Liberty DeVitto : Country House Diner, Prospect Heights (Brooklyn) : NYC, USA
“Let me say this first, money changes everything; everything. When we started with Billy we were making 400 dollars a week touring in rent-a-cars and it was like, “When I get money, we’ll all get money”. Then later on, when he got bigger and he needed more powerful accountants and lawyers, the accountant said “Why are you paying these guys so much money, your name’s on the marquee?”. If we had been (credited) writing we’d get a certain amount, certain percentage or whatever, it would have been great; but it didn’t happen that way”
Unless you’re an audiophile, it’s possible – even likely – that you may not immediately recognise the name, Liberty DeVitto. Like many backline musicians who have supported the household names over the years, the spotlight often isn’t large enough to illuminate anyone behind the “star”. But whether the name is familiar or not, you have undoubtedly heard him play on any number of huge hits over the last few decades. As the drummer for Billy Joel for nearly thirty years, Liberty’s toured countless times off the back of recording 11 studio albums with The Piano Man and – along with the original Billy Joel Band lineup – remains one of the unsung heroes of helping to create the songs that shaped generations of musicians and music lovers alike.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1950, but spent his childhood growing up on the canals of Long Island’s, Seaford, where visiting your friends in dinghies was more commonplace than riding your pushbike, and days were spent playing guns in the woods or having dirt-bomb fights with your pals. It’s here that his mother is convinced he found his calling for music while living modestly in a tiny apartment with his aunt and making do with what she could to get his infant-self to sleep.
“It was so small that my mother used to pull a drawer out that was in the wall, take the stuff out and make a bed; and that’s where I was! She always had a radio on above the dresser, and she blames that…that’s what gave me the music. But it’s really funny because later on when I started to play weddings and stuff like that in the early 70s, late 60s, I would hear a song and go “Oh, I know that”…it buried itself way back in there”
However, as clear as it was from an early age that music was going to be a strong presence in his life, it wasn’t simply the melodies that inspired a teenaged Liberty to take up the drums. It was more a hormonally driven calling that would set him on his path, and an almost instinctive response to high school politics; not to mention a group of Brits that would change the world forever.
“I wanted to meet girls – but girls only liked the sports guys that were in my school. I tried sports; no good. I tried baseball; I’d know the ball was coming at me but it would land twenty feet away from me. Then I found out I had to wear glasses, and back then tho you could only get those big Buddy Holly glasses…like the bottom of a Coca Cola bottle. So I’m walking through the hall now – no sports, Coca Cola glasses on – and girls don’t wanna have nothin’ to do with me. But then it was just like everybody else, in 1964 my heroes came on TV and there they were in black and white. You know, the Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan show and I was watching with my family down in the basement…and I noticed that when the camera went off The Beatles and panned the audience all these girls were standing on their chairs and screaming at these not that good looking guys. I pointed at the TV and thought, “That’s what I want to do. I want to be in a band that makes girls scream!”
And so the direction was set for him, and he learned very quickly – after a failed attempt at paying for drum lessons – that being self-taught would be the thing for him. Listening to and emulating his favourite bands, he learned the ropes of how music flowed and the part that good drummers played in it. The method of Ringo Starr would influence him heavily as a musician, and he found natural focus through arrangements, melody and lyrics.
“If you know what the song is about, even if you know the title to the song, it will dictate how you’re going to play it. If you’re gonna play a song like “I’ll Love You Forever”; nice, maybe brushes. As opposed to a song like, “I Hate Your Guts So Badly I’m Gonna Drive My Father’s Car Through The Front Of Your House”, that’s gonna have a lot of double-bass drum, and China cymbals and all that kinda stuff! So I just followed along to the lyrics, because as a songwriter’s drummer I never did a solo in my entire life. I don’t do them. Me and Ringo don’t do them. So my whole thing is I like music – I like playing the drums – but I like music best of all”
After running with a fake ID at 15 simply to work in clubs, he would eventually find a great gig with The New York Workshop at 17 years old. In a strange twist of fate, his gigs would be alongside a band called The Hassles, and Billy Joel (known as Billy Joe back then) and he would pass each other in the dark and say hi, neither having any idea of the future they had in store for them. And only one year later, following his time with The Detroit Wheels, he received a phone call that would offer him his first taste playing alongside fame. And he was finally on the way.
“I get a phone call and this guy introduces himself as Mitch Ryder‘s tour manager. I got your name from Rusty Day, who was the singer in The Detroit Wheels at the time, he said “We need a drummer, our drummer’s very sick”. The drummer who got sick was Johnny Siomis who went on to do Frampton Comes Alive. So I go in, meet the band, and they put my stuff on the bus and go to the gig, which is in Conneticut – first gig – and the first time I actually see Mitch Ryder is when he walks out on stage. And Mitch Ryder had a bunch of hits out: Jenny Takes A Ride; Devil With A Blue Dress; Sock It To Me Baby…those were hits. And playing with the Detroit Wheels I knew a lot of other stuff. So there was no rehearsal, just going over stuff real quick with the band. Sax player said, “When I go like ‘this’ you stop; when I go like this you ‘start'”
He’d tour with Mitch for another six weeks up and down the East Coast of the US until Johnny Siomis recovered and returned to his post, but the benefits of playing with such a well known name were already leading to more work and he quickly went on to play with Richie Supa (a singer/guitarist best known for his work with Richie Sambora and Aerosmith). Off the back of recording a studio album with Richie, they headed off on tour to promote the album and what should have been the next step in Liberty’s burgeoning career turned into near tragedy.
“We’re in Cleveland, opening up for Grand Funk Railroad, and on the way home it was snowing and I’m driving a van. And I flip the van off the road and actually had a facial blowout – because my face hit the steering wheel – and it broke all the bones in my face, but jaw came out, my eyeballs fell into my sinus pocket…all this crap – so I was hung up for a while. I had girlfriend at the time, we got engaged and I said “That’s it, I’m not drumming anymore; I’m done. I almost killed myself trying to pursue my love”. So I got a regular job”
And just like that, one of the country’s best rock drummers was out of the scene, working a nine to five filling junk-mail envelopes before trying his hand at aluminium siding. However, the radio was everywhere, calling him back to what was clearly his destiny, and although he did his best to ignore this (and the phone calls he was receiving from musicians), it was a matter of time before he was back behind the kit; but not quite to the sold out venues full of screaming fans to which he’d become accustomed.
“So a friend of mine – he played weddings in long Island, Bob Rey – and he said “You gotta sit in for me”. I used to tell him all the time, “I’m not playing weddings, are you kidding me? I just got off the road with Mitch Ryder!”. One day he calls me up, “I’ve already told them that you’re coming; you’re going to do the wedding for me”. Dropped off his tuxedo – there’s a picture of me somewhere with it, with my hair down past my collar bone with a tuxedo on – so I go out there to play the wedding, and I walk in there’s three pieces and me. There’s an accordion, a trumpet, and a sax. That’s the band. And I’m thinking, “I was just on the road with Mitch Ryder?! This is it, this is end of my career, it’s over, this is the stupidest thing I ever did in my life!”. I ended up staying at that place for two and a half years, and I learned more about music than any lessons I could have gone to. I also learned about the business, and these older guys who had been in it forever, the accordion player – when he was younger – played on records that I knew. It was an education; it was like going to school for two and a half years. And then there were the waitresses that worked there too…!”
He would satisfy his own drive from here by starting a band with Russell Javors, Doug Stegmeyer and Howie Emerson called Topper. But as the band was playing originals, there was a lot of rehearsal but no gigs and the money just wasn’t coming in, so Liberty took a gig in 1972 with a band called Blue Hair as disco was on the rise; this would see him work six nights and one afternoon every week. And while the money was fantastic and a comfortable change for him, the commitment exhausted him and he would leave a year later. But as fate would have it, Doug Stegmeyer had gotten the gig with Billy Joel on his Streetlife Serenade tour and rock history was about to be written.
“Doug comes home once and he and Billy come and see Blue Hair. Billy even gets up and sings a song with the band. When they go back on the road and Billy’s talking about how he doesn’t want to live in LA any more and wants to move back to New York, he was using studio musicians for his record – and a different band to go on the road – and wanted to get rid of the band, keep Doug, and move back to New York. He wants the same band that records with him to go on the road with him, and he wants a New York style drummer. And Doug said, “Well, you know the guy!”. So, I get the gig. We go in and record Turnstiles. We’re sitting there listening back to the tracks and Billy goes, “I need guitar on this”. Me and Doug say “We know two guitar players”. So eventually, all of Topper became The Billy Joel Band”
It was a gig that would see Liberty travel all over the globe, touring to sold out shows for nearly three decades and playing on a number of Grammy Award winning albums and singles. It wasn’t without its challenges, of course, and as an inherently creative drummer possessing ears that thrive on engaging and collaborating on new material.
“I never realised how much I appreciated playing the same 26 songs for 30 years! We never rehearsed, it was like, “Hey, we’re going on the road”, “When are we going?”….”Tomorrow.”. It’s all the same; they want the hits. And many times we tried to change the set list and play more obscure songs that were on albums and stuff like that, but when you’re playing songs that they don’t know; they don’t want to hear it”
Appealing to the Billy Joel masses now behind him, he’s focussed on a number of other music projects and is more engaged than he has ever been. It comes in many forms for him these days, from being part of the all-star Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band featuring Ricky Byrd (Joan Jett and the Black Hawks & rock’n’roll hall of fame inductee), Jeff Carlisi (the founding member of .38 Special), Rob Arthur (Peter Frampton), and Jeff Adams (Starship), to furthering his involvement in the worthy programme, Little Kids Rock; an incredible non-profit organisation that provides music lessons and instruments to under-served public schools across the USA that’s supported by countless music legends (link below).
The philosophy behind the Little Kids Rock programme feeds back into Liberty’s childhood, and allows him to be a part of something that helps so many engage with his love of music (over 400,000 to date) and also echoes his childhood desire to learn an instrument his own way, rather than the structured and overwhelmingly accepted teaching methods for music which often simply don’t appeal or inspire.
“(We) teach them what they know now; the music that they know. Then they’ll eventually go back and learn the music..the classics. So many people that you meet and you hear, “Oh I played piano when I was a kid”. Why did you stop? “I got bored, I wanted to play rock’n’roll, I didn’t want to play classical music”. And it’s a shame. I think that’s where I had the advantage of having to teach myself so I could learn stuff that I wanted to learn. Nobody’s teaching me paradiddles and all those rudiments and stuff like that, no. I’m just rocking out!”
Liberty’s energy and aspirations belies his age, when most are looking to retire or slow down, he’s ready speed up at a moment’s notice. His current originals band, The Slim Kings, is forging its way into popular culture with placements in various television shows and are recording an album with Black Keys producer Joel Hamilton with a view to getting signed and taking their music to the masses.
Yep, Liberty’s ready to do it all again; to hit the road and take his ground-shaking playing style to a new generation of audiences and continue the rock and roll legacy he’s been generating for half a century. To work towards actual recognition for his influence on song writing and direction and one day receive an actual Grammy in his hands; rather than simply a letter acknowledging that you played on an album that you were so influential in creating while watching a lone person take the stage to accept the wider recognition. And while that’s an incredible and aspirational honour in itself, the collaborator in him wants to feel the heat of the spotlight on his face and know the acclaim is directed at him and his fellow writers. There’s absolutely no doubt he deserves it, and if anybody’s going to make it happen, it’s him.
Read more about Liberty’s band the Slim Kings
Find more information about the incredible Little Kids Rock music program