Watching Liberty DeVitto play drums is simply poetry in motion. His exuberance and flair when he performs made him stand out as Billy Joel’s drummer from 1974 to 2004. He was aptly named Liberty because he plays with such freedom.
“What I always say is I’m not really a drummer, I just play one on stage,” says DeVitto, 69. “My parents bought me some drums at an early age and later in life, when I asked my dad why, he said because they didn’t make Prozac when I was a kid.”
In his new memoir “Liberty: Life, Billy and the Pursuit of Happiness,” which comes out July 17 DeVitto talks about his drive toward the drums despite being discouraged by his sixth grade band teacher while growing up in Seaford.
“I couldn’t do the double-stroke roll for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ so the teacher put me on the bass drum,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is really boring.’ ”
But on Feb. 9, 1964 when the Beatles appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” DeVitto took one look at Ringo Starr and something clicked.
“I pointed to the screen and said, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ ” he recalls. “I realized that I want to be in a band with a bunch of my friends and make music.”
After playing in Long Island bands like the Rogues and Crystal Circus, one night in November 1967 at My House in Plainview, DeVitto’s band New Rock Workshop ended up on the same bill as the Hassles featuring lead singer Billy Joel.
“I remember Billy did a Traffic song, ‘Coloured Rain’ that I really liked,” he says. “I thought, ‘This guy is incredible.’ ”
Fast forward to 1974, DeVitto got the gig as Joel’s drummer. In fact, DeVitto’s old band Topper became Joel’s entire support unit with the addition of saxophonist Richie Cannata.
“We fit with Billy and Billy fit with us,” says DeVitto. “We had the same music taste, same sense of humor and came from the same middle-class Long Island background.”
The band recorded Joel’s 1976 album “Turnstiles” at Ultrasonic Studios in Hempstead and went on tour in two rental cars. They were still trying to commercially breakthrough by opening for acts like ZZ Top, Hall & Oates and the Beach Boys.
“The crowd would get excited when the house lights went out and when they came back on we were there,” says DeVitto. “You could feel the air get sucked out of the room. They were so disappointed.”
It wasn’t until Joel’s fifth album, 1977’s “The Stranger,” that things started to kick into high gear when producer Phil Ramone came on board.
“Phil saw the value in us as a band. He realized that we were a group of guys that needed to play together,” says DeVitto. “He was like another member. We called him Uncle Phil because he was so good to us.”
The band began to develop its own creative process that made the songs flow smoother.
“Billy would get an idea at home and come into the studio with it,” says DeVitto. “If it swung with the band, then he’d go home and finish the idea. If it didn’t swing, he’d put it aside.”
Very often DeVitto would act as Joel’s sounding board for song ideas.
“I’d get a call from Billy, he’d sing something over the phone and I’d say, ‘Hmmmm. I don’t know about that …’ ” says DeVitto. “Then he’d say, ‘Damn, I knew you’d say that!’ and hang up.”
Liberty always needs lyrics in order to properly record a song. Because he’s self-taught and never took lessons, he has his own approach.
“One of the advantages of not taking lessons is that I don’t do what’s on the paper. I try to do what I hear on the record,” says DeVitto. “I learned how to play music by singing the lyrics as I play along with the song.”
Joel’s big hit came when he penned the ballad “Just the Way You Are” to his first wife and former manager Elizabeth Weber. However, it wasn’t DeVitto’s style.
“When Billy sang it for me, I thought, ‘OK, this is good’ but it wasn’t my cup of tea. I was the rocker in the band,” he says. “But once my mom heard the song, she said, ‘If you put that out, it’s going to be a gold record’ and she was right.”
The song was a smash reaching the Billboard top 10 and winning Grammy Awards for “Record of the Year” and “Song of the Year.”
“The drums on ‘Just the Way You Are’ have been said to be the hardest easy beat to play because of where the bass drum falls and the little skip/hop fill on the tom-tom,” says DeVitto. “That song brought about an unbelievable change in the attention we received. The women were falling all over us.”
Another hit off “The Stranger” was “Only the Good Die Young,” which ruffled the feathers of the Catholic Church due to its sexually charged lyrics.
“The controversy made people want it more,” says DeVitto. “I remember Paul Simon coming in while we were recording it and saying the lyric is so heavy if you do the song lightheartedly it will go over everyone’s head.”
According to DeVitto, the seven minute and 37 second opus “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” from “The Stranger” has a strong Long Island connection.
“It’s a really typical Long Island story,” says DeVitto. “These two people met in school, got married, divorced and then met up again. I think it’s Billy’s ‘A Day in the Life.’ ”
Through the years, the band grew in popularity filling multiple nights in arenas and racking up hit songs. Each record saw a bit of a shift.
“Billy changes styles all the time. On ‘The Stranger’ he was the pop guy, on ‘52nd Street’ he was the jazzy guy, on ‘Glass Houses’ he was the rock guy,” says DeVitto. “By ‘The Nylon Curtain,’ Billy stopped doing the ‘I love you’ songs. He was speaking his mind about unions and Vietnam. It was a whole different scene.”
However, changes started to happen within the band, too. Cannata left to produce and perform with other artists and before the 1989 “Stormfront” album, Joel fired his entire band sans DeVitto and switched producers.
“It was time for a change again,” says DeVitto. “Losing the other guys put a knot in my stomach, but Billy had to keep it fresh.”
That itch to change things up came around when Joel recorded his final album in 1993, “River of Dreams,” without DeVitto, who appears on only one song. Instead, he used all new studio musicians under the direction of producer Danny Kortchmar.
“When I called Billy, he said he wanted to try this. He made it clear that I will always be his drummer but this record needed to be something different,” says DeVitto. “As a result, I don’t think that album sounds like Billy Joel.”
Although he continued to tour with Joel through the ‘90s and up to 2004, their friendship wasn’t the same and he was eventually cut from the lineup.
“When Billy got divorced from Christie Brinkley, he started to isolate himself from other people,” says DeVitto. “But I can’t look back. What’s done is done.”
DeVitto went on to form his own blues rock trio the Slim Kings and even found his way back to the Joel catalog by forming the Lords of 52nd Street with his old Joel bandmates Cannata and guitarist Russell Javors after getting inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.
“It really feels great playing the music again,” says DeVitto. “It brings back all the good memories and the bad ones are washed away.”
CEASE FIRE FUELS FOREWORD
Many people will be surprised to see that Billy Joel wrote the foreword to Liberty DeVitto’s book "Liberty: Life, Billy and the Pursuit of Happiness" after their years of feuding in the press. However, this came about after some deep soul searching.
“When playing the Billy Joel songs again with the Lords of 52nd Street, I remember what it was like in the studio and the friendship we had. There was so much love between us,” says DeVitto. “I thought, why are we still doing this crazy battle? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who cares?”
DeVitto sent Joel an email extending the olive branch and suggesting to meet for a meal. In February, the two old bandmates had a reunion in Florida after not seeing each other in 15 years.
“I didn’t know how it was going to go. But through the emails I could tell that he wanted it, too,” says DeVitto. “It wasn’t awkward, in fact, it was as if no time had passed between us. When we saw each other, there were no issues anymore. It was gone.”
DeVitto brought up the subject of his memoir at the end of the visit.
“I said, ‘I’m writing a book. It’s nothing bad, I don’t throw anybody under the bus. If you feel like writing the foreword, be my guest,’ ” he says. “Billy said, ‘I’ll write your foreword!’ I sent him the book and he said, ‘Wow, this is pretty good.’ ” — DAVID J. CRIBLEZ