Thursday, June 4, 2020

A Very Candid Conversation with Chuck Burgi

Chuck Burgi at drums (year unknown)

Chuck Burgi has the gig of a lifetime. Since the 1970s, Chuck has maintained an impressive music career. Since 2005, he is the current drummer for the Billy Joel Band. He has also played with other big names such as Bon Jovi, Michael Bolton, Diana Ross, and Meat Loaf.

Chuck was born in 1952 in Montclair, New Jersey. He started playing drums when he was a teenager. He had his first big break in 1977 when he had the opportunity to play for jazz legend Al Di Meola. He then played drums in Brand X, a jazz fusion band. He took over for Phil Collins, who previously occupied the drum stool for Brand X. Chuck played on Brand X’s Masques album (1978). 

The jazz era came to an end and Chuck began his rock career with Hall & Oates. After playing drums with Hall & Oates, he played with a hard rock band Balance, and then he joined Rainbow, a group led by Ritchie Blackmore (guitarist of Deep Purple). I became familiar with Chuck when I heard his playing on Rainbow’s Bent Out of Shape (1983), and I was even more impressed with Chuck when I saw a video of Rainbow live in 1984 in Japan before the band dissolved. 

In the late eighties and early nineties, Chuck played on recording sessions for a variety of artists such as Michael Bolton and Bon Jovi. He then toured with Meat Loaf for seven years. When Meat Loaf took a break from touring to work on his next album, Chuck played with Blue Oyster Cult for four years. Then in 1995, Ritchie Blackmore decided to reform Rainbow and Chuck rejoined the band. Blackmore would later dissolve Rainbow in order to start Blackmore’s Night. Chuck then found employment with Enrique Iglesias for three years. Afterward, he got the chance to perform in Movin’ Out, a Broadway musical featuring Billy Joel songs. During the three-and-a-half-year run of Movin’ Out, Chuck caught the attention of the piano man himself. After Movin’ Out came to an end, Chuck played drums with Billy Joel himself, playing to sold-out crowds at stadiums all over the world.

In this candid conversation, we cover Chuck’s entire career from his beginning in jazz to his current tenure with Billy Joel. I want to thank Chuck for his time in talking to me about his incredible career.

Jeff Cramer: What encouraged you to pick up your sticks?

Chuck Burgi:  Oh man, that takes me way back. My father was an aspiring dilettante drummer, and when he was a teenager, he won a couple of Gene Krupa competitions, and he always maintained a love for the drums and a love of music, especially big band music, and he always had a drum set around. I would mess around with them on and off and play them a bit, but it wasn't until I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan that I realized I had to be playing music. I first thought I should be a bass player because I fell in love with Paul McCartney. I just thought he made it look so good. But I didn't have a bass, and there was a drum set staring at me, and I'd been beating it on and off for the last five years, and that was it.

 In junior high, I met a bunch of people who were really good musicians and we started a band. It was in seventh grade, but by the eighth grade, we were getting bookings. We went through a couple of changes, but primarily it was the same group of players. By the time we were juniors and seniors in the north Jersey area, which is where I grew up, we were working every Friday and Saturday night. I was making more money in school because we were getting paid in cash than I did for the first three years out of high school after taxes no matter what job I was doing. So I was locked in.

I have to say that while we had a good band in high school, I had an older brother figure. I'm the oldest in my family, but I had an older brother figure, who is Joe Walsh from the Eagles.

JC: The Joe Walsh?

CB: The Joe Walsh. He was my musical hero as I grew up. He had a band, and his band befriended my parents, who used to have these long, crazy jam sessions every Friday and Saturday night in Montclair. When Joe finally left Montclair, he went to college and then subsequently his college band turned into the James Gang. By that time, my band was playing harder rock, and we saw him at least twice a year every year after that when he would come back for usually Thanksgiving and Christmas. I thought if Joe could do it, and I could play with him in my folks' basement, then maybe I have a big shot at being able to do this also. So that was the beginning of my whole career.

JC: So you started off in jazz fusion. You played with Brand X and Al Di Meola. Which came first?

CB: Al Di Meola was my first. It was his first solo tour, and it was my first big-time tour gig.

JC: And how'd you get that?

CB: Okay, so I'll try to make this really short. In 1974, I was living on the West Coast, and I was in a band with a percussionist, Mingo Lewis. So when Al was looking for material for his albums, he called Mingo up, and Mingo said, “Hey, I've got some songs for you.” Al used them for his album. Then in 1977, I went to New York City because somebody called me and said, "Dude, I know you're looking to play crazy music. Al Di Meola is looking for drummers." I went in to SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals) unannounced with no appointment, and Al came out within minutes of me being there. As it turned out, Al was auditioning Michael Shrieve from Santana, an old friend of mine.

Al was auditioning Michael on one of Mingo’s songs, and it wasn't going good. So Al came out to say goodbye to Michael, walked over, and made a phone call. As Al was getting off the phone, I walked up to him and said, "Sir, you have no idea who I am, but I know how to play that song." He looked at me like I had three heads. I told him I used to play with Mingo. “Are you shitting me?” he said. I was, like, “No, that's why I'm here.” He said, "Come in with me." By that time, I had already familiarized myself with Al’s solo record, so I knew all the songs, at least as well as I could. Al and I jammed on them and he asked me back the next day. We went through the same songs and a few more. His road manager gave me an itinerary and said, “You’ve got the job.” That was it. [To hear Al Di Meola perform a 1977 live version of “Senor Mouse,” click here.]

JC: And did you get the Brand X gig from playing with Al? Is that how it came about?

CB: Actually no. At the end of '77, I got a call saying, “The bass player from Brand X is here in New Jersey looking for a drummer. Do you wanna audition?” And I was like, “Are you fucking kidding?” So I got in the car and drove up to the House of Music, which was an old studio in West Orange—a great studio. I jammed with a friend of mine on guitar, and Percy, the bass player for Brand X. Percy said, “Thanks for showing up.” He had some other people to listen to. I guess about two weeks later I got a call, and they said, “Percy wants you to meet the whole band.” I jammed with the whole band, and they asked me to come to New York.

JC: It also must have been quite a thing because Phil Collins was the drummer of Brand X. How'd it feel following in his footsteps?

Drummers for Brand X: Chuck and Phil Collins (year unknown)

CB: Dude, you have no idea. It was the creepiest, craziest time of my life to be suddenly tossed into a job where not only am I replacing Phil Collins for the time being—and I never looked at it as a replacement—I was actually filling in for him. But also, those guys were some of my heroes. I listened to Brand X all of the time. I knew a bunch of Percy’s stuff pretty good—maybe better than a lot of other people—so I had the opportunity to play with him and we hit it off. Next thing I know, I'm rehearsing with the band. So wow. It was incredible.

And funny you bring that up because I wasn’t playing and touring, so I took the time to go through the archives of my own music. I had a tape that was recorded at the old venue—a beautiful theater in London—of one of our most prestigious gigs that I did with Brand X. I transferred the tape to my computer, and I was mixing it as an album. I wasn’t gonna sell it because I would get in trouble—well, maybe not. I don't know. I didn’t need to sell it. I was burning it for the few friends who were always fans of that. I've been reflecting on that whole time period, which was absolutely mind-boggling to go from being a shmoe from New Jersey to working with friends of Phil Collins, and eventually Brand X opened up the big outdoor shows and Genesis would close them. So, it was just overwhelming. It really was. It was amazing. Looking back on it, I’m so glad to have had that opportunity, not only to play with Al, but to be a part of the Brand X crew and to do an album with them. Really lucky. [To hear “The Poke,” the opening track off the Masques album Chuck played on, click here.]

JC: From jazz fusion, we go into rock music. I understand you played with Hall & Oates.

CB: Oh, I did. And oddly enough, it was within a year of leaving Brand X. I got a call from a friend who said, “Hey, I heard Hall & Oates.” I had met a bunch of people over the years, and a couple of ’em lived in Manhattan and had their ears to the pulse of whatever was going on in Manhattan and whatever auditions would occur. So I went right out there. I really wasn't familiar with their stuff—that was like going from A to Z, you know, or Z back to A. If I was playing a million notes every minute with Brand X and Al, I had to start playing real simple again for Hall & Oates. I joined them when they were having their first resurgence. I played on the album Voices, but it was only of a couple songs. But that album had two number-one hits, and one song I did play on ended up being Top 10.

JC: Which song was that?

CB: It was "Loving Feeling," their remake of the Righteous Brothers. [To hear “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling,” click here.] It was a real blast to go from playing crazy, crazy music to suddenly hearing myself on AM radio. So I kind of switched gears at that point, and I never looked back as far as work went. I realized that I was happier playing rock and roll, because that was how I began. I'd been in cover bands most of my life, so back then it was the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, and Led Zeppelin. Hall & Oates also had a number one hit called "Kiss On My Lips" while I was in the band. We went from doing big clubs to suddenly big theaters. I had a great time with them, and it really took me like 360 degrees back to my roots, which was playing pop music, playing rock and roll.

JC: I know you got the Rainbow gig because Joe [Joe Lynn Turner, singer of Rainbow, will be referred to as “Joey”] wasn't happy with the drummer they had at the time and he told the band, “You've got to bring in Chuck.” How did Joe know you?

CB: Oh man, so between the years of '71 to '72 and '74 to '77, I lived in the New York area, and there were so many big clubs to play that I was able to make a living. And while I was playing with a couple of groups, Joey was in Fandango, and he was looking for somebody to help him get a record deal. It turned out he was going around to all the clubs looking for a drummer in another band. And he saw me play and got my number from somebody. He called me up and said, “Listen, I've got a band, we're looking to do a half-dozen original songs, and we wanna bring you in and do live gigs as well.” So, when I joined Fandango, it was for a three-month tour. I was a hired gun, and that's how I got to know Joey. Back then, he was a great lead guitarist.

JC: Yes, I've seen some of his lead guitar playing from live concert footage of Fandango in '78. 

CB: I think he was in a band called Ezra before he joined Fandango, and they were a Deep Purple cover band in the North Jersey area. So I was in Essex County, and we hit it off. We became best of friends, and I helped him get the record deal. And it's funny because just as Fandango was getting signed, I got the offer to go out with Al Di Meola. So, I was really hoping to do the Fandango record, but I thought that working with Al would have been a better choice. So that's what happened. And you know, Joey and I stayed in touch through the years, and when he joined Rainbow, I remember hearing about it and thinking, Oh my God, he's hit the big time.

I guess after it was after Straight Between the Eyes came out and they toured . . . that's when Joey called me up and said, "Listen, you wanna come out and jam with the band? We're looking for a drummer." So I went out, I played with them, and I thought it went really well, but Ritchie was such a pisser. He was, like, “Yeah, thanks. Thanks for coming by.” And so he left, and I went over to Joey and I said, “So what do you think?” And he said, “I don't know, he's so weird.” And the bass player, Roger, came up to me and said, "Dude, I'm getting ready to do a solo record and I'd like you to play on it." So I was like, “Cool.” So I started working with Roger.

I got a call from their manager and Joey, and they said, "You know what, Ritchie went with this other guy." So I worked with Roger till he had to go to Scandinavia to start the next Rainbow album Bent Out of Shape. I thought, “That's it, I got to start all over again.” Ten days later, I got a call—a fairly drunken call—from Joey, and he said, "Dude, you gotta come over here, man. We don't have anything." So that was it.

The sessions were really difficult and really pressurized because they had already wasted about ten days in the studio and had nothing to show for it. So I went in every day, and I'd rehearse a song and then we'd try to cut the track. It didn’t always work that way, but it came close to that. And when I left Scandinavia after recording the album, I thought I would never work with then again. Ritchie just didn't seem to like me at all, but about a month later, I got a call from their manager again. He said, "Hey, Ritchie wants to know if you wanna come on the road." And I was, like, “Are you kidding?” So it was another eight months of some of the best times of my life.

Rainbow 1984 (Chuck in middle)

JC: I've interviewed several people who’ve played with Ritchie, and I've heard a lot of stories about him. What’s your story?

CB: Oh my God, Ritchie’s a legend. I just think he is the quirkiest, weirdest Englishman I've ever met. You know, I didn't get along with him in the studio. I had my own ways of working and he kept fucking with me. But when we went on the road, it was nothing but fun. So you know, I personally have nothing but good things to say about Ritchie. Suffice it to say, once we hit the road, it was nothing but fun. And he was a soccer player, and I loved soccer back then. We played all the time. We played, worked out, dribbled the ball, so it was really fun, and I got along with Ritchie. He was one of my heroes.

I love Deep Purple from Shades of Deep Purple and “Hush.” When I was in high school, their album Machine Head came out, I was, like, “Holy fuck.” So, I was thrilled beyond measure to be able to play with him. And Joey—I thought Joey was—and still is—one of my favorite vocalists ever. It was a real thrill to be in Rainbow with Joey and Ritchie. One of my favorite rock and roll guitar players and one of my favorite vocalists. Really good times. I look back and I was so blessed to have those experiences.

JC: There was a memorable moment in Japan when you were playing live with Rainbow along with a Japanese orchestra. You were doing “Difficult to Cure,” a rock instrumental of Beethoven's Ninth. Any memories of playing with the orchestra?

CB: Absolutely. First of all, we got off right around Christmas, and then we had a couple weeks off, and we literally started up in Tokyo, Japan. And the only rehearsals were right there at the Budokan venue, and I wish we were able to ramp back up again. Like, let's do a bunch of gigs before and get back into the groove. But we flew to Tokyo after a couple weeks off.  We did three shows at Budokan, and then they compiled the shows for video.  I found out we were playing with an orchestra. They were right behind me, or they were behind me enough so that I could hear them. Back then there were no in-ears [in-ears is an earpiece musicians use on stage or during recordings to hear vocals, stage instrumentation, etc.], so I just had really loud monitors [Before in-ears, loudspeakers were placed on stage directed toward the performer]. But it was very unsettling because Ritchie liked to play ahead of the beat. He liked to be on top, and the orchestra leader felt like playing behind the beat. So I was in the middle between the two. We were playing those pretty intricate lines of Beethoven's Ninth. I was hearing Ritchie and Roger and me, but I was also hearing enough of the orchestra and they were a half a beat behind me. It felt like that at rehearsal, and it felt like that when we performed and recorded it, but it turned out okay. I was just freaking out the whole time because I had to be able to watch Ritchie, who was definitely a handful every night, but I also had to watch the conductor and keep both groups happy. My main memory of that was one of extreme pressure. That's all I can say. And you know, it came out great. [To hear Rainbow and the orchestra’s performance, click here.]

JC: Also after Rainbow, I understand you did a lot sessions with a lot of famous people, such as Bon Jovi and Diana Ross.

Yeah. Before Rainbow, I had left Hall & Oates to join a band called Balance. We did a record that was okay. I didn't particularly like most of the writing, but they wanted it to sound big and nasty, like Journey. So we all did our best to try and turn their songs into Journey type of songs. [Readers can decide if Balance’s “Slow Motion” sounds like Journey by clicking here.]  I met Bobby Kulick who had played with Kiss. [Bobby Kulick shortly passed away after this interview.]

Balance (1982, Chuck in middle)

And then Gene Simmons heard the Balance album and called me about getting some drums for Kiss’ Creatures of the Night album. I wasn’t going to play on it because they had Eric Carr to play drums, but I rented my drums to them. After I worked with Gene with Kiss, he called me up and said, “Diana's looking for somebody to do some percussion.” So I did a session with Diana Ross for her album Silk Electric.

After Rainbow, I had also done a few sessions with a producer on a project called Archangel, and then it turned out that he got the job to do the rest of the first Bon Jovi record. So the producer called me, and I think I played on five songs on that self-titled record. It was so crazy because I used to work a lot at the Power Station, and back then, Jon Bon Jovi, known as John Bongiovi, he was the night manager. You know, clean up after sessions, sweep the floors, clean up the studios after everybody's gone. I met Bon Jovi that way. I remember seeing him standing in the doorway of Studio A, which I was fortunate enough to record a lot in. He’d be standing there listening to the playback and say, “Sounds pretty good, man.” I would look at him and say, “When are you gonna do your band?” He would say, “Well, I'm working on it.” I was like, “Well, you need some help, let me know.” And sure enough, I ended up playing on his first record. So it was very cool . . . very cool.

JC: Also you got to play with Michael Bolton. This was when he was still a hard rocker before he became the Michael Bolton we all know.

CB: Absolutely. So the same guy who was managing Balance was also managing Michael Bolton, so he called me up about doing Michael's first solo record, which I was fortunate enough to do.

The album had me, Bobby Kulick from Balance, and Mark Clarke on bass. Michael was coming off another band he was in, Blackjack, and they were serious hard rock. So yeah, Michael was totally into rock, and I had a blast working with him. I have to say that when we started with him, we rehearsed for his album, and we did a really, really slick arrangement on every one of his songs. The day before we started recording, his producer took us all into the studio and said, "Okay, you know all the rehearsing and the arrangements you've done? Well, forget about 'em. I want you to do Michael's album like this.” And he played us AC/DC’s Back in Black. He said, “That's what I want you guys to be like.” I was like, “Wow.” So it was a real challenge, and we did our best to forget the work we did and the real slick stuff we were gonna do and tried to tough it up and emulate AC/DC, who I really hadn't heard that much of. [To hear a different Michael Bolton singing, “Can’t Hold On, Can’t Let Go,” click here.] And then it turned out that Michael's manager was working for Leber-Krebs, who ended up taking on AC/DC as a client.

JC: Was Blue Oyster Cult your first group after all of the individual sessions?

CB: No, after Rainbow, I did Joey Lynn Turner's solo album and his solo tour. We were out for a whole year opening up for Pat Benatar and Night Ranger. Due to circumstances beyond my control, he managed to piss off the record label, so by the end of that year, they were like, “Fuck you, Joe.” So I took some time off, and then I got asked to audition for Meat Loaf. I joined Meat Loaf after auditioning. Bobby, who I played with in Balance, was asked to come back, and Bobby wanted to get rid of Meat Loaf’s drummer, and Meat Loaf was like, “If you've got somebody better, bring him in.” So I joined up with Meat Loaf, and I was with Meat Loaf for seven years. I met my now-wife back then. My wife and her sister were background singers, and they sang on the album that he had done. We did a lot of headlining gigs that Blue Oyster Cult were on before us. [To hear Meat Loaf live in 1988 perform a medley of rock classics as “Johnny B Goode” and “Jailhouse Rock,” click here.]

Chuck playing drums with Meat Loaf (1988)

I got to meet Blue Oyster Cult. When the time came that Meat Loaf put touring aside to start working on the next album, Back into Hell, which took him like two or three years, I got a call from Blue Oyster Cult and they said, “Hey, we heard you're gonna be home because Meat Loaf's not gonna be touring.  Our drummer's leaving; do you wanna join?” So I was with them for four years, I think.

JC: While you were in Blue Oyster Cult, didn’t the band create music that was used for The Stand TV miniseries?

CB: Absolutely. We did a couple of remakes and a couple other incidental pieces of music. We remade “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” The remake of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was supposed to sound like the original. What happened was that all their catalog from Columbia Records was in limbo. [To watch the opening scene from The Stand, involving the rerecorded “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” click here.] They couldn't access their original songs because they had been dropped from Columbia, and Columbia just wouldn't budge. Blue Oyster Cult earned money for The Stand by redoing “The Reaper,” which was their biggest hit, sparked them in getting a record deal to re-record all their classic hits. So we did an album called Cult Classic and rerecorded all of their other songs,  "Burning for You," "Godzilla," "Cities on Flames.” So that ended up being the Cult Classic album, which is really a karaoke record. I mean, it’s supposed to sound like their original songs. So yeah, that was the first recording I did with them.

Blue Oyster Cult, Cult Classic (1994)

Then Buck [guitarist/singer for Blue Oyster Cult] and I did some music for a thing he did, Bad Channels, which was a sci-fi movie. Then they eventually got another album deal and we did Heaven Forbid. So yeah, I had a lotta fun with them. I loved Buck Dharma. Oh man, one of my favorite people and one of my favorite guitar players.

JC: It seems like a good deal of band members were both in Blue Oyster Cult and the 95–96 incarnation of Rainbow.

CB: Huh. Well, I will say something really wacky. John O’Riley was the drummer on Rainbow’s Stranger in Us All. For some reason, Ritchie didn't want to take him on tour even though he did a great job on the album. So I left Blue Oyster Cult and joined Rainbow, and John came in and joined Blue Oyster Cult. So while I was with Ritchie, John O'Riley was with Blue Oyster Cult. So that's the kind of glue there.

Rainbow 1996 (Chuck, far right)

Another thing, when I called John Miceli to take my place in Rainbow to do a two-week tour, John Miceli was also the guy who I talked Meat Loaf into to take my place. So, John Miceli ended up being there with Meat Loaf for the last 20 years. Pretty nutty.

JC: Ritchie then eventually formed Blackmore's Night very shortly after that Rainbow lineup. While you were in Rainbow, was there any hints that Blackmore’s Night would happen?

CB: Absolutely. I'll take you way back to Deep Purple. You know, one of the reasons why they parted ways, as far as my understanding goes, is ’cause Ritchie was pushing to get Candy back then to sing background with Deep Purple. [Candy is Candice Night, singer of Blackmore’s Night and wife of Ritchie Blackmore.] So when I was getting ready to tour with Rainbow, Ritchie said, “Candy's gonna sing on a couple of these songs. She'll sing off stage.” When I joined the band, they had a great manager, a guy named Joe Boyland. He did 38 Special and a bunch of other bands. But halfway through the tour, Ritchie fired Joe, and then he said, “Candy's mom is going to manage.” So I saw the writing on the wall with that, and coupled with the fact that he really wanted her to start singing with the band. He had also co-written a song called "Ariel" with her. [To hear “Ariel” live, click here.] I think his patience with rock and roll had ran out, and he wanted to go in another direction, and more power to him.

I think Blackmore’s Night did a couple of records that are really nice. I didn't like them in the beginning because she was new, she was young, she was trying to figure out how the studio works, but I think she's blossomed into a really great talent, and he seems happy.

Recently, Ritchie put Rainbow back together. You know, I saw some of the latest incarnation of Rainbow, and I was underwhelmed. But you know, I understand that he was thrown a good deal of money to put that type of thing back together, and he was also being pressured to bring in people who had been in  Rainbow, and he didn't want any of that. And you know what, for an old guy who was very set in his ways and very opinionated, that was his choice, that's what he wanted. When I saw him play live, it wasn't what I thought he should be doing, but again, he's Ritchie, no one can tell him nothing. So, I didn't think it was bad; I just thought, “You know, like why are you doing this?” He didn't even seem to be into it.

JC: I understand you reunited with a former Rainbow player (also future Billy Joel player), David Rosenthal, when you went to play with Enrique Iglesias. How'd that come after Rainbow?

CB: In 1992, Dave called me up and was doing a solo record  called Red Dawn. I played with him then, and it's a phenomenal record. It was done after Pantera hit. This wasn't nasty enough as Pantera, but it was also too hard; it  didn't fit anywhere for where most of music was. But it was a great album. [To hear Red Dawn's “Flyin’ High,” click here.] So I kind of reunited with Dave in '92.

Red Dawn (David,  left, Chuck, second from  left) 1992

It wasn't until '97 that we both ended up being in Enrique's band for Enrique’s very first world tour. [To see a live performance from Enrique Iglesias in 1997, click here.] The music that we had to reimagine live for him was right up my alley. It's arena rock and it's big and had a lot of guitar solos. I was hired by guitarist Tommy Byrnes, who has ended up being my best contact in the music business. He got me Enrique. He offered me, Movin’ Out the Billy Joel Broadway show. He and I have done a bunch of recordings since then and before then. He always told me that Billy would wanna hire me, and I never believed him until it actually happened. So we've been working together with Billy since 2005.

JC: I understand Billy saw you could play his music when he came to watch Movin’ Out.

CB: Yeah, he saw me play in Movin' Out. Movin' Out played for three and a half years, and it was a pretty good run on Broadway compared to the amount of shows that have tried to be like it and have only run maybe a year or less. Billy had a chance to see me play his stuff for three and a half years. He started sitting in with us at the end of the show during the curtain calls, so I met him and we actually started jamming together and playing. I have to say that for the years I was on stage with that band almost every night, I prepared by imaging that Billy was gonna be in the audience, so there was never any slack on my part. But I always gave every show 1,000 percent with the hopes that he would see I could be his drummer. All I could hope for was that I might get the gold ring some day. And literally within two months of our show closing, Tommy came up to me and said Billy wants you to go on the road.

I just looked at Tommy and said, “Don't play with me, man.” And he was like, “No, no, this time for sure.” So I was out on Long Island in Oyster Bay rehearsing with Billy during the day and then I drove back in to do the Broadway show at night. And talk about an intense time in my life. Oh my God. I don't think I slept for like a month. But yeah, I got the gold ring.

JC: Tell me about having the gold ring. It's something you've been doing for about  14 or 15 years now.

CB: Fourteen years, yeah, because I joined Billy at the end of 2005. It has been the most jaw-dropping experience that I ever could have imagined. He is the fiercest live performer I've ever worked with. He doesn't jump around as much anymore. But his vocals and what he brings to the show every night has made me work harder than I have with anybody night after night. And with him, I've been blessed to do things like play with a dozen of my heroes, from Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Steven Tyler and Roger Daltrey at Shea Stadium. Billy was asked to give the two final performances to ever play at that iconic venue. So to be with Billy and the band doing these two massive shows in 2008 was just great. I thought, Well, I can die and go to heaven because not only did I do this, but I also played with McCartney.

Since then, in the last six and seven years, we did two Wembley Stadiums in London, completely sold out, like 80,000-something people. We've gone on to play Lambeau Field, sold out in Green Bay. I've done six Fenway Parks in a row. I have played Madison Square Garden so many times. A friend of mine called today and said, “Do you realize that you are gonna be in the Guinness Book of World Records as the only drummer to play as many shows as you have at the Garden?” I have played 84 or 85 sellouts. Every show sold out. Not only will Billy be in the book as the entertainer, but we, the band, will all be there on our different instruments. Everybody in the band deserves to be in the Guinness Book as well. So, it's been monumental.

The current Billy Joel Band (Chuck, second from  top left)

  And it's beyond comprehension what we've been doing at the Garden, as well as six Citizen Bank Stadiums. We did five Wrigley Fields in a row. All sold out. It's insane. Billy's popularity now is greater than it's ever been, and he's seventy. The band has all my favorite people from my career. Billy gives us all the room to bring all that we can every night, and it is a magic situation, which I miss terribly. [All music concerts have been postponed because of the coronavirus.] I'm pining for it every time a gig comes up and passes us by because it truly is on a personal level, a professional level, a musical level, and a spiritual level that is unsurpassed in my life. I always thought somewhere there's got be somebody who's indestructible and can sing unbelievable every night and write the best songs like the Beatles, and I found him. And I swear it is beyond comprehension. That's how deep it is. So I'm blessed. [To watch Billy Joel play his classic “Piano Man” at the final shows at Shea Stadium, click here.]

JC: I’ve heard that Billy doesn't like to go for rehearsals. In fact, you guys don't know the set list he’s going play for the show.

CB: You know what? I love Billy for that. Yet, as the drummer, I can't fuck up, although I've definitely made my share of big, horrible mistakes. But Billy loves it. But he hates to rehearse. The most rehearsing we ever did was when we did a benefit for Sandy [Chuck is referring to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.] But most of the time, there's no rehearsal, and I don't know what the set list is gonna be, and it's all by the seat of your pants every show. Billy wouldn't have it any other way. So I love him for that, but man, there's no comfort zone. I've shown up to some shows at the Garden, and as soon as I'm walking in, someone will say, “You know, we're gonna do this, and we have this person as a guest tonight.” I’ll say, “What? How come I didn't know?” “Well, none of us did.” So we’re sitting there with our iPads or iPhones, dialing up the song, making cheat sheets. And at sound check, Billy might come in and say, “Hey, I wanna do this tonight.” So between the hours of 6:00 and 8:00, before the show goes on 8:15, we have to be familiar enough to be able to get up there and play something that we may not even get to do one practice run through it. Billy says, “I just wanna do it in the show.” I'm like, “Well, we haven't played that in seven months.” He will say, “Well, we're gonna do it tonight.” No one else in the music business does that.

Billy's like, “I do not want to be comfortable. I want to be walking the edge. I want the rush of not knowing how a song goes, and I want to feel that. I don't want to be complacent.” Well, I'd like to be comfortable,  but that's not his gig. Never was, and it couldn't be more unique and more different every night. It's a different set list every night. Every night, I'll be sitting there over and over again listening to something on my headphone saying, “Oh fuck, how'd that go?” I make these music charts so I can get through the song. I’m like, “Really? We're gonna do that? If you had told me last night, I could have stayed up late at home and done this at least better.” But no, he's not like that. He's a crazy man.

JC: I'm curious if Billy was a fan of Rainbow, because right now both you and David Rosenthal are in Billy’s band, but you were both part of Rainbow. In fact, Billy used Joey from Rainbow to do backup vocals for the studio recording of "I Go to Extremes."

CB: That's interesting. I've never really asked him. I've gotta say, though, I do know that Billy is a hard rock freak. And it wouldn't surprise me if he was very familiar with a lot of that stuff. Certainly, he knows a lot of the Deep Purple stuff, but I mean, it sounds horrible on piano. He loves jamming on Cream, he loves jamming on Hendrix, Zeppelin. We've got a guy in the band who can now sing Zeppelin, so we've morphed some of that into our concert set.
When I play with Billy on piano, a lot of what he does on piano reminds me of Eddie Van Halen on guitar. When I play with him, I feel like I'm gonna try to be Alex Van Halen (drummer of Van Halen) to his Eddie, and that's how we play. So I tend to swing his stuff as if I'm in Van Halen, not playing with a piano player. And it works. Yeah, it takes me a lot of time to really figure out what his music truly means.

 I'm not really there to do anything new. A lot of what Liberty Devitto [ex-drummer for Billy Joel] brought to the table wasn't broken, and it didn’t need to be retooled or reimagined by myself. I'm just there to be consistent, I guess. I don't know how Liberty got fired out of that band. You know, it can happen to the best of us. You get complacent or you get bored or you think, You know what, I'm a better drummer than these songs show and I'm gonna show it to you. And you start doing that and you start detracting from the music on top of maybe not having the best time in the world to begin with, and it's a recipe for disaster. So I don't know why Liberty's not there—I never dug into it all that hard. I'm just blessed that I got the opportunity to be playing with who I consider to be the premier American composer in popular music.

I mean, it's not called Billy and the Barnacles. It's called Billy Joel. And so you're not a barnacle. You're not like an E Street member. You're a drummer. I think that's a mistake some guys make, and I think it was a fatal one for Lib.

JC: Well, Chuck, I guess one question I wanna ask. Even though the Billy Joel gig alone would be a very impressive thing for any drummer, you also been working for several decades and you got to play with a lot of big artists. What do you think's been your secret to sustain all this?

CB: Oh, that's a nice question.  I can blab about all this stuff, but I think it's been my willingness to reinvent myself. You know, I kind of don't know if I have a style. If you listen to me on any particular record or video, that's me doing my best to bring something for the arts. Like I told you, I had a bunch of really cool drum parts worked up for Michael Bolton's first album and then I get played “Back In Black.” And I'm like, “Oh my God.” So I had to reinvent what I had rehearsed. I think my willingness to reinvent myself has definitely kept me working as opposed to something like, “I only play double bass and I'm a metal drummer.” Man, if the opportunity comes up to play something else where it's not as slick or it's not as heavy, then I'm gonna try and change to bring something that’s not new, but instead bring something to that artist or to the music that suits the need. I've kind of been a chameleon my whole life, and I think that's probably been my biggest plus. Certainly it hasn't been my musical choice at time, but I've been given different opportunities, and I've tried to do them as well as I can. I think that willingness to kind of reinvent myself has been the single most contributing factor to whatever success I've had.

JC: I know you go on tour because of the coronavirus, but do you know of any tour plans Billy might have when the coronavirus fades away?

CB: You know, Billy and I talk once a month. I know he's missing it. I know everybody in the band's missing it. I'd like to think that when the smoke clears we could ramp this up, but for any of the big acts to fire their engine back up again they need a minimum of twenty-five to thirty core people. I'd like to think yes. I'd like to think that Billy's far from wanting to say “I'm done,” but I'm on the edge of my seat every month waiting to see and hear something. It's a tough call right now, and I know it sucks for everybody. Whatever happens, obviously I'm gonna have to deal with it.

I find it hard to deal with even the concept of it not happening again. I really do. I feel like I'm retired right now, but I'm not sweating. Billy's been cool enough to take care of us, but if everything dries up, then everyone's life is gonna change massively. And I really can't entertain that right now. That's too painful. It's too much of an incredible experience. We did have a whole year planned, so when and however that's going to get fired up again, there's a whole another year of work that we have to make up. So, I'm hoping that we're gonna get the opportunity to do that.

1 comment:

George Geranios said...

I worked with Chuck in Blue Oyster Cult. He introduced me to Weissbeer in Geramny, a hell of a guy and a killer drummer!