of musicians that couldn't
get off those dark roads."
~ Liberty DeVitto ~
One of the oxymorons of a great drummer is the ability to make a good song better without getting in the way. For over three decades, drummer Liberty DeVitto pounded the drum gates for Billy Joel. And for 30+ years, these two shared a bit of the mind-meld synchronicity that allows singer and drummer to seamlessly connect. The kind of mysterious hoodoo voodoo that only comes along with talent, tenacity, and a whole lot of time spent together. From "Turnstiles" to the piano man's last studio album "River Of Dreams." Nine multi-platinum studio albums during this stretch, not to mention the multi-platinum live albums that have been delivered. Liberty DeVitto. Go get you some.
Liberty DeVitto Interview -- April 2021
Casey Chambers: In February of '78, you guys performed on "Saturday Night Live" for the very first time. How was your experience? What was happening at that time?
Liberty DeVitto: Well, "The Stranger" album had just come out. And "Saturday Night Live" at that time was the greatest launchpad if you had just released a new record. So it was a promotional thing. Everybody watched "Saturday Night Live." That was with the original cast. And I believe the first song we did was "Only The Good Die Young." And then "Just The Way You Are."
Casey Chambers: Live television.
Liberty DeVitto: Yeah, and we were getting ready, you know? They said, "Places everybody." So we got set behind our instruments and the clock was counting down. They were really counting down. '30 seconds. 29..." And something went wrong with the keyboard. Billy's electric piano. The technicians were running over to fix it and Billy was freaking out. And John Belushi went over to the piano and said, "Look, Billy. Just relax, man. Don't worry about it. If you blow it...you blow it in front of 20 million people." And then he just walked away. (laughs) But it all went great.
That was also the night that Chevy Chase came back to host after he had left the show. And they always do a run-through. A full-on show with an audience before actually doing the live broadcast. And that night Chevy Chase and....oh, what's that really funny guy's name? He was in "Caddyshack." Bill Murray! Chevy Chase and Bill Murray had a fight because Bill Murray wrote a skit that really made fun of Chevy leaving the show and how he hadn't done anything since. They had a fistfight and had to call the police in.
Casey Chambers: Holy schnikes! (laughs) Did you see all this going down?
"Saturday Night Live" (1978)
Liberty DeVitto: We were in our dressing room which was in the same hallway as Chevy's. I remember that because when we did the show another time with Kathleen Turner, her room was right next to ours. The star would be in one room. The band would be in the other room. And we could hear it. We looked outside and there were cops standing around. It was crazy! (laughs) So that kind of set the mood for the show. But everyone else was great. Gilda Radner. All of them. The cast was so, so nice. It was quite an event. And that was the first time we ever played "Saturday Night Live." I think I played the show four or five times after that.
Casey Chambers: "The Stranger" has gone on to sell over 10 million copies in just the US alone. One classic song after another. Was it difficult deciding which songs you guys were gonna do?
Liberty DeVitto: Don't forget, the songs weren't classics yet, right? Because the album had just come out the summer before we did the show. "Just The Way You Are" was the hit. "Moving Out" had come out first, but it didn't do all that well. "Just The Way You Are" became the big hit. And "Only The Good Die Young" was coming out as the next single. They advised Billy not to do that song on the show because it was talking about Catholics and talking about fooling around and how he should be the one that Virginia fools around with. (laughs) All that kind of stuff, ya know? But Billy said we're gonna do it anyway. And I watch it sometimes and I think it just came out great. It really put the song over the top. That and the fact that the Catholic diocese banned the song. (laughs) When you tell teenagers and college kids 'You can't listen to something.' They go, 'What can't we listen to? (laughs) And the song just went through the roof after that.
"Only The Good Die Young" - "Billy Joel (Live From Long Island)
Casey Chambers: You guys worked with Phil Ramone on several glass-shattering albums. How did you guys hook up?
Liberty DeVitto: Well, "The Stranger" was the first album that Phil produced for us. And it was the second album that our band had played on with Billy. We came in on "Turnstiles." (1976) When we did "Turnstiles," Billy had produced the album himself. He was writing songs. Singing the songs. Playing the piano. Producing. That's a lot of hats to wear when you go into the studio. And the album "Turnstiles" sold about 50,000 copies initially, which was enough to keep Billy alive and for us to do another album for Columbia records. But Columbia insisted Billy get a producer. So George Martin was the first pick. The Beatles producer. George came out to see us play some gig in New Jersey and we were all really, really excited about it. After the show, Billy met with him, and when he came back, he said, 'George wants to produce me, but he wants to use studio musicians.' And all of us, of course, were bummed out. But Billy told him, 'Love me, love my band.' and turned George Martin down. Billy wanted to use the same band that played live with him on the records. No more studio guys.
Casey Chambers: "Say goodbye to Hollywood, Georgie." (laughs) Something very Musketeerish about that. And very balls. Turning down The Beatles' producer. "Hello, Goodbye." That was a gutsy move.
Liberty DeVitto: Very gutsy. Very gutsy move. So Phil Ramone, who was a staff producer at Columbia Records, came to see us play at Carnegie Hall. And he loved us. He loved the band. And he said, 'I don't want you to do anything different. I want you to be the rock and roll animals that you are on stage.' He was so kind to us and he worked with us so closely. We called him uncle Phil. He taught us how to play in the studio. We still had the energy, but he helped show us where it needed to be. Like for me, how important two and four was, because people need to hear that rhythm going through the song. And Billy would have bits and pieces of songs and Phil would encourage and help Billy make a tune out of it. He was that kind of producer. He was really hands-on.
Casey Chambers: Were you already familiar with Phil Ramone's cred when he came on board?
Liberty DeVitto: Oh, yeah. We knew he did Paul Simon and I love Paul Simon. Barbra Streisand. He was a recording engineer before he became a producer and had recorded Frank Sinatra. He recorded Phoebe Snow and all these artists that we were listening to. So he had gotten around. We were really excited and a little bit nervous. This was going to be a major record now. And it was like...oh, boy.
Casey Chambers: As for deeper cuts, I always dug the funky little tune, "Get It Right The First Time" on side two. What do you remember about that one?
"Get It Right the First Time" - Billy Joel / "The Stranger" (1977)
Liberty DeVitto: Yeah, it is a funky little tune. Billy had written that and it was kinda out of the scope for Billy. When you listen to his songs and then hear "Get It Right The First Time," it's kinda like...hmmm...that's a weird one. We had been doing the song live. This little piece that he had. But when we tried to record "Get It Right The First Time" in the studio, we could never do it. We would record a song like, "Moving Out" and then we'd try "Get It Right The First Time," and couldn't get it. Then we'd do "The Stranger" the next day and then try "Get It Right The First Time" again and we still couldn't get it. So it took us like, the whole album to actually get it right. (laughs) And I remember the first time I heard the song. I took a demo tape of Billy playing the song home with me to make up the drum part. I was just following along with what Billy was doing and the bass. Are you familiar with Steve Gadd?
Casey Chambers: Sure, he did some drumming on Paul Simon hits like "Late In The Evening" and "50 Ways..."
Liberty DeVitto: Yeah, exactly. Great drummer. Well, I was trying to emulate Steve Gadd. And the reason why I couldn't get it was that I wasn't putting enough of myself into it. So once I put Liberty DeVitto back in it, it got smoother and we were able to record it.
Casey Chambers: The drumming really sets the table for the entire song. And as for the title track, "The Stranger"...that one's a streetlife biscuit. The lonely whistling that introduces the song is just so despondent and haunting. It kills every time.
"The Stranger" - Billy Joel / "The Stranger" (1977)
Liberty DeVitto: It's funny because we had already recorded "The Stranger," the title track, and Billy walked in one day and said, 'I want to do a little piece that's kind of what you'd see in an old movie. At the end of one of those old movies where you see the guy under the streetlight and he's got his hat on and he's smoking a cigarette. And he puts his trench coat over his shoulder and he's walking away on the wet road because it's raining. You know..that scene. I want the music to feel like that. Like there's a stranger in everybody's life and this is what the stranger would look like if you're looking out the window and he's walking away. Or she's walking away.' So the whistling...Billy did the whistling. They were going to have a contest. They would have like...Paul Simon or somebody else whistle and there'd be a contest to see if anyone could guess who's whistling. (laughs) But Billy was like, 'Nah, I'll just do it.' And the album closes out with Billy whistling again because it was the end of the album and we're leaving.
Casey Chambers: That album always makes you feel like you've done something or been somewhere after the needle lifts. It's a really cool concept. Cherry-picking from another album, "52nd Steet," (1978) you made an early video for the song "My Life." It has a bit of the "West Side Story" vibe going on at the beginning...and then you guys show up for work. (laughs) What do you recall about shooting the video?
Liberty DeVitto: Oh my gosh. (laughs) We were like doing the tough guy part. You know, Billy's got what...the little switchblade and he's cleaning his nails with it. And I'm in the corner throwing up a bottle of something. And I don't know what I'm throwing. I hadn't shaved. I've got a beret on and wearing army boots and stuff like that. But then we go into the subway, these tough guys, and then we come up looking clean. I'm wearing a flowered Hawaiian shirt...it's so bizarre. (laughs) And we do "My Life." And that was shot down in the village on Bleecker Street, I believe it was done.
"My Life" - Billy Joel / "52nd Street" (1978)
Casey Chambers: And you recently came out with a book filled with stories and memories from those days. "Liberty: Life, Billy, and the Pursuit of Happiness." So now, not only are you a great drummer, but you're also an author.
Liberty DeVitto: I am an author. Can you believe it? (laughs) It's funny because I feel like I've lived the American dream. I never took music lessons. I never took drum lessons. And I played with one of the biggest single artists ever. I barely made it out of high school and I wrote a book. (laughs) The book is called "Liberty: Life, Billy, and the Pursuit of Happiness" and is doing very well. I just finished recording the audiobook and that took me forever because you could hear every mistake. Sometimes I would brush my hand across my corduroy pants and you could hear that so I'd have to do it again. (laughs) It was crazy. The book started out as a family history for my daughters. I have four daughters and I wanted them to know where our family came from. And I wanted the book to show that it's not like "American Idol." You don't go in and win a contest and the next day you're getting a record deal. No, usually you have to pay your dues. And so the book goes through all the bands I played with, what I learned from people I played with...to eventually getting to play with Billy. And there were a lot of roads that I took. Some of them were great and were a lot of fun, and others were very dark. There were a lot of musicians that couldn't get off those dark roads. Some of them lost their lives or their wives or their careers or whatever. But I was fortunate enough to get off those roads and become the person I am today. And I'm really, really happy I had the chance to write it.
Casey Chambers: That's great. I'll add a link where fans can get their hands on it. Before you go, what's an album or two in your collection you really enjoy spinning?
Liberty DeVitto: I mean, The Beatles for one. Any of their albums. "Rubber Soul." There are two versions of "Rubber Soul." An English release and an American release. I think the American release has "I've Just Seen A Face" on it. And "Rubber Soul" in England might not. If you're into songwriting, that's what you need to listen to. If you're into drumming, any album by Cream or The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Those albums. There were just some great drummers back then.
Casey Chambers: Mark it! Thank you so much for hanging with me this evening. It's been an honor. And thanks for all the great music you've laid on us.
Liberty DeVitto: Well, thank you, Casey.