By Jeb Wright
Liberty Devitto is most famous for being the drummer who played with Billy Joel for nearly three decades. During that time the pair were friends. Liberty not only provided a New York City drum style for Joel’s biggest hits, he was also his comic relief. Devitto was basically the Ringo Starr for Joel’s band, only he was a much more accomplished drummer than the Beatle.
Sadly, Devitto and Joel had a falling out, not one that Devitto wanted. Law suits followed, and the pair has been estranged since 2003. Devitto, however, is not bitter about how it all turned out. No, this Brooklyn native realizes how fortunate he was to live the life he has lived. He is still very active in the New York City music scene and is still smiling, as he bangs the drums harder than he probably should.
In this interview we discuss how Liberty went from being told by his grade school teacher that drums were not for him, to discovering the Beatles, to turning down Ted Nugent, to finding a great gig with the guy they call The Piano Man.
Jeb: I am a novice guitar player, but I love you as a drummer. I love how hard you can hit the drums and then turn around and how you can play with such touch…
Liberty: Here is the thing, here is what I tell everyone who comes to my drum clinics… there are drummers who do drum clinics and it is twenty minutes of self-indulgent masturbation. Its bullshit. I tell the kids I don’t really care what drummers think of me. I don’t really care. I do care what guitar players, singers and bass players think of me.
The odds of me going into the studio with another drummer are very slim. I will probably go in with a guitar player, a keyboard player and a bass player. I don’t really care what drummers think.
My friend Zorro, he played with Lenny Kraivitz and Earth, Wind & Fire. He put a clip up on Facebook. I said “This man is a great drummer.” He is a great drummer, but I will guarantee you that if he was playing with a band that he would not be playing as much as he is in that clip. He knows when to play and when not to play.
Jeb: You do as well. I’ve never seen you do a big giant drum solo.
Liberty: I’ve never done a solo. I think an eight-bar solo I did once… Billy Preston and I sat in with BB King one night. BB would point at each musician to do an eight-bar solo or something like that. He pointed at me and I was sweating. When BB points at you, then you’ve got to do it.
Jeb: You have been playing with Rocker’s in Recovery with Hall of Fame guitarist Rickey Byrd, from Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
Liberty: Rickey has changed the name of the band. It is now called Clean Getaway. I do gigs with Rickey. We kind of broke away from Rocker’s in Recovery as they are in Florida. Rickey is based up here in New York. Other things have spawned from there. Clean Getaway is the name.
I have my own band here called The Slim Kings. We do all-original things here. The other two guys are like 31 and 28. We write our own songs. It is a rock/blues garage band sort of thing. We’ve had placements on Army Wives and Nurse Jackie and shows like that.
We also just started The Lords of 52nd Street. It is myself Ritchie Cannata and Russell Javors, who were in the original band that played on The Stranger, 52nd Street and Glass Houses. We just did our first gig in Long Island. There were about 800 people there and it was great.
Jeb: That is a great name.
Liberty: Phil Ramone gave us that name on the album 52nd Street.
Jeb: That’s cool. Sounds like you’re staying busy.
Liberty: I have to turn stuff down because I play with Ronnie Spector a lot. I went to Europe with her last year. Billy J. Kramer, I play with him. The worst part is when somebody offers you a gig in September and you write it down and then a gig that you really want to do comes in.
Jeb: So that has happened to you.
Liberty: Oh yeah. I also play with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame House Band. The only thing we don’t do is the induction. We do everything else. I just got a call for them today for September and luckily it was clear.
Jeb: What is the best gig you’ve had to turn down?
Liberty: Back in the day when I played with Billy, Steve Winwood would come in. When I recorded with Paul McCartney he would hint around like, “What are you doing?” You have to go “ARRRRRR.”
Winwood was asking me questions, so I asked Billy, “Hey are we going on the road after we finish this album?” Billy goes, “Yeah, we always go on the road after we finish an album.” I was like, “Can’t we stay home a little while?”
Jeb: What a testament to you.
Liberty: To be able to play with your heroes is amazing. When I graduated high school someone wrote in my yearbook, “Keep practicing and someday you’ll play with Steve Winwood.”
Jeb: I’ve enjoyed your career. I saw an interview once where you said you wanted to be a drummer after watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Liberty: Let me tell you something, I was starting to play drums when I was in the sixth grade. This was like 1960. My father bought me a set of drums. Years later I asked him, “Why the drums?” He said, “Because they didn’t make Prozac back then.”
He got me drums and I joined the sixth grade band but I couldn’t do the buzz roll in “The Star Spangled Banner.” The teacher said, “Put down the drums, Devitto, you will never be a drummer.”
I am discouraged. I am waking around and next thing you know I’m in eighth grade. I see these other people in the hall with me and they are called girls. I wanted to meet them. All of the girls liked the sports stars and I don’t play sports. I tried but I couldn’t catch the baseball and I had to wear glasses. This was back in the ‘60s and if you wore those big black Buddy Holly glasses… I am walking around the hall not playing sports and wearing Buddy Holly glasses. How am I going to meet girls? I am not. Forget about it.
All of a sudden it is 1964 and there they are on Ed Sullivan, my heroes. I noticed something while I was watching. The camera panned the audience and these girls were on top of their chairs screaming for these not so good looking guys. I noticed my sister in the family room and her and her friends are screaming at this black and white TV to these not so good looking guys. I was like, “This is what I want to do. I don’t give a shit about a fucking buzz roll.” It all began there.
Jeb: How did you get with Billy Joel?
Liberty: Don’t forget, before Joel, I went on the road with Mitch Ryder. I graduated high school in 1968 and that was in June. In November I get a phone call. “Hey, our drummer got sick and we need a drummer.” I said, “When?” They said, “Tonight.” I told them, “Can I come tomorrow?” My father had to drive me to the city and I didn’t want to tell them that. It was a different world back then.
I played six weeks with Mitch. The drummer that got sick was Johnny Siomos, who went on to do Frampton Comes Alive. He eventually got better and got the gig back. I stayed for six weeks and went up and down the East Coast with them.
We traveled by bus, but when I say ‘bus’ it is not like busses today. It was a bus that had seats in it. I laid across the seat and I used my Pea Coat as a pillow. It was great, though. I would do it all over again if I could.
Jeb: Were there other cool bands before you joined Joel?
Liberty: If you go way back, even before Mitch, I was in a band called The New Rock Workshop. We were playing in a place called My House. They didn’t serve liquor. I was 17 years old and one night we found out we were going to open up the next day for The Vanilla Fudge. Somebody said, “They are playing at The Action House.”
I was not old enough to get into clubs. We went into The Action House to see The Vanilla Fudge. They were so good they frightened me. Carmine Appice was so powerful I was actually frightened. We played with them the next night and I met them and I became friends with Carmine and the other guys in the band, Tim Bogert and Vince Martell.
I was 17 years old, turning 18 and Vinnie Martell from The Fudge wants to jam. He calls me and my friend Ivan up to jam with him behind the management office.
When the Detroit Wheels, who had just split from Mitch come to town, they stop at their management company, Breakout Management, and they ask, “Do you know any drummers? Our drummer is leaving us.” They said, “There is a kid in the back that is not bad.” They hear me and then they come to my parents’ house and we jam. We played blues all night.
I go to the venue with them and we do a gig. The band says, “You know, we are not going to do this anymore. Why don’t you come to Detroit with us and we will see what happens?” I say, “Okay.” I find out that Ted Nugent is leaving The Amboy Dukes so I go audition for Ted. I told them, “I am not too into what you’re doing.” I went back home.
The Nuge is great and I’ve become very, very close with Derek St. Holmes. Me and Derek are like brothers. It was funny, because Ted was so wild. I have a picture of me and him, and I had hair and I had a mustache. His hair was really long.
Jeb: So how did you get from Ted Nugent to Billy Joel?
Liberty: I came back to New York and I had a band called Topper. It was an original band. Russell Javors was the songwriter in the band. We were doing original stuff and we were doing blues tunes and we were doing reggae tunes. Reggae was brand new then. This would have been like 1970 or 1971.
We were playing in these bars where it was five dollars to get in and all of the beer you can drink and stuff like that. One night we find out that Doug Stegmeyer, the bass player is friends with the soundman that works with Billy. Billy lived in L.A. at the time. He was on the road doing his Street Life Serenade tour. He had Street Life Serenade and Piano Man out already.
It was during that tour he tells Doug that he wants to move back to New York, and instead of using studio musicians in the studio and taking a different band on the road, he wants the same guys to record with him and go on the road with him. He wants a New York style drummer, which meant aggressive and hard hitting. Doug looked at him and said, “I know the guy.”
I go do an audition with Billy and I play all of the stuff from Street Life and Piano Man and Billy goes, “You’re naturally good. I am going to make a new album. What would you play on this?”
He was amazed at how fast I had come up with stuff. For 25 years he didn’t know that Doug had slipped me a tape of all of the new stuff. There we are in the studio, me and Billy and Doug, and we are recording Turnstiles. Billy says, “There should be guitars on this.” Me and Doug say, “We know two guitar players.” Eventually, all of Topper became Billy Joel’s band with the inclusion of Richie, who played sax.
Jeb: The Stranger is the album that made him a household name. Turnstiles was a damn fine album, though.
Liberty: When the World Series was being played here in New York, the Mets were in the Series and Billy was at the game. The whole crowd sang, “Piano Man.” I looked at my wife and I said, “You know what, if The Stranger didn’t do what it did, nobody would be singing ‘Piano Man’ now.”
Jeb: “Miami 2017” is an epic song. Over time some songs are nostalgic, but you get sick of them. This song is still as great now as it was then.
Liberty: Did you buy that album when it came out?
Jeb: No, I was too young. My older sister was buying Billy Joel albums and that is how I got into the music.
Liberty: Do you realize that 2017 is next fucking year? It seemed like it was so far away when we did that. That was in 1976, I believe. The song was inspired by a Daily News headline. New York City was going broke. They asked the government for money and President Ford said, “Go fuck yourself.” He said, “Drop dead New York.”
Jeb: Do you like that style of song where it has a lot going on in it?
Liberty: Everybody says the songs that are the hardest to play… as soon as you’re into that song then you’re in to the end. Where “Angry Young Man” which is on the same album, it had different parts and you stop every now and then and catch a breath.
Later on when we did “I Go to Extremes” that one kept going from the beginning. “Sometimes a Fantasy” that one goes strong from the beginning to the end.
Jeb: “New York State of Mind” is a great song.
Liberty: Oh yeah, that’s a good one. That is one of the only songs that he wrote just sitting down and playing down with the chords and coming up with the lyrics at the same time.
Jeb: Would he bring the song in and then direct everyone as to what to play?
Liberty: He basically knew exactly what he wanted on the Turnstiles album. He produced that himself, which Columbia Records wasn’t very happy about.
It was actually… listen to this one… you don’t know this one. He was signed to Columbia Records and they hooked him up with the guy who owns Caribou Ranch to produce the album. The guy also was managing Elton John at the time. He was producing the album. He takes Billy into the studio and Elton had just had a falling out with Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray. He takes Dee and Nigel in the studio and they start to record Turnstiles. Elton is sending them flowers and saying, “You’re cheating on me with another piano player.” Anyway, Billy hates this. He fires the producer and he takes the tapes and throws them in the garbage. He comes out to Long island and stays in a hotel and gets me and Doug and we start recording Turnstiles.
Jeb: The album was good, but it didn’t put you over the top.
Liberty: He was coming in with songs almost complete. He had them for a while. When The Stranger came about, he only had parts of songs. That is when we started to add in the arrangements and stuff like that.
Jeb: I heard George Martin was to produce The Stranger.
Liberty: Billy was looking for a producer for The Stranger. George Martin came and saw us play live. We were so excited. The Beatles producer was coming to see us and we might work with him. It was unbelievable. He comes to see the show and he meets with Billy after the show. Billy comes back and we are all excited. We said, “Well…. what did he say?” Billy goes, “He wants to produce me.” We are like, “GREAT!” Billy says, “He wants to use studio musicians.” We are like, “Well, what did you do?” Billy tells us he said to George, “Love me. Love my band.” We were like, “Aw, George Martin stinks, anyway. What’s he done since the Beatles? America?”
Jeb: The man turned down George Martin.
Liberty: Billy knew what he wanted. He wanted the same band. He knew the energy that the band had. We were a very tight band.
Jeb: Were you around as the songs were being written?
Liberty: Oh God, yeah. He was writing “Anthony’s Song” and when he played the melody to me and it was like that’s a melody to a Neil Sedaka song. He loved the lyrics so much that he changed the melody.
Jeb: Do you remember how “Just the Way You Are” came about?
Liberty: We used to hang out in this bar in Long Island and one night Doug runs up to me and he goes, “He wrote the ONE. This is the one that is going to put us over the top.” Billy took me outside and we sat on the step and he fake played the piano and he sang “Just the Way You Are” to me. I was like, “That’s really good.”
Jeb: The one that got you guys almost banned was “Only the Good Die Young.”
Liberty: Let me tell you something… the first single that came out was “Movin’ Out” and it didn’t do great. The second one was “Just the Way You Are” and it did really well. The next one was “Only the Good Die Young.” It was dying off the charts until the Catholic Diocese banned it.
When kids are young and somebody bans something, then you are like, “What? We have to hear this.” It went right through the ceiling and it really took off.
Jeb: Do you remember how you reacted when you heard it was banned?
Liberty: I remember telling Billy when he wrote it… he originally wrote it as a reggae song. We were on the road in Knoxville, Tennessee. He came running up to me and he said, “I’ve got to play you this song.” He sang it to me and of course growing up Catholic I told him, “Oh my God, Billy you can’t say that.”
Jeb: I am not a drummer, but I could see where “Italian Restaurant” would be fun to play.
Liberty: It was fun to play. Going from the Brenda and Eddie part and going to the end was really fun.
Jeb: How long was it before the crowds got huge?
Liberty: I remember walking out of this place in Washington D.C. called The Daughters of American Revolution or something like that. It was this hall. Me and Billy walked out and all of these girls jumped on Billy. He looked at me and I was like, “Okay… this is it.”
Jeb: I remember 52nd Street was next. “Big Shot” was bad.
Liberty: That song has some big riffs. “Zanzibar” was about a guy with a guitar. Those were good songs. I listen to that song now and when it comes into that swing thing it is crazy. I loved playing it.
Jeb: “My Life” was a huge hit.
Liberty: Well, let me tell you what happened with me and that song. I had three daughters and they grew up telling me, “I don’t care what you say anymore… this is my life!” [Laughter].
Jeb: What was Phil Ramone like to work with?
Liberty: Phil was great. We called him “Uncle Phil.” He made us feel very comfortable in the studio and he actually taught us how to play in the studio. When you play live you tend to be more aggressive. In the studio you’re more controlled.
Jeb: Did you have trouble keeping your emotions under control in the studio?
Liberty: Yes, I did. As a matter of fact we had the same crew that was with us on Turnstiles that we did on The Stranger. When they heard it, they said, “Wow, that sounds great, but it sounds like somebody tied your balls to the seat.” Don’t you just love the crew?
Jeb: You won an album of the year Grammy on 52nd Street. Billy was now a star. How did that change you?
Liberty: We were just guys; we were a bunch of friends. I’d known the rest of the band for a long time. We were friends doing what we loved to do. You don’t think, “We are going to make this huge hit and it is going to change people’s lives.” We were not making “We Are the World,” we are just doing what we do. We were having fun doing it. It really didn’t change us that much.
Jeb: You were not having to worry about getting a day job.
Liberty: You know, money is funny. The way you divvy it up in the music business is nothing like people think.
The one change was the people on the outside that you knew before. They treat you different. I had an Aunt and I couldn’t go to family functions like I used to with my parents and stuff. She was like, “Well, you’re too big to come visit now?” Stuff like that would happen.
Jeb: I interviewed the guys in Kansas once and they told me they went to a high school reunion and their classmates were asking them for their autographs.
Liberty: It is really weird like that. I watched that documentary they did and it was great. When they talked about how they got the record company guy to come see them so they packed this place by giving away free beer. That is so cool. I told the guys in my band that we’ve got to do that. We have to do this; give away beer and tons of people will come in.
Jeb: Glass Houses was a huge hit. Something was different in the sound of the band. What was it?
Liberty: I agree with you. The other albums like The Stranger and 52nd Street still had studio guys on those albums. There were guitars on there and there was some percussion players on there and there might be a trumpet on there or a sax. On Glass Houses it is just the band playing all of the stuff.
Jeb: That had to make you happy.
Liberty: We loved it. It was so much fun.
Jeb: You mentioned “Sometimes a Fantasy” earlier. I love that song. It is a rocker and it is funny, too. It should have been a big hit.
Liberty: I don’t know. “You May Be Right” and “Still Rock and Roll To Me” were the big hits on that one. It is a good song. When I listen to it now, it is a little sleazy. He is on the phone and breathing hard.
Jeb: Could you tell “You May Be Right” was going to be a huge hit?
Liberty: Oh yeah. We knew when Columbia Records would come in and say things like, “You guys have a better Rolling Stones song on your album than they do on their album...”
I live in Brooklyn and the next section over is Bedford–Stuyvesant. I go there a lot as I like to go to the thrift shop and buy records and things. The lyric in “You May Be Right” is that he is so crazy he walks through Bedford-Stuy alone. Now it means nothing. The area has really changed a lot. It has become gentrified, that’s what they call it.
Jeb: “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” was a huge song. I was never that into it. I thought it was a bit dorky.
Liberty: Billy was getting reviewed all the time. It was really upsetting him and that is why he wrote that song. If he was upset with a reviewer and we were doing multiple shows… we would play two nights in the same coliseum on The Stranger tour. If he would get a bad review the first night he would read it on stage the next day.
Jeb: At what point in time did his management steal all of the money?
Liberty: That was later… way later. The management took over after Nylon Curtain. It was during The Storm Front Tour that he found out about what was going on.
It was horrible. He was like, “What do I do?” He trusted those guys. When you’re a musician you’re writing and playing and you’re on the road and you need someone to take care of your shit. They were taking his shit. It was his ex-wives brother who did this, Frank Weber.
Jeb: How did that change the band?
Liberty: We were making bonuses on records. Every time we sold a million copies we would get some money. That was all taken away at that point as he needed to recoup his money. A lot of stuff was taken away at that point. We were getting percentages on the road. We went to salary.
Jeb: Did that mess kind of end the fun that you were talking about earlier?
Liberty: He got very weary of money and people around him because of those people who took advantage of him. He didn’t fully trust anyone anymore. It is a pretty natural reaction.
Jeb: You stayed around longer than anyone in the band. Billy got rid of everyone but you.
Liberty: I was comic relief to him. He said that in Russia. We went and did that tour and on the first stop it was only going to be the singers and him as they were meeting up with these guys who did these Gregorian Chants. He said, “I want Liberty to go for comic relief.” He was really nervous about going to the Soviet Union.
Jeb: That was pretty groundbreaking to tour Russia at that time.
Liberty: We were the first ones who went with a big production. Elton had gone before, but he went solo. We brought everything. We went from England where we did a couple of gigs there first. We flew to the Soviet Union. I was going behind the Iron Curtain. When I was young, we would hide under our desks at school to practice for raids. My name was ‘Liberty’ so I was really nervous going over there!
Jeb: Point well taken!
Liberty: They told us what not to bring. You couldn’t bring Bibles or magazines. They didn’t want the people to know what was going on in the outside world.
Jeb: Is music the universal language? What were the gigs like?
Liberty: The gigs were unbelievable as they had never seen anything like that. When we went there this was a country that was not far off of being a third world country. They had nothing. They just kept saying that they couldn’t believe that we came there to play for them. When we met the people it was like being in a room with your relatives. They just showed love. They kept taking their hands and putting them over their hearts and throwing it to us as if they were throwing their hearts to us. They loved it.
Jeb: Before we go, we have to mention Nylon Curtain. It was not my favorite effort.
Liberty: It was a tip of the hat to the Beatles. Maybe you didn’t like the Beatles sounding like Billy Joel.
Jeb: Do you know why it all ended?
Liberty: I do, but I can’t really say. I can get in trouble if I do.
Jeb: Did you get to talk to Billy at that time and get any closure?
Liberty: We got to speak to each other during the lawsuit, but it was in front of an officiator.
Jeb: That sucks.
Liberty: Yeah. It does suck. When I listen to the songs now and they are his children... He always said they were his children. If he is the father of those songs then we were at least their uncles.
Jeb: We’ve all experienced going different ways with friends. Is it more difficult in a public way?
Liberty: Oh God, yes. Yeah. It is very difficult. You’re not the person that we were the day before. I was the drummer that plays with Billy Joel and the next day you’re not the drummer that plays with Billy Joel anymore. It is like a marriage that breaks up.
Jeb: It is like a marriage, but you’re not sleeping with each other… or not usually.
Liberty: Unless you’re Fleetwood Mac [Laughter].
Jeb: You played with Billy from 1976 clear up to 2003. That is a long time.
Liberty: From 1976 to 2003. I had to figure out who I was. I remember talking to this guy who worked for Sabian Cymbals. I was pegged as The Former Drummer for Billy Joel. He said, “You’ve got to stop saying that. Your title is ‘you were the guy that Billy Joel chose to make and create all of those hit records and unforgettable tours.’ That’s who you are.” When he said that I was like, “I like that better.”
Jeb: There is a difference. You were not in a band situation. Billy is a solo artist.
Liberty: What did Ringo do different with the Beatles that I did with Billy? It was the same thing. They would write the songs and bring them to Ringo and he would play them. I did the same thing. The difference is Ringo was with the Beatles but I was with Billy Joel. If we had a name it would be totally different, like the E Street Band.
Jeb: You’re not just one of many drummers Billy has had. You’re the drummer that mattered for Billy Joel.
Liberty: He hasn’t done anything since then. I had all of the hits with him and all of those great tours and he really hasn’t done anything since then.
Jeb: Do you remember getting your first Gold record?
Liberty: I sure do! It was from Australia. Turnstiles went Gold in Australia. You only had to sell 32,000 copies to go Gold. The Stranger was the big one. It went Gold and then we got the call that it went Platinum. Then it went triple Platinum and now we have one that has seven platinum albums in it.
Jeb: There is a lot of bullshit in your career, but you seem to okay with how it all worked out.
Liberty: I had a great gig. I wouldn’t change a thing. Well the one thing I would change is that I would play with the Beatles instead of Billy Joel. I raised three great children. One of them is going to be on TV in a few minutes.
Jeb: Who is on TV?
Liberty: My daughter Torrey is on the show called Chicago Med. It is part of the trilogy Chicago PD and Chicago Fire. Now there is Chicago Med. She is a doctor on that show.
Jeb: Let’s end with this… give me a great story from Glass Houses.
Liberty: When I was recording the Glass Houses album we were also recording for Karen Carpenter. Billy Joel’s band was recording with her for her solo album. It was my birthday and Phil Ramone ordered me a cake from The Erotic Baker. It had a penis on it. It was funny to be with Karen and getting a penis cake delivered. I have a picture of me holding her hand above the cake and pushing it down. She is like, “I’ve never been this close to one of these before!” She was great.
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