Thanks to: Vicky Hutchison, Paul Higham and Dave Zimmer.
Date: 16 April, 2008
John Barbata (born 1 April 1945, in Passaic, New Jersey, U.S.) developed his reputation as a drummer in the 1960s and 1970s. Already an established session man when he joined The Turtles, he was one of the pioneering percussionists who converted pop music rhythms from the down-beat rhythms of the 1950s to the off-beat rhythms that have dominated ever since.
His most famous band memberships (besides The Turtles) have been: The Sentinals, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship and… Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
He has played on 20 hit singles and over 100 studio albums. Some of the great hits he played on are “Happy Together, “She’d Rather be with Me” “Elenore” and many more with The Turtles and of course he played on 4 Way Street with CSNY and on “Ohio” (a CSNY signature moment) as well as CSNY’s individual work.
In 2005 he published his memoirs – The Legendary Life of a Rock Star Drummer – and this month we talk about some of the stories recorded there and (hopefully!) some that aren’t .
E = mc2 = JB?
Dolf van Stijgeren: Johny, when you were young you met Albert Einstein when he ran out of gas on a lake and you even sat on his lap when your parents towed him back to shore. Is being at the right place, right moment the story of your life? (Tommy Smothers, Crosby & Nash, Buddy Rich, etc., etc.)
Johny Barbata: Dolf, it really has been the story of my life; a prime example, Neil and David came walking into Leo Makota house, the CSN& Y road manager, and Neil and David where looking for a drummer, I mentioned some other drummer possibilities and then I ended up getting the gig, being at the right place at the right time.
DvS: You call your father (who was from Sicily, Italy) a “Jack-of-all-trades. ” Have you inherited that trait in you musical life – do you play other instruments and do you write and sing as well?
JB: Yes I co-wrote “Elenore” and collaborated on 60 others as well. Right now my wife Angie and I have a new CD we are getting ready to release, it’s called California and it features both Angie and myself singing lead and harmonies and a we wrote, produced and engineered the whole project Angie is an engineer and I produce. We had the great Wayne Perkins on rhythm and slide guitars, Wayne was one of the Muscle Shoals Swampers and Mona Ganader played bass, Mona plays with Sammy Hager right now and has been for years, she’s a great player, we also had Sneaky Pete Klanow the legendary steel player and Pete Sears of the Starship played keyboard. Anyway you can get the album on our Website, johnybarbata.com soon.
DvS: In the spring of 1966 Gene Clark (The Byrds) suggested you as a drummer to The Turtles. Were you surprised by the recommendation?
JB: Yes I was Surprised.
DvS: So, you replaced Don Murray in 1966 (although other sources claim it was 1967). He has since passed away, but are you still in touch with the other original members?
JB: Yes we remain good friends and speak often.
DvS: In your book you write that your drum style on “Happy Together” stylized you as a signature drummer. How would you describe your style?
JB: Very unorthodox and very funk rudimental.
DvS: You acknowledge the influence of Gene Krupa in your decision, at the age of eight, to become a drummer. This is interesting, because in a recent interview for 4waysite.com Dallas Taylor (who told me you are a good drummer) also mentions Gene Krupa as a key influence. Do you think that this manifests itself in any similarity between your and Dallas’ styles?
JB: Hell no! I can could drum circles around Dallas, I am a technician, I can do drum solos and clinics.
DvS: Did Dallas Taylor show you his drum parts when he and Greg Reeves were fired at the beginning of the CSNY 1970 tour?
JB: Absolutely not, that is untrue, besides he was no where around he was fired. I didn’t need any more then to copy off the record, I am a professional that is why they called me.
DvS: Were you able to add your flourishes as a drummer on the subsequent tour or did you have to copy Dallas?
JB: I did my own thing, as you can well tell on 4 Way Street.
DvS: BTW: do you know what ever happened to Greg Reeves who simultaneously got fired?
JB: I have no idea.
DvS: I already mentioned the name Gene Krupa, but you took lessons at the Wisky A-Go-Go from none other than Buddy Rich and I know you feel privileged to have done so. What did he teach you and have you taken more lessons from other drummers?
JB: He taught me so much I cannot explain it in words. But if I had to try I’d have to say how he ended his songs, he had such a fast left hand and he taught me an exercise to help my left hand speed, which I demonstrate on my drum instructional video I am working on and will have available soon. As for taking lessons no, but I stole everything I could from the very best.
DvS: Back to the 60s. Buffalo Springfield occasionally opened for The Turtles. Did that contribute to your future CSNY career?
JB: Of course it did, as well as the eight albums and many tours I did with them.
DvS: The Doors opened for The Turtles as well and – in contrast to David Crosby – you liked Jim Morrison, didn’t you?
JB: Yeah I liked Jim, he was a great guy. But I was more friends with David. David got me into CSN&Y as well as Jefferson Airplane which became Jefferson Starship. Which I will always will be grateful to him for.
DvS: Your book published in 2005, is called “The Legendary Life of a Rock Star Drummer.” Given the title, what can the reader expect to find between the covers?
JB: Rock and roll history, stories including the Turtles, Beatles, Elvis, Clapton, CSN&Y, Dave Mason, The Everly Bros., Linda Rondstadt , Airplane Starship the list goes on and on, it’s the story of my life and intimate stories about my relationship with these people.
DvS: Apparently you don’t have a lot of respect for Russ Kunkel. You wrote: “… because he [Russ Kunkel] was hanging around the CSNY gigs and trying to get in with them. Sure he was a good studio drummer and kissed everybody’s ass, but he was not a drummer’s drummer, like Jim Keltner, my friend was”. Your comments please…
JB: Jim was a drummers drummer. He could drum circles around Kunkel because he came from a Jazz background and he is a great technician.
DvS: There are more drummers who played during different periods with CSN/Y. Do you know any of them personally? Joe Vitale for example? And what about CPR’s Steve DiStanislao who recently toured with none other than David Gilmour?
JB: Sorry, but I’ve never ran across these guys.
DvS: And what do you think of Crazy Horses drummer Ralph Molina who is currently touring [March 2008] with Neil Young in Europe?
JB: He has good time, but limited in his fills, but I think Neil likes it that way. Ralph and I have played basketball and football together, we’re friends and we’re both Italian…haha.
DvS: Is it true you played uncredited on The Byrds 1973 Asylum Records reunion album?
JB: Yes, if “Cowgirl in The Sand” was the cover song on the album, I played on it along with Wilton Felder on bass, he also played sax with The Jazz Crusaders, we never got credit.
DvS: How did you come to join Jefferson Starship for the Dragon Fly album in 1973?
JB: As I said before David Crosby got me into both CSN&Y and The Airplane which became Jefferson Starship. I played on three Jefferson Airplane albums, as well as Grace and Paul’s solo albums before we became Jefferson Starship, I was the only drummer to be in the Airplane and Jefferson Starship.
DvS: Had you previously played with Grace Slick and Paul Kantner?
JB: We did five albums together.
DvS: What do you remember about playing “Wooden Ships” with the Starship and how did that band’s version compare with the CSNY version?
JB: The Starship version was a little harder rock, CSN&Y was more polished.
DvS: What’s your favorite Grace Slick story? And what about Paul Kantner?
JB: The first time I met Grace I was auditioning for the Airplane and I got the gig they liked the way I played and acted so Paul invited me to stay with him and Grace that night. On the way to Bolinas Grace was driving her Maserati as fast as she could go, without killing us and totally scared the Hell out of me, Paul said “She gets like this once and a while”…hahaha..
DvS: Did David Crosby ever drop into the studio or live shows when the Starship was playing in the Bay Area?
JB: Yes, several times.
DvS: A step aside. In your book there is a funny story about a “Barbata car.” How would a Barbata car look?
JB: It looked like a Jag in the front a Ferrari in the back and a Porsche in the middle, it was called a Marcos 1800 sgt and it was made in England, I bought mine from Stephanie Powers the famous actress. People would stop and ask me what it was sometimes I told them it was a “Barbata”….haha…It’s all in my book.
MORE INTO CSNY
DvS: CSNY was the first politically engaged group you played with. How did you feel about that?
JB: I loved it! Because the money powers control the government, the government controls the police force, the police force controls the people. I loved the image, totally different from the Eagles.
DvS: Just before your first gig with CSNY they had a big fight after the acoustic set about Stephen playing a couple of extra songs. Did that make you wonder about your future with CSNY even before you’d stepped out onto the stage?
JB: Yes, I wondered if I was ever going to step on to the stage that day! It was truly psychodrama then I said “Let’s go and play” and we did. And Fuzzy and I came off great for the first gig with them. Dylan and The Band were in the audience.
DvS: You played on seven CSNY albums, collectively and individually. Do you have any special memories of particular sessions?
JB: Playing with Neil Young I had a 20 minute rehearsal and played a 1 hr 45min set and it came off perfect, also Neil wrote “Ohio” on Monday and recorded it at Record Plant in Hollywood and it was on the airways by Friday, that is just unheard of and I’ll never forget it, we got “Ohio” in one take.
DvS: What more do you remember of recording “Ohio?”
JB: The country was torn between backing the Vietnam war and hating it there was much turmoil in the country and Kent State only added fuel to the fire. CSNY were quoted as saying the line-up that they had when they did “Ohio” was when they were at their best. And I am glad to have been a part of it.
DvS: On 4 Way Street David Crosby says about you “He played his ass off.” Do you happen to know where and when were the tracks were recorded? There is a puzzle that surrounds the locations of the recordings; I have been told that some – “Long Time Gone” for example – are a mix of several recordings made at different venues…
JB: “Long Time Gone” was done at a particular venue, I don’t remember which one but it was not pieced together. We recorded during the entire tour and they took songs from different venues but they did not piece songs together.
DvS: In the process of preparing this interview, I noticed something on the cover of the LP of 4 Way Street. Your name has been written with two n’s: Johnny. Have you ever noticed that and I assume people misspell your name quite often?
JB: I changed my name to one n later on when I got into the Starship because it was one less letter to sign in an autograph and to be different.
DvS: I don’t want to be picky, but in your book [page 48] you wrote that you heard the recordings of CSN’s first album and mention “Our House,” but this song did not appear on that album. Did you hear a demo?
JB: Yes, I heard demos at Allen Parisher’s house in Hollywood with Graham and Davis and Stephen, not knowing I was going to be their drummer later on.
DvS: You played on “Sit Yourself Down” on Stills’ first solo album, but who played drums on the track “Go Back Home” that appeared on the same album, a track famously featuring Eric Clapton on “2nd lead guitar”?
JB: Dallas and I both played on it.
DvS: You played on Neil’s live album Time Fades Away. Did you really replace Kenneth Buttrey because he did not play loud enough? (He worked with a number of well-known musicians.) And… do you know if it will ever be released on CD?
JB: Yes, I did replace Kenny Buttrey because he was not playing his bass drum loud enough on Heart of Gold. Consequently, I played on all the tracks on Time Fades Away. As far as releases, I think it will be in the future.
DvS: You probably know Kenneth Buttrey passed away in 2004?
JB: Yes I knew about him passing away, he was a great county drummer.
DvS: You played the first set pretty well after rehearsing 20 minutes. Perhaps people should rehearse less…?
JB: Only good Musicians can sit in and not make mistakes as with Hendrix and Clapton if you don’t get it in one take your not suppose to be there, that’s why studio musicians are the cream of the crop.
DvS: Was the tour indeed heavily influenced by alcohol abuse?
JB: No, marijuana and cocaine.
DvS: What was the role of Crosby & Nash during the “Time Fades Away” tour and what do you remember of their contributions?
JB: Graham and David showed up a few times and participated and Stephen showed up a couple of times making the shows even more interesting.
DvS: Many people see a difference between the “CSNY-Neil” and the “solo-Neil”. What is your take on this one?
JB: Well its pretty obvious uh that Neil is ¼ of CSN&Y and when he plays with CSN&Y it really makes the band so much bigger. Neil does his solo music it’s all Neil and he truly is one of the greatest songwriters of our time.
DvS: In 1973 you played with Manassas in Saratoga because Dallas Taylor was weakened due to his heroin addiction. Was it a form of intervention for Dallas or were you actively lined up to take over the Manassas drumseat permanently? Would you have enjoyed that role?
JB: I would have enjoyed the roll but frankly I was there to psyche Dallas out, remember I had replaced him on 4 Way Street, I was there really to straighten him out or he would be replaced, so I guess you could call it an intervention.
DvS: You went to Maui with CSNY in 1973 and recorded a few tracks. What are your memories of this long awaited, but short lived, reunion ?
JB: Just a lot of great times and sailing on David Crosby’s 70ft. schooner The Mayan.
DvS: Was (or is) there a CSNY member with whom you have a special relationship?
JB: Graham and Neil. Graham was the class of CSN&Y and he took me all over Europe with him and I lived in house in San Francisco. Neil did not get along with Dallas so I came into the picture and I left L.A. with Neil as it was burning and lived on his ranch for several weeks in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
DvS: You wrote of CSNY that Stephen was the leader of the band, but what then was Neil’s role?
JB: Neil’s role was to write sing and play guitar. But as with Eagles, Glen Fry was the leader but in the end was passed up by Don Henley, the same thing happened with Stephen and Neil, Neil got bigger.
DvS: You played with Jefferson Starship at the height of their popularity. Have you ever been invited to play in one of the versions of the band that still tours?
JB: No. Paul Kantner doesn’t want any competition from anybody else and I was the one who introduced the “vote” into the Starship which meant he was no longer in total control.
DvS: What was the best part about being a part of Jefferson Starship?
JB: I got to sing a solo song Big City as well as drum solos, being part a cult band, backing up Grace and Marty and I brought Larry Cox in from Graham Nash and never really got the credit as he was on the first 5 albums including the biggest one Red Octopus. A great studio drummer and a great engineer/producer changed their music. Playing the free gigs in Central Park and Golden Gate Park and being able to do drum solos in front of 150,000 people several times is something I’ll never forget.
DvS: When was the last time you played with any of the CSNY camp?
JB: Neil Young’s Time Fades Away. Neil called me in the mid 1990’s to come to his ranch, but I was in the middle of a project and could not go. I think Neil got pissed at me for not coming down. Give me a call Neil I still think I’m the best drummer for you… and don’t forget the protein drinks I made for you…haha…..
DvS: Back to the present. After Oklahoma the Heartland you made a new album with your wife Angie. Can you tell us about your group California and your musical status now?
JB: Well the CD will be available on our website soon. As for the musicians we had Wayne Perkins on slide guitar, Wayne played on the Stones Black and Blue album and we have Mona Ganader on bass. Pete Sears from the Starship and he also played keyboard on Maggie May. Angie and I wrote and sang all the songs as well as produced and engineered it, we have our own studio, Big Moon Studio, California is a great pop, rock CD.
DvS: Is there a funny Johny Barbata/CSNY story that comes to mind?
JB: There was a lot of good times, but we were serious a lot too that’s why the music came out so great.
DvS: A standard 4 WaySite question: what is in your CD-player at the moment?
JB: Lately I have been listening to the CD that has been a re-release of a album I did call L.A. Getaway, it’s got Leon Russell, Booker T and Dr. John on keyboard, Jeol Scot Hill, Chris Etheridge on Bass and myself on Drums, Paul Rothchild produced it he also produced Joplin and Morriso it’s a great blues/rock album you got to check it out.
DvS: The final question is: what’s your current motivation – your next goal?
JB: I am currently doing making a drum instructional video and gearing up for drum clinics as I do my book signings and promote the new CD California. I also play around Texas and Oklahoma with Crash Landing. They are 2 brothers who are part of the Johny Barbata Band.
DvS: Johny, this interview was a pleasure a thanks a lot for being so responsive.
JB: Thanks for everything Dolf, sorry we didn’t get it to you sooner. I hope everything works out OK.
There are some great questions and answers in this interview, should make for interesting reading for the 4WaySite. Let’s stay in touch. Best Wishes.