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RDR/NT: Rock drummer Johny Barbata shares tales

Johny Barbata shows off his drumming skills (Photo by Andrew W. Griffin)
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By Andrew W. Griffin

Pop writer / The Norman (Okla.) Transcript

Posted: September 17, 2010

OKLAHOMA CITY – With his drumming skills appearing on over 100 record albums and 20 hit singles, long-time drummer Johny Barbata is a rather humble guy who has witnessed a lot or rock n’ roll history.

Barbata was holding a book signing event at an Oklahoma City music store recently when he spoke to Pop about his years playing drums with The Turtles, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Jefferson Airplane/Starship and many others.  If you ever heard the number one 1967 hit “Happy Together” by The Turtles, that is Barbata on drums.

Barbata was at OKC Music and Sound holding an autograph session for his self-published book, Johny Barbata: The Legendary Life of a Rock Star Drummer.

The book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in 20th century pop music, particularly that Laurel Canyon/California rock and pop sound that came out of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Now it should be noted that Barbata wrote this book himself. It’s a first-person narrative and the editing process appears to have been used only at a minimum. For grammarians there may be some frustrating mistakes left in the text. There are a number of misspellings and so forth, but for fans – and particularly those who admire the drummers from this period – it will prove to be only a minor nuisance. It’s Barbata’s inside, behind-the-scenes approach that is enticing and interesting.

Barbata offers some fascinating anecdotes, including some from his childhood.  When he was nearly three years old, Barbata said he sat in Albert Einstein’s lap after the legendary physicist’s boat motor conked out on a lake in upstate New York. Barbata, who was with his parents, saved Einstein and towed his boat back to shore.

Writes Barbata: “He told my mother and father that he was working on a new theory that could change the world.”

This brush with fame at such an early age must have resulted in a lot of good luck for Barbata.  A family move to California during his teens proved to be important for the young man who got his first set of drums and joined a surf band called The Sentinals.

It was playing with The Sentinals – which he says was the most fun of all the groups he ever played with – that gave him a chance to quickly improve as a drummer.

After he split from The Sentinals, he and a buddy ended up – like so many young people of that era – in Hollywood, particularly on the Sunset Strip and in clubs like the Whisky A Go-Go. And in the spring of 1966, while hanging out and playing with a local musician, Barbata was approached by Gene Clark of The Byrds. He told the young drummer that an up-and-coming group called The Turtles was looking for a new drummer. He auditioned and got the gig. That was the boost his career was looking for.

Between performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to surviving a crash-landing in an airplane in a Pennsylvania cornfield, Barbata excitedly reminisces about the highs and lows of being a Turtle. A particular highlight was when he and the band were in London and met The Beatles, noting how someone spilled a beer on John Lennon and the “smart Beatle” never moved a muscle.

Writes Barbata: “I got up some courage and leaned over to John and said, ‘Well, I guess if it wasn’t for The Beatles, we wouldn’t be here.” Lennon replied, “What do you mean?” Barbata responded, ‘You started the whole thing and without the Beatles there would be no Turtles.”

Lennon told Barbata that The Beatles stole from Chuck Berry and that it was common to take ideas from other artists.

And while he gained a lot of experience of the three-or-so years he played with that pop group (he helped co-write their mega hit “Elenore”), he moved on to the life of a band member and session drummer.

Drugs came and went and Barbata managed not to become a casualty.

Talking about these heady days in the late 1960’s, Barbata told The Norman Transcript that he lived on Stanley Hills Drive in Laurel Canyon and would hang out at the home of Monkee Peter Tork.

“I would hang out with Peter all the time. Peter had the party house,” he said.

Considering the incestuous nature of the Laurel Canyon/L.A. music scene at that time, Barbata, considered one of the best in the business, was not at a loss for landing jobs. He ended up getting picked up by rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, appearing on their live 4 Way Street album and on the classic protest song from 1970 - "Ohio."

“David (Crosby) is the one who got me in with CSNY,” Barbata told Pop. “He’s a great person and a good singer.”

He even lived with Neil Young for a time. And he also noted he had to play a 45-minute drum solo after a power outage at a gig in Atlanta while playing with Johnny Rivers.

He then became a member of Jefferson Airplane and remained as they morphed into Jefferson Starship throughout the 1970’s.

All the while, Barbata honestly tells all the things going on in his life during this period. The good and bad and the inside dirt, in some cases. All in all, Barbata’s positive nature comes through loud and clear, noting at the end of his conversion to Christianity.

While he called northern California home for many years, in the 1990’s he and his wife Angie got out of Mendocino and settled in the Ada, Okla. area where his wife’s family lives.

Barbata told Pop that his 90-acre ranch in Pontotoc County is a wonderful place.

“People are so nice here,” he said of Oklahoma. “It was a little bit of a culture shock when I first came.”

But Barbata continues to play and record and even has a drum instructional DVD he sells, along with this book, of which he has sold approximately 4,000 in the past couple of years.

For more information on Johny Barbata, his book, book signing appearances and live appearances, go to www.johnybarbata.com.

The edited version of this article appears at www.normantranscript.com.

Copyright 2010 West Marie Media

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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