Ex Mellencamp Drummer Coming To Charleston As Part of Experience Hendrix Tour
By: Jeff Walker, Entertainment Writer
Examining his early resume and formal training it would appear rock n’ roll drummer Kenny Aronoff was destined for another musical career path. A native of Stockridge, Massachusetts Aronoff studied music for one year at UMass before transferring to the Indiana University School of Music (presently known as Jacobs School of Music) majoring in classical music performance.
During summers in college Aronoff interned at the Aspen School of Music a high profile festival run by the prestigious Julliard, spending another summer at Tanglewood Music Center, an annual summer music academy in Lenox, Massachusetts. While mastering his artistic skill in the mid 1970’s Aronoff developed relationships with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Berklee School of Music eventually working alongside famed conductors Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Arthur Fiedler. Along the way he had become quite adept to playing both jazz, orchestral, and fusion music.
Upon his graduation from college in 1976 he was offered a position with the famed Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, but promptly turned it down. “I feel certain there were some who thought I was crazy for not taking the gig. Offers like that don’t come along that often, especially at a young age. But I knew deep down rock n’ roll was my calling. I was in my first band at age 10 (The Alley Cats). I would have majored in rock n’ roll but when I went to college it was still early in the rock era. No schools were teaching rock n’ roll. They were teaching music theory and history of music. It was more about jazz and orchestra, which was cool and helped lay the ground work for me, but really being a drummer in the rock n’ roll band was where I was meant to be.”
Like many musicians coming up during the early rock n’ roll era, Aronoff admits it was one pivotal moment in rock history that changed his life forever. “It was The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I was 10 years old but I remember telling my mom I want to be in The Beatles. I wanted her to call The Beatles, of course she didn’t have their number or any way to get a hold of them. They kick started my love for rock n’ roll, and I thought Ringo was way cool. From that moment I knew there was something about rock n’ roll that was attracting me.”
As the 1980’s were about to unfold, a door opened for Aronoff that would change his life forever. Although he was keeping busy Aronoff hadn’t quite reached any career milestones, until he auditioned for up and coming heartland rocker John Mellencamp, then going by the name John Cougar. Mellencamp had had some mild success but was about to break through on a bigger scale.
According to Aronoff, fate took its course. “In 1980 I was about to make a big move, until last minute someone had told me John got rid of his drummer and was looking for someone new. I literally got the call 48 hours prior to working for John. I went in to help record the album ‘Nothing Matters And What If It Did’. It wasn’t long into the recording session that John came to me and said you can go home. You’re not working out. I was stunned. John was trying to take away my bliss. I told him I wouldn’t quit and the whole ordeal only made me work harder.”
With all his formal training Aronoff had to re-think what it meant to be a rock n’ roll drummer. “That was the beginning of me turning it around. I began to really listen to the music styles of the day and the music I grew up listening too. I started listening more to bands like the Rolling Stones, ACDC, and Creedence Clearwater. Here I was well schooled, but not really in rock n’ roll. I had to learn how to participate in the song.”
It was years later Aronoff found out it was famed producer Steve Cropper who was unsure of his talent in the studio. “John told me years down the road that Cropper didn’t think I had the right stuff to get the album finished. I remember Cropper told me from the onset, we had only eight weeks to finish the album because he had to go out on tour with the Blues Brothers.”
Mellencamp would follow ‘Nothing Matters’ with arguably his biggest selling album ‘American Fool’ in 1982. Aronoff is often praised for his drum work on one of the albums biggest tracks, ‘Jack & Diane’. “That was a tough one to work out. John would often come in with a song and play it on guitar, giving us a feel for he imagined the song would be. We all sensed it could be a hit, but he wanted the drum to have a hook. I played with the song but I wasn’t getting John’s or the producer’s (Don Gehman) approval. If John didn’t like something he’d let you know right away. He was interested in making a hit record, and I knew he wasn’t opposed to bringing in a new drummer.”
The guys were recording at Criteria in Miami with the Bee Gees in the next studio. “They weren’t a traditional rock n’ roll and they were using a drum machine. It was the newest technology at the time. As things weren’t progressing, next thing I knew Gehman walks in with a drum machine. My first thought was, really am I going to be replaced by a machine. So with my never quit attitude I quickly read the entire manual, and learned how to program the machine to my drum kit.”
Just as Aronoff thought everything was going along fine Mellencamp added another challenge. “Then John says he wants a drum solo in the song. Was I missing something, ‘Jack & Diane’ is a pop rock ballad. Who has drum solos in a song unless your Phil Collins. Long story short John didn’t like anything I was coming up with. I feel certain they were getting tired of me. And then it hit me. I came up with something on the spot and it worked. The song went to number one and 35 years later is still played a lot on classic rock stations. I’m damn proud of my work on that song, and the album.”
In between Mellencamp albums and concert tours Aronoff found time to apply his drumming expertise to some of the biggest artists of the day. “John came along in 1988 and said he was quitting or at least taking a few years off. I had to make a living so I started doing session work. I laid tracks down on records by Belinda Carlisle, Bon Jovi, Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, Cinderella, Meatloaf, and Celine Dion. I gained a solid reputation because I came prepared. I even toured with Joe Cocker and John Fogerty (CCR fame).” Aronoff would continue to work for Mellencamp until 1997.
Aronoff’s work ethic and mastery of the drum kit paid off over the years. He performed at the Kennedy Center Honors Ceremonies from 2008 to 2014 as well as performing twice at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards with Ringo Starr and the Highway Men. He took part in a tribute to The Beatles, sharing the stage with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney in “The Beatles: The Night That Changed America”. During that same show, he also played drums for Stevie Wonder, Joe Walsh, Jeff Lynne, David Grohl, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Keith Urban, John Mayer, and Brad Paisley. He would later tell Ringo, “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. It’s not everyday you get to share the stage with members of The Beatles. Easily one of the highlights of my career.”
Aronoff’s chronicled his rock n’ roll journey recently in the aptly titled book, ‘Sex, Drums, Rock n’ Roll – The Hardest Hitting Man In Show Business‘. “My mom freaked when she heard the title. I told her at least it’s not sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Too that she said ‘oh my god’.”
Released in 2016 ‘Sex, Drums, Rock n’ Roll’ recounts Aronoff’s early days mimicking his childhood idols to eventually working alongside some of the music industry’s biggest artists. “It’s an autobiography, and it was one of the most painstaking ventures I ever took on. It wasn’t my idea to write the book. I think I was in Chickenfoot (Sammy Hagar led band) at the time when someone brought up the idea. They said it would be simple. In retrospect it wasn’t. It was four years of my life.”
According to Aronoff, it almost did not get released. “I saw what the publisher was going to put out and had to put a stop to it. I ended up rewriting just about every page. It was my life story and I was also paying tribute to some of the artists I had worked with like John (Mellencamp), Bon Jovi, Melissa Etheridge, and Bob Dylan. It had to be factual and sound like me.”
So Aronoff as he does on many projects took charge. “I always try to stay busy, so in my down time I spent 14 to 16 hours a day re-editing the book. Looking back the process was exhausting. When it was ready to come out I didn’t like the cover. The image wasn’t right. It didn’t reflect the content or who I am. Finally a friend suggested another artist or photographer who came up with a really cool black & white cover. I’m not sure the publisher was on board, but it’s my book. I’m proud of it now.”
The foreword to the book is a glowing piece from fellow hard hitting percussion player and Rush great Neil Peart. “When it comes to drums, Neil is a freaking god.” Peart describes Aronoff as one of the greatest musicians of all time. “That’s high praise coming from him.” In the most recent list of the all time greatest drummers, Rolling Stone listed Peart at number four behind Jon Bonham (Led Zeppelin), Keith Moon (The Who), and Ginger Baker. “I’d say that’s right.”
Aronoff landed at 66 on the list of 100. “Hey it’s just awesome to be included on the list. My work ethic and what I did with John and for other artists no doubt got their attention.” One of Aronoff’s early idols, the great Mitch Mitchell who played in the Jimi Hendrix Experience (1966-70) came in at number eight. “I was a teenager in the late 1960’s and I keyed in on every great drummer at the time. Guys like Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, and definitely Mitch.”
Emulating his heroes was part of growing up as a drummer. “When you’re a musician you try and take something from all the greats and hopefully develop your own sound. But I really tried to mimic Mitch. He’s one of the hardest drummers to copy. He was just different. Getting his nuances down is nearly impossible. Those who aren’t musicians or drummers might think it’s all about beating the drum, but there’s much more to it. Mitch Mitchell had a different swing and feel that transcended the drum kit.”
Not only was he a fan of Mitchell, Aronoff was enthralled by Hendrix. “I remember when I got the ‘Are You Experienced’ album. I would play one side and turn it over and play the other side. When I was done I would turn it over and play it again. I listened nonstop and kept soaking it in. My mom thought I was crazy. But Hendrix was like religion to me and I couldn’t get enough of the band, their sound, and of course Mitch’s drum work. That album and Hendrix just spoke to me, and I was just 13 at the time.”
Little did Aronoff know, 50 years later he’d be performing in the highly regarded 2019 Experience Hendrix tour. Originally kick started several years ago, the tour is rightfully billed as the ‘Guitar Event of the Year’, assembling some of the greatest musicians working today, in an all-star salute to the undisputed guitar god, Jimi Hendrix. Past performers include Brad Whitford of Aerosmith, Carlos Santana, blues great Buddy Guy, Rich Robinson (Black Crowes), Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), and Kenny Wayne Shephard.
The 2019 lineup is a who’s who of guitar players including Jonny Lang, Dweezil Zappa, Dave Mustaine (Megadeth), Eric Johnson, Ana Popovic, and veterans Taj Mahal and Ernie Isley. Chris Layton who beat the skins for Stevie Ray Vaughn will take part in the tour as well. Aronoff recently rehearsed with gifted axe-man Joe Satriani, and Doug Pinnick of King’s X. “It was awesome. Not only am I playing Hendrix music, I am jamming with the best of the best. This is another career highlight for me. I’m going to be out on the road performing with some of my all time heroes.”
Since 2017 Aronoff has been drumming on and off for pioneering rockabilly artist Jerry Lee Lewis. “Just another really cool gig. Of course I like to stay busy, but playing drums for a legend is just off the charts awesome. I’ve performed with two Beatles and now Jerry Lee. These guys gave birth to rock n’ roll. How lucky can one person be.”
During his down time he finds time to record and teach. Aronoff owns his own studio. Aside from all of that he has become a sought after motivational speaker. The three principles he imparts audiences through his Kenny Aronoff Experience are preparation, performance, and persistence. “I have a never give up attitude. I talk to company CEO’s, employees, conventions, and people with a dream just starting out. I tell them to be prepared. Dedicate yourself to your dream. Blow people away, and always carry a ‘I’m not going to quit attitude’.”
He adds, “I was persistent in school, and didn’t let my first experience with John (Mellencamp) take away from what I wanted to achieve in life. The most important thing I can pass on to others is to stay focused and don’t let others determine your outcome. If you have a drive, a passion, or a calling, follow it. Take hold of your life. I tell them there is no magic pill. You have to plan for your own success. Hopefully that’s what people take away from my speaking engagements.”
More than 40 years later Kenny Aronoff has put his skills and determination to work for him, from becoming one of rock n’ rolls most respected drummers to teaching others how to grab the brass ring. He has fully lived out his passion and his calling in life. “There are times when you need to move on or make adjustments in life, but the bottom line is never quit and never give up on your goals. That’s been my focus my entire life.”
Those who want to witness the drumming expertise of Kenny Aronoff can catch him live when the Experience Hendrix tour makes a stop at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on Friday, March 8th. Aronoff will be sharing the stage with Joe Satriani and Doug Pinnick. To learn more about Aronoff visit his website at https://kennyaronoff.com/
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