Exclusive: Drummer Kenny Aronoff On Playing With Paul McCartney And Ringo Starr: ‘It Was Incredible!’
As we head towards the midpoint of only the second month of 2014, it’s already been a busy year for Kenny Aronoff. The legendary drummer is probably best known for his career-defining work behind the kit for John Mellencamp in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which was followed by a similarly lengthy stint as the drummer for another famous John — former Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty— a highly successful relationship that remains intact to this day.
Fogerty can still rock with the best of them and as Aronoff told us in a previous interview, it’s a gig which puts him through the paces, because as he put it, “that guy demands power and edge.” Aronoff brings power, edge and especially dedication to each situation that he picks up the sticks for and that’s a big reason why he remains highly in demand as a player at 60 years of age. Things aren’t slowing down — they’re only getting busier.
Once again, Aronoff performed in the house band for the annual Kennedy Center Honors, this time paying tribute to the music of Carlos Santana and Billy Joel. His percussive talents also drove the recent all-star Gregg Allman tribute which featured a large number of special guests, including Jackson Browne, Dr. John, Vince Gill and the Allman Brothers Band themselves performing highlights from Allman’s lengthy career.
But it was probably a triple-play of opportunities to jam with Ringo Starr that meant the most to Aronoff as he got the chance to play alongside Starr at a tribute to the former Beatles drummer presented by the David Lynch Foundation. Later that same month, he performed again with Starr, first at the Grammy Awards and then he found himself sharing the stage with both surviving Beatles at the star-studded event ‘The Beatles: The Night That Changed America.’
It was quite a career milestone for Aronoff, who told Ultimate Classic Rock during an exclusive conversation earlier this week that it was actually Starr’s drumming that was the catalyst which inspired him to become a drummer. He shared his perspective on the recent events that lit the fuse on his own Beatlemania all over again.
Your world has had a whole lot of Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney in it recently. How much experience had you had with either of those guys prior to this recent flurry of events?
Well, I’d met both of them before, but I never played on the same stage with them. ‘Meet The Beatles!’ was my first record, but you know, I saw ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and I even told this to Ringo, I was like, “Man, I don’t know if I should tell you this” and he went, “No, tell me!” I said, “Dude, you’ve heard it a million times and it’s so cliche, but it’s true. You’re the reason why I’m playing drums. You’re the reason why I’m in a band. You’re the reason why I decided to be a musician!”
I mean, it’s so cliche, but it’s true! There was nothing on TV to watch when I was a kid, so me and my twin brother played sports and then we’d meet in the middle of the lawn and we’d have 10 minutes to find a weapon in the woods to combat each other with, you know, logs, sticks or whatever you could make in 10 minutes and it was boring. My mom took us to the movie theater to see ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and that was it — the next week I bought a snare drum and a cymbal and I stood up because I couldn’t afford a drum set. Then I started a band and the first record I bought was ‘Meet The Beatles!’ I got on my one-speed fat tire bike that was too small for me and drove three miles to the next town, bought ‘Meet The Beatles!’ and I was a major Beatles fan.
I always thought, “Oh, I wish I could be in the Beatles!” I wanted to be in the band so bad. So to end up onstage playing double drums with Ringo and almost every song I knew, but I’d never analyzed them to play at the level I was playing for these shows, because I was trying to honor what Ringo was doing — it was incredible. It doesn’t get any deeper because that was the beginning for me. That was the beginning and the band and [their] music has never gone away. That music and the significance of them coming to America was way beyond music. It’s where the world was at and where America was at. We were ready for some major changes. Post-World War II, post-Depression, it was time for the world and America especially to blossom and come out of its shell.
We went from black and white to color and the Beatles were a huge catalyst [for] that change. They were the musical part of it. They didn’t make the change, they were part of the change — it was happening anyway — it was in the air. They were the musical ingredient. So they are hugely significant in my life and in America’s life. So to then be performing those songs has a deeper meaning than probably any other music I’ve ever played.
I’ve only had the chance to ask this question to a few folks: For you as a drummer, what was it like to go out and pick up a pair of sticks and go out and play drums in front of Ringo and with Ringo. What’s that like?
[Laughs] Well, I’ll tell you what. I’m at the point in my life where I have a job to do and I’m very, very at the top of my game, so I’m focusing on doing a perfect job, like being in the Olympics. You know, you’ve been training and training and working and I don’t have time to goof around because I went from one gig to the next in the last six weeks. I’m making charts and I’m thinking way ahead, how I’m going to count off and these charts better be right, because I’m not going to have a lot of time to redo them. So yeah, it’s definitely a little bit more [intense] because it’s Ringo Starr, but I have to stay focused on my job.
There’s too much responsibility and too many songs — I played 10 songs at the David Lynch Foundation benefit honoring Ringo Starr and that was the first time I really had to address the fact that I’m playing double drums with him and I was focusing on doing a great job. When I played double drums with him, I was making sure that I locked in with him, making him the leader. But I’m also trying to read music, so I don’t want to lose my place and I don’t want to be thinking too much about the fact that, “Holy s–, I’m playing with Ringo Starr and you remember when you were a kid..” and all of this stuff. I kept that at a distance.
Then last night when I was watching the show, that’s when I didn’t have to play and I didn’t have any responsibilities, I completely enjoyed the excitement. I didn’t sit and watch it, I was standing up and kind of like… I don’t want to call it dancing, but I was moving to the music. I turned it up real loud in my hotel room in Utah on my night off from the Styx tour. It was cool, I got phone calls from Tommy Shaw and Ricky Phillips saying, “Man, that was awesome!” Tommy couldn’t stop talking about it — he really got it and he really appreciated how cool that show was.
Then talking to Paul before the show outside, that moment I wasn’t playing, so I’m talking to Paul and Ringo. Paul’s telling us about how they had no idea. When they came over here, it was just another TV show — they had no idea what was going to happen or what was happening. They were shocked. They were actually both dumbfounded. Any time their name was mentioned in front of that audience, the kids would go crazy and they couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t believe there was a mob outside ‘The Ed Sullivan Show‘ — they had police on horses all over the place. They couldn’t believe the significance of it all.
Right before the curtain opened, someone said, “You realize that 72 million people are watching this” and then the curtain opens. He said that they remember smoking cigarettes and they thought they were old. Paul said, “I remember going into a music store with John [Lennon],” and some older guy sitting back there who probably was a jazz-type guy showed them a minor 6th chord and they thought, “Holy s—, let’s memorize how you do that” and they put it in ‘Michelle’ and one other song.
They were so into music. They were totally committed musicians and real hard workers that were really passionate and Paul is still that guy. He’s still really into it. It’s the same with Ringo. The way they were talking about it, they were talking about the type of s— that we used to talk about when we were in bands when we were 18. That’s what was cool.
Hearing Paul tell you that story about finding out that there were 72 million people watching their appearance on Ed Sullivan — is there a moment for you that is comparable when you look back at the time when you were coming up and playing with Mellencamp?
It was ‘Saturday Night Live’ for me. The first time I was on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ we were doing ‘Jack & Diane’ and ‘Hurts So Good.’ Both songs were in the Top Ten and back then when you were in the Top Ten or if you were No. 1, you couldn’t [miss] being heard on the radio. There weren’t all of the different formats. It was either Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) or the Top 100 hits. There wasn’t all of these divisions — you could be No. 1 on a chart right now and sell ten records — that’s an exaggeration — but back then when you were No. 1, everybody knew who you were. And MTV had just started and we were one of the first bands to be promoted on MTV — we were huge.
So when I went on ‘Saturday Night Live’ with like a seven-second delay in case you said, “f—,” it scared the s— out of me, I have to admit. I’m up there and you know, you come onstage while they’re in commercials and they’re like, “Two minutes, everybody” and people are running around like crazy and all of the sudden some lady comes running through the audience and comes up onstage and powder puffs my head because there’s too much shine. The whole audience breaks out laughing and you know, I was so embarrassed. Right now, I would love it. If they did that, I’d rip my clothes off and dance a jig or something. But back then, I was humiliated, because all I was thinking about was listening to the click, get the tempo right, get the tempo right and I’m playing left-handed. Everybody’s watching. Everybody. Don’t make a mistake — don’t mess up! That was a pretty heavy moment for me.
How do things change for you after an experience like that. As an artist, how much do you see the needle move after you’re on something like ‘Saturday Night Live.’
Well, for a while it just got bigger and bigger. When that album came out, I’d only been in the band for two years and all of the sudden John’s on the cover of ‘Rolling Stone’ and we’re the album of the year and then we continued to be successful — we weren’t a flash in the pan. The next record was ‘Uh-Huh’ and it had ‘Crumblin’ Down,’ ‘Authority Song,’ ‘Pink Houses’ and one other single. That was the first time that John decided that “We’re not making records in L.A. — f— L.A.!”
His sister’s boyfriend had a house on a pig farm, a little teeny shack. We took it over, renovated it and built a studio and brought a mobile unit up from Criteria Studios in Florida, made that record and then the next record was ‘Scarecrow’ and now we were filling arenas. It just got bigger and bigger. We were selling out arenas and there was no opening act for us. As soon as ‘Scarecrow’ came out, we did a three-hour show with no opening act, that was it. It was us [playing two sets] with an intermission. By the time we got there, we were ready and it was time.
We had groomed ourselves and developed a great live show and it was basically a two-year cycle of rehearsing for making a record, arrange it in a room, go and make a record, do promotion for it and go on tour for a year, take a month off and start again. We did that for basically the first eight years of my existence with him. It was like private jets and craziness, hijacking chicks on our planes and hospitality rooms. We invited people back to meet them and try to convince them to sleep with us — all kinds of crazy stuff. It was living the rock and roll dream. So it got pretty comfortable, because we were doing so much, that you got used to it and it became a way of life.
What were some of your favorite moments from the Beatles tribute?
[Playing with] Stevie Wonder was pretty heavy. He walked in the day of the show and to play with Stevie Wonder, that was really big. Every song is really seriously delicate and important, the tempo and the feel, every song is tricky in its own way. One of my favorites was doing ‘Hey Bulldog’ with Dave Grohl singing and playing guitar, because it was heavy and that’s definitely where I’m at. [Playing] double drums with Ringo, that’s pretty heavy. At the end, you couldn’t see me, but I was on the stage singing the end of ‘Hey Jude’ and I’m onstage now with Paul McCartney and Ringo and Paul’s within 15 feet of me and it was incredible.