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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rock Hall Recap: Classic-Rock Drummer Joe Vitale

Posted By on Thu, Apr 16, 2009 at 10:00 AM

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Canton-based classic rock drummer Joe Vitale did a two-hour sit-down interview/Q&A session at the Rock Hall last night, plugging his new rock memoir, Joe Vitale: Backstage Pass.

He reminisced about a career that started with his dad’s polka band, took a brief detour into the Barnum & Bailey circus, but ultimately took him to the heights of the rock world, as drummer for the Eagles, Joe Walsh, Ted Nugent and various permutations of Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Highlights:

- Vitale grew up a jazz fan. But then Elvis came along, and the King was “a lot more fun than jazz.”

- Springsteen/E Street drummer Max Weinberg read the book and dropped him a line to let him know he liked it.

- After recording garage rock with the regionally-hot Chylds, Vitale had his first professional gig with Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes. His first show was the James Gang, Dukes, and Bo Diddley. He and the Nuge backed Diddley, with Sweaty Teddy on bass. Tix were $5.

- Vitale has played on all of Joe Walsh’s studio albums. The drummer recalled how Walsh’s autobiographical signature song, “Life’s Been Good,” came together:

Under the guidance of producer Bill Szymczyk — the legendary session overseer whose work includes the Eagles and, tellingly, Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” — the song came together from scraps of four other tunes. Walsh had ideas for a Rolling Stones-style rock riff, a bouncy piano track, a reggae groove, and a Zeppelin-style acoustic break. While the band was out of the studio, Szymczyk spliced together tapes from four different tunes into one song. Walsh soloed over an additional synthesizer section. And you’ve heard it twice a day ever since.

- Vitale was the Eagles’ first touring backup/fill-in player. He once referred to himself as “the sixth Eagle,” but they quickly gave him a quick “naw.”

- He and Walsh backed Who bassist John Entwistle on the 1981 album Too Late the Hero. Entwistle was a helluva shot with a shotgun, and used to load his skeet launcher with drum machines. Said Vitale, “He should have been in a band with Nugent.”

- Like almost every musician of his generation, his life changed when he saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. The drummer went on to record with Ringo Starr, and was part of top-secret John Lennon sessions in early-‘70s L.A. Word got out, the studio was mobbed, and the promising sessions ended. Vitale says Yoko Ono has the unreleased tapes, and he hopes they’ll appear one day.

- Vitale feels the same way about drum machines. They’re useful, he says, but not reliable. Touring with Dan Fogelberg, he coined his signature phrase, which has since become an industry standard one-liner among drummers: “You can spill a beer on me, and I’ll keep playing.” —D.X. Ferris

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