Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.
I’ve been a Billy Joel fan for decades, and one reason for that is because, despite the one name appearing on concert tickets and album covers, a Billy Joel recording or concert is very much a group effort. He has always worked with world class musicians who played a major role in song arrangements and who have a powerful stage presence. Among his other achievements, Liberatori “Liberty” DeVitto was the drummer in Joel’s band for thirty years. If you love albums like The Stranger or 52nd Street, DeVitto had a lot to do with that. The five times I saw Joel and his band in concert, DeVitto could have stolen the show with his dynamic performing style. Just watch his work in this live version of My Life (also notice, there is no “background” here; every band member is part of the performance):
I recently read DeVitto’s memoirs, Liberty: Life, Billy, and the Pursuit of Happiness. As you can imagine, a rock drummer with decades of experience has a fascinating story to tell. Throughout the book, I found myself consistently impressed with DeVitto’s deliberate approach to his creative work, starting when he was a teenager. Here are a few highlights that are relevant to all creative efforts:
A Specific Goal with Flexibility: DeVitto figured out early on that he wanted to be a rock drummer, but rock music is a big world with room for diversity. Just consider a few of his early inspirations: Dion and the Belmonts, the Beatles, Sam Cooke, and the Young Rascals. He learned to incorporate jazz and Latin influences into his style. Too much specificity can isolate you from opportunity; not enough specificity, and you lack the focus to grow and prosper.
A Commitment to Learning: DeVitto has no formal music training and says he never even learned to read music. Yet he has recorded on best-selling albums and performed for audiences around the world. He immersed himself in the albums he loved, listening intently to what other drummers played and how they integrated themselves into the rest of the band. “Records became my books,” he writes. Once he started performing in his own bands, he absorbed everything he could from his fellow musicians. I’m not suggesting you forego formal training in your own creative pursuits, but the best learning comes from studying the experts combined with real-world experience.
Practice: “You must practice,” DeVitto writes. “All the time.” Opportunity might knock any day, and if you’re not prepared, there are always others who will be.
Network: Visiting and performing in every venue he could, DeVitto gradually found many musicians and club owners among his network of friends. These were often the people who referred him to new opportunities at just the right time. Networking is not a one-way gig, however. Learning a generosity of spirit was one of the most important lessons in DeVitto’s own personal struggles.
Have a Creative Philosophy: When I wrote above that DeVitto could have stolen the show at Billy Joel’s concerts, I left out the most important part – he never wanted to. Drummers set the tempo for a band but are still collaborators with other musicians and, often, one or more vocalists. DeVitto rarely plays solos because his goal is to enhance a song, not dominate it. He writes, “I realized that if I couldn’t sing the song and play the drums at the same time, then I was playing too many notes or fills.” Figure out where you want to be in the creative process, then do that to the best of your ability.
Positive Honesty: “Impostor syndrome” is a common experience among artists. After he left the Billy Joel Band, DeVitto struggled with identity: “I became a man without a country…” Over time, he was able to stop seeing himself only as “Billy Joel’s drummer,” while still embracing his vital contribution to one of the best-selling acts in the rock era. “The name and drumming of Liberty DeVitto is on those records.” Don’t confine yourself to a limiting identity, but don’t hesitate to claim your achievements.
I’m often disappointed by celebrity memoirs, but I found Liberty: Life, Billy, and the Pursuit of Happiness genuinely interesting and insightful. I recommend it to anyone interested in music, pop culture, or creativity in general. Enjoy!