Liberty DeVitto

by Greg Prato

If you were to name your favorite Billy Joel song, there is a good chance that one (or all) of the following musicians played on the original recording, and quite possibly, helped lend a hand in how the song turned out:

Multi-instrumentalist Richie Cannata
Guitarist Russell Javors
Drummer/percussionist Liberty DeVitto

It was this trio that recorded and toured with Joel from 1976-1981. Cannata exited in 1981, Javors in 1988, and DeVitto sometime around 2003.

And now, they have united as the Lords of 52nd Street, playing all the Billy Joel classics with a lineup rounded out by guitarist Ken Cino, keyboardist Doug Kistner, and in the role of Joel, singer/pianist David Clark of the tribute band Songs in the Attic. DeVitto told us about forming the Lords and explained how a Billy Joel recording session worked. Turns out, Chinese food is a major factor.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did the idea come up to form the Lords of 52nd Street?

Liberty DeVitto: The Lords of 52nd Street were inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame [in 2014], and we were asked to play one song. So we learned "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." The crowd loved it so much that we actually played four or five songs. So we thought, "If the crowd loves it that much, why don't we try to do something where we are actually playing more often?" That's why we got together and started to do the Lords.

Songfacts: Is it a permanent band, and do you see the Lords going on and playing shows regularly?

Liberty: I would hope so. It could be a good thing. Depends on how the bookings are done. It sounds like it's more like we could play corporates or special events and stuff like that, not just local clubs. I don't want to be a tribute band to Billy, because we really are "the band." Somebody wrote on Facebook under a picture of me, "Liberty isn't in Billy Joel's band anymore." And I wrote, "Well, I actually am in Billy Joel's band - Billy isn't in Billy Joel's band anymore!"

Songfacts: How is it playing those classic songs nowadays compared to back in the day?

Liberty: I left Billy in 2002-2003, so I hadn't played the songs in a long time. I'd been doing other things like my band the Slim Kings - we do all original material, and we get a lot of placements on TV shows. So your style changes a little bit. But when we went back to play the Billy Joel songs, I had to learn the parts again, because the parts I played are so important to the song, to complement what Billy had written. I had to relearn a lot of the stuff.

Songfacts: Which of Billy's songs were the most difficult?

Liberty: I would say one of the hardest songs to record was "Get It Right the First Time." The Lords are actually doing that, and it took us time to get that on The Stranger album. We'd come in and record like, "Movin' Out," and then we would try "Get It Right the First Time," and we couldn't get it. Then we would do "The Stranger" and try "Get It Right the First Time," do "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" and try "Get It Right the First Time." It wasn't until the very end of the recording of that album that we actually got "Get It Right the First Time." So, we didn't get it right the first time! [Laughs]

Songfacts: Which Billy song would you say you made the biggest contribution to?

Liberty: I think "Just the Way You Are." Me and Phil Ramone [Joel's producer] came up with that kind of crazy rhythm that started out as a samba beat, like a bossa nova with a brush and a stick.

Look, it won a Grammy, y'know? It won "Record of the Year." That's for when everyone is involved. Not just "Song of the Year," which is for the writer. [The song won both awards.]

From 1977-1986 (which many consider to be Billy's peak period), the Billy Joel Band was comprised of the following musicians:

Billy Joel - lead vocals, piano, keyboards
Liberty DeVitto — drums
Doug Stegmeyer — bass guitar
Russell Javors — rhythm and lead guitars
Richie Cannata — saxophones, flute, clarinet, percussion, keyboards
David Brown — lead guitar

Joel's 1986 album The Bridge was his last produced by Phil Ramone, and also the last for Stegmeyer and Javors. By his final non-classical studio album, 1993's River of Dreams, DeVitto and Cannata were the only remaining members involved from the aforementioned lineup. DeVitto would be the last member of the core Joel Band to remain.
Songfacts: How was it working with Phil Ramone in the studio?

Liberty: Phil taught us how to play in the studio. I consider myself a live drummer - I put a lot of energy behind it and a lot of excitement when I'm playing live - it's what I think people pick up on. Phil taught us what counts, what doesn't count, what you can do, what you can't do in a studio.

And he was so good to us, that we used to call him "Uncle Phil." It felt like a family when we went into the studio. There was no fear of anything. It was great.

Songfacts: How much of a part would you say Phil played in the way the classic songs turned out?

Liberty: There were songs that Billy would come in with maybe just a verse to it, and Phil could direct him on where to go on the chorus, or flip things around. The first thing he taught us was that people want to hear just "two and four." That's all people like to hear - just the basic beat. They love to catch on to that. You need to have a great melody, great lyrics, and a great beat, and that's what does it. That's what Phil taught us.

Songfacts: What would a typical recording session with Billy be like?Liberty: Well if we were doing an album - say we were coming in and doing The Stranger album - Billy would come in and maybe he would have three or four complete songs. Like, he might just have "Just the Way You Are," "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," and maybe two other songs. Everything else was ideas. Just little ideas.

On the first day, we'd run over the songs that he had - the two or three songs. And then he would play ideas, and the band would play along with the ideas, and if the ideas started to feel good, he would go home and complete the song. Finish writing it. And then the next day, he would come in and we would record it.

We would do these things that we would call "pre-food takes" and "post-food takes." Every day, we would order Chinese food. We had a regular schedule, like, we would work from 12:00 to 8:00, and if we didn't get anything in that time, we would go home. So, in the middle of that, we would be hungry. We would be recording a song, and we had already ordered the Chinese food, and Phil would make us go out and try to do a take, and it would be the "hungry take" because we would actually see the food come in while we were playing, doing the take. And then, after we ate, he made us go out and play the song again, but it was the "after we ate take." Usually, the one before the food came was the one that was the good one! Because you always play better when you're hungry.

Songfacts: What is the most underrated song of Billy's that you played on?

Liberty: Wow, there's so may of them. And you've got to remember, when you talk about the Lords of 52nd Street, Richie was there until Glass Houses, Russell made it all the way to The Bridge, and I went all the way - I even got one song on River of Dreams. So that's a lot of songs to think of.

Which was underrated? I personally felt that a song called "State of Grace," that was on Storm Front. I liked the song because I know what was going on in Billy's life at the time, and when you listen to the song, you can tell he and Christie [Brinkley] weren't doing too well. And the way he presents it... I've been there so many times in relationships. Every time he nails something that you've felt before, then that's when it's a great tune.

Songfacts: And what would you say is your favorite Billy song overall?

Liberty: There's so many of them. I love "Honesty," and I love "Leningrad," because I was there with him - me and Russell went to Russia with him. And the way he did the lyric on that, he just nails the way the relationship was between us Americans and the people from the Soviet Union. It was just a beautiful relationship. Like, we never knew what friends we had until we went to Leningrad. He just nailed it when he wrote that song.

March 7, 2016.
For more info about the Lords of 52nd Street, visit their Facebook page.

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Comments: 6

  • Cr from CharlotteI had a chance encounter with Liberty, Stegmeyer, and Russel Javors in Uptown Charlotte during the 52nd Street Tour. A kid ran up to Russel and asked "Are you Billy Joel?" and he replied "No, but I'm in the band." After the last song of the show, Billy and the band exited for the backstage but NOT Liberty DeVito. No, he thought it would be much more fun to scale the rigging cables that led to the suspended speakers. With a follow spotlight on him he got pretty far up close to the hanging speakers. After dangling by one arm gesturing to the crowd the stage lights came back up and out came Billy and the rest of the band. Joel stood at the front of the stage and looking up at DeVito, picked up a mike and yelled to him "What are you NUTS? Will you come back down if I promise to get you some bananas?" I never heard a rock concert crowd laugh like they did. So, DeVito is still up there and gestures to the crowd "Should I come down, guys?" So down he came and the first encore was underway.
  • Doug Batchelor from Vancouver CanadaI first saw Liberty ???? on the Stranger Tour in Vancouver Bc. He stole the show! I was knocked out! He played with fire and passion and a sense of humour! The Backbone of that band wasLiberty.No doubt! I was fortunate to meet Liberty, Wow what a down to earth kind guy! I felt like I was meeting one of The Beatles! I hold him in such high esteem. I hope I get to see him and his mates play sometime!.
  • Doug Batchelor from Vancouver CanadaThank you for this fine interview! I first saw the band and Billy when The Stranger Tour came to Vancouver B.C. Liberty stood out. He was playing with fire passion and skill! What a musician, and above all, a funny and good hearted guy! What a talent?
  • Jim D from IndyCan't wait to see the band Liberty is my favorite drummer of all time. And I'm old and saw Keith moon
  • Terri from OrlandoBilly will always be a classic and The Lords will always be the band that took him there. Undeniable.
  • Sandi S. from Clinton, NjCongratulations Greg on a terrific interview! I've been to dozens of Billy Joel shows and have heard lots of interviews, but this has a lot of great facts that I had never heard before! I have met Liberty several times, but would kill to have opportunity to sit down and chat it up with him! Saw him recently with the Slim Kings, and going to the Lords of 52nd St. in PA! He's an unbelievable drummer, but more important, he's this cool guy that really loves his music!!
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