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An Interview With Liberty DeVitto
by Ant

March 27, 2008

Liberty DeVitto is one of those drummers I could watch play all day long. His unique style and approach to attacking the drums made a major impression on me at an early age and definitely set a high standard for other drummers. He played on (and helped arrange) some of the most memorable pop/rock music ever recorded while playing with Billy Joel. Those songs would not have been quite the same without Liberty. I recently had a chance to ask him some questions...

































Ant: Liberty, I can't thank you enough for taking the time to answer a few questions.

Liberty: Hey Anthony, you're an Italian from Brooklyn and a major fan.... How can I say no, Fugedabouit?? Of course I can do it.

Ant: Not many people realize that Billy Joel practically joined your band instead of vice-versa. How did this happen?

Liberty: Myself, Russel Javors, Doug Stegmeyer and Howie Emerson formed "Topper" in 1971 and played original material that Russell was writing plus Reggae, blues and straight out Rock and Roll. In 1973 bassist Doug Stegmeyer got the gig with Billy to do the "Streetlife Serenader" tour. At the end of that tour Billy told Doug he wanted to move back to NY from LA and have the same band record with him and go on the road. (He was using studio guys in the studio and different guys on the road). Plus he told Doug he wanted a NY style aggressive drummer... Doug said I know the guy... I did get the gig and we went into the studio to record "Turnstiles"... 3 piece, Piano, Drums, Bass... When it came to needing guitars we told Billy we will get a great guitar player for him and we brought in Russell Javors and Howie Emerson. So yes, with the addition of saxophonist Richie Cannata, "Topper" did become Billy's band.

Ant: "Aggressive" is definitely your style. Which drummers influenced you?

Liberty: Easy, Ringo Starr (Beatles), Dino Dinelli (Rascals), Jim Capaldi (Traffic), Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix), Ginger Baker (Cream). I have to say in my early day of listening .. Hal Blaine was a major influence and I didn't even know it... As was The guy that played on the 4 seasons records and the studio guy who played on all those English Invasion tunes, DC5 , the Kinks, Zombies... ETC.

Ant: Speaking of drummers, what do you think of Neil Peart from Rush?

Liberty: I think Neil is a fantastic drummer, their style of music isn't really what I like, but I think they are a great band and totally believable... Plus I think Neil is a great lyricist.

Ant: What kinds of music do you enjoy listening to these days?

Liberty: I like anything that is done well, Rock, the Killers, Radiohead, Muse... R&B and Hip Hop, Mary J Blige...Jazz, I like old school jazz.. Jimmy Smith... Dave Brubeck...Classical... I like movie soundtracks... "The Mission" is one of my favorites.

Ant: Okay so the first album you did with Billy was "Turnstiles" from 1976. While Billy now had the band he was after, the newfound energy just didn't translate onto the album. Was this because producer Phil Ramone was yet on the scene?

Liberty: Yes, the production was weak. Billy produced that one. Phil knew how to make hit records.

Ant: What was it like working with Phil Ramone and how did he work with you? Did he have any influence on your playing?

Liberty: Phil taught us how to play in the studio without losing our energy. Check out his book "Making Records" there's a chapter in there on us.

Ant: I read you're not a big fan of "Just The Way You Are". Any other songs you could do without hearing again?

Liberty: "My Life" ... Hate it !!!

Ant: Funny, you know the song I hate the most is "Modern Woman" from "The Bridge". It's hard to believe that was a Phil Ramone production because it sounds so much different than anything he's done before with Billy.

Liberty: Phil was coming off a big hit with "Maniac" from the movie "Flashdance" at the time. So he was really hung up on that sound...there is an even worse version of the tune with me playing electric drums.... SUCKS.

Ant: On the flipside, my absolute favorite album with you and Billy is "Glass Houses", I love the energy on that album...how was it making that one??

Liberty: That album is the only album that has just the band on it ... No one overdubbed anything.. It was just, Me, Billy, Doug, Russell, David, and Richie....That was "The Billy Joel Band" and forever will be. WoW, I got so sentimental in that last question.

Ant: Earlier you mentioned being influenced by The Four Seasons and British Invasion records...how was it working on the "Innocent Man" album which was basically paying tribute to that era?

Liberty: Oh that was great, We would sit and listen to these old 45's - The Drifters, 4 seasons, all that 50's doo wop... Billy would write in that vein and we would become those guys!!! That album was done so fast that we thought it was sure to be a flop...

Ant: That was also around the time Billy started dating supermodel Christie Brinkley. What's it like when your good friend and lead singer starts dating a supermodel and she starts hanging out with the band?

Liberty: Lets not forget, Billy was dating Elle McPherson first... Then Christy... When we knew Christy was coming to the studio we would dress nicer...
We would be falling all over her.. It was sick... She is beautiful.. Inside and out...

Ant: Hey at least you got to work with Stevie Nicks...how did that happen?

Liberty: I did the "Wild Heart" tour. Jimmy Iovine thought Stevie needed an animated drummer for a visual effect.... To get the people's eyes off her for a while so he hired me. She was different to work with.. She was very delicate and very "West Coast"... I was a NY Rocker.

Ant: You also toured with Elton John. To me he comes across as prissy, what's your take on him?

Liberty: He was a great guy or girl.... Elton is a total pro who knows who he is and loves what he does and is very comfortable in his own skin...

Ant: While we're talking about tours, one of my favorite concert videos ever is "Billy Joel - Live From Long Island". What are your memories of that concert?

Liberty: My favorite part is at the beginning of "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant". Me and the band are around a table. I make like I'm drinking a bottle of wine... Then I take a pepperoni and place it like a dick.... Hardly anyone catches it... Its pretty funny...

Ant: All that great music and your favorite part is a "pepperoni dong"...great. I just re-watched that part and it is pretty funny. Why hasn't that video been released officially?

Liberty: I have no idea.

Ant: Okay, so back to your studio work with Billy... just as he was set to record the "Storm Front" album, Billy decides to fire not only the entire band (minus yourself), but producer Phil Ramone as well. How did you react??

Liberty: I hated it ... They were all my friends, Doug had some problems he couldn't work out but I believe losing Doug was a big part of that.

Ant: Then on "River Of Dreams" Billy (along with producer Danny Kortchmar) decided to replace YOU with another studio drummer! How did that make you feel?

Liberty: It made me feel like shit.... Only because Billy did it behind my back... He has never been one to be confrontational ... Like Doug and Russell found out they didn't have a gig anymore when they heard it on MTV... I got a call that said Billy was recording with new guys.. I called Billy and actually had to pry it out of him.

Ant: Do you think it was a wise move in retrospect?

Liberty: Hey it is what it is... I have the songs with me playing on them ... Maybe one day Billy will release them to the public.

Ant: Did you initially play drums on all the songs and then Danny decided which ones to keep?

Liberty: I would say I played on 90% of the songs... Danny replaced everything... The album was so bad Sony replaced his "Shades of Gray" with the one I played on and they sent "River Of Dreams" to a guy in Philly, Joe the Butcher, and he put a drum loop on it and a new bass then he put the kids sounds on it and made it total hip hop. Danny K's version SUCKED. Joe totally recut "All about soul".

Ant: What really sucks is that you're no longer playing with Billy. What happened?

Liberty: Really, I have no idea what happened...I was really hurt by it and have never had closure on it... I never got a call, no one ever talked to me again.... I think I was sabotaged by people around Billy.

Ant: Is there a chance you'll play with him again?

Liberty: There would have to be some personal changes before I ever work with him again.

Ant: Online there's rumors your split had to do with money or perhaps your not liking what was said about you in Hank Bordowitz's biography, "Billy Joel - The Life & Times of an Angry Young Man", which lead to a falling out to such an extent that you didn't attend Joel's most recent wedding to Katie Lee. Do you want to comment on any of this?

Liberty: I wasn't invited to Billy and Katie's wedding...I have no idea why.. And I have no idea why I don't play with him anymore.....No one in that organization will speak to me...and to be honest... I was really hurt by it but everyday I get more and more of that great.. I don't give a fuck feeling.

Ant: Let's talk about some stuff you've been involved in more recently. I'll never forget a show at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City about 8 years ago. The opening act comes on and there you are slamming away on drums, then Ben Orr from the Cars appears...what a great surprise! Tell me about that band "Big People".

Liberty: "Big People" was Myself, Jeff Carlisi (38 special), Derek St Holmes (Ted Nugent), Pat Travers and Ben Orr (Cars)... It was thought up by Manager Charlie Busco (Skynard, Styx) and put together as a supergroup... It was a blast.

Ant: What was it like playing with Ben Orr?

Liberty: Ben was our Rock star... He was a fantastic person and friend ...Unfortunately we lost Ben to cancer .. And the band fell apart. Me, Jeff and Derek still play together and I am still in touch with Pat... All great guys and very talented musicians. Jeff is also the co-founder of "Camp Jam".

Ant: Speaking of "Camp Jam", I understand you're now working with children in a couple of music related projects?

Liberty: First let me say that I do believe the children are our future. I love to show kids the reality of drumming and making music... And to show them they can do it. There is nothing I love more then seeing a little face the first time they play a simple drum beat. Its very exciting to know I may have changed that child's life at that moment. You can look up "Little Kids Rock" and "Camp Jam" ... www.littlekidsrock.org www.campjam.com.

Ant: Liberty, before I let you go I want to talk bootlegs. I have a proshot video from the "Innocent Man" tour, Wembley 1984. The rumor is one of the sources of this show came from your personal collection...know anything about that?

Liberty: I have no idea... Maybe my ex-wife is passing stuff around.

Ant: Do you have any rare live shows with Billy in your personal archives?

Liberty: I lost everything in my last divorce...

Ant: How do you feel about fans having bootlegs of your performances and trading them?

Liberty: Bootleg all you want .. I don't get royalties.

Ant: I would be honored to to replenish your personal archive and send you copies of all I have - many DVDs of your work from Musicladen and Old Grey Whistle Test 1978, Mike Douglas 1976, Live From Long Island (from a Japanese laserdisc), Wembley 84, Russia, Japan with Elton. I don't sell any of these...just a collector. If they were released officially I'd buy them in a heartbeat. It's the least I can do for someone I have highly respected for the past 30 plus years.

Liberty: I would love to have it all... I'll take whatever you got...


Official Liberty DeVitto Links:

Liberty DeVitto MySpace






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