Memories Aplenty for Johny Barbata-Rock star drummer’s autobiography describes life both on and off stage
BY RYAN BEACHKOFSKI
Johny Barbata (Turtles, Jefferson Starship, CSN&Y) is one of the essential ingredients in the development of modern rock music. He’s letting us see behind the curtain in a “tell all” book about the life of a professional drummer from the throne of a drum stool. His perspective of the man behind the kit in “Johny Barbata: Legendary Life of a Rock Star Drummer” takes us through his suburban beginnings in San Luis Obispo, his getaway to the big city, and, finally, to his time spent backstage with the greats of rock as he kept the beat onstage for the biggest acts of three decades of pop music royalty.
Now based in Oklahoma, he’s currently in town to talk about his book and to share his memories. (The late Ryan Beachkofski, one of Easy Reader’s most colorful writers, spoke with Barbata in 2007, when the drummer was previously passing through town. This is largely a reprint of his original story. However, Barbata is back in L.A. this week.)
He’ll autograph all the swag from “tee shirts, CDs, drumsticks and whatever, including your original copies if you’re old enough to have the vinyl.” He’ll also enlighten you, fan or not, with quips of what it was like to have the job everyone wanted – Rock Star!
Barbata was such an integral part of a sound that polished the edges off some rough decades:
“Man, it was a trip. And it turned out longer than I thought. I started in this band, The Sentinels, in high school – wait, did I tell you John Madden was our football coach? No, don’t stop me there, brother. I was a sophomore in high school and we had a number one hit, ‘Latina’ – do you know it?”
As it turns out, and without giving away the fruits of Johny’s efforts in writing this tale of success, his hit set him due south on the 101 Freeway directly to Hollywood with his band mate, Lee Michaels. Fame answered the door and let the preps in for a taste, “which was totally cool with me, man, since guys were getting drafted to go to Nam and stuff and I was not hip to that at all.”
The next adventure in his life would be the ribbon cutting to his legacy, but it would also drive most musicians trying to make it in the business over the edge, so if you’re a player grab hold of something.
The Turtles (“It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Let Me Be,” “Elenore”) were already an established band in the ‘60s and had a consistent rotation on every radio station’s playlist, at least those deemed cool enough.
“I got this weird call one day after playing around town for a couple weeks and I heard they (The Turtles) were looking for a drummer. I played maybe three songs in this rehearsal and their producer shouted ‘Get that drummer!’”
Clichés aside, this was the break.
Johny ended up recording seven hits with The Turtles, including their anthem, “Happy Together.” From there, it was on to about 100 other studio albums with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, and many more.
“Johny,” I questioned, “please tell me you were not a part of that ‘We Built This City On Rock & Roll’ fiasco?”
“That piece of &%$#! was voted the worst recorded song like ever, man! And I would have taken my life before being a part of that…Grace (Slick) was cool though, and Marty (Balin) had some good bud – wait, I don’t think he was in that band.” He re-instilled my faith in humanity.
This was literally one of the finest hours I had spent on the phone in recent years and I can’t wait to see what is between the pages of the Barbata chronicles. The stories continued to plume…
“Did I ever tell you I smoked a killer doobie with Marlon Brando?
“So we are at the Snack Concert in the summer of ’76 – or whenever ‘Red Octopus’ came out, not sure. Anyway, we had an awesome lineup of Northern California bands to play: Jefferson Starship and Journey and Santana and the (Grateful) Dead and like a zillion other bands in front of 150,000 people. Brando was just kicking back alone in the backstage area and he’s just looking like he needed to get high. So I turned him on to a killer bud and we got into some heavy discussion about the nature of things. It was really deep,” said Barbata.
His book revolves around stories like this; some rated G, some not. But that was the life of the touring and recording rock star in those days.
Barbata took it upon himself to draft and edit the entire book with a stiflingly good memory of every event down to the minutiae. He crafted an anthology of his own memories and made it into an historical monument in his own words, by his own hand.
Since the days with the rock and roll iconoclasts, Johny has settled into a peaceful arrangement involving music, himself and his family. He’s co-written, produced and recorded over 60 original songs with his wife of 20 some years. He’s built a full-time recording studio where they can collaborate and share in the joy of listening to the music they like to play today. And they take great pride in having another Barbata (19-year old Leah) behind the kit who hopes she can find her own brand of greatness.
One more, I can’t help it…
“So I am sitting in David Geffen’s office, right? We were talking about me playing Winterland with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and how Crosby won’t get off stage and let the rest of the band on. The promoter (Bill Graham) is sliding $100 bills under the door – oh, did I tell you Geffen wanted me to go and play with some up-and-coming band called The Eagles? I am like, right?”
Johny Barbata: Legendary Life of a Rock Star Drummer book signings take place Thursday, June 12, at Chico Drums, from 12 noon to 5:30 p.m., at Chico Drums, 1901 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 453-1928); Friday, June 13, from 12 noon to 5:30 p.m. at Robin’s Drum Works, 512 S. Pacific Coast Hwy, Redondo Beach. (310) 792-1230; Saturday June 14, from 12 noon to 5:30 p.m. at Beach Music, 19400 Beach Blvd. #10, Huntington Beach. (714) 378-9999.
Turtle Soup and More – Johny Barbata Today
BY BONDO WYSZPOLSKI
Of the many groups you’ve been in, which was the most fun?
“The Turtles were the most fun, because they were not your average rock band. Mark (Volman) was like 230 pounds and Howard (Kaylan) was a pretty big guy too, so they were not, what most people think of as the stereotypical rock star – and we just had a lot of fun. The other thing about the Turtles is they sounded just their records.
“I had a lot of fun with The Sentinels as well, because we were a high school band, we were young, and had a #1 West Coast hit called ‘La Tinia.’”
And the least fun?
“I can honestly say I liked them all; they were all great.”
Which people from the old days of music are you closest to? You have some great memories, but what about enduring friendships?
“I have stayed in touch with quite a few like, Craig Chaquico, Graham (Nash), Pete Sears, Mark and Howard. But I am really close to Lee Michaels and Tommy Nunez, who were both in The Sentinels.”
People in general, but artists perhaps more so, are either inspirations or warnings (as Derek Taylor once put it). Are there fellow musicians that you would put in one or the other category? “My inspirations were people like Buddy Rich, Al Jackson, and Gene Krupa. As far as ‘warnings,’ I stayed away people like that.”
Does anyone ever accused you of living in the past, and if so, what do you say?
“I am the past, the present and the future, ha-ha. But my roots are the ‘60s and ‘70s. Fortunately for me, though, some of the music I played will endure into the future.”
When Ryan spoke with you in ’07 you mentioned that you and your wife had co-written and recorded over 60 songs. Are you still writing – and where can your fans and my audience find your music?
“You can find our “California” CD on are website johnybarbata.com – and we are still writing.”
Is your daughter Leah still drumming?
“A little, but she play piano and sings. She’s thinking (of putting) a band together; her boyfriend Eric is a guitar player/singer-songwriter.”
Would you do it again the same way? And, if not, what might you do differently?
“Same way…I feel I have really lived a charmed life or blessed life, and I am grateful. But one thing I would have done (differently) is I would have watched out for managers!”