Longtime Billy Joel Drummer Liberty DeVitto Talks Mending Fences With the Piano Man

Billy Joel fans looking for a fix this summer will get it today (July 17) with the release of former drummer Liberty DeVitto’s new tell-all, “Liberty: Life, Billy and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

The book, over a decade in the making, delves into tasty tidbits about life on the road and in the studio as part of Joel’s band, in addition to DeVitto revealing why he and the Piano Man split in 2005 after 30 years of performing together.

“It took 15 years to write,” he tells Variety. “It started out as my notes and memories, which, when me and Billy had parted ways, I put away on the shelf. Then somebody would say, ‘Hey, you know, you should write a book.’ And I would  take it out again, and think nobody wants to hear my story. And then my wife said, you should do it. Just write it down so your kids can have a memoir of your life.”

Just last year, DeVitto — who still plays the hits with alums from Joel’s band, Russell Javors on guitar and vocals and Richie Cannata on saxophone and keyboards in a group called the Lords of 52nd Street — finally got around to reading what he had put to paper, and thought that maybe he had been a little hard on Joel.

DeVitto says he learned he was let go from Joel’s band when he didn’t receive an invite to Joel’s 2004 wedding to his third wife, Katie Lee. While he felt a little stung, with age comes wisdom, he reflects. “When I started to write it, I was also getting divorced from my second wife at the same time, so I was an angry old man,” DeVitto quips. “When I read the book about a year ago, I thought, ‘I’ve got to round out these corners since they’re a little rough, because with age, hopefully you mature and you see things in a different light. And I started to see Billy in a different light — like trying be in his position, as the sole songwriter, the piano player, the singer,  the guy at the top of the marquee — and I tried to see me by the decisions that I made. You finish making an album that has 12, 13 songs on it, and that’s a lot of pressure. And I’m saying, ‘When are we going on  the road?’  I don’t know what he felt. And that’s when I wrote about in the book, I tried to look at it from his view of why he did certain things, why he let me go and why certain things happened.”

Realizing he missed Joel, DeVitto reached out. As he recalls: “I felt I wanted the guy back again, so I reached out to him, and said let’s go for coffee or let’s get a meal. He agreed. He said he was very disappointed at the way we ended. And we got together and just spoke about our lives now, and it was just wonderful.”

The reunion proved even more of a happy ending as Joel agreed to write the foreword to DeVitto’s book, describing the drummer as someone who “provided the power that drove our song arrangements and live performances” and “propelled my music into another dimension.”

DeVitto’s interest in drumming came through his parents,  who purchased a set for him from a relative to keep him in check. As DeVitto recalls: “I asked my dad, ‘Why did you get me drums?’ He said, because they didn’t make Prozac when you were a kid. So I guess I was kind of wild, and they thought the drums would kind of put me in one spot and I could bang on them as I wanted to.”

Little did his parents know that would lead him to his first gig as a teenager to play for Mitch Ryder, and then later as Joel’s decades-long drummer. DeVitto’s first appearance was on the album “Turnstiles,” produced by Jim Guercio and featuring members of Elton John’s band, drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray. Dissatisfied with the initial recordings, the Hicksville, Long Island native said goodbye to Hollywood (well, Colorado, technically) and decided to produce the record himself using his touring band. It didn’t sell well at first, but the songs on that album are the ones often performed on tour, and to this day.

” We always played ‘Miami 2017’ and ‘Angry Young Man.’ ‘Summer Highland Falls’ is a great song, and ‘I Love These Days’  is a wonderful. It never got the recognition that it should have gotten because I don’t think Columbia records was too happy with Billy getting rid of Jim Guercio. It did go platinum after ‘The Stranger’ came out.”

That album, he said, was a “big one,” with the band members calling producer Phil Ramone, “Uncle Phil.” Says DeVitto: “He just really took care of us and showed us how to play in the studio and really honed that sound.”

Working with Ramone was inevitable, as Joel already channeled “Be My Baby” and The Ronettes in “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.””I mean, I played the same drumbeat that Hal Blaine played on that record,” DeVitto marvels.

“Glass Houses,” he says, was inspired by the new wave sounds of The Police. “We were in Europe, and I went to see The Police and I came back and raving and Billy was [dismissive] like, ‘Yeah, yeah,’” DeVitto laughs. “I think he saw a change coming and, then he would capture it, kind of like that punkish sound. We were always a rock band, and on that album, he just uses the band, with no outside influences. There’s no studio musicians coming in and fixing things, and that was just the band. And it was a great album. I loved it.”

For “An Innocent Man,” DeVitto had to recreate the mood of “Under The Boardwalk,” by The Drifters, just as he was instructed to capture the feel of a Righteous Brothers record for “Until The Night” (off “52nd Street”). For “Laura,” off “The Nylon Curtain,” DeVitto paid homage to Beatles legend Ringo Starr.

“I don’t know how to read music or write music and I never took lessons,” he adds, explaining that he created music from Joel’s instruction. Take, for instance, “The Downeaster’ ‘Alexa’” off of 1989’s “Storm Front.” DeVitto says the song reflects who Joel really is at his core — a guy who enjoys solitude and would rather be sailing. He kept that in mind when the songwriter expressed a desire for the song to encapsulate that atmosphere.

Says DeVitto: “Billy came in and said he wanted it to sound like a boat that goes out on the North Atlantic, so I had to come up with, ‘What does a boat sound like?’ So, I got the snare, and the Tom Toms to create the way waves sound as they go by. My thing is: how do you create? How do you fit into this? Because when Billy comes in with a song, it’s terrific already. “

Joel wrote the foreword in March, just before the northeast and most of the world shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. DeVitto says Joel is “really concerned about the pandemic.” As for himself? “I’ve been busy getting the book ready for printing,” he says. “I’m very thankful that this is happening now because it is something to do. I told my wife, ‘What would I be doing?’ I don’t have drums here in my apartment, because my drums are in my mother-in-law’s basement. I play with people. I’m not one that does a solo and can play by himself in the basement. If I tried it in the basement after like two minutes, I’m like, I can’t, I don’t want to do this. I want to play songs! So I am thankful I have the book.”

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