For fans of The Turtles, CSN&Y, and Jefferson Airplane/Starship, as well as patrons of Milano's Music in Mesa, June 7 promises to be, at very least, an opportunity to meet an interesting member of rock 'n' roll's expansive past. Johny Barbata, who played drums for all of the previously mentioned acts, as well as one of the more accomplished session drummers in music history, will be signing autographs and telling stories of his glory days in, as he likes to call it, "rock 'n' roll heaven."
Barbata, 69, currently resides in Oklahoma, but continues to play drums and look for that next big opportunity to make another hit record. He got his first taste of rock stardom after the regional success of his high school band, The Sentinals, and their California radio hit "La Tinia." In his memoir, The Legendary Life of a Rock and Roll Drummer, which will be available at Milano's, he describes playing a gig in Kingman, Arizona, in 1962 for "nine -- count' em -- nine Navojo Indians. They loved us." From that point on, though, Johny Barbata typically played for way more than nine people.
A born storyteller, it is easy to see how Barbata ingratiated himself to some of the most powerful and popular people in rock and roll in the late '60s and throughout the '70s. He spent a lot of time both jamming and rubbing shoulders with so many household names that it is interesting that he never became one himself, although his humble nature makes it easy to understand why he did not go after the spotlight. Barbata joined The Turtles just before they recorded their hit song, "Happy Together," and his life was never the same after that.
While The Turtles were already a tremendously popular group when Barbata joined them, the success of "Happy Together" took the band to brand new heights. Barbata's unique drumming style has been widely noted as a propelling force behind the song's popularity, which found it on top of the charts for several weeks in 1967. Whether he would admit or not, Johny Barbata is and was widely influential among his peers, even the ones who have never even heard his name. The Turtles managed to even warrant an audience with the Beatles on their first European tour later that year.
"We got flown to London and when we got off the plane, we saw this white Rolls Royce sitting there. Somebody told us it was sent for us, so we ran up to it and jumped in. They told us it belonged to the Beatles. ... Later, they took us to a club called the Speakeasy. The Speakeasy was where everyone from the British groups hung out," tells Barbata.
Later in the evening, Barbata found himself sitting between John Lennon and Ringo Starr, talking about Chuck Berry.
"We were drunk on $400 bottles of red wine and they were tripping on acid," according to Barbata, but this was not the most important first impression Barbata made that evening.
It was later in the same evening at the Speakeasy that Barbata was introduced to Graham Nash, who would become a longtime collaborator and champion of Barbata's drumming. After his time in The Turtles came to a close, Barbata was once again a free agent, picking up studio drumming sessions and starting the band Jerome with friends Joel Scott Hill and Chris Ethridge. Jerome made one album, the acclaimed but difficult to find LA Getaway, which featured a stellar cast of musicians including Booker T. Jones and Leon Russell. The life of this "supergroup" was cut short, though, because another "supergroup" beckoned.
David Crosby and Neil Young asked Barbata to give it a go as the drummer for their group with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, which happened to be, at the time, the biggest group in the world. This would start a long ride and association with these four gentlemen that would end up with Barbata playing on eight different records, including CSN&Y's stellar live album, Four Way Street. Due to this connection, though, Barbata ended up passing on an offer to become the drummer for the Eagles a few years later.
"[David] Geffen walked over to me and said, 'There is a new group forming and they want you to be part of it. They are called the Eagles.' I said, 'Who the hell are the Eagles? I never heard of them.'"
History, of course, would show that this was probably not the best decision Barbata made in his music career, but he has no regrets. There was another gig coming along that made it all worthwhile. In 1972, David Crosby invited Johny over to his house in Los Angeles.
"We smoked a joint of purple sinsemilla and David asked me if I knew who Jefferson Airplane was. I said, 'Of course...' and the next thing I knew, I was meeting with them in San Francisco," according to Barbata.
During his time with the Jefferson Airplane, who would later become Jefferson Starship, Barbata played on eight releases by the bands, including several hits. He also got his first real shot at being an integral part of the writing process at this point in his career and even sang lead on "Big City" on the 1976 Jefferson Starship album, Spitfire. A couple years later, though, in 1978, the ride on the Starship was over. Barbata was in a serious car accident, which took the life of his friend, Terry "Tucker" Hill. The two men were headed home one night in Northern California and swerved to miss a deer. Barbata ended up with multiple injuries, serious enough to finish his career with Jefferson Starship.
In all, Johny Barbata has had an illustrious career. Take some time out of your Saturday on June 7 and head over to Milano's to shake his hand and hear some stories. You won't be disappointed, and you just might learn something.
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