Get Lit: A Turtle’s Life

Classic rock fans might not recognize the name Johny Barbata, but they’ve heard his drumming on more than 100 albums and 20 hits including Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio.” He was also a full-time member of the Turtles and Jefferson Airplane/Starship, thumping skins on songs like “Happy Together,” “She’d Rather Be With Me ,” “Eleanore” (which he co-wrote), “Miracles,” “With Your Love,” and “Count On Me.”

Barbata recalls his life onstage and in the studio with rock’s elite – as well as the time he turned down a chance to join a band that would become one of the biggest ever – in his memoir The Legendary Life of a Rock Star Drummer. He’ll be in Houston for a signing this weekend.

Houstoned: I understand you had an interesting introduction to London nightlife with the Turtles.

Barbata: We were picked up at the airport in a white Rolls Royce that belonged to the Beatles, then got to a restaurant and started drinking $400 bottles of French wine. We all got pretty ripped and thought we were going back to the hotel, but they took us to this club, the Speakeasy. I look over and Paul McCartney is having a drink with Graham Nash at the bar, Brian Jones has two blondes on his arm, Clapton, Hendrix, Eric Burdon, Rod Stewart were all there…it was incredible!

I ended up sitting between John Lennon and Ringo Starr, and I’m afraid to say a word. One of our roadies tripped and spilled a whole pitcher of beer on Lennon, who kept smoking and didn’t say a word. I got up the courage and told him that if it weren’t for the Beatles, there would be no Turtles because they started it all. He laughed and told me the Beatles stole everything from Chuck Berry! Paul also kind of [ribbed] us because “Happy Together” knocked “Penny Lane” off the top of the charts.

Houstoned: You did the tour with CSNY documented on the Four Way Street album, and continued to play with members on their solo records. Surely you saw your fair share of fighting among the infamously quarrelsome quartet…

Barbata: It was the first gig I played with them at Winterland in New York. Bob Dylan and the Band were there, and were going to come backstage and hang out. Stephen [Stills], at the end of his [solo turn] in the first acoustic set, decides to do another song because things weren’t going so well. He comes backstage and Graham Nash turns around and screams “Who the hell do you think you are! We didn’t get to do an extra song!” And Stephen’s turning red and twisting this beer can as Graham is scolding him. Talk about psychodrama, I thought they were going to break up right there.

Anyway, the crowd is screaming for more but no one moves. So [promoter] Bill Graham starts sliding $100 bills under the door to get us come back out because we’re a half-hour late. I finally said “Let’s get back out there,” and we all did, and it was fine after that. I still get royalties off Four Way Street, thank God.

Houstoned: And you did some stuff with Neil Young later as well.

Barbata: He was halfway through the Harvest tour and had fired his drummer. So he calls me up at 10 p.m. one night and asks if I want to come join the tour. I said “Sure, when?” He said, “Tomorrow!” So I caught a flight out and got to the [venue] and had a 20-minute rehearsal for an hour and 45-minute show, playing some songs I hadn’t even heard before!

So I just watched Neil and bassist Tim Drummond for [changes], and made it through somehow. I’m on the live album from that tour, Time Fades Away. He’s never put that album out on CD because [guitarist] Danny Whitten overdosed and died right after that. Neil was bummed. I wish he would, though, because I’ve got a point on that record!

Houstoned: You also provided the distinctive beat on “ Ohio,” CSNY’s hugely famous protest song about the Kent State Massacre in 1970.

Barbata: That’s amazing. Neil wrote the song on a Monday, we recorded it on Wednesday, and it was out on the airwaves on Friday.

Houstoned: What about your time with Jefferson Airplane/Starship? I know that co-vocalists Marty Balin and Grace Slick had plenty of conflicts.

Barbata: Grace had the hits in the ‘60s and became a diva. Later, when “Miracles” was a huge hit – with Marty singing – radio stations would play the record and say “There’s Grace Slick and the Jefferson Starship!” That would really piss [Marty] off.

Houstoned: I’ve read that Balin was the only member of the original lineup that Grace didn’t sleep with, and he was actually happy about that.

Barbata: She came to my room one night with a bottle of Dom Perignon. She didn’t get me either…

Houstoned: Balin left and was replaced by Mickey Thomas. It was just announced today that Thomas is playing Houston next month with some sort of Starship lineup…

Barbata: I remember that we’d record with him, and Grace would finish her vocals and go home. Mickey would then go in the studio and erase them. That’s when the war really started.

Houstoned: In the end, aren’t you glad you left before “We Built This City”?

Barbata: (Laughs) Oh yeah! Wow, what a legacy…

Houstoned: You were also pretty busy as a session drummer.

Barbata: Too busy! Linda Ronstadt asked me to do Blue Bayou, and I had to turn her down. I turned Jackson Browne down, I turned Elvis down. When I was with CSNY, one day [manager] David Geffen called me into his office and asked if I’d be interested in drumming for this new band.

I asked who it was, he said “They’re called the Eagles. Look, they’re really going to be big and they want you.” I said, “I’ve never heard of them. I just got finished with the biggest group in the world. I’m not going with some unknown band!” – Bob Ruggiero

Johny Barbata will sign copies of his autobiography on Saturday, Sept. 15, from noon to 5:30 p.m. at Percussion Center, 6990 Port West Dr. 713-468-9100. You can also order a copy on his Web site,

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero