It seems that drummer Joe Vitale has performed and recorded with just about everybody. He's toured with people like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, The Eagles, Peter Frampton, Linda Ronstadt, John Fogerty and The Beach Boys to name just a few. He's recorded with The Eagles, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Jackson Browne, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Keith Richards, Van Morrison and oh so many others.
Joe Vitale has now taken pen to paper and written his autobiography. Titled Backstage Pass, Stories From The Road And In The Studio, it's published by Hit Records. P.O. Box 8702, Canton, Ohio, 44711.
Joe Vitale talked to us about his life in music.
Q - Joe, it must have taken you a good long time to put this book of yours together. How did you remember all the particulars? Were you keeping a running journal all those years?
A - Well, I think it was more like a mental journal. Pictures have a thousand words and when you dig out the old pictures, you remember a lot of stuff. You're reminded of things you kind of forgot about and it also gives you an era and time period that it was from because of the way you looked or the clothes you wore. But the mental log I've kept for some of these stories, if you've read them, are pretty funny and I've been telling some of these stories on tour for years because it's just shop talk on a bus. All the musicians do that. Everybody's got road stories, war stories on the road. Some are funny. Some aren't. But mine were funny. Through the years, guys who I would tell these stories to would say "These are good stories. You need to write a book." It seemed overwhelming to me to ever consider writing a book, but my wife is the real reason this book came out. She wrote it. I just told her the stories and she wrote it. She was also pushing that I get this done and that it's a good idea. So, I was getting it from all areas, my friends, my peers and lastly and most importantly from my wife. She said "This is good stuff. You need to write a book! I'll write it. You just tell the stories."
Q - I saw this book of yours last year (2009) in Barnes and Noble.
A - Yes.
Q - Does that mean you went out on book signings?
A - I went on a few and I want to do some more because I really have fun doing it. You get to tell the stories again in front of people. You get to meet people. They buy the book. You sign the book. It's a good time.
Q - And who's taking all the pictures over the years that are in this book?
A - Well, I took most of 'em or I would hand the camera to someone standing there and say "Hey, take a picture of us." I took several pictures last night. I take pictures a lot. Some of 'em the quality is not so good because it was back in the old Instamatic cameras. We didn't have all the sophisticated digital stuff. My son is also an artist / musician, as you know. He's also a computer wizard, an artist in that area too. He took all the pictures and converted them to digital. He did the whole lay-out of the book. It was family affair. We liked the idea of doing it because we weren't crazy about outside publishers. We published it ourselves. Some of the publishers were telling us "we want only so many pictures" and the one great thing about the book that we get the most compliments about is that there's so many pictures. They wanted to tell us how many pictures, what the pictures were, what the content was, what stories to do. It was like no longer our book. It was their book. So, we didn't want to do it. I'd rather not even write a book like that. At least the book we wrote is our book.
Q - I'm guessing that they wanted scandalous stories.
A - Well, that's what it is. There's no dirt in this book. None. Only because there's always something great to say about everybody. These people are my friends. If anybody would have a family problem or a drug problem or any kind of problem; none of us are immune to any of that, but it's very personnel stuff. These are my friends. I just wouldn't do that. I couldn't go to bed at night knowing I told some stupid, private story about someone who was my friend who trusted me and trusted these words to me when they were talking to me. I was with The Eagles for awhile. I get calls all the time. They're writing a book about The Eagles. "What can you tell me?" I say "nothing!" I can tell you nothing 'cause I know what you guys want. I can say this, these guys are great guys, great musicians, great artists. Go see 'em! (laughs)
Q - If you did tell stories, you probably would never get another tour with these people again.
A - Well, that's a sideline of all that. You kind of dig yourself in a grave if you spill the beans. When someone entrusts you with something and you spill the beans on that, the first thing they're gonna say is "How could you do that? I trusted you." Firstly, I think you would hurt one of your friends or somebody. But then, yeah, they're not gonna hire you. They're certainly not going to expect you to hold secrets. Yes, that's true you have to bury yourself if you come out with all this dirt about these people. Although a lot of what is considered dirt has already been seen on CNN.
Q - Or maybe you don't have dirt. You're hired to do a job and that's what you do.
A - We're not like flies on the wall in these people's hotel rooms. We play. We have a great time and we really don't care what anybody does offstage. That's their personal business. As long as the next night you show up, you're in good form, you perform well. You laugh and have a good time. That's all we care about. That's what's important. We don't care about any of that other stuff.
Q - Why do you have a bowl of spaghetti on top of a drum as your cover?
A - 'Cause I'm Italian and I'm a drummer. (laughs) Not too hard to figure out.
Q - But what's that got to do with the title of the book Backstage Pass?
A - 'Cause it's kind of a backstage pass. That's my wife's title. She wanted to call it that, which I'm really glad we did. Initially I wanted to call it All Access, but it's not really All Access because that means something different. I think Backstage Pass is kind of cool because a lot of the stuff I talk about is stuff that happened backstage. There's other stuff that happened in the studio and on the bus and in different places, but basically a lot of it is just backstage junk that we do and silly stuff.
Q - You're out on the road with Crosby, Stills And Nash?
A - That's correct.
Q - How long have you been with them?
A - I've been with them for 33 years. We tour about every year except for a couple that was with Neil Young...Neil's band. He uses his guys on that. There's only been about 3 of those in 33 years. I've done most every tour with them, every year. I did a lot of work with Joe Walsh and other bands 'cause CSN doesn't always tour. In my off-time they don't care what I do. But for the better part of my career... I started out with Walsh so I was with Joe a long time. We had a group called Barnstorm with Joe Walsh. After that, Joe went off. We did some solo stuff with Joe. Joe went off to be in The Eagles. I played with Peter Frampton. We all moved around quite a bit, but all the albums Joe did, I played on and then usually we would do a tour immediately after. We intend to work again next year. (2011). This tour with CSN right now just started last week. We go all the way to October. Last year (2009) we did a similar tour, slightly shorter, but that includes a month in Europe.
Q - Does this tour include Europe?
A - Yeah.
Q - So, tours today last four to five months?
A - You know, that's a good run actually, for any group. For some reason in the old days, in the '70s and '80s, we'd leave home and come back six months later. That got a little crazy because some of the guys were starting to sublet their homes. It's like, why have a home and pay all these bills on it and not be there for six months? Nobody really does that anymore. They way routing is and with buses, everything is different now. It's actually very good. We like three weeks on, one week off, or four weeks on, two weeks off. That's about what it is. You never get burned out doing that. You could almost do that all year. I could tour three weeks on, one week off all year if I had to.
Q - By now you've got it down.
A - Yeah. It's a job. It's a fun job, but it's still a job. There's a routine to it just like any job. You deal with a lot of crap and you deal with a lot of great stuff. This is my 40th year on the road. It's like a guy who goes to work at Ford, a hardware store. It just becomes routine, but we don't treat it like routine. It's routine in nature, but not in creativity. There's always something new and creative happening on the stage. It really keeps us excited.
Q - In a factory setting, people come and go. In the job you have, it would probably be a little more difficult to replace you, not to say it couldn't be done, but it would probably be difficult.
A - We're all replaceable, but you don't really want to. I've been working with Stephen (Stills) for a long time. I do his solo stuff also. We really have a bond, a real nice musical, creative bond. I can read his mind. He reads my mind on the stage. I know exactly what he's gonna do. Sometimes he wants to change up an arrangement. He just turns around and looks at me and I know what he's thinking. That's what's hard to replace. My drumming abilities and all that stuff, I can name you twenty great drummers that could sit in and do my job. But it's not just the drumming. That's half of it. There's personalities. There's just a lot of things other than the music that goes into this. You get that only with time and experience with players. I have the same relationship with Joe Walsh. We're a good team. We always had fun. We kind of think alike. It doesn't always start like that. You develop that. That's what difficult to replace. We've had to replace musicians in CSW through the years and we've always had top-notch musicians, but they don't always come and fill the guy's shoes that was last there. It takes a little time, but it all works out.
A - It was quite a while ago. Last time he worked with them was probably 1973 or 1974, I think. I may be wrong on that date. I started with Neil Young and Stephen in 1976. I know Dallas has never been back since then. Before '76, I think the tour was '74, but it might have been Russ Kunkel on drums. I'm not really sure.
Q - I would imagine that more people than ever before appreciate the music of Crosby, Stills And Nash.
A - It's amazing. It's incredible that our audiences are from 14 to 80. They're singing the words. Sometimes we gotta laugh, only 'cause we're laughing with them. They're havin' such a good time. You see somebody and you know how concert people will hold up their lighters in days gone by. Now we got a couple people out there that are havin' such a good time they will hold up their walkers. I never make fun of 'em, ever. It's just funny. It's like God Bless you guys. You're still out there rockin' and rollin'. You're 75 and you got a walker and you came. You're singin' the words to Crosby, Stills And Nash. You might have been at Woodstock, who knows? It's just funny to see. But you're laughin' with them 'cause they're havin' such a good time. It's just really cool to see that. None of us ever expected it to go this long. My inspiration is Charlie Watts of The Stones. They don't know what legends they are, I don't think. They probably do. I saw them when I was in high school. And they're still out there. They're really great. I love bands like that. The Who are still out there. B.B. King is the ultimate. He's over 80 and he still tours.
Q - You saw The Stones when it was just about the music. No props.
A - Absolutely.
Q - You saw the five original Stones.
A - And I saw the four original Beatles in Cleveland. It's in the book. I saw them at Cleveland Stadium. Tickets were $3.75. Something like that. They were touring and The Cyrkle opened for them. They had "Red Rubber Ball" and a couple of other tunes. You could hardly hear The Beatles. The screaming was so loud. But to see the Beatles was simply amazing. It was at a baseball stadium. They had their band gear onstage and they had two little P.A. (public address) columns. But what they did was put microphones in front on each column and that broadcast through the entire stadium P.A. system, which were those horrible sounding cone shaped horns. It was horribly sounding, but we didn't care. Those were The Beatles down there. It was 1965. Unbelievable. Same thing with The Stones. Screaming. It was just a wonderful time.
Q - Talking about The Beatles, you actually met Ringo once?
A - I know Ringo. I've played for him on his records. I've known him for quite awhile. We did some John Lennon sessions, as we talk about in the book. He was there and that's where I met him. He came one night to one of our shows and we had him come up and play. He's a wonderful, wonderful guy.
Q - How would you rate Ringo as a drummer? Some of the people I've interviewed in the past think he's a pretty good drummer. Other people think he hasn't improved since the 1960s and he wasn't very good then.
A - Here's the way I look at that: You've heard the joke where there's musicians and there's a drummer. They don't think drummers are musicians. I totally respect drummers with the monster chops, but Ringo wasn't one of those guys that had these crazy double-bass drum chops. Back then it was Ginger Baker who had all those chops. Everybody is uniquely different to me. The way I look at Ringo and the way I look at drummers in general is, I do consider us musicians. We've very good musicians. We're just as much musicians as anybody else on the stage. The way I rate a drummer is not by how fast he can play or the chops he has or that sort of stuff. The way I rate a drummer is musically what he played or records, what kind of patterns, what kind of fill-ins and when did he play the fill, how did he play the fill and why did he play the fill. That's the way I listen to drummers and rate them like that. In the case of Ringo, he's one of the finest drummers to me. Listen to The Beatles records. He always played the exact, perfect beat, the one you say "If I'd have made that record I wish that's the beat I'd have come up with." His fills are incredibly tasty. He's a very musical drummer. I overlook all that other stuff. I don't look at how fast he can play. That has nothing to do with musicianship. That's chops and that's cool to watch and I really respect those guys that play like that. So, I always listen to drummers. Charlie Watts is a good example too. Charlie Watts hardly ever played drum fills, but there was something about his feel, not fills, in The Stones music that nobody could come close to back then. To this day we try to mimic that. You know when you make a lot of records, the producers are a little bit young now. There's some old-timers left. Some of the young guys study old '50s, '60s, '70s Rock 'n' Roll and now when I go into recording studios, I mean, in the past, producers, sometimes if there's a new song and they have a good idea what they want out of the drummer, a lot of them let you do what you want. But a lot of 'em have an idea. Well, this is also how to rate drummers. They say, and we get a lot of this, "I need Ringo on this." So, if you're familiar with Beatles music, you'll know exactly how to play. Or, "This is gonna be a Charlie Watts thing. You gotta be Charlie Watts." Man, that's pretty respectful to those drummers that they name 'em. If you're doing a big kick-ass Rock 'n' Roll thing, they may say "Alright, bring out the John Bonham snare." Or if it's a really flashy, busy, up-tempo kind of tune, they might say Keith Moon. So, there's a lot of styles like that. I can go on and on about styles like that. That is so respectful when somebody has made such a statement in the music business that future producers will say your name for the style they want. That puts you in a league of your own because there's so many great drummers out there, but not everybody, even in the big, famous ones, has their name called in a studio. That must be an impressive style or such a style that would work so perfectly on your record that a producer would say that.
Q - I've heard from one of the members of a Beatles tribute act I interviewed that Ringo actually played his drums backward, which would account for the unusual sound of the drums in Beatle songs. Interestingly enough, producer George Martin never picked up on that.
A - This is also pretty unique and I heard that Ringo was the first drummer, first ever, to play, drummers will understand this, matched grip. There's two ways to hold the drum sticks. There's a traditional grip where your left hand holds it perpendicular to your arm.
Q - The Jazz drummer's grip.
A - Right. And there's the matched grip where they're both like your right hand. Somebody told me this years ago that Ringo was the very first drummer to do that. Every drummer plays like that. I would say 90% of the drummers I see play matched grip. I was brought up with drum lessons, traditional grip. When I saw Ringo on TV on Ed Sullivan in 1964, I saw him play like that and I immediately went downstairs, I was 14 years old, and grabbed my drumsticks and it was very awkward to play like that 'cause I had learned for years the other way. But, that's the way I play now, matched grip. My father was a musician and my drum teacher came up to me and were giving me crap about it. "He doesn't even know how to hold his sticks right!" What is the right way? It doesn't matter how you hold your sticks. Them old timers didn't like that because it was breaking the mold. But, when you think back, I think he (Ringo) is the first guy that did that. Think about how that influenced all these drummers years later. There's thousands of drummers. That's the way they play. I love Ringo. I have every Beatles recording there is, until they find more, and as I listen to him, he's brilliant. He always came up with the perfect pattern, the perfect drum part, the perfect drum fill-in. It just fit the song so well. You recognize that and realize that when you actually play that drum part with a band doing a Beatles cover.
Q - In the mid-1960s, if you were in a Rock 'n' Roll band, you were cool. If you had a record on the radio, you were really cool. It seems today an artist has to engage in shocking, controversial behavior to get attention.
A - I know. It's really sad what's happened. The late Dan Fogelberg, rest his soul, I played with Dan Fogelberg, Dan used to say he wasn't crazy about video, TV or network. He said that's gonna kill radio and I believe he was right. Although I appreciate seeing the videos, when videos first came out there was just a video of the hit song you had on the radio. Now, it almost seems like they're designing songs to fit the video. It's like writing a soundtrack to a movie. It's like, wait a minute, I would expect the music to come first. It's really sad what's happened and it's all about some crazy buzz you've created or your criminal record. I grew up when the buzz was a great song or a great singer or great words. We all know that, my age. We're all experiencing the same depression. It's not that today's music is bad. How do you decipher today the talent? How do you weed out what's fad versus real, raw talent? I do think that back in the '50s, '60s and '70s we had people who were so deeply talented. It was unbelievable how talented those people were. There weren't gimmicks. It was all about the music and now it's not. And I don't stand alone saying that. And I don't mind saying it 'cause it's true. It is not about the music anymore. Although I will never give up the thought and belief that it is, I think we've lost somewhere down the road the lyrics that everyday people were affected by. The lyrics have gotten very vulgar, very violent. Our lyrics back then still work today. And those people are still singing those songs and I think that 20, 30, 40 years from now I don't know that people are going to be singing the lyrics of today's songs. They'll probably still be singing our lyrics.
Q - I say that all the time.
A - Well, we're not alone. Everybody in the business my age has the same thoughts. I'll tell you I like American Idol. I hope it doesn't get too political. If you watch those kids go from week to week and they weed 'em out, see that's what they used to do back in the '60s. If you walked into a record company with your demo and it was horrible, they would just say "Look, this is not for you. You need to find another line of work." I know Simon Cowell says that a lot. But see, that's why I appreciate that show damn it...he's right! Some of these kids can't sing.
Q - Now, I'm glad you bring American Idol up. What do you think would have happened if Mick Jagger had auditioned for Simon Cowell when he was starting out? Or Bob Dylan? Or Jimi Hendrix?
A - I'm glad you brought that up. One thing Simon Cowell has said before about a couple of singers where the vocal was OK, but there was something about 'em. There was a chemistry. There was a vibe or something about 'em that Simon Cowell recognized. See, that's the thing about Mick Jagger. On a Simon Cowell American Idol level, no, he doesn't have a great voice as far as the way they judge you. But Simon Cowell would have seen this guy that's the ultimate front showman guy. He would recognize his stardom, his star quality and that over rules the voice. What I'm afraid of is this: if you walk into a A&R office in 1965 and you can't sing and let's just say you were a gorgeous, beautiful girl, they'd go "Well, you're very beautiful, but sorry, you can't sing." Unfortunately what's happened now, today, the same girl walks into an A&R office and can't sing a note, but she's stunningly beautiful, they would go "We can do something." That gets me crazy. They're selling her looks. Good for her. Be a model, but don't call yourself a singer. So, in general, just to sum up, marketing is the worst word. That has just taken over talent. The Mo Ostins, Ahmet Erteguns and Joe Smiths and all the owners and heads and presidents of record companies of the '60s and '70s, they're gone. Most of 'em passed away. There's a lot of kids out there, incredibly talented, gifted kids that will never have a chance because they don't have a certain look or they don't fit a certain profile. Forget about all that, how about when they play their instrument? Or sing? Or write songs?
Q - And don't forget the drinking age has gone from 18 to 21. There are increased penalties for D.W.I.s. It's different for bands today.
A - When I grew up, there was a club on every corner to play 'live' music. Maybe we made $90 for the whole band, but we played our hearts out. We learned how to play. We gained fans. We did it the right way, a little bit at a time. Poor bands starting today, I don't know where they play. People like to watch bands play. It's fun to listen to a 'live' band. I don't know if I was 14 today and wanting to do this for a living when I saw The Beatles in '64, I don't know that I'd want to do this now.
Q - What would have happened to you if you hadn't gotten into music?
A - If I didn't choose it, I wouldn't have finished college and I was a math major. I got real, real far in math. I was taking post-grad work when I was just a freshman in college. I was very good at math. Math and me got along just fine. I was taking some very difficult math and my advisors suggested engineering for me. But, it's like I knew what I was going to do. I couldn't have been a better age when the British Invasion and the American Rock 'n' Roll of the '50s...it was just a collide of storms. I don't know about today. It's nowhere near the same. I'm afraid the excitement level is different, if it even exists. It's just not the same.
Q - I almost forgot to ask, what was your first really big break?
A - My first big break was I was playing in a local band. I was at Kent State University in Ohio. That's where Joe Walsh and The James Gang were. They were playing at a club and I was playing in a club with another band. James Gang were known in the area, but they weren't famous. They were just a local band. I was in this other local band. Apparently Ted Nugent had played a gig up in Cleveland and see, Kent was very well known for its music. That's why I moved there. It was known for its clubs and its musicians. Ted Nugent needed a drummer. His drummer was leaving and he came down to Kent 'cause he was curious. He was in the club where I was playing. I didn't know he was there. He's hard to miss, but I didn't see him. Somehow or another through a friend or a mutual friend, he called me and said it was Ted Nugent from The Amboy Dukes. He said he heard me play. He said he liked they way I was playing. "Why don't you come up to Michigan and let's get together and play." And it all worked out, long story short. And I was with Ted Nugent And The Amboy Dukes. I had been in nightclubs for years trying to get out of nightclubs, trying to make records, doing anything I could to get on the big road tours. I was only 21 and he called and it all worked out. That was my first major, national tour. But it compounded a break because in the meantime while I was playing with Ted Nugent, The James Gang had gotten pretty famous nationally with "Funk 49". What happened was, there was a show down in West Palm Beach, Florida and it was Ted Nugent And The Amboy Dukes and The James Gang. We were opening for The James Gang. I knew Joe Walsh real well from Kent. I knew him before he was famous. We were good friends. So, it was so cool. I get to see my friend Joe. We're opening a show for him. Well, I didn't know it had gotten to a point where Joe wanted to do something different other than The James Gang. So, after that show we got together in his room and he just said point blank, "Hey, I'm gonna put a new band together. Would you want to be the drummer?" I always wanted to play with Joe. We loved the same music. So, when he said that, I talked to Ted about it and Ted was very nice about it. He said "That's a great idea. You should play with Joe. You guys are alike. You'd be a good team." I still talk to Ted all the time. We're friends. Ted was very cool with it. Then I started with Joe and that really exploded my career, if you want to put it that way. Once I met Joe, then I met Stephen Stills 'cause he we lived in Colorado. And that became Stills, Young and CSN. We were on the road with Peter Frampton, which was Humble Pie. Then I started playing with Peter. This is the way this crazy business networks. It's like a family tree. Whatever limb you're going down, there might be a branch that you go off on that makes another branch and another branch. I've been very blessed and very fortunate to have worked with so many people. It all started way back when Ted walked into that club. You know that's how it happens sometimes. You can work your butt off and go to record companies or put your name down at the Guitar Center and say I'm looking for a gig. It could take some time to get somewhere that way. Or , some guy walks into a club where you're playing and the next day your life is changed completely. It's crazy, but it's a pretty exciting business.