Berklee Press, 2001
Words fall short of describing the playing of Vinnie Colaiuta ['75]. It's best
just to let his drums do the talking.
Vinnie Colaiuta is one of those players who has never needed to call attention
to himself to get noticed. His drums do that job. Vinnie's virtuosic and highly
personal style has been causing even casual listeners to do double takes since
his days at Berklee. As his career unfolded, Vinnie began to attain legend
status among drummers. The buzz has spread to ever-widening circles, owing to
his work on countless recording sessions with some of the brightest lights in
the industry. Touring and recording as a member of Sting's band from 1990 to
1997 brought him name recognition internationally.
Back in 1978, moved by the kind of youthful optimism that frequently overrides
common sense, Vinnie boarded a westbound bus in Boston with his drums and $80
in his wallet. He got off in Los Angeles and started gigging in jazz clubs.
Soon, he landed the drum chair in Frank Zappa's band after running the gauntlet
during an audition process that withered his competition. For two years, he
toured with Zappa and appeared on vintage Zappa recordings Joe's Garage,
Tinseltown Rebellion, and Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar before setting his sights
on the L.A. studios. His creativity, astonishing chops (checked by good taste),
and stamina to handle a punishing schedule made him a natural for session work.
Since the 1980s, Vinnie has been one of L.A.'s busiest studio drummers. He's
worked with pop artists like Madonna, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Jewel, and
Joni Mitchell, and jazz luminaries like Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, David
Sanborn, John Patitucci, and Allan Holdsworth, to name just a few. He also did
stints as house drummer for television programs such as the Joan Rivers Show,
and played on countless jingles, TV themes, and movie scores. In 1990, after
more than a decade in the studios, a desire to stretch out musically prompted
his decision to take a hiatus and join Sting's band.
While he is grateful for his success, he did not want to dwell on the
accolades, the poll wins, and the number of hits and Grammy-winning songs he's
played on during our interview. Vinnie possesses a humble attitude about his
career. "I am a very strong believer", he said. "I thank God for my gifts and
feel that without the Lord, I would not have anything."
Vinnie has not spent much time analyzing what makes his
playing compelling and unique. The "Vinnie Stuff," as it is admiringly termed,
includes much more than his facility with polyrhythms and odd meters, those
wild fills, and the ability to lock into a comfortable groove no matter what
the time signature. In the final analysis, whatever "Vinnie Stuff" is, it has
had an impact on contemporary music and a generation of drummers.
What led you to Berklee?
I came from rural Pennsylvania, a place called Brownsville, about 50 miles
outside of Pittsburgh. When I was young, I started playing gigs all around the
tri-state area [Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia]. As I was starting out as a
musician, I was hearing about Berklee. A trumpet player named Paul Lanzi ['74]
from the stage band at my high school had gone there. One summer, Lin Biviano's
big band passed through my area and played a gig at a local playhouse. Steve
Smith ['76] was playing the drums in the band. I first met him there. He told
me about Berklee.
When you came to Berklee did you run into him again?
Yes, and we became really good friends. It is amazing to think of who was
around Berklee in that time period. Neil Stubenhaus ['75] was teaching bass
then. I also met [guitarist] Mike Stern ['75], [drummer] John Robinson ['75],
and [bassist] Jeff Berlin ['74]. Music was starting to change at that time and
fusion was starting to emerge, and things were really fresh for people who
wanted to be involved in jazz. It wasn't only the classes, but the people that
I met and got to play with that made it a very exciting time.
The people you get involved with in an atmosphere like
Berklee's really shape you as a player. They really helped me. What I learned
during my time there has stayed with me and enabled me to write music and
understand what is going on in the formats that I work in. It was practical
information that I could apply in the real world.
What was your next move after Berklee?
I hung around Boston for a few years, studied privately, and played whatever
gigs I could get just to stay in that environment. Al Kooper hired some Boston
musicians for a six-week tour and I did that. Tim Landers ['80] played bass,
Stanton Davis ['69] played trumpet, Gary Valente played trombone. That led to
some work on a record that Al produced for a guy named Christopher Morris. I
went to California for a few months to work on that. It came out but got no
promotion, so it didn't go far.
As a result of recording at the Record Plant, I got to see what it was like out
here. Afterwards, I went back to Boston and was thinking of moving to New York,
but a lot of my friends were in L.A. It was during the blizzard of 1978 that I
just got on a bus and came out here to live.
I roughed it for a while playing in bars for beer money. I heard that Frank
Zappa was looking for a new rhythm section. I was a Zappa fanatic in high
school, so I found out who the manager was and called up and hounded him. I
thought it would be a perfect gig for me. The auditions were at a big movie
studio and it was like a huge cattle call, but I got the gig. That enabled me
to become established here. In between the Zappa tours I would work in clubs.
After about two and a half years, I knew that if I wanted to be involved in the
recording industry, I would have to stay in town. So I just tried to play
around town and let my playing do the talking instead of trying to talk a big
game about myself.
Finally, I got a chance to record with a band called Pages. Neil Stubenhaus was
the bass player in the group. Richard Page and Steve George were in it too. The
record was going to be produced by Jay Graydon. At the same time, I found out
about an opening with Gino Vannelli. This was in 1981, and Zappa was beginning
to rehearse for another tour. I had worked with him since 1978, so I told him I
wanted to become a studio musician and that I couldn't do the tour. He was very
I ended up working simultaneously on the Pages album and Vannelli's Nightwalker
record. I would record with Gino from noon to 6 p.m. and then zoom over to
Dawnbreaker studios in San Fernando and record until midnight or 2:00 a.m. with
Jay Graydon. That went on for a month. I earned enough money to hang out for a
while playing clubs until another opportunity came along.
By the grace of God, people started hiring me for their
projects. I was doing jingles and did a big band record for a writer named
Patrick Williams. He was also writing for television and motion pictures at the
time. The musicians on the Williams record included Robin Ford and top horn
players like Chuck Findley. I was the new kid in town trying to read those
charts and not make any mistakes around those players. I learned how to play
with a click on the job.
How hard was it for you to break in as a studio musician?
Little by little things came up. I worked with Williams on a TV show, I did
more work with Gino, and Tom Scott started using me. I played some jazz gigs
with bassist Larry Klein. He was involved with Joni Mitchell at the time and
called me to play on her record. Next thing I knew, Joni and Larry were getting
married and I was the best man. Afterwards Joni's band went on a world tour.
After that, I started doing more and more studio dates. Business built up to
where I was doing sessions all day and playing clubs at night. Between 1983 and
'87, things really started escalating.
By the end of the 1980s, I was doing up to four sessions
each day. I was doing television, motion picture soundtracks, and records. I
had drums at studios all over town but would still have to borrow a set from my
cartage company at times. I would do a TV date from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., then a
jingle for an hour and a half, then a record date from 3 to 9. I remember one
time I was driving home at 9:30 at night after doing three dates that day. I
was right around the corner from my house. My cell phone rang and it was Bobby
Womack saying "Hey man, I've got a session for you." I asked him when it was,
he said, "Now." I turned around and went to his session until 4:00 a.m. Things
got crazy, but you don't want to say no when the phone is ringing all the time.
Weren't you also the house drummer for the Joan Rivers Show at that time as well?
Yeah, I was hired to play the Joan Rivers Show on weekdays. At the beginning, I
thought it would just be a couple of hours each day. With driving and
everything else, it started eating into the time I needed for studio calls. I
started to sub out from that gig to do record dates. It was loose enough to do
that and still come back to the show when I wasn't as busy. I did that show for
about a year, but I was subbing out a lot in the last six months.
Even though I was doing all of that work and my schedule was full, I didn't
feel I was getting to actually play a lot. There would be a lot of sitting
around on some sessions‹like movie dates. Some of the other players wouldn't
even talk about music. It seemed like they couldn't wait to leave the session
to go play golf. I didn't want that. I would end up coming home and practicing
for an hour even if it was midnight. I started thinking that I needed something
fresh, I wanted to get into a band situation again. I decided that I would even
go out on the road with the right artist. Then out of the blue in 1990, I got a
call from Sting. I got on a plane the next day and went to England to join his
You were a perfect choice for drummer in Sting's band. Songs like "Love Is
Stronger than Justice" [from Ten Summoner's Tales] has the verses in seven and
a chorus that goes into a country two-beat. He tapped your Zappa experience,
fusion roots, and pop session expertise all in one song.
Thanks. It goes beyond diversity and just being able to
play odd times or suddenly change styles. It comes down to how you do that,
which has to do with your identity and how malleable you are while still being
yourself. Concept is so important. When you play a groove, you have to
understand its character.
Were you worried about being away from Los Angeles for long stretches with Sting?
When I took the gig, I knew that I was taking a big chance. I figured it would
either kill my studio career or enhance it. Thank God it enhanced it.
How long were the tours?
The first tour was 14 months, a long time. Artists at his level go out and stay
out. I had traveled before, short hops to here and there, but I worked all over
the world with Sting, even in Vietnam. You start to get to know people,
especially when the band comes back through an area again. The people know who
all the band members are, not just Sting. Today, in most pop situations, the
backup band is much more anonymous.
Sometimes the act is just a product by a couple of guys with machines. I saw an
example of that when I was on the English TV show Top of the Pops with Sting.
The first time we went, there was this act with a girl singing her hit tune,
flanked by dancers. When we went back on the show another time, the same act
was there. The singer and the dancers were different, but the name of the act
was the same. You see that a lot.
Were you treated like royalty in that band?
Everyone thinks a gig like that is glamorous all the time, like being with King
Farou, but it's really not. We spent a lot of time secluded on tour so that we
wouldn't be dogged by the paparazzi or others. We would leave after the gig and
stay in the next town or in a place people might not think of.
When we first started doing the gig we did a few Amnesty
International festivals in Uruguay and Chile. We would get invited to dinner at
an ambassador's or a diplomat's house, so you do rub shoulders with people you
didn't expect to.
Was the travel schedule intense?
Sometimes there were four or five gigs in a week and then a full travel day to
get to the next place. The gear goes in a truck and you can't get to your
instrument. I would practice on a pad or if I was in a town where I knew some
musicians, I might find a place to go and sit in.
What I hoped would happen in regards to my studio career did happen. I would
find myself with a few days off in a city and I would get calls for a session.
One time when I was in London, Warren Cuccurullo [former Zappa and Missing
Persons guitarist] called to ask if I wanted to play on a few tracks on a Duran
Duran album. When people found out that I was in town I would get calls. I fit
in sessions for Everything But the Girl, The The, and others.
Did the sidemen contribute a lot to the creative process of putting the music together?
Yes, but they were still Sting's tunes. I had a certain degree of creative
leeway. When he first went solo after the Police broke up, he hired some
players from Weather Report. He became known for the musicians he was working
with, and the job was thought of as a "player's gig." It was the only gig with
a pop star where you got to really play. Sting comes from more of a jazz
background than any other pop stars.
You haven't toured with Sting for a few years, have you been touring with any
other artists recently?
It is all studio work these days. Sometimes that
involves short-term travel, a few days here or week there. I am based in L.A.,
but I move around.
What kind of music are you generally called to play?
It varies. I work for a lot of different people. Mostly, I do records and
sometimes a motion picture or a jingle. Last year, I worked on a motion picture
project with Sting. I recently played on a score by Burt Bacharach for a
picture that will come out in late summer or early fall. I get calls to work
with new artists and those who are well known. In L.A., I play mostly pop music
since that industry is pretty much centered here. Sometimes I will do
instrumental projects that are pretty adventurous, but they don't get the
visibility that the pop records do.
Do people call you for sessions hoping that you will bring something very
different to their record?
I still get calls where people want me to come and do some "Vinnie stuff," but
I can't just force that in out of context. If there is a great song and I am
playing a nice track on it, I might not do things that people can identify with
me. That is the way it should be; playing something else would be out of
context. I can hear a track back and think that I could have done this or that,
but you have to learn to make decisions like that on the spot.
I have had people tell me that if they hear one bar where I played a
cross-stick, they can tell it is me. I am not doing anything but playing the
way I do. I can hear one bar of Steve Gadd playing time and know who it is.
What is it that he is doing that identifies him? It is just the way he plays,
how he touches the drums, where he puts the time. Those are hallmarks as much
as anything. I did not start out with a bag of tricks, saying these five or six
things will be my trademarks. I don't even know what it is that makes people
recognize my playing. If I had contrived something, I might have defeated my
It is as simple as this. Let's say you and I both like coleslaw, but you like
it with less mayonnaise then I do. It is just what you like. In music, players
gravitate toward what they like. Drummers find they like certain stickings
better than others, or they play a little thing on the high hat. Those little
things become a style.
For instance, when I play in 5/4 time, I prefer breaking
the beats in the bar into groupings of two and three versus three and two. It
takes longer for the back beat to lay. It is just something I gravitate to. I
didn't say, "I'll be the guy who plays 5/4 in groupings of two and three." It
is just what I prefer. As you start developing musically and building a
vocabulary, you just instinctively lean towards doing things a certain way. If
you don't interfere with your development by thinking that you should emulate
someone else and try to be something that you aren't, who you are will come
out. You just have to let it happen.
Is there a favorite style of music that you would pursue as a recording artist
in your own right?
I am passionate about post-bebop jazz. I like music that is rhythmically funky
and has an interesting or beautiful harmonic structure.
On your first solo album [titled Vinnie Colaiuta] you explored a wide range of
contemporary instrumental styles with guest players like Chick Corea, Herbie
Hancock, John Patitucci, Pino Palladino, and Sting.
I feel blessed that I could call them up and ask them to come and play. I had a
lot of great people working on that album. I was not interested in writing
throwaway tunes; I wanted a context for my playing. I didn't want to just chops
out over the tunes or rip it up. To me that is like having a tasteless car with
a 600-horsepower engine and a crappy interior.
Since I did that record, I haven't had a chance to go
back and do another one. As for what the future holds, one really doesn't know.
I would like to carry on doing this work and writing, and maybe do another
project for myself. I want to play more in diverse situations. Some people
expect that you have to ask for more, as if you are reaching for something
better than what you have. I am very grateful for what I have, and it is only
logical that I would want it to continue. There is always something to look
forward to. I am a very strong believer, and feel that without the Lord, I
would not have anything. That is my stance. I thank God for my gifts.
What do think of people wanting to imitate your style of playing?
That tells me that I am doing something that hits them in a certain way. As far
as someone trying to fully absorb my style goes, people can learn a lick I have
played, but they don't know how I think. It can be healthy to learn about
someone's style if the person you are emulating has some value to you. But
let's face it, people are going to call me if they want to hear my style of
playing. I'm still here. You have to be yourself and ultimately you will be
better off for it.
I had gotten stuck emulating people and it took me a long time to get certain
things out. Every once in a while it is okay. I might say, I wonder how [the
late studio drummer] Jeff Porcaro would have played this. If I play in that
spirit, it is a way that he will live on. It is a way to note that he
contributed something to me that was very valuable. I think that is different
than imitating someone in a competitive spirit.
In the Summer 1998 issue of Berklee Today, there was a piece written as a
tribute to a young drummer named Chris Yeoman who died in a car accident.
Apparently, you were his musical hero, and he said to a friend that if he got
to meet you, he could die a happy man. Apparently, you two did meet briefly in
Nashville a few days before the accident last year.
That whole thing is beyond sad. I remember meeting him outside the studio when
we were taking a break. I invited him to come in. I don't know if he got to see
any of the session. It is very touching to me if I represented something that
was meaningful to him. I am happy that we had the opportunity to meet. To touch
somebody to that extent is success for me. It means a lot more than saying,
"I'm the guy who plays on all of the dog food commercials."
In the coming years, will you keep up this pace as a session player or look
into other avenues in the business?
I think about other avenues, but I am a player and I want to continue that.
Writing interests me more than producing does. Producing is interesting work,
but it is a whole different thing. Mainly, I just want to continue to grow in
my playing and writing and see where that goes.
Looking back at your career, is there anything that you regard as a high point?
That is not something that I can fairly assess. I have
been blessed to be in so many situations that were awesome. I've been very
blessed in my career. My involvement with Sting has been really stellar, and I
was there with Frank Zappa, a legend, and Joni Mitchell. These are people who
helped to define music. How much better can it really get?