Rock drummer shares 'legendary life'

Johny Barbata notched his first hit record in 1962 with The Sentinals. The fledgling drummer was only 16 and still in high school when the surf instrumental, "Latin'ia," became a West Coast smash, leading his band to tour with The Ventures and The Champs.

He hasn't really put his sticks down since then.

Barbata has been in The Turtles, the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young band and is the only drummer to be a member of both Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship.

He's provided the backbeat to such enduring songs as The Turtles' "Happy Together," Starship's "Miracles" and Neil Young's "Ohio."

"I've done so many things, been in so many groups, made so many albums, done so many tours, been so many places and met so many people," Barbata says. "My wife told me, 'You might as well write a book and tell all these stories. You are rock and roll history.'"

Barbata will be signing copies of his new autobiography, "Johny Barbata: The Legendary Life of a Rock Star Drummer," from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. today in Lawrence at Supersonic Music, 1023 Mass. He'll also be stationed out front of the store from 9 p.m. to midnight, as part of the store's invitation-only sale.

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Barbata

"We're looking forward to having him here," says Brian Baggett, Supersonic Music manager. "He probably has a lot of great stories to tell, because he was around some pretty cool musicians."

The New Jersey native first got a taste of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle in 1967 during The Turtles' initial trip to England.

Greeted on the runway with a Rolls-Royce owned by The Beatles, Barbata and his bandmates ended up at London's legendary Speakeasy Club. While downing $400 bottles of French wine furnished by his record company, Barbata rubbed shoulders with contemporary giants such as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix at the private club, and he was eventually introduced to John Lennon and Ringo Starr, who were there together.

"I said, 'I guess if it wasn't for you guys we wouldn't be here - you know, Beatles and Turtles.' (Lennon) said, 'Well, everything we got we stole from Chuck Berry.'"

'A full-bore riot'

While "The Legendary Life" also includes tales of Barbata's encounters with Marlon Brando and Albert Einstein, it generally concentrates on the rock world of stages and studios.

Barbata considers the attribute that got him so much work to be his capacity "to play relaxed in the studio." He also says drum solos were his live specialty.

"I'm good at rock and roll and rhythm and blues," he says. "But I can play anything. I'm like a drummer's drummer."

His abilities were really put to the test during one particular gig in the mid-'70s.

"I was playing with Johnny Rivers at a festival in Atlanta," he recalls. "There were 150,000 people. It was the Fourth of July. The Allman Brothers had played; so had Lynyrd Skynyrd (and) Alice Cooper, and it was our turn. We played about 15 seconds and the lights went out. It was pitch-black dark. The promoter came up and whispered in my ear, 'Whatever you do, don't stop playing or there'll be a full-bore riot.'

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So everybody started flipping their Bics on, and you could see. So I kept playing. But here I am, 45 minutes later and I'm STILL playing. It must have been the longest drum solo in history. The lights came on, and everybody gave me a five-minute standing ovation. My hands were like rubber. It literally was the night the lights went out in Georgia."

Barbata's rhythmic skills were so in demand that he had to turn down now-classic studio projects such as Linda Ronstadt's "Blue Bayou" album, as well as tours with artists Jackson Browne and Van Morrison. He even passed up the chance to back Elvis Presley.

But one of his most notable missed opportunities came while he was the staff drummer at David Geffen's record label and still touring with CSN&Y in the early '70s.

"Geffen called me into his office one day and said, 'Hey, there's this new group forming and they're really going to be big, and they want you to be their drummer,'" Barbata remembers.

"I said, 'I'm in the biggest group in the world. How much bigger can they get? Who are they?'

"Geffen said, 'They're called The Eagles.'"

On the road again

Barbata finally abandoned the Los Angeles grind a few years back. He sold his ranch to film director Sydney Pollack ("The Interpreter") and moved to Ada, Okla., where his wife Angie hails from.

Past Event

Johny Barbata

  • Friday, July 22, 2005, noon to 5:30 p.m.
  • Supersonic Music, 1023 Massachusetts St., Lawrence
  • All ages / Free

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He still performs with his band California, which features Angie on vocals. He also occasionally hits the road. In fact, he came through Lawrence with blues guitarist Scott Ellison in 2001 - his first gig in town since The Turtles played at Kansas University in the 1960s.

Although he hasn't done a major tour in quite a while, he doesn't rule out the possibility.

"This is my daughter's senior year in high school. When she's done with that, I would probably go out again," he says.

Barbata isn't one who caters to The Who's sentiment of "Hope I die before I get old." Instead, he prefers Neil Young's assessment: "Hey hey, my my / Rock and roll can never die."

"I just turned 60, but I still look good and feel good," he says. "I've always been into health food and stuff. I took care of myself. And I've got all my hair. I'm a young 60."

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