Features

Joe Vitale

For nearly half a century, his drumming has been heard in the music of rock icons like Joe Walsh, Rick Derringer, Dan Fogelberg, Peter Frampton, John Entwistle, Zakk Wylde, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. But his talents extend well beyond the drumset, and even onto the silver screen.

by Billy Amendola

The title track of Joe Vitale’s 2008 solo album, Speaking in Drums, is an explosion of rhythm and full-set fills that perfectly communicates the joy and excitement Vitale has felt deep in his bones ever since he began playing the instrument at six years old. Vitale has had no trouble relaying that feeling to millions of people since the early ’70s, when he began appearing on records and on stage with legends like Joe Walsh and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

As a kid, Vitale played in a polka band with his brother and father—until he was fourteen, when, like so many others who witnessed the Beatles for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show, he left to pursue his rock ’n’ roll dreams. “My dad was not happy about that decision at all,” Vitale recalls today.

The elder Vitale might not have gotten the rock, but he did prepare his son well for a career in music. “My dad insisted that I learn piano,” Joe says. “It was some of the best advice I ever received. I learned so much about melody and arrangement, which helped my songwriting.” It’s a knowledge base that still serves him well today, fifty years later.


Joseph Anthony Vitale was born in Canton, Ohio, in 1949. In 1965, while still in high school, he formed a band called the Echoes. That group, renamed the supposedly more “British” (and therefore hip-sounding) Chylds, got a deal with Warner Bros. and did well regionally, even reaching the Billboard charts with the single “Psychedelic Soul.”

In 1971 Vitale was offered a national tour with Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, who’d hit big a few years earlier with the heavy-psych cut “Journey to the Center of the Mind.” Soon after, Vitale got a call from his former Kent State University classmate Joe Walsh to join the singer/guitarist’s band, Barnstorm, which recorded two albums before breaking up in 1974. Vitale has remained a collaborator and a friend of Walsh’s to this day, however, appearing with him live and on record, and alongside him in concert with the Eagles, playing double drums with Don Henley.

It’s not just Vitale’s drumming skills that Walsh and others have relied on for years. An accomplished songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Joe cowrote the 1973 Walsh hit “Rocky Mountain Way” as well as the Eagles’ “Pretty Maids in a Row,” from the blockbuster 1978 album Hotel California. In fact, Vitale’s full artistic voice has been on display since the mid-’70s, when the drummer began releasing solo albums like Roller Coaster Weekend and Plantation Harbor, which include contributions by famous friends like Walsh, Rick Derringer, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash.

“You don’t have to be a virtuoso on another instrument,” Vitale says, “but the value of [having a working knowledge] is unmeasurable. As a drummer, if you can play a few riffs on a guitar or piano, or even sing out front, you learn what it’s like to play with a drummer. If the drummer plays a weird fill, making it hard to find 1, you learn not to do that. Likewise, when he drives the tune and plays a fill that leads you perfectly into the next section, it shows you exactly why that drummer has the gig. The same applies to songwriting. When I start to write a song, I always think of the groove first. What tempo, feel, style, and energy do I want the song to have? Many songwriters will already know this and express it in the studio or rehearsal. There are also cats that are open to ideas and input—in these situations, by all means, show them what you got.”

In 2008 Vitale released his autobiography, Backstage Pass, cowritten by his wife of forty-two years, Susie. That same year he produced his son Joe Jr.’s debut album, Dancing With Shadows. Projects like this suggest that there are few creative challenges that Vitale won’t take. And his willingness to stretch continues today; as you read this, you can see him on the big screen in the Hollywood feature film Ricki and the Flash, which stars such heavyweight actors as Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, as well as another gentleman who’s at home in front of the camera, Rick Springfield. In this exclusive interview, Vitale shares his personal account of this unusual gig—but first we ask him about what went into many of the classic recordings he’s had a hand in shaping.


Rocking “Ricki and the Flash”

The thing I hate the most about the music business is that you never know what’s happening next. And the thing I love the most about the music business is that you never know what’s happening next! There’s certainly security in a routine, but it’s completely dwarfed by the raw excitement of an unexpected late-night phone call or email.

It was July 2014, and I was woodshedding tunes, preparing for the Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp—which I’m a counselor at when my schedule allows—and I get a call from Rick Rosas. I had worked with Rick the Bass Player, as we all knew him, many times, touring with Joe Walsh and Buffalo Springfield. Rick said a film director by the name of Jonathan Demme was going to contact me. I knew that Demme was an iconic director, and Rick said it was about a movie with Meryl Streep. WHAT? Rick assured me that it was true—he’d worked with Jonathan before on a Neil Young documentary and suggested using me.

Two days later the phone rings. My caller ID said “unknown,” so I didn’t know who it was. “Hi, this is Jonathan Demme, and I’m looking for an Italian drummer named Joe.” I laughed and said, “I know one!” What I didn’t know was that the writer of the film, Diablo Cody [Juno, Young Adult], had already written into the script that the drummer was an Italian guy named Joe! Jonathan went on to tell me about the film and said he wanted to meet with me in New York.

So I fly to New York and go to Telsey & Company casting. This is all new to me—casting? I could see Jonathan Demme through the slightly opened casting-room door. This is a room where dreams come true or…well…you know. I wasn’t nervous—I didn’t have to read lines or even play the drums—but still, this was heavy. I was asked to come in, and Jonathan gave me a big hug like a good friend would. We sat and talked for about half an hour about music, artists, and live performances. Jonathan said the band was going to play live with no overdubs and no fixes. I said, “Great—we can do that.” We shared our musical likes and heroes and discovered that we love a lot of the same music. Then we said our goodbyes and I was off to the airport. At this point I really didn’t know where this was going, but it was an honor just to chat with such a wonderfully brilliant director as Jonathan.

A few days later, while I was at home getting ready for a Las Vegas trip to the Fantasy Camp, I get an email from casting, saying, “We’d like to offer you the part.” Now I’m getting nervous—not about the drumming, but now I have speaking lines. I’m not an actor, but fortunately what was written in the script was drum and music talk, all the stuff we chat about every day anyway. So I was a bit relieved. I was asked to come back to New York for a reading session, and the following week I was back in that same casting room, where there was now a huge table set up with our names at each setting.

I go in and look for my seat. I’m reading the names, and there’s Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield, Diablo Cody, producers Gary Goetzman and Marc Platt, execs from Sony/TriStar…. At this point I’m feeling so excited, honored, and humbled to be part of this—and a bit nervous again!

Now we’re all in the room, saying hi to each other and shaking hands, and I’m introduced to our keyboard player, the great Bernie Worrell of Parliament Funkadelic. I’m on cloud nine.

Next Jonathan Demme comes in, and what a great vibe he brings. He was calm, collected, totally focused, totally in charge, and totally loved. “Hi, everyone, let’s get started.” So we all open to page one of the Ricki and the Flash script and begin the reading.

It was quite an experience. I’d never in my life imagined sitting in this room, with these people, doing this. We finished, and everyone applauded and said goodbye and see you next month for band rehearsals. I go to the airport, get on the plane, have a private laugh, and tell myself, Okay, let’s do this!

After a few days I received a list of potential songs that they had in mind. I was familiar with all of them. The premise was that we were to be a cover band in a bar, playing rock ’n’ roll tunes. The song choices were good and quite diverse—everything from Tom Petty to Lady Gaga. Production sent us MP3s, so we all downloaded them and started woodshedding. We were going to stick with the original arrangements but make them our own as well. This was really fun.

To prepare for this new adventure I did what I always do, which is to make a CD, stick it in my player next to my practice kit, and get started. Even though I knew most of the tunes already, I wrote out charts. It’s a great way to learn a song. You can do it in any form that you’re comfortable with, then, at rehearsal, if there are any changes, you can just edit your original copy. And as you write a chart, you’re actually learning the song before you’re even playing it.

The tunes were straight-ahead rock and soul grooves. I worked real hard with all the tunes, until I felt good about the pocket and the arrangements. The band was to be a typical club band: Meryl and Rick on guitar and vocals, Rick Rosas on bass, Bernie Worrell on keys, and me on drums and vocals. I figured a five-piece kit would do the job, although per producer Gary Goetzman’s suggestion I made it a tight little four-piece, which worked great. So I put together my DW black ice kit, and off we went. Of course I brought an array of snares and cymbals. This was like a normal gig, but then again, not—I’m drumming in a film behind Meryl Streep!

We were all excited when we arrived in New York for rehearsal. What a great moment it is when you all plug in for the first time, start a jam, and it sounds great right off the bat. It’s the type of confidence you long for in any band. Rick and I had worked together and had been friends for so many years, so we fell right into a great pocket. And though I’d never played with Rick or Bernie or, of course, Meryl, we immediately sounded like a band that had been playing together for a long time. I knew this was going to be great.

Gary Goetzman started us off with Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” which has a fun double-time drum groove. Meryl killed it, the band was smoking, and it seemed like a normal club-band rehearsal. It was relieving to be in that setting, because for us musicians it didn’t seem like a movie set with props, just a bar with band gear, like a regular gig. It was really cool to be that comfortable on such a high-profile project. None of us took it lightly, though—we knew how important it was to be as good as we could be, but to also have fun and just do what we do. It was nice to see Meryl rocking out like the best of them and killing it every time. This went on for two weeks. We were ready for “action”!

We moved over to the set and started filming. We filmed every day with weekends off for about a month, and it just got better and better. The band got loose and funky, and we were all having a great time. The film crew and extras became our “loyal fans,” and I think we made it fun for everyone to come to work each day. I couldn’t have been more blessed—incredible artists, amazing director,
brilliant producers…the best of the best.

When the last day of filming came, it was hard to say goodbye. All these wonderfully talented people had become my new friends, and I knew I would really miss them. I would also miss coming to work each day, because Jonathan Demme and company made it such a pleasure. What a great team.

Sadly, very shortly after we finished filming, Rick Rosas passed away. It was such a shock to the entire music community and to this wonderful film company. We’ll all miss you, Rick. I’m honored to have shared your final stage. RIP.

It was an amazing experience to be a part of this film. I learned so much about the other side of the big screen. An enormous amount of work and heartfelt effort goes into making a film. The next time I go to the movies, I’ll sit there with my popcorn and appreciate every frame that goes by.


“Rocky Mountain Way” by Joe Walsh

This track had such a deep groove that you just had to sit back and let it flow. All the fills I played had to maintain both the energy and the pocket. It would have been easy to get crazy and hit a bunch of stuff, but the magic of the song was the backbeat just being lazy enough but not losing the support of the massive guitars that Joe had played. Really there’s only one way to play this song. It’s not just a slow shuffle, it’s a dotted pattern on the foot with 6/8 trips on the hat. There’s your pocket! I’m a cowriter on this song and very proud that it’s become such a classic radio hit. After all these years I still get excited when I hear that signature guitar intro and
then I bring the band in.

“Life’s Been Good” by Joe Walsh

Another Joe Walsh classic. This was a drummer’s dream track and also quite challenging. Just the fact that the drums start on 2 right out of the gate is so different. You can start on 1 with your foot, but it’s just cooler not to. And when the guitar riff comes in, the magic begins! That song had so many different grooves. Those albums had a lot of thought and creativity but also spontaneous magic. I can’t begin to tell you how exciting it is to hit that first snare [live] and see the reaction from the crowd. They know immediately what song you’re playing.

“Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash

I recorded many songs with CSN. The common thread with these guys, especially with Stills, is “less is more.” We captured the perfect pocket on this one. Smooth, flowing groove and incredible vocals. I get so happy every time this comes on the radio. The late, great percussionist Joe Lala, bassist George “Chocolate” Perry, and I laid down a beautiful feel as the trio sang their hearts out. On this track I played a 1967 Ludwig Hollywood kit with a 6.5″ Black Beauty snare, the same one I played on “Rocky Mountain Way.”

“In the City” by Joe Walsh

We recorded this song for the movie The Warriors. It’s become one of Joe’s classic live tunes. It’s tons of fun to play—huge guitars, big pushes, and a slow-grind pocket. The original recording for the film had two drummers, the great Russ Kunkel and me. We had done a lot of work together, and Walsh liked how we played as a team. The Eagles liked the song enough to rerecord it, and their version is awesome as well. Don Henley nails the feel that Russ and I originally laid down.

“Too Late the Hero” by John Entwistle

This is the title track from the late John “the Ox” Entwistle’s 1981 solo album. What a joy it was to record with such an amazing artist. We cut this in London. I played drums, piano, and flute on it. John invited any and all creative ideas, so bringing in the flute parts was an on-the-spot suggestion. That mindset makes for great records. I was honored that such a fabulous musician as John would give me so much space to try things. He gave as much respect as he received. I love this cut and the memory of recording it.

“Long May You Run” by the Stills-Young Band

We were in Florida’s Criteria Recording Studios in 1976 recording the Stills-Young album, and Neil Young starts playing this song. The entire band was set up in the same room—leakage, but who cares; we grooved hard being so close to each other. Feel is so important. I remember I was only holding one stick and was tweaking my snare with the other hand. We all thought we were just running it down, but the tape machines were rolling. At the end of the song Neil says, “Great!” And that was it—loose, funky…beautiful. It felt amazing. Neil and Stephen at their best. “Long May You Run” became the title track of the album and the only hit on it.

Eagles Live

I was part of the Eagles’ touring band when we recorded this album. I was a multi-instrumentalist on the tour—I played some drums, keys, percussion, and flute. The reason I love this record so much is that it was recorded live, with no fixes, repairs, or overdubs from anyone. Bravo, Eagles!


Tools of the Trade

Vitale plays a DW Collector’s series maple kit in black ice finish, featuring 12″ and 14″ toms, 16″ and 18″ floor toms, and a 22″ bass drum, plus a 5.5″ chrome or brass snare. His Sabian cymbals include 14″ AA hi-hats; 16″, 18″, 19″, and 20″ Medium Thin crashes; and a 21″ Raw Bell ride. His heads include a Remo Coated Powerstroke 3 snare batter, Remo Coated Ambassador tom batters, and an Evans EQ4 Clear bass drum batter. He plays Vic Firth 5B nylon-tip sticks with Vic Grip.