Book review: Liberty: Life, Billy and the Pursuit of Happiness


I confess that I love autobiographies. It’s not that I’m into them because I want to live someone else’s life. Rather, I look for someone to tell me scores of amazing anecdotes. Oh, and I might learn a thing or two. In late 2020, look no further than Liberty: Life, Billy and the Pursuit of Happiness. The book’s main title is a play on words since the author is Liberty DeVitto, drummer, musician, son, father, Brooklyn resident and now, author. 

Dear Reader, please notice how I just described Liberty. I think the description is fitting and in what I think, is the right order. You see, those who know Liberty and even those who are familiar with him typically say: Liberty DeVitto, Billy Joel’s drummer. Indeed that is what Liberty is best known for, but this gifted performer is known for so much more. That in and of itself is what I learned after reading this incredibly well-written and researched life story. 

What I’m most astounded with in ‘Liberty,’ is the rich detail that the author provides about his early life starting with his large Italian-Sicilian roots to growing up in the New York Long Island community of Seaford. It seems that Liberty remembers just about everyone who he came into contact with in those formative years ranging from every band, band member, friend, school chum, family member and every single landmark in his New York world. 

‘Liberty’ is the story of a kid with a dream and perseverance. Just like so many who struggled and made it into showbiz, there were myriad doubters along the way. One girlfriend’s dad even offered Liberty a “real job” in which he quickly turned down along with the girlfriend.

As the old adage goes, with hard work, good timing and luck, one can achieve his or her dream. In a way that’s true today, but it seems far harder than in DeVitto’s “salad days."

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seems that the sky was really the limit. DeVitto found himself working successfully with some well-known acts like Mitch Ryder before settling in with a group called Topper. DeVitto and some of Topper’s band members then hooked up with Singer-Songwriter-Piano Man Billy Joel in the mid-1970s. After recording the classic LP, Turnstiles and extensively touring in support of its release, Joel was in search of taking the act to a far higher level. It wasn’t because Joel himself who so wanted to up the ante, it was really the record company applying 
that pressure on him to increase record sales which meant: make the hits! Otherwise, Billy Joel would have been dropped from Columbia Records, a place that he “attended,”rather than Columbia University. 

After finding legendary producer Phil Ramone, the rest is rock ’n roll history. Along with Joel, Ramone and the rest of the band, DeVitto was involved with one of the most successful string of pop albums in recording history - starting with 1977’s The Stranger through 1986’s The Bridge. 1989’s Storm Front was produced by Foreigner’s Mick Jones. All of those releases during those years spawned countless Top 40 singles playing ad nauseam throughout the world. With long tours featuring sold-out arenas and stadiums, success came fast and furious for Joel and company.

Success can look great for these male rockers what with plenty of booze, women and drugs, but with all of these rock ’n roll fantasies come true, there is typically plenty of darkness. DeVitto comes clean in his own way in the book, describing his own bouts with marriage, divorce, drinking and business 
issues. Indeed many of us have read similar accounts from those in the entertainment industry, but DeVitto writes about his trials and tribulations in such a compelling and honest way. The most tear-jerking moment in ‘Liberty,’ is when DeVitto writes about former Billy Joel band member Doug Stegmeyer,who took his life in August 1995. DeVitto reveals scores of emotions and details surrounding this tragedy. 

There is a major “to be continued” feel to ‘Liberty.’ DeVitto’s journey is a work in progress with his current bands The Slim Kings and The Lords of 52nd Street, a band which includes fellow former Billy Joel band members Richie Cannata and Russell Javors. DeVitto found true love and happiness with wife Anna, who he has his fourth daughter with in Brooklyn. The book is also filled with DeVitto’s love for The Beatles (especially Ringo) and great advice for those who wish to get into the music industry.

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