Liberty explains how the suddenly-bankrupt Joel
abruptly fired him in order to staff his band with less-expensive players, I swore I’d never listen
to another song by the former Mr. Christie Brinkley as long as I lived. Fortunately, DeVitto
wears his earnestness on his sleeve like so many patches on the satin tour jackets of days gone
by. After assimilating his accounts of how he helped create the very songs I had perhaps
unjustly sworn off, I decided to retract my ban on all things Joel because that catalog has
DeVitto’s thumbprint all over it. Truth be told, before I ever logged on to my computer, I had
already ventured down 52 nd Street, checked out some Glass Houses, and pulled back The Nylon
Curtain in order to properly prepare for what I hoped wouldn’t be my last writing
assignment…nor my last Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp Master Class with a gentleman such as the
great Liberty DeVitto.
Beau Jones is a seasoned drummer and freelance music writer. For more information on
Rock’n’Roll Fantasy Camp, visit www.rockcamp.com.