BACKSTAGE PASS: Catching Up With Liberty DeVitto, Longtime Backbeat Of The Piano Man
March 27, 2013 To appear in Goldmine Magazine
Liberty DeVitto is widely known as the long-time drummer in Billy Joel’s band, having recorded and toured with Joel from 1975 to 2006 and spanning across the Piano Man’s most important albums, including "Turnstiles", The Stranger," "52nd Street," "Glass Houses" and An Innocent Man.
Image one courtesy of Sean Kennedy (photo by Jennifer Link). Image two courtesy of Liberty DiVitto
Liberty has also worked with such contemporaries as Carly Simon, Meatloaf, Rick Wakeman of Yes, Mick Jones of Foreigner, jazzman Michael Brecker, Benjamin Orr of The Cars, Jeff Carlisi of .38 Special, Pat Travers, Richie Supa and Derek St Holmes of the Ted Nugent band.
DeVitto is also no stranger to philanthropy, as he contributes his time and resources to Little Kids Rock, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing free musical instruments and instruction to kids in underserved public schools across America. He also works with Rockers in Recovery, which gives support, education and funding to musicians and their families for all forms of addiction. Goldmine recently caught up with Liberty as he continues to tour with the Rockers in Recovery All-Star Band.
Goldmine: Where were you born and how did you decide on the drums as your instrument? Who were your early musical influences?
Liberty DeVitto: I was born in Brooklyn, but my father moved us out to Long Island when I was six months old… my Dad says he bought me drums because they didn’t make Prozac back then. My early influence came from my mother’s love for Gebe Krupa.
Goldmine: Before you joined Billy Joel’s band in 1975, you were in a band called Topper with future Joel Band bassist Doug Stegmeyer. How did Stegmeyer make the connection with Billy for you both to join his band and how long was it before you started recording Turnstiles? Was that your first professional experience in a recording studio?
Liberty DeVitto: Doug was asked to do the Streetlight Serrinador tour… and Billy told him he wanted a New York style drummer and Doug told him about me. Actually, Doug Russell Javors, Howie Emerson and I wqere all a part of Topper and we all joined Billy together on Turnstiles. However, my first experience in the studio was with singer-somgwriter Richie Supa in 1969, at Studio One in Atlanta.
Goldmine: The Stranger was the band’s break through release in 1978, producing four, Top 40 hits and selling over 10 million copies to date. However, there seems like there was something more to the success of the album besides the strength of the songs. Why do you think The Stranger struck a chord with so many people?
Liberty DeVitto: I think it was the “Rocky” appeal Billy had back then… it was a piano, not a guitar. It was just good timing because we were just doing what we do!
Goldmine: I’m sure the pressure was on to record a successful follow up release. Were you confident that 52nd Street would meet expectations?
Liberty DeVitto: Let me think, what songs were on 52nd Street? All kidding aside… Billy was really on his game at that time. “Honesty,” “Until The Night,” “Rosalinda’s Eyes”… great songs and the band was on fire! Phil Ramone taught us how to play in the studio and we listened to everything he said!
Goldmine: The third album, Glass Houses was not necessarily considered as big a hit as the previous two releases, but it’s my favorite Joel record because for me, it rocks the hardest! And it did produce four more Top 40 hits and Billy’s first #1 song with “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me.” Not to mention over eight million copies sold to date!
Liberty DeVitto: This album was the band and only the band… no one overdubbed anything. We recorded “You May Be Right” and “Sometimes A Fantasy” and performed them on the road before the album came out… just to get a feel of how the public would take to them. The songs went over great, so it energized us to do even more.
Goldmine: In 1981 you drummed on the solo album of Yes keyboard legend Rick Wakeman, title The Burning. How did that connection come about?
Liberty DeVitto: I actually only played on the tracks with the rhythm section. Rick overdubbed his parts, so I never actually got to meet him.
Goldmine: After three more Billy Joel recordings in the 80’s you worked on Carly Simon’s Spoiled Girl release in 1985. How did that come about?
Liberty DeVitto: Producer Phil Ramone was at the time, using us a lot as a rhythm section… and Phil was producing Carly at the time.
Goldmine: Many fans might not know about your participation in a short-lived “super group” featuring yourself, Derek St Holmes (Ted Nugent’s band), Jeff Carlisi (.38 Special), guitarist Pat Travers and the late Benjamin Orr of The Cars. The band dissolved after the untimely passing of Orr from pancreatic cancer in 2000?
Liberty DeVitto: We were developing as a band and writing new material to record. Ben was our ‘rock star’ and it was such a great loss when he passed.
Goldmine: In 2003 you started contributing time to Little Kids Rock, a non-profit organization which provides instruments and instruction to public school students throughout America. How did you become involved with this music program?
Liberty DeVitto: Little Kids Rock currently has 85,000 kids involved in the free lesson program. I am going to Guatemala to meet up with Dave Wish and hopefully soon, the program will go worldwide.
Goldmine: You are also involved in the Rockers in Recovery organization. How did this connection come about?
Liberty DeVitto: The program was started by organizers Lori Sullivan (President) and John Hollis (Marketing). When they began Recovery they realized there were so many people who were now sober and still wanted to rock- and-roll, but didn’t really want to go to bars and clubs. We have festivals in parks and do concerts in theatres, and hundreds of people show up for the performances… it is truly amazing!