Liberty DeVitto: A Rock Drumming Legend that Almost Wasn’t

Mike Lawson • Features • November 6, 2017

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For 30 years, Liberty DeVitto was the studio and touring drummer for Billy Joel. Some might say he was responsible for making Joel sound like a rock act instead of middle-of-the road pop.

His style is unmistakable. He is a drummer’s drummer.

His technique and sound is instantly recognizable among drummers who have listened to his work.

Yet, at the tender age of 11, when he was learning to play the snare drum in his middle school band program, he nearly dropped out of the program, after being sent to the “Siberia” of playing the bass drum following a heartbreaking comment made by his band director about his snare technique, or lack thereof.

I want to get right to this part of your story. I think it’s critical for every band director to hear. You had a director who nearly put you off of playing for good as a kid.

Right, right. What happened in sixth grade, I didn’t do the buzz roll. I couldn’t do the buzz roll for the “Star Spangled Banner” in the sixth grade. The teacher said, “Put the sticks down, DeVitto. You’ll never do anything with your drums.” It seemed like he based all drumming on that buzz roll. Of course, I got frustrated. Music never went to the wayside. Playing the drums, I felt, like, “I don’t know. Maybe he’s right.” But I’ve always loved music. I mean, I always listen to music. My mother loved music. So, there was always music in our house.

The Beatles then came on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and I saw what Ringo was doing, and I said, “You know what? I think I’m gonna forget the buzz roll. I want to do what that guy is doing.” That’s when I made the decision that I want to be in a band that travels the world, makes records and makes girls scream. I didn’t really care about the buzz roll at the time. I couldn’t do the buzz roll, he put me on the bass drum, and how boring can that be? I’ve been reduced to the bass drum.

How did you get your parents to buy you drums?

Well, I asked my father not too long ago, why the drums? I don’t remember why the drums. There were all these other instruments, but why the drums? He said, “Because they didn’t make Prozac when you were a kid.” I must have been beating on stuff and things. I know I had a cousin that played the drums, and he was getting a new set of drums. I guess they asked my parents, “Do you want the old set?” My father said, “Yeah, let’s get him the old set.” So that’s how it started.

How old were you?

Let’s see. Probably 11, maybe, something like that. I wouldn’t play in front of anybody. The drums were in my room. I just wouldn’t do it. But, yeah. It was the Beatles that actually turned everything over. In school, the girls liked guys that did sports. I don’t do sports at all. I’m sitting in a city right now that’s Mets crazy, and it’s like I can’t relate to anybody. So, when the Beatles came on TV, it was, like, “Okay. This is it. Music is gonna save my life. Music is gonna help me meet girls. Music is gonna change my life.”

When the Beatles came on the air on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” I was turning 14 years old. Of course, everybody started bands after the Beatles were on TV.

The next year, when I’m in ninth grade, I have a band, and girls aren’t talking to me yet. But we play a school dance one night, and the next day, when I walked into school, I felt like I became somebody. I, all of a sudden now, was the guy that these girls were running up to, and people were running up to going, “Wow! You were great last night. Wow, you guys are really good.”

We weren’t really good, but people thought that we were really good. I became somebody through playing the drums. I became that guy that played the drums last night.

Music brought you into a real self-awareness, and sense of self-satisfaction and being. It’s like it was your epiphany at that point.

Exactly, and when I think about it, I can almost see the place in the school, in the hall, where I was standing when the girl, Christine, came up to me and said, “Wow, you guys were really good last night!”

It’s like, “This is good! This is a good thing.”

At that point, you continued to play in garage bands and local bands. But did you get involved at all in the programs at school?

No, no. Once the Beatles came on TV, I said, “Okay, I want to do that.” My mom said, “Why don’t you go for lessons?” I went to a music store in my neighborhood out on Long Island, and the guy was showing me jazz. I said, “When are you gonna teach me how to play like Ringo?” He said, “Why do you want to learn how to play like him? He stinks!” My whole thing was, “I saw girls screaming for him, and there’s nobody screaming for you at this point.”

My father was, like, “Oh, what, are you gonna dig ditches for the rest of your life? You want to be a musician? What? Are you crazy? You’re gonna get into drugs. You’re gonna be a loser. You’re gonna be begging people for food.”

When your 6th grade music teacher made that comment to you, it was very personal and maybe a little devastating.

It was. It was very personal. It was, like, okay. I had this dream that I wanted to play drums. He just took the fire and threw water on it. Like, “You’ll never do anything with the drums.” Like, “Wow, dude. I can’t play the buzz roll all that well. That’s it? I’m done? It’s over?” It’s funny. I run into people that I went to school with, and they were there in the classroom when that happened. They remind me all of the time.

How would Liberty DeVitto have been different if the director had sat down and spent the time with you to develop that buzz roll?

Well, the thing that would have been different was, I probably would have learned from the book, right? He was gonna give me lessons. I would have learned from the book instead of learning from the records. You can learn how to play something by the notes on the page, but you can’t get the feel of it unless you really listen to the guy who is actually doing it. You can take Bernard Purdie, the Purdie Shuffle that he does. Are you familiar with that?

Oh, absolutely.

You can see it on paper, and then some drummer can sit down and play it. But then, if you put on the record that Bernard Purdie plays that shuffle to, it’s totally different. This whole feel and emotion is in it. That’s the hard part to translate, is the emotion of the music, the feel of the groove, where Bernard puts that stick down. That’s the part where you have to listen. You have to watch. Bernard Purdie always says — I look at him sometimes. Every damn show I’ll be watching what he’s doing. He’s doing the shuffle, and I said, “It’s amazing to watch you do it!” He looks up at me and he goes, “That’s what I tell my students. Watch me. Just watch me.”

It sounds like you really developed your ear on your own from listening to recordings.

Yeah, and the great part of it was, when that guy told me that Ringo stinks and he didn’t want to teach me, I had him put on the Beatles records and learn the drum parts. So now I can’t read. I can’t write. So it’s, like, “Well, where am I in the song anymore?” So I actually learned the lyrics and would sing along with the song while I was playing, and being the drummer, you don’t want to walk on everybody’s parts.

So, as I’m practicing through the Beatles songs, I’m realizing that Ringo does a fill when Paul or John stop singing, or Ringo does a fill to take the Beatles into the chorus or the bridge of the song. The more exciting place, he fills into that, like stepping onto the gas pedal and — We’re going somewhere else, you know? I actually took that into the studio with me when I recorded with Billy Joel. Everybody would get charts. They would make their own charts of the core changes, and everything like that. I would get Billy’s lyrics. I wanted to know what the song was about. That would dictate how I’m gonna play the drums.

Did you ever go back and learn your paradiddles and flamadiddles and all of that from reading, and are you able to read the drum charts to this day, or just decipher them?

I know what the notes are. The only time I find a problem — Like, we just did the thing where we had to learn songs by Graham Nash and Steve Miller. The only problem is, is when a song fades out on a record, when you get to the gate, when you get to rehearsals, it’s like, “Well, how is this gonna end?” I have to write out a fake kind of chart, like my kind of chart. My charts are intro, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, and then, if there’s any little thing that happens in there, I have to notate it in the way I notate it.

Well, I’m really interested in that part of your development. I really think that teacher encouragement is so critical to a student’s success. In this case, the teacher discouragement ended up somewhat critical to your success.

Well, I’ll tell you what. Just discouragement — I still carry that scar with me, because when I see a drummer like Dave Weckl, or Vinnie Colaiuta, or someone like that, I will look at what they are doing, and I will say, “Wow, that’s a real drummer. I just play music in a band.” You know? I try to figure out what a drummer really is. Is a drummer somebody who can sit on a set of drums and blow you away with a solo, or is a drummer somebody that’s in a band situation that ties a band together, makes people get up off their ass and dance, and keeps steady time, and makes it easy for the other musicians to play? Which one is which?

We just did the Little Kids Rock thing. Will Lee was the musical director. I love Will. He called me The American Ringo. Somebody said, “Well, that makes sense. You developed this style that, when people hear you on a record, they know immediately it’s you.”

I think that comes from no training. You develop a style.

You entered into a very prosperous, wonderful career without really knowing notation, without really knowing your paradiddles and flamadiddles. But it didn’t stop you.

Well, when I have somebody who knows those things watch me play, I’ll say, “What am I doing here?” They will tell me what I’m doing, and it involves, maybe, some kind of paradiddle, or some kind of rudiment, that I don’t know that I’m playing it, which makes it interesting. Like, “Really, that’s what I’m doing?”

Has that ever been an issue in the studio, or have you always just been given free reign?

Nobody ever speaks to me in that language. One thing that the drummer needs to do, and most people, they look for this in their drummer — Is the feel of the drums. I feel it doesn’t matter what you play. It’s how you play it. Rock and roll is so basic. But one of the greatest lessons I ever had was two and a half years of playing weddings, because you had to play all kinds of music. Ethnic music, jazz, everything. But the weddings, you had to play a jazz swing. I didn’t think much of it then, but then, when I got with this piano player that wrote songs of all different kinds of styles, and all of a sudden, he calls up — “Okay, this section in this song, called Zanzibar, is gonna have a really fast jazz thing going on,” it was, like, okay, I know how that goes. It’s just a matter of stamina to get through the part you want me to get through.

I’m a rock drummer by heart. When I say I’m a rock drummer, one of my first gigs was with Mitch Ryder. I was very good at it. I was 18 years old, and ended up staying until his drummer got better. He got sick. You learn something from every gig that you do. You learn something.

Those guys — Now this was the first time I’m actually playing with horns, with Mitch Ryder. Their thing was, “You know what? You’re really good, but you speed up a bit when you do your fills. Get a metronome.”

I learned that, yeah, okay, I gotta get my time better when I’m doing my fills. That’s what I learned from Mitch’s band. I also learned how to be a powerhouse rock and roll guy. So, you learn something. I haven’t done the wedding gigs yet. I haven’t done anything yet. Mitch is my first thing.

But, I mean, it was great. I mean, it taught me — If you’re gonna learn rock and roll and be thrown into rock and roll, why not be a Detroit hitter that teaches you how to do it? I auditioned for Billy. We played songs that were on Piano Man and songs that were on Street Life Serenade. Then he said, “I’ve got new songs for a new album, the album that eventually became Turnstiles. He said, “What would you do on these songs?” He was pretty amazed at how fast I came up with stuff.

Teachers can have a massive, lifelong influence on students, for better or for worse, and the slightest word of discouragement or encouragement could change everything.

Exactly. Like I said, I never saw myself as a drummer, per se. Like, you see these other guys play drums, when you’re looking at the Weckls and those guys. It’s like, “I’m not really a drummer.” It’s like calling Ringo a drummer.

One of the greatest interviews I ever saw was with Pete Townshend, of The Who. He said, “We were just different.” He says, “Look at Keith Moon. He’s not a drummer. He just plays spins that are great.”

With kids in school today, that want to be drummers, if they’ve got a good program, you’d encourage them to stay in the band program?

Oh yes. Stay in the band program. Because I didn’t take lessons and stuff like that, there’s a lot of things that I can’t do. Like, jingles make a lot of money. Just walking into a session that, it’s read. You read the music. Sometimes these guys want to do it immediately. I can’t do that.

The way it works for me is, yeah, I’ll do the gig with you. Send me the MP3 and I’ll listen to a song. There’s a lot of times that I wish I could do that sight-reading thing.

Advice for the kid starting out today that wants to be a drummer?

I would tell him that there’s a couple of things that have to happen to you. One is, you need to practice all of the time. There’s always the kid that gets a set of drums, or gets a guitar or something, and then football season starts and he’s out playing football or baseball, or whatever, and the drums get pushed over to the side.

Which brings you to number two. You really have to be dedicated to your instrument. You really, really need to be dedicated to that instrument.

There’s other guys that are doing the same thing and have the same wants that you have.

The third thing is that you have to start to think different. A great friend of mine said, “You know, that last page in the music book when you’re learning your lesson, that last page is blank.”

We know it’s there because the front page had something on it, and they needed the extra page in the back. But that’s the page where it says, “Now it’s your turn to use your imagination. With everything you learned, don’t just do that. Now is your turn to use your imagination. Make things up. Start to create.”

If 50 guys take lessons from one teacher, you got 50 clones of the teacher coming out. What’s gonna make you different? What’s gonna make you stand out? Whatever it is, you have to stand out amongst the other drummers or the guitar players.

The fourth is sad but true, but sometimes you have to put yourself in the right place at the right time.


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