Gary James' Interview With Billy Joel's Drummer
Chuck Burgi has had quite a career. As a drummer he's either toured or recorded with some of the biggest names in the world of music. We're talking Michael Bolton, Diana Ross, Blue Oyster Cult, Meat Loaf, Hall And Oates, Bon Jovi. But it is the current performer Chuck Burgi performs with that we wanted to speak with him about. That performer, that musician, is Billy Joel.
Q - Chuck, I see these Billy Joel concerts on the MSG (Madison Square Garden) Network. One hit song after another. Every song is different.
A - You're preaching to the choir.
Q - He's unlike anybody out there.
A - Yeah. He is totally unlike anybody I've ever worked with. I have to say this, I've been lucky enough to play with a lot of great people. When it comes down to it, there's nobody that works any harder than Billy does. There's nobody that gives as much as he gives. No one gives any more in the bands I've worked with. He brings a level of depth and ability to playing in front of everybody that elevates all of us, everybody in his band, because of his ability and his talent. I'm a song person and I marvel at least once or twice a night. Most of the people leave the stage when he does some of his quieter songs, just piano and vocal songs. I usually stay up there because I'm already sitting so there's no real reason to leave. But I get up there and look around and watch 20,000 people singing his song. I'll pop one of my i-ears out and listen to the sound of the room and watch him sing one of his absolutely jaw dropping beautiful ballads and wonder to myself, just thank the universe that I'm working with this man. Not only is he still healthy, kicking ass, singing and playing better than he ever did I think. I think I know what I'm doing with him now more than ever and it's taken me a long time to feel like I know what he needs, what the music needs, but it is an extraordinary (experience) and once in 10,000 lives experience to be playing with this man who at his age, he's singing better than all his peers. When we go up there and the twenty-seven songs we do usually a night, plus jams and plus other things he inserts into the show, we have played the most unique and the most varied set of songs that I've ever done. When I was with Meat Loaf the songs out of "Bat Out Of Hell" were pretty much the best songs he had to work with at the time and that was only one album's worth. Billy's got probably over forty songs that people would love to hear that we just can never play every night, so there's no way we touch base on all the songs. The guy's catalog is out of control. It's all over the map in terms of vibe. As a drummer, his gig, almost more than any of them, allows me and requires me to dig about as deep as I've had to with anyone in terms of all the different little styles I've had to become familiar with to keep working and that I've always loved. Anything from a little bit of Funk, straight ahead Jazz, a little fusiony progressive type Rock stuff on some of his songs like "Angry Young Man" and "Stiletto". The is out of control, man. (laughs) It's crazy out of control. No one marvels more at it than me.
Q - They're not making guys like Billy Joel anymore.
A - No, they're certainly not. And they won't. He'd be the first one to tell anybody in an interview that he'd be hard pressed to get a record deal these days the way he started and what he was doing. They're just isn't the infrastructure. They're just isn't the companies to support artists and nurture artists that did exist when he started his career. It's wild. I think he's more loved now than he's ever been is a testament not only to his talent, but to all the songs he's written. They're the soundtrack to so many people's lives, especially in the New York area because it was uniquely in reference and about New York that he wrote for the most part. On top of that, it's just he's written some of the most gorgeous stuff and it's become classic now. It's beyond classic in its own way. To play play some of these songs, it's not like we're resurrecting an old, moldy tune. To play them right and be given the leeway we are to bring it into 2016 as opposed to 1974 let's say, to update it, to give it the weight that we can all bring to his songs now. The freedom to do it just a little bit harder, a little bit more intensely. It has elevated his stuff to a level where it's like, man, you go to one of his shows there are very few people you will get that incredibly broad spectrum from and that fulfilling spectrum. So, I marvel at it every day. Because we don't work a lot, I set aside time every week now that we're more home than not, on any given day that I'm not working, I set aside an hour to go back in and I got a little studio with a kit that is the same size as the one I use with Billy and I'll play two songs or I'll just put the tempo it should be on and sing it to myself and play it. Some of these things to actually play them great, not just play them, for me to really play them like they were never played originally, if that makes an sense, nothing was ever broken on those hit records. To play them really well is an enormous challenge.
Q - What happens to your equipment you use at Madison Square Garden? Where does it go?
A - Depending on the month where it happens it will all be trucked. If there's a gig earlier in the month there is a storage locker. His gear I think at this point is staying out in Pennsylvania with Showco. The other part of it is staying at the warehouse that the Claire Brothers have and that's in Pennsylvania as well. So they unload our gear unless it's like this past Summer. We're doing a lot of shows, for him anyway. He had, and I think he has, a big storage locker at Rockit Cargo in Long Island City. Most of the gear goes back there in the past at the end of the tour. Because we're doing five shows a month this summer it's staying in the trucks. I never see my road gear. The guy who takes care of my stuff cleans it up and sets it up beautifully and I never see it. I see it at the shows. That's it. He holds on to that. I've got a couple of other drum kits. I've got one that I drag around when I have to for my Country band and with Big Shot (Billy Joel's Tribute Group) they've actually gotten to a place where they have a sound company who provides back line and a sound system front of the house and monitors. It's a great production for that band as well. Sometimes even lights. We've done a lot of corporate parties with that group. We've done private parties, people who would like to hire Billy but don't want to pay what he would want. So, sometimes they'll hire the band and Michael Del Guidice sings (Bill Joel Tribute Artist / Big Shot) and it's the Billy band except it's Michael on piano. That's about as close to Billy Joel as anybody can get for a whole lot less money. (laughs). But it's really fun man, and Billy seems okay with that.
Q - Maybe one day someone will inquire about having Billy Joel play their private party.
A - It has happened before. We've done numerous private parties with Billy since I've been with him. Absolutely.
Q - Who would be doing the hiring? Hollywood movie stars? Wall Street businessmen?
A - Certainly it was some Wall Street businessman and owners of giant department store chains. People like that. I think this is almost eight years ago now, we played a guy's 40th birthday party. He was an English commodities trader. He was turning 40 and he hired us for the first night of his birthday. He told us flat out, "I'm spending $15 million on my party." He rented out a five star hotel in the South of Spain. He flew us and our gear over. I think we rented gear for that show. So we showed up and I put a small kit together and it was rented. In my case it was us and Jackie Mason the first night, the American part of his birthday party. The next night was an English comedian and Duran Duran.
Q - The guy had some money to spend alright.
A - Yeah. So we have done that. They're usually a whole lot less satisfying than a show, but it's a good payday. It keeps things rolling.
Q - Billy Joel plays Madison Square Garden regularly. I think it's once a month, but he he could probably play one a week and sell out every time, couldn't he?
A - It takes a lot out of him. We did two and a half hours the other night. That's a good long show for him and his fans. It takes him a good week in his estimation to recover from singing a show. He's actually asked to have a bit more time between shows. We usually have six to seven days, but he wants ten. But 67 going on 68, he gets it. (laughs) I could count on one hand the people who still sell tickets, are still performing and are as huge as he is now. I think he's bigger now than ever. Since I've been with him, which is going on over eleven years, he's just done so many amazing things with the band and achieved so many milestones in his career. It's absolutely mind boggling. We did our 32nd show at the Garden since we started the franchise. For me, by the end of this year in December (2016) we will have done thirty-six and since I've been in the band it will have been forty-eight sell outs at the Garden.
Q - Will he be extending his contract into 2017 with Madison Square Garden?
A - No one knows. They're very mum about this at this point. We'd all like to have an idea about what's going on, but we really don't.
Q - What do you do with your time when you're not with Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden?
A - Oh, man. We do two shows a month minimum with Bill. I think the way it works is that the Madison Square Garden money, most of it goes right into his pocket and then we usually do one other arena and that will pay everybody's salary for that amount of time. I'm not really sure how it all breaks down, but we have been doing a minimum of two shows a month. And so in answer to your question, I have a city country band that I'm real proud of. We just released our first album this past year and we have a video, www.ShotgunWeddingNYC.com. We did an animated video with this incredibly talented couple from Louisiana. It's just incredible artwork. The band's killer, with a throwback sound. We have a barrel house, honky tonk piano player who's unbelievable, as opposed to steel pedal over the songs we have we have honky tonk piano. He's actually very Jazz oriented, Classical as well. So it's all original. We do gigs in the tri-state area. Sometimes we fly down to Florida to do gigs. We've gone to Oregon. We've gone to Syracuse. We'll go anywhere we can. We'll do one or two gigs in a row where we can at least pay our expenses. Then I also work with a Billy Joel tribute band, if you can believe it. In fact, two other members of Billy's band are in it. It's an awesome group. It's a slammin' band. The core of that band has been together for fifteen, sixteen years. The piano player / singer in that band joined Billy's band. He's the most recent member of Billy's band, almost three years ago. He joined to play rhythm guitar and sing background, but when he does his own thing with his own band he plays piano and sings lead. He (Michael Del Guidice) is a great guy. He's an amazing talent and the newest member of Billy's band. He's given a new lease to the band's sound I think. He's just upped the game even further because of his knowledge of Billy's music and catalog and just vocally he blends with the other singers in the band. It's incredible. He has an incredible pitch and the actual sound of his voice with everybody else is just remarkable. He's definitely livin' the dream at this point, as am I. I never thought I would end up in a piano band.
Q - How did you get this opportunity to work with Billy Joel? Something tells me he doesn't advertise for musicians. It must've been by referral.
A - Well, I'll take you back. I made friends while I was still with Ritchie Blackmore in '96, through the bass player that was in the band at the time, Greg Smith, who was out this summer and has been out every summer for the last nine years with Ted Nugent. He and I are old friends and he introduced me to Tommy Byrnes, our guitar player. I just thought he was the coolest guy. He's so much fun. He was such an amazing guitar player when I met him and still is. So, we started doing clubs together. We would do cover bands and then he started calling me on artists's recordings that he was producing. It was always under the guise of a demo, but that was as good as it was going to get at that time. So I started recording with Tommy and performing with him. At one point he called me up out of the blue while I was still with Ritchie and asked me if the next coming year I wanted to go on the road for a whole year and play with a Pop artist named Enrique Iglesias. It was going be Enrique's very first tour of the world. I said yeah. So what Enrique wanted was Billy's whole band, but some of the members didn't want to go do it. Billy was gonna take a year off, which he did. So, I went out with David Rosenthal, our keyboard player, and an old friend of mine from Rainbow. I went out with David, Tony, our guitar player, and Crystal, our percussionist. I got to know Crystal on that tour. So, I worked with Enrique for three years. Billy went back on the road. Those guys left to join him again and I stayed with Enrique for another two years. I guess that was around the end of 2000, Tony called me and said, "You know there's this Broadway show that's being worked on. Would you want to be a part of it?" I was like, "Dude, I don't do Broadway." He said, "Nobody's going to do Broadway in the band. It's going to be Billy's music." I was freaked out on it. "What? You're kidding." So he said, "Start learning those fifty songs. We don't know what's going to be in the show." So I did. Tommy put a big band together, two guitarists, bass, drums, keyboards, three horns and we auditioned for the producers and we also auditioned for Twyla (Thorp) and suddenly it was thumbs up and we were heading towards Broadway. That was going to be my first and only time on Broadway. For three and half years I did the show and Billy came to see a whole lot of them. He sat in at the end of a lot of them. At the end of every year he asked me if I wanted to go on the road, but that never transpired until a couple of months before the show was getting ready to close. He asked me again if I wanted to join his band and I was like, "Yeah." It's just gotten better and better since I've been in the band. First of all it's a group of old friends for me, so it is so family. Working with Billy has just been really another level that I don't think most artists ever get a chance to experience and it's not just artistic. Personally he is the easiest and most fun cat to be around. He's the best guy to be on stage with. He's all about having fun. I've never seen him bitch anybody out or raise his voice, but the people he's got employed in the production crew, stage, roadies, they've been there, some of 'em for thirty years. They're loyal. He's loyal to them. It's like a pyramid that functions from the top down. Everybody is just awesome. No attitude. No divas. Take care of business. Have some fun and do an amazing job. Going out with this guy when we used to tour was just jaw-dropping 'cause we went to places I never thought I would go, South Africa, Korea, China. Then we did shows I never thought I'd ever do again like the Shea (Stadium) performances or in Japan, the last time we were there we did two Tokyo Domes. That's 44,000 people a night. Just stuff like, "You've got to be kidding. We're doing this? Oh my God!" It's been extraordinary. But that's how I met Bill, in Movin' Out, my one and only Broadway experience, which was all about his music and it was learning his repertoire that I really, really, for the first time, started appreciating his writing. It was in the course of doing Movin' Out, for the first couple of months I was doing eight shows a week. I never worked harder in my life. If I had known how hard I was going to work I might've pulled it back a bit when we were putting the show together. It was just so much fun and I was given free reign to re-write a few things with Twyla. I played double bass drums in the show. We made a very, very heavy version of "We Didn't Start The Fire". It was offered to odd time stuff. It was beyond anybody's idea of what a Broadway show should be like at the time we opened up. It opened the doors I think for a lot of other things musically that have happened since then. Movin' Out was just jaw-dropping. Doing that show I got to meet Billy over and over again and he actually got to audition me over and over again. Any time he came to the show and sat through whatever part of it or the whole thing or the encores or the last half, he got a chance to see me do my stuff and play his music every night that the came. I'm just lucky that at the end of it he turned around and said, "Okay. Do you want to join the band?" It was at the point where he was having a huge falling out with Liberty (DeVitto), which has persisted for a couple of years and I never really got involved with him or Lib about what that was all about. I never really knew Lib. Filling his shoes and getting into a band that basically had the same drummer for its whole career was daunting to say the least, as opposed to other bands I've joined where whatever length of time I'm in the group I'm allowed to record an album with them, bring something new or the artist has gone through a series of drummers. So it wasn't like having to step into one set of shoes. So, it's been a big challenge to get fans to accept what we were and what I was as a band and at the same time there wasn't anything broken to a great extent with the drum parts. I still play the show as an homage to Liberty and I get to do some of my own stuff too and I get to play it the way I play it. But it's an homage to him and all the cool parts he put together and recorded. So I try to get the people that love Billy's music, the best of what was recorded there, and maybe throw a little more in here and there, not much.
Q - I see you've worked with Bon Jovi and Blue Oyster Cult. Those groups have their own drummer. So you're talking about studio work then?
A - Yeah. Well, I toured with Blue Oyster Cult for almost four years and I recorded two albums with them. One's called "Cult Classic", which was a re-make of every one of their better known songs. The reason why that album was recorded was because they couldn't lease any of their songs because of a very convoluted deal they have with CBS. They broke up with CBS and the masters were being kept by CBS. So, they wanted to re-record the stuff. It was almost like a karaoke album. It was like try to make it sound link the originals. Then I also recorded an album of originals with them called "Heaven Forbid" and that was in '96 I guess. And that's got some really cool stuff on it. Really cool stuff. One of the heavier tunes they every recorded was called "See You In Black", that was like my favorite song on the record. I thought they were turning a corner and really going towards something that was modern and very, very heavy. But it turned out that was the heaviest they were gonna get. So, they had their own drummers, but when I joined them they needed somebody to commit to them full-time and I did. I played on Jon's (Bon Jovi) first record. I think I did five tunes on that. He had a band. Tico was in the band, but they were having trouble in the studio. They had already recorded a one-off song called "Runaway", which was his first single. I knew the producer from working in another band in the studio with him and so he called me and said, "I got something else to you to lay on," and I came in and did I guess five songs in the course of two days. I was also in a band being produced at the time by Jon's cousin, Tony Bongovi. Tony was a part owner of Power Station and he was producing and engineering everybody from Bruce Springsteen to all sorts of groups. After Hall And Oates, I had joined a band called Balance and he had recorded and produced their first record, which did really well. I was in the process of finishing up my first record with them, but their second album when I got the call to record with Jon, who I'd already met. He was like the night janitor at Power Station. He would come in and clean up the place. (laughs)
Q - He's cleaning up now in other ways.
A - Oh, yeah. We used to joke with him, "Dude, when are you gonna start your band?" He was a very sweet cat. The reason I was on the first record was because those guys, some of the guys in the band, were still getting their shit together and kind of learning the big time and Jon was one of 'em. After recording with him I don't think I saw him for another twenty years.
Q - Is it important for a guy like you to like the music you're playing?
A - When you're doing a session maybe not so much, but certainly for me I've been lucky to work with a lot of people whose music I've either grown to love or I already loved. When I joined Hall And Oates I wasn't all that familiar with their writing and capabilities, what they were like 'live', what they were like as people and what their music was about until I was well into the gig. I was lucky that I grew to love their stuff very much. Same with Ritchie. I grew up with Deep Purple, so the opportunity to play with him finally came up and I was already familiar with a lot of his stuff that he did. I think you have to like it. If you don't like it, you're in the wrong business and the wrong band. (laughs) I'm so in love with Billy's music that I think it's not necessary, but for me it is. It's definitely necessary to love the music of the artist I'm playing with, especially if you're on tour. You're only playing two hours a night if you're lucky. For me, if the music isn't inspiring every night and if the artist isn't inspiring, then it really is a grind. I could see some people join bands and doing music that they really hate. I would think that would be insane. I don't think I've every really had to do that. I've grown to dislike some of the people I've worked with, but that's different than the music, (laughs) if that makes sense.
Q - I understand. You might not care for the personality of the performer you're playing with.
A - Right. And then it becomes a professional thing. Is this something I can handle or want to stick with? For me, I've been really lucky that I have loved the music that I've played and been fortunate enough to take on the road. So for me it's been very important to love it. I think that's when you can give your most and do your best. I've been lucky with most of the people I've worked with have said, "Do what you want." Only one's really told me, "Don't play that." Maybe for a certain moment, but for the most part I've been hired to do what's best for the different groups I've worked with and figure out the best way to present the music 'live' and to bring some energy. When you record a record, that's a whole other world process than getting up in front of people every night. To me, I think they're two very different, two sides of a coin. You have music. You have studio and recording and then you have performance. I've tried to be very competent at both of them. The majority of my life I've been on the road. It's probably the same with everybody. If you're in a band you might take x amount of time to record a record, but if you add up all the actual hours that you spend doing that band, most of it's on the road I think. So fortunately I've liked the music I've done and been able to sustain an energy on the road. I never missed a show with any artist I've ever worked with and I've been doing that for a long time. As time goes on, the demands are less and less in terms of touring. Billy, I don't think, ever wants to tour again. You're not even allowed to say the word around him. (laughs) That's a joke. We just don't. We talk about shows. Let's do a show here. Let's do a show there. He's had it with touring and I totally get it. For the most part we might go out and do two weeks here and there. Overseas, there's a lot of talk of doing some more stuff, but two weeks maybe max. Do a couple of shows, come back. That's it. As opposed to the eight, nine weeks we used to go out for when I first joined him. So, getting back to liking the music? For me it's key. It's totally key. I have to love it. It's interesting, Billy's music is so deep that after ten years I'm still finding out what they need and what's the best way to play that song. I listen to our performances. I listen to the way we've been doing it. I'm constantly still making adjustments and trying to get it as right as possible, which is funny because he's completely the opposite. He's all about the spontaneity. A gig's a gig, man. A gig is not an album. I want our gigs to sound like records and be fun like records, at least I want my performance like that. But he's given me and everybody in the band the opportunity to be our best every time we play with him. That's a whole added inspirational thing, keep getting better at every job because there's so much to play. I marvel at that every night we perform. I'm going from this song to that. Wow! That's a workout.
Q - That takes us right back to where this interview started.
A - Yeah. It's pretty wild.
Q - Does it ever upset you when say somebody isn't as good as a drummer as you are, goes on to have success?
A - No. It really hasn't. I used to love Punk Rock when it came out. I was a big fan of that. I loved the attitude. When Punk came out it threw a big energy into Rock music that I think had been missing. It reinvigorated Rock 'n' Roll I think. The Police used that energy and fused it with really good songwriting and created a Pop sound that was unlike anybody. For me, it was they directly borrowed from Punk. But bands have always been about chemistry, for me. If they're energetic, if they do what they do as well as they can, then it's not about the technicality. For me, Rock 'n' Roll was never to judged on it's technical merit. It's to be judged on it's attitude. People like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis, they all started it. It was about attitude. If I see somebody who's not as technically proficient as they could be, I'm thrilled for anybody who has success. They're doing something they believe in, after doing it with everything they have. One of the worst things I could ever see is somebody trying to be a Rock 'n' Roll entity and not giving a hundred percent energy, whether they're a singer, a guitar player or drummer. Just give me the energy, attitude, and everything else is forgiven, because everything starts with the energy. It's the energy that people get when you get a group together that are giving a hundred percent. People get it. People totally get the difference between that and somebody who isn't giving all of themselves.
Q - I almost forgot to ask you, what was your first break? You were playing in local bands. Who was the first national act you got to perform with?
A - I did a record with a guy named Danny Toan, who I think has dropped off the map in the last twenty years, but he was in a Fusion band called Larry Coryell's Eleventh House for awhile. He did his own solo album. He did two albums. That was like my first official recording and then in the process of recording with him I met Breckett Brothers, a bunch of other great players in the tri-state area, but my first tour was with a guitar player named Al Di Meola from Return To Forever.
Q - Chick Corea's band.
A - Yeah. So, I played in cover bands, but my heart way back then was in Fusion. So, I was doing cover bands at night to make rent and during the day I was emulating and trying to get better at drums and play more technically challenging stuff at the time. It's a long story how I got involved with Al, but I was familiar with his music before his first album came out and I just went to a cold call audition he was having and was un-invited, but I sat outside the door. Back then it was at Studio Rental Instrumentals. They had a big place on 52nd Street and I just walked in like I knew what I was doing. When he took a break he came out and I told him I knew how to play some of his music. He looked at me like, "Who the hell are you?" We had a friend in common. So I mentioned that I had worked with him. So he was like, "Yeah. Alright. Come in." He gave me a shot and hired me. That was an extraordinary tour. Al was on Columbia Records at the time and so was the band that opened up for him that year and that was Weather Report, with Jaco. It was their huge album called "Heavy Weather". They were doing mostly that stuff and boy oh boy, what an experience that was. (laughs)