The Most Famous Drummer You’ve Never Heard Of
The majority of athletes and entertainers are neither enshrined in museums nor resigned to infamy. In most cases, they’re just like the rest of us: going about their jobs to the best of their ability until it’s time to move on. Even though we should identify most closely with these people, we tend to overlook them, immortalizing instead a tiny percentage of icons. With that disconnect in mind, we’ve set out to identify some of our most underappreciated ballplayers, musicians, actors, and even pro wrestlers to get to know those whom so-called “greatness” narrowly eluded. This is an effort to keep remarkable individuals from being forgotten, but more than that, it’s an expression of the belief that no one’s story should be taken for granted.
Drummers are weird people. They keep time for a living. So it makes sense that when they’re not behind a kit, all that tightly controlled energy might be harder to harness. Kenny Aronoff personifies that exactly. As the stick man in John Mellencamp’s band from 1980-1996, Aronoff held down the familiar, steady beats for hits like “Jack & Diane” and “Human Wheels.” Over the ensuing 19 years, he’s propelled John Fogerty’s rhythm section, while concurrently anchoring hundreds of records for everyone from Melissa Etheridge to Avril Lavigne to Mick Jagger as a session man du jour. But in person, he ping pongs unpredictably from one thought to the next, rarely staying on topic too long, not to mention unfurling profanities with the same zeal that he gnashes on a medium filet. It would be convenient to suggest that when Aronoff isn’t getting paid to stay focused, he lets his hair down, but the 62-year-old firebrand’s nearly as recognizable for his chromed dome and sunglasses as the platinum albums he’s helped buoy.
The cleanly shorn L.A. resident and Massachusetts native is in New York, as he often is, for a Fogerty gig, this time to support the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. The show’s not for another 24 hours, but Aronoff struts into Midtown Manhattan’s Piccolo Fiore restaurant every bit the rockstar, outfitted to the last detail in a designer black tee, fitted charcoal vest, and carefully tucked scarf.
“I always dress with the idea—and this is an L.A. thing—that you’ll be spotted and recognized wherever you go,” confides the man who by very definition is an artist who can blend into any act, of any kind. Studded wristbands, chunky rings and a can’t-miss-it necklace pendant featuring a snake-coiled “H” and “E”—a gift from the band Heaven and Earth, one of his many freelance ventures—complete the ensemble, very much distinguishing a guy who’s often obscured behind snares and cymbals while performing. Not that he minds playing his part. Aronoff has his different personas totally compartmentalized, and counterintuitive as it may seem, he knows that when he’s actually on-duty as “rock-star drummer,” that’s the time to fall in line.
“The purpose of a drummer,” Aronoff explains, “is to first and foremost pick the right beat that’s gonna get that song on the radio. Second is to keep time and try to get the band to play in time with you. Third: Make it feel good so you inspire the other people in the band to play great. And finally, that’s when you can become creative. I’m the employee. My job is to listen, learn, lead. And I understand I’m not the boss.”
A lot of that discipline was ingrained during Aronoff’s teen years, when he trained for orchestras, and in the mid-to-late ’70s while immersing himself in the dense soundscapes of jazz fusion. “Being in an orchestra, you’re one of 60 to 90 people,” he confirms. “And I had teachers who gave you the sense of, ‘Keep your ego at bay.'” He also attributes his ease at “taking orders” to playing sports throughout his youth and “following a head coach’s orders ever since I was 13. You’re a soldier. You do what you’re told.”
Those “Navy Seal” values, as Aronoff describes them, came in handy as he found his niche alongside Mellencamp by 1980. John Cougar, as the soon-to-be-megastar was then marketed, was an Indiana boy who’d been making some in-roads toward mainstream popularity with three LPs between 1976 and ’79. Indiana University alum Aronoff was bumping around the Midwest with a local band when he got a chance to audition for Mellencamp. Right off the bat, Aronoff realized he’d have to lean on that unselfishness.
“I earned it the hard way,” he recalls of finding his niche in the band. “I practiced six, seven hours a day, learning the Johnny Cougar record. I didn’t walk in that audition thinking I was cool. I walked in scared. I wanted that gig bad.”
But even then, his determination wasn’t enough for Mellencamp. “Five weeks later, we went to L.A. to make the record, and I got dumped,” Aronoff recollects, still with a hint of disbelief. “So when John said to me, ‘You go home,’ I said, ‘Yeah, well I’m not going home.’ I started scrambling, like, ‘I should go to the session and watch these guys play my drum parts that I came up with, and I’m gonna learn from them, and if I’m gonna benefit from that, you’re gonna benefit, cause I’m your drummer. You don’t have to pay me, and I’ll sleep on the floor.’ I just that did out of my gut.”
Aronoff went back to proving himself with brutal practices until he earned his keep, a sort of philosophical trial during which he learned to ask himself what he views as the essential questions any drummer needs to answer: “How do you practice less is more? How you come up with simple parts that are just as powerful as a gob of notes?” In the end, all it took to crack the code and become a permanent fixture in Mellencamp’s crew was one of humanity’s most universal truths. “What I didn’t know back then that I know now,” Aronoff says, “is, hey, some things just take time.”
It wasn’t long before the then 27-year-old was rewarded for his commitment. Cougar’s 1982 LP American Fool—the first to feature Aronoff prominently throughout—spawned the aforementioned mega-hit “Jack & Diane,” as well as the smash follow-up, “Hurts So Good.” And over the next three years, the newly christened John Cougar Mellencamp and his band continued a meteoric rise, releasing the commercially and critically hailed albums, Uh-Huh and Scarecrow. But while the band’s All-American frontman had to be mindful of tabloid scrutiny, Aronoff could indulge the time-honored perks of the trade without so much as a prying eye.
“The band’s selling out Madison Square Garden multiple nights, and we had chicks throwing underwear and bras at us, and it was hard not to feel excitement from that,” he confides of Mellencamp’s mid-’80s heyday. “I’d be playing, I’d see some hot chick out there, I’d tell [my tech] to put a backstage pass on her. Being the drummer, it was a little easier to slip through the cracks. Who’s gonna write about, ‘Drummer from Mellencamp found in orgy?’ But if John did it, that would be good news.”
Unlike his contemporaries, Mellencamp wasn’t a slave to the album cycle, and breaks in recording and touring made it possible for Aronoff—reputation now solidified—to expand his network as an sought-after session musician. Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and Bob Seger, among dozens of others, came calling throughout the early to mid-’90s. In fact, it was a scheduling conflict in ’96 between hitting the road with Seger and honoring a Mellencamp commitment that led to an irreconcilable rift between Aronoff and his longtime rock companion.
Nineteen years after parting ways, Aronoff and Mellencamp are still friends despite no longer working together. Looking back at their long tenure, Aronoff remains diplomatic, acknowledging that, “It was John’s band; he demanded that we serve him,” while appreciating that as a whole, “Those years were fucking awesome. I feel like I went to Vietnam with him. We grew up together.”
But unfortunate circumstances often present opportunity. And following 17 steady years of collaboration, Aronoff was a free agent—though not for long. Which is a good thing, since he admits that he only had “money saved for about five months of bills.” Melissa Etheridge, Fogerty and a host of others snatched the seasoned drummer up for live dates and studio time, and thus began a still-evolving era of creative freedom and autonomy. Over the ensuing two decades, the most consistent, high-profile relationship has been with Fogerty, whom Aronoff succinctly characterizes as a “bad motherfucker.” And since he’s never been “on retainer,” as he puts it, since divorcing from Mellencamp’s band, he’s been able to detour into some surreal experiences, like stepping in for fired (and eventually re-hired) Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin on the band’s ’98 Adore tour. (Aronoff describes his then-leader, Billy Corgan, as simply “heavy.”)
It was actually the venerable Midwest alt-rock outfit The Bodeans who’d make the biggest impact on reigniting Aronoff’s passion. While Mellencamp recovered from a heart attack in 1995, the band beckoned Aronoff to Milwaukee to play on their album Home. From the start, he could tell he’d met a bunch of guys whose desire to have fun making music transcended their need for outside validation. He had, in essence, found a new unsung army.
“I’d gone up there to record, and it was like nine degrees,” he laughs, mock-shivering as if still there. “And it was one of the most fun, exciting records I’ve ever done. It was magic.” Ever since that fateful, freezing session, Aronoff’s been part of the Bodeans’ nuclear family when Fogerty’s not feeling the itch to tour, or if Aronoff’s not being summoned for Mick Jagger solo projects or spot duty alongside Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr at Kennedy Center Honors galas.
It all sounds fairly glamorous for a guy who had to bide his time in the shadows behind one of modern rock’s biggest icons, but as of 2015, Aronoff spends his happiest days at his L.A. home studio with his wife Georgina, cutting drum tracks for demos from a range of up-and-coming, international acts. (Sadly, the days of session musicians jamming in the same room with bands are increasingly rare in the scaled-back music industry.) It’s a concession to a calmer way of life, but also a practical way to stay active and in-demand.
“Those budgets aren’t great enough now to allow for me to be [in the studio],” he shrugs. “So to be relevant and continue, I invested a lot of money [in my studio] and do my best to give people what I’d do when I was in the room with them. It’s just the way it is. It’s rarely better than when everybody plays together.”
Still, as he polishes off one last glass of red to complement his side portion of spaghetti and pomodoro, Aronoff insists he’s enthusiastic about, and grateful for, all of it: the highs and lows with Mellencamp, the often-overlooked contributions to hit records by scores of artists and even having to let go of that much more control in order to keep excelling at the craft he loves. “I’ve always been very positive, no matter how negative situations can be,” he promises. “I hold no grudges and I move forward.”
And far as how he views his legacy, Aronoff’s take may as well be a mantra for anyone who’s patiently awaited his or her due while vigilantly seizing their opportunities. “The people that know me know who I am,” he states. “But what people don’t realize is what it took to do it. I never stopped and I still haven’t stopped. I’m a workaholic. You never know when the phone’s not gonna ring. This thing could be over like that.”