IN THE PIPELINE:Johny Barbata: A vintage 'Airplane' lands in H.B.

I discovered an important piece of an airplane in Huntington Beach last week, and it wasn't at Boeing. It was at Neal's Music on Warner Avenue near Goldenwest Street.

The piece wasn't a wing or propeller, but rather a drummer. His name is Johny Barbata, and for years he played for the legendary rock 'n' roll band Jefferson Airplane and later Jefferson Starship.

But that's only a small piece of this notable musician's past. He was in town to talk about his recent book, "The Legendary Life of a Rock and Roll Drummer," and he, like the book, is filled with an almost impossible surplus of rock 'n' roll stories, trivia and lore.

Yes, Barbata played locally at the Golden Bear (as a member of the 1960s surf band The Sentinels, whose "La Tinia" tore up the Southern California radio charts in 1961), but it would be hard to call that a high point in his career when you consider how many hit records Barbata played on throughout the '60s and '70s.

As a member of the Turtles, he played on "Happy Together" and "She'd Rather Be With Me." He recalls a trip back then to London that found him in the club with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. All was well until a Turtles roadie accidentally spilled a pitcher of beer on Lennon.

Barbata was also the drummer for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on their classic live album "Four Way Street" (where he gets audibly acknowledged by David Crosby) and was called by Neil Young in the early 1970s to play on the classic song "Ohio" (written in the aftermath of the Kent State campus shootings). According to Barbata, the song was written on a Monday, recorded on a Wednesday and was on the radio by Friday.

As one of the most sought-after live and session drummers of the 1970s, he actually passed up a chance to drum for the Eagles and also declined an opportunity to sit in with Elvis Presley.

It's not that he was arrogant, he was just that busy and instead chose the bigger-paying gigs.

His life as a drummer represents the pantheon of popular FM rock 'n' roll through the 1970s, as Barbata recorded and toured with Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Leon Russell, Doctor John, The Everly Brothers and dozens more.

But it was The Jefferson Airplane that really helped his career soar. Barbata worked on several albums of theirs in the early 70s, but it was after the band morphed into The Jefferson Starship that things really took off.

Who can forget the summer of 1976 when the album "Red Octopus" owned the airwaves? (Particularly the single "Miracles").

The album sold 4 million copies, and the band became one of the biggest on the planet, playing live before millions of people. The band then released the "Spitfire" album and "Earth" in 1978, which continued to produce monster hits (including one of my personal favorites, "Runaway").

In late '78 though, tragedy struck in the form of a horrific car accident. While swerving to avoid a deer, Barbata smashed his new truck into a pine tree. The wreck killed his longtime pal, Terry "Tucker" Hill and broke dozens of bones in Barbata's body.

Over the years, Barbata slowly healed and eventually made his way back into the spotlight, touring with a new band.

Eventually, he married a woman named Angie and they moved to Oklahoma where they live today. They have a daughter, Leah, and together Johny and Angie make their own special music — most notably a country rock album called the Oklahoma Heartland Album (you can find the book and album at www.johnybarbata.com).

Barbata thinks that the accident may have been his cue to slow down and perhaps take a little better care of himself.

It certainly set up the situation where he was able to meet the love of his life, and for that he is thankful. He's also thankful for the storied career he's been able to enjoy, rife with rock 'n' roll memories: the 45-minute drum solo he was called on to perform to help save 1969's Atlanta Pop Festival from a riot when the power blew; hanging out with Beatles; Hendrix; Dylan and so many others.

They're all in the book, which I have had a hard time putting down.

I asked Barbata if he has any tips for up-and-coming drummers.

"Listen to the radio and just copy what you hear — it's the best way to practice," he said.

He has a few more appearances to make at local music stores, then it's back to the clarity and sanctity of his ranch. He may still spread some rock 'n' roll sparkle on these kinds of tours, but this member of the Airplane found true peace when he landed in Oklahoma.


  • CHRIS EPTING is the author of nine books, including "Images of America - Huntington Beach" and his latest, "Led Zeppelin Crashed Here, The Rock and Roll Landmarks of North America." Write him chris@chrisepting.com.
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