Gimme Five: Kenny Aronoff on John Mellencamp, Buddy Rich and John Fogerty

On this special edition of Something Else Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to ubiquitous sideman Kenny Aronoff, whose current touring gig with Chickenfoot is just the tip of the proverbial career iceberg.

Go inside a series of sessions with John Mellencamp, as Aronoff helps construct key elements on the singles “Jackie Brown,” “Wild Night” and “Jack and Diane” — the last, by far, the most successful but also the most difficult of them all. Find out why his guest turn on a Buddy Rich tribute project remains one of Aronoff’s most treasured memories, and how he found a kindred spirit in search of musical perfection over a decade and half tenure alongside Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty …

“JACKIE BROWN,” with JOHN MELLENCAMP (BIG DADDY, 1989): A Top 50 single from John Mellencamp’s 10th solo album, “Jackie Brown” was part of darker, rootsier release that rose to No. 7 on the Billboard album charts. Even has the singer-songwriter dove deeper into the introspective socio-political themes he’d begun exploring with 1985’s Scarecrow and 1987’s Lonesome Jubilee, the music became more raw and spare. This presented new challenges for his collaborative group of bandmates when it came to constructing the songs.

KENNY ARONOFF: That album was an accident. We were in between big records, and John was going through a lot of stuff so he had all of these lyrics. At that point, I had learned so much from being in that band. When he played those songs, he would do it on acoustic guitar — that was it, in a dark-lit room. I looked at myself like an actor in a movie. I had to get into character. I took a turn toward percussion, and minimal stuff. I opened up my mind and heart and just did things that were out there, but simple. On “Jackie Brown,” I was muffling the snare with my left hand. I would lift the cross stick and hit the snare drum with my right stick, near the edge, to get a weird sound. Everything was trying to be experimental and creative. But very minimal. I played soft, which I wasn’t used to doing. They turned the mics way up, so you could get all the sounds. It was very intimate. Up to that point, because of the training I was getting with Mellencamp, I was getting to understand what he was wanting. We all just kind of understood what John was trying to do, even when he didn’t know. We were a team, so we all moved in the same direction.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: First-call rock drummer Kenny Aronoff talks about working with Chickenfoot on tour, his nearly two-decade stint with John Mellencamp, and the lasting impact of jazz.]

“LONG DARK NIGHT,” with JOHN FOGERTY (REVIVAL, 2007): Slowly but surely — quite literally, as we found out — John Fogerty has been rebuilding his hall of fame legacy as the chief architect of the Creedence Clearwater Revival sound. After spending a lengthy period away from music, and running through a truly amazing number of drummers, Fogerty finally settled on Aronoff — and the two have worked together through six albums (four of them studio efforts) since 1997. Fogerty even tried to learn the drums himself, practicing “for 10 years, four hours a day,” Aronoff says, “before he realized that he couldn’t do it all — and that’s why he hired someone like me.” They share a raging passion for music, down to the very last detail. That translates into marathon recording sessions, as Fogerty takes his band through take after take after take until the sound is just right. Those long dark nights eventually paid off, as Revival earned a No. 11 nod in Rolling Stone’s list of the Top 50 albums of 2007 and a Grammy nomination for best rock album in the 2008.

KENNY ARONOFF: A lot of people think John’s music is simple and easy, and it’s not. It’s way intense. John is an extremely demanding perfectionist. We’ve done as much as six hour sound checks for a show. It’s insane. Our average is anywhere from two to four hours, just for sound check. I have to watch him 100 percent of the time for a two-hour show. That’s mental concentration! He changes his set list every day. You never know what kind of mood he’s in, with regard to his liking to push people a lot. He likes things on the edge. If you make one mistake, he can hear it. He always feels that there’s something better — and I feel that way, too. I was the 30th drummer that he worked with. It took him that long to find the right guy, the guy who he had been looking for his whole life.

“WILD NIGHT,” with JOHN MELLENCAMP AND ME’SHELL NDEGEOCELLO (DANCE NAKED, 1994): Originally a soulful No. 28 rock single from the early 1970s album Tupelo Honey by Van Morrison, this track was transformed into a slinky R&B-soaked side in the hands of Mellencamp and bassist/vocalist Me’Shell Ndegeocello. The sense of musical ambition in the studio pushed Aronoff to new rhythmic vistas, and the song to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1994. This new version of “Wild Night” would remain in the Top 40 for an amazing 33 weeks that summer.

KENNY ARONOFF: I had just done a Waylon Jennings record (1994’s well-regarded Don Was-helmed Waymore’s Blues) and I guess I was trying to reinvent that record. I had metal and sizzling things on my cymbals. I had castanets on my snare drum. In my right hand, I had a stick with something like coat hangers hanging off of it, called the dreadlock. I was hitting a metal crasher as my high hat. My left hand was a kibosa with beads on it. There was all kinds of weird shit going on. I brought that back to John and we did “Wild Night” that way — and all of sudden, I had reinvented myself yet again.

“STRAIGHT NO CHASER,” with THE BUDDY RICH BIG BAND (BURNING FOR BUDDY, 1994): Aronoff, who had become a first-call sideman, was in some ways destined to join a who’s who of drummers on this 1994 album-length tribute to Buddy Rich produced by Rush’s Neil Peart. Aronoff grew up in his parents’ house surrounded by jazz, so he knew he could hold his own in a group that included ferocious legends like Max Roach, Joe Morello and Billy Cobham, not to mention Steve Smith (Jean-Luc Ponty, Ronnie Montrose, Journey), Bill Bruford (Yes, King Crimson), Steve Gadd (Chick Corea, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton), Omar Hakim (Weather Report, Sting, David Bowie), and others. The only obstacle was its timing. Aronoff had to work hard to fit the date in during a flurry of activity in ’94 that included nearly 30 albums, yet he said the memory of this performance still resonates.

KENNY ARONOFF: That’s the one recording I did where I said: ‘God, I can’t believe that’s me.’ They only let you do four takes and I feel grateful that I was able to play that track as well as I did at that moment in my life, with no sleep and weeks of non-stop sessions all over the United States. That was one of those where it was such a blessing.

“JACK AND DIANE,” with JOHN MELLENCAMP (AMERICAN FOOL, 1982): A brutal session grinded to a complete halt as the band tried to make this song into something workable. Eventually a smash hit, it spent four weeks at No. 1 and was chosen by RIAA as one of the Songs of the Century. But not before some very difficult moments. Aronoff remembers working with Mellencamp on American Fool for nine weeks — and “every day felt like a week. It was painful; it was hard. He wanted perfection. He wanted results that he couldn’t come up with.” Eventually, Mellencamp enlisted Mick Ronson, the famous David Bowie muse, to collaborate on “Jack and Diane.” But still, it wasn’t quite there. Then somebody hauled in a bit of new technology, Aronoff says, and the logjam was broken.

KENNY ARONOFF: We needed ideas. This “Jack and Diane” song, we didn’t know how to arrange it, to make it into a song. We felt like we had failed. Then somebody walks in with a Linn drum machine. Hall and Oates and Phil Collins both had hits out at that time with the same sound. So I get the manual out, in all frustration, and I programmed my drum beat. We did that and it worked pretty well, but then you get to the part where you need something more. That something more, they decided, was a drum solo. So I hear: ‘Aronoff, get your ass in here. We need a drum solo.’ I’m, like, are you kidding me? I grew up listening to Buddy Rich. That’s who I thought of when I thought of drum solos. This was a ballad; you couldn’t possibly do a drum solo. I literally composed that thing, piece by piece, on the spot. I was fighting for my job, because I saw two people get fired on that record. And now, I had to come up with something that was musical. I remember at one point, walking back to my drums, going: ‘Dude, you’ve got 25 beats to save your job. … now you’ve got 15 … now you’ve got 10 …’ Of course, it then became a big hit, and you still hear it on the radio now.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • Denise Keithler MMRHS Class of ’76

    Kenny, Buddy would be proud! If anyone can do this song justice, it’s you!

  • http://rjsingleton.com RJ Singleton

    What an amazing piece of musical history!

    I met Kenny several years ago…around ’94. I was still playing guitar primarily…and I was invited by a drummer-friend of mine to check out a clinic he was co-headlining with Terry Bozio. During the clinic, I seemed to be asking the most questions about his work and technique…when he asked me how long I had been playing drums, I said “I’m a guitar player!”. After the clinic and the signing of autographs, he sat down with my friend and I and we talked about all kinds of things. He was absolutely blown away at the fact that somebody that didn’t play drums was the most vocal at the clinic.

    Needless to say, I switched instruments a couple years later and have been a gainfully employed drummer ever since…mainly due to Kenny’s influence and wisdom.

    This man is one in a million and deserves all of the accolades he gets.