Liberty DeVitto got his start drumming professionally at age 18 with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and then worked with Richie Supa, with whom he made his first recording. At age 24 he began a stint as Billy Joel’s drummer that lasted for 30 years. He has also played with many other big name musicians—Meat Loaf, Paul McCartney, Karen Carpenter, and Stevie Nicks, to name a few.
Today, DeVitto spends much of his down time encouraging other drummers to follow their passions. It’s the kind of encouragement he could have used as a kid, he says recalling one early school experience. “I couldn’t do the buzz roll in the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ and the teacher told me, ‘Put down your sticks DeVitto, you’ll never do anything with the drums.’”
Good thing he didn’t take it to heart, or maybe he did take it to heart, so much that he’s spent the past five decades proving that guy wrong. Fortunately, he found his inspiration from other drummers, like his number one influence, Ringo Starr.
“In February 1964 my heroes, The Beatles, were on The Ed Sullivan Show. I watched them, I watched the girls screaming for them, and I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do; I don’t care about the buzz roll.’”
Develop Your Own Style
DeVitto credits much of his success to his passion for drumming and the fact that he developed his own style. “I listened to records, when I was trying to figure out what a drummer was doing,” he says. “If you read music, you will do it exactly like the other drummer. But if you are listening and trying to do what you are hearing, your interpretation could be totally different. That’s how you develop your own style.”
“If 50 drummers take lessons from one drum teacher, there are going to be 50 clones of that drum teacher coming out,” he continues. “So what is going to make one stand out in the crowd? What’s going to make someone say, ‘Those guys are all good, but that guy is really great!”
Aside from having your own style, DeVitto says you must also have the kind of passion that can drive a band. “A band is only as good as its drummer; the drummer sets the foundation for everyone else to play on top of; the drummer is the one who makes people get off their chairs and dance,” he says. “In drums, it’s not about what you are playing, but about how you are playing it.”
For DeVitto, how he approaches a song always boils down to the meaning behind it. “I’m known as a songwriter’s drummer. I like to know what the song is about,” he says, recalling one of his past favorites. “I think a perfect example is the song ‘Honesty,’ that I did with Billy Joel. The meaning is that he just wants one person to be honest with him. I put myself in that position and that’s the way I played the song.”
Enhance the Songs
DeVitto says that an adept drummer’s goal is to enhance the song. “Thirty years with Billy Joel,” says DeVitto, recalling how he worked with the songwriter. “He’d come into the studio and just play a beautiful song on the piano and sing it to us. Then, I would enhance it. I would think, ‘What am I going to come up with not to walk all over what he just sang to me? I’m going to make it better by creating drum parts.’ That’s what Ringo Starr did so well with The Beatles.”
“As a drummer you need to play with other people,” he says, further defining the drummer’s role. “Being in a band is like being in a marriage, except you are married to four or five people that all have opinions as to how something should go. You really have to be patient and try everybody’s ideas. You are going to argue about stuff. That’s why most bands break up—they just don’t want to get along any more.”
After DeVitto left Billy Joel in 2006 he had more time to dedicate to passing on lessons from a career in drumming. Through being a Sabian cymbal artist he’s become involved with Little Kids Rock, which supports music programs for children in disadvantaged public schools. “These kids need a chance. I like to just sit in with them, and encourage them to go on playing,” says DeVitto.
He’s also involved with Camp Jam, which was founded by two of his buddies, Jeff Carlisi (.38 Special guitarist/songwriter) and Dan Lipman (founder/CEO of the Official NASCAR Catalog). He describes it as a camp for “bedroom players,” kids who play alone in their bedrooms but could really grow from the band experience.
“We put them in groups with other players that have the same ability,” says DeVitto. “They walk in with their heads down, and they won’t even look you in the eye. By the end of the week, they have their toes hanging off the stage, doing guitar solos.”
Kids in both programs get a feel for what it takes to be real musicians. “You have to have that passion; there’s a real calling. You have to practice all the time. It doesn’t come instantly; it’s something you need to work at,” he says.
“The kids in Little Kids Rock are in schools in areas where you wouldn’t want to walk,” he adds. “We say, ‘Look, playing an instrument is hard. It’s a whole lot easier to hang out at the mall or fire off a gun. If you want a challenge, try playing an instrument.’”
Practice All the Time
DeVitto says the most important message he can give any drummer is that you have to have passion. Aside from that, there are four things that you need for success in drumming: “You have to practice all the time—that’s the only way you will get better; you have to be dedicated to your instrument; you have to be one step ahead of the other guy—play a little different, think different; and you have to find out where the music is happening that you want to play and put yourself in the right place.”
On the other hand, skills like rudiments are not as important as you may think, unless you are joining a marching band, he says. “I’ve probably done three or four rudiments through my whole career,” DeVitto says. “Get behind a drumset and start playing. Get a feel for the music. Listen to all kinds of music—that’s where you get ideas. Find out why ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ is such a hit; why it feels so good when you listen to it. You can feel the passion.”
After more than 45 years on the throne, DeVitto says he still has that passion. “I still love to play,” he says, talking about his latest band, The Slim Kings, a bluesy rock group. “I’m the oldest guy in the band! Two of the other guys are 29 and one is 24. The Slim Kings are fun and I love to rock.” The group, which formed in 2011, has released two albums: Fresh Socks (2012) and Dirty Socks (2013). The group’s song “My Waterloo” is featured on the Hurricane Sandy benefit compilation Songs After Sandy, Volume 2.
At age 63, DeVitto says he is busier than ever. “The funny part about my life now is that I do so many different things. I’m in the house band for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a whole bunch of people from different bands,” he says, speaking of rockers like Jeff Carlisi, Ricky Byrd (Joan Jett and the Blackhearts), Christine Ohlman (Saturday Night Live Band), and Rob Arthur (Peter Frampton). “The tough part is you have to learn at least two or three of everybody’s songs.”
“So, for 30 years I played the same 28 songs, and I never thought I would appreciate it as much as I do,” laughs DeVitto, recalling his many years with Billy Joel. “It’s great having variety.”
DeVitto also plays in the Rockers in Recovery All Star Band with Byrd, Ohlman, Richie Supa, Kasim Sulton (Utopia), and Mark Stein (Vanilla Fudge), highlighting yet another cause he is dedicated to. Rockers in Recovery provides support and funding for musicians and their families suffering from all forms of addiction.
“There are a lot of people in AA who are sober and they still want to play music, but they don’t like to hang out with people who get drunk,” says DeVitto, recalling how he came to terms with his own problem and gave up drinking 11 years ago. “I’m sober because I love to do what I do and I need every part of me focused on doing that.”
“I’ve had a great career; I’ve had a great life,” enthuses DeVitto. “Now, I would like to give something back.”
This article is from our November-December 2013 issue.