Liberty DeVitto, longtime Billy Joel drummer, plays Rock & Roll for Children benefit show

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Liberty DeVitto (Part 1)

He drummed on countless Billy Joel hits from “Uptown Girl” to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

This Saturday, Liberty DeVitto plays the annual Rock & Roll for Children Foundation concert at The Fillmore in Silver Spring, Maryland, to benefit The Children’s Inn at NIH.

“I did the first one for [founder Jon Belinkie] and did a couple after that, it’s been running since 2004, so it’s been around for a while,” DeVitto told WTOP. “I believe in children, I have a 5 year old, I have older daughters too and I love kids. I believe in the healing power of music.”

The Children’s Inn allows families to stay with their kids as they receive treatments.

“It’s a great thing,” DeVitto said. “It’s kind of like Ronald McDonald House but without the clown. Families get to stay with the children and the kids get to be kids instead of patients.”

The concert will also feature Ricky Byrd and ’90s cover band White Ford Bronco.

“I’m playing ‘You May Be Right,’ Ricky is going to do ‘I Love Rock n’ Roll,” DeVitto said.

Born in New York City in 1950, DeVitto grew upon in Long Island and taught himself to play the drums after seeing The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964.

“I was born in Brooklyn, my father was a New York City cop stationed in Brooklyn, so he didn’t want us to live there, so he moved us out to Long Island,” DeVitto said. “When I was 17, I played in this club called the My House on Long Island. I was in a band called The New Rock Workshop, Billy was in a band called The Hassles. Sometimes both bands played together.”

He officially joined on as Billy Joel’s drummer in the mid-1970s.

“When it was time for us to get together and he was coming back to New York and he wanted a New York-style drummer, Doug Stegmeyer, who was the musical director for Billy at the time, said, ‘Well, you know the guy.’ … It’s been a long relationship. … I think I played on 23 of his 24 Top 40 hits. The only one I didn’t play on was ‘Piano Man.’ That was before me.”

Their first album together was Joel’s fourth studio album, “Turnstiles” (1976), including classic tunes like “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” and “New York State of Mind.”

“My first with him was great,” DeVitto said. “We did it on Long Island. It was kind of a bomb, really, I think it sold like 50,000 copies. … ‘Turnstiles’ had great songs on it. The only missing element during that album was producer Phil Ramone. Now he had the band, it just wasn’t produced like when Phil came in on ‘The Stranger,’ you could hear the production difference.”

Indeed, “The Stranger” (1977) featured hits like “Movin’ Out,” “Just the Way You Are,” “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “She’s Always a Woman” and “Only the Good Die Young.”

“‘Only the Good Die Young’ is cool because I played with brushes in the studio. Instead of drumsticks, you play with brushes,” DeVitto said. “But ‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,’ it goes through a lot of phases. The Brenda and Eddie part is fast, so it’s a lot of fun.”

They next recorded “52nd Street’ (1978), which featured “Big Shot” and “My Life.”

“I have a band now, The Lords of 52nd Street, it’s myself, Richie Cannata and Russell Javors, who were in Billy’s original band,” DeVitto said. “We do all the Billy stuff [and] one of my favorite songs to play is ‘Zanzibar,’ because it’s a really fast jazz swing thing. That’s on the ’52nd Street’ album, which is really cool. I like to play that song. It’s a challenge.”

They followed up with “Glass Houses” (1980), featuring hits like “You May Be Right” and “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me,” followed by “The Nylon Curtain” (1982), featuring “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon,” then the wildly successful “An Innocent Man” (1983), featuring “The Longest Time,” “Tell Her About It” and “Uptown Girl.”

“I remember when we recorded [‘Uptown Girl’] I was walking with another member of the band and I looked at the other member of the band and said, ‘That’s the dumbest song he’s even written,’ and I turned around and he was standing right behind me. He said, ‘You’re right, it is the dumbest song I ever wrote.’ Just the lyrics are dumb: ‘uptown girl, living in an uptown world.'”

As the ’80s gave way to the ’90s, DeVitto drummed on more Joel albums like “Storm Front” (1989), featuring “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “I Go to Extremes,” “Shameless,” “Leningrad” and “And So It Goes,” followed by “River of Dreams” (1993) with the hit title track.

“I wrote about all the songs that I recorded with Billy and what my memory was in the studio in the book I put out a year and a half ago called ‘Life, Billy and the Pursuit of Happiness,’” DeVitto said. “All those songs are in there if anybody wants to know what it was like to record them. … Billy wrote the foreword, it was the first time I heard how he appreciated what I did.”

Of course, his career is not just Billy Joel. DeVitto has recorded with some of the biggest artists of all time from the late Meatloaf to Carly Simon to Paul McCartney.

“There’s a [McCartney] song called ‘Beautiful Night’ that we recorded on the latest version of ‘Flaming Pie,’ there’s a box set, it was recorded by me, then it was recorded by Ringo [Starr], he did different versions,” DeVitto said. “I learned by playing to Beatles records, I don’t know how to read music, don’t know anything about music except for playing drums.”

Turns out, many musicians don’t know how to read sheet music.

“There’s a lot of guys like that, especially drummers,” DeVitto said. “You feel the music. Drumming is more feel than anything else. It’s not what you play, it’s how you’re playing it. Myself, Buddy Rich, Larry Mullen from U2, we all don’t read music, Ringo.”

Even so, he supports teaching kids music through the New York charity Little Kids Rock.

“Little Kids Rock was started by Dave Wish, a school teacher in California,” DeVitto said. “After school he saw kids hanging out, so he said, ‘I’ll give you guitar lessons if you promise to come.’ It started out with 20 kids. Now almost 750,000 kids have gone through. It puts instruments back in school where music curriculum has been removed.”

If you can’t tell, he has a soft spot for kids, which is why he’s playing the benefit concert for the Rock & Roll for Children Foundation this Saturday in Silver Spring.

“Guys, come on out, it’s going to be a night of fun, music, dancing, eating and it’s to benefit children,” DeVitto said. “A lot of these treatments are serious, what these kids are going through, sometimes life-threatening, and you are helping them by having a good time.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Liberty DeVitto (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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