What happens when you let a bunch of young musicians from the suburbs loose in a recording studio?
It could just be a good time. Or, it could spark a string of multi-platinum albums.
“We were just a bunch of guys from Long Island. I was 24,” said Liberty DeVitto in a phone interview last month. “We were having fun. We didn’t know we were making history.”
That’s how the drummer remembers recording the 1976 album Turnstiles with Billy Joel. DeVitto was a central part of the lineup that went into Ultrasonic Recording Studios in Hempstead, New York to re-record the songs after Joel scrapped the sessions he’d held in Chicago with other musicians.
It was to be the Piano Man’s third album for Columbia Records, and Joel wanted to capture the vitality of his touring band rather than use session musicians again. That meant bringing in DeVitto, along with guitarist Russell Javors, bass player Doug Stegmeyer and Richie Cannata on saxophone. They’d been touring with Joel for years, having been plucked from a New York City club band.
The group provided a spark and a slow burn. Turnstiles, despite containing now well-known songs like “New York State of Mind” and “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” sold relatively meagerly upon its release.
But the next record, The Stranger, was, as DeVitto called it, the “direct shot to the face” that propelled them to stardom. Its follow-up, 52nd Street, earned the backing band the nickname “The Lords of 52nd Street” by Joel’s then-steady producer Phil Ramone.
“It was Phil Ramone who said, ‘Billy wrote great songs and the band came up with great arrangements,’ ” recalled DeVitto.
Ultimately, DeVitto spent 30 years with the legendary performer; Javors and Stegmeyer more than 20. Cannata stayed for nearly a decade, appearing on Joel’s most popular records. They played the songs millions worldwide still flock to see. And, this month, fans can get up close and personal with the guys who made the music.
On June 10, DeVitto, Javors and Cannata, under the name The Lords of 52nd Street, will play the big hits and fan favorites that helped make them famous at Havana’s in New Hope.
The three reunited in 2014 after playing a few songs for their induction into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. Stegmeyer, who passed away in 1995, was inducted posthumously.
Now, they’re playing the classic-era songs in venues similar to the ones where they first performed them.
“Back then, we were still playing theaters, and that’s what Lords is playing. It’s intimate and it’s great. People who haven’t seen us play together since then come out and remember those shows,” said DeVitto. “People have said we sound more like Billy than Billy does now,”
That’s partially due to singer David Clark, who performs all the songs in their original keys, whereas today Joel lowers the parts to match his voice. But the big draw is the dynamic between those original players. They’re the guys who had fun making records, and whose attitude helped make them hits.
And, arguably, a lot of that attitude is from DeVitto himself — a drummer who’s always favored personality over technicality. He’s known for energetic, almost aggressive, drumming live. But in the studio, he’s known as a “songwriter’s drummer,” also contributing parts for artists like Carly Simon and Stevie Nicks.
Aesthetically, those acts are a long way from his first professional gig. He played with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels for six weeks when he’d just turned 18. Ryder’s drummer dropped out, and a band member who knew DeVitto suggested the bandleader call him.
DeVitto’s dad had to drive him to the first gig — no practice — because he didn’t even have a driver’s license yet. “The first time I saw Mitch, it was onstage. The sax player would cue me to stop and start,” he recalled.
But what made that gig work — and what’s fueled so much of his success since then — is his love of records. As a fan, he already knew the songs from 45s and LPs, picking up the feel as much as the actual parts.
“A record can transport you, it’s like a time machine. There’s that whole feel thing, how you felt when you first heard that song,” said DeVitto.
Like many drummers of his generation, he was inspired to pick up the sticks after listening to acts like the Beatles. But most music teachers didn’t bother with rock and roll then. One even told him he’d never be a drummer.
So he played along to Ryder, and the Beatles, and countless others. “Records were my lesson books,” he said.
There are nods to this throughout his career: His opening fill on the song “Only the Good Die Young” pays homage to “Up From the Skies” by Jimi Hendrix. His work on “Big Man on Mulberry Street” is an “impression” of the distinct drum pattern on songs like Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain” and “Rosanna” by Toto.
DeVitto even copped to copying the intro to “Help Me” for Joel’s “Summer, Highland Falls.”
“I was dating a girl who loved Joni Mitchell, and I wanted to impress her,” he laughed.
But the quotes are secondary to his own exclamation points. DeVitto’s by no means a flashy drummer, but people who listen closely can often tell it’s him, no matter if it’s a Billy Joel record, a session from years ago or a track from the band Slim Kings, with whom he also currently plays.
Whatever it is, he said, “I want it to feel good. That’s what I compare everything to. Not, ‘That was a great part.’ I want to think, ‘That made me feel so good.’ ”
The Lords of 52nd Street performs at Havana, 105 S. Main St. in New Hope, on June 10. For information, visit http://www.facebook.com/Lordsof52ndStreet.