Upon first meeting drummer Joe D’Angelo at a club in New Brunswick or Asbury Park, you would never guess this long-haired guy who plays with passion for a variety of rock ‘n’ roll bands had graduated cum laude from a university or held high-level corporate jobs.
That is before he turned to playing and teaching drums full-time in 2000.
Today it is typical to see him play with a blues band in Trenton or play with a nationally known country-Americana act like Buddy Miller in the Boathouse at Mercer County Park for an affordable housing benefit for Princeton — organized in part by Miller’s father, Princeton council member Bernie Miller.
Aside from playing blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and country drums D’Angelo also has been writing songs for three decades, fronted a variety of rock ‘n’ roll and blues bands, and plays piano.
What makes the Saturday, August 18, Joe D’Angelo with the Reock and Roll Revue show at the Hopewell Theater so special is he will be joined by his drummer son, Johnny D’ Angelo.
Also playing is the Billy Walton Band, which has made dozens of overseas tours of England, Scotland, and Germany with Johnny D’Angelo behind the drum kit.
Though he lived in Pennington and Titusville, Joe D’Angelo was born in Plainfield and raised in Piscataway, where he graduated from high school in 1980. It was there that he was part of the marching band and got his musical rehearsal work ethic.
His father, Anthony, was a decorated World War II Marine veteran who worked at Anheuser Busch plant in Newark but pursued jazz singing on weekends and occasional weeknights. He had some limited success with recording but never really toured. “My father cut this album in 1966-’67, and he was getting airplay in Canada, and he was ready to go out on tour, but my mom kind of put the kibosh on that,” he says.
His mother, Theresa, worked for many years as a bank teller in nearby Dunellen and sang around the house.
D’Angelo’s involvement with music came early. He says he began playing drums at five and picked up playing piano by the time he was eight. His parents were encouraging while insisting he get his college education.
He attended Glassboro State and then Fairleigh Dickinson, graduating in 1988 with a degree in business administration.
D’Angelo says it took him a twice as long to graduate from college because he was tempted by playing rock ‘n’ roll in clubs in the early 1980s.“I started and stopped (college) and I was playing around with bands, and it was very good money,” he says.
“My first actual band was in high school, we called ourselves Headin’ South, and not only was I the drummer but I was also the lead singer, because I was the only one in the band who could sing.”
Music wasn’t part of his studies in college, and he never learned to read music once he discovered that his drum playing heroes — Ringo Starr, Buddy Rich, and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham — also did not read music.
“Drumming just came naturally to me, and so when they tried to force music theory on me, I just completely rejected it; I’m big on feel and I’m big on technique, but I was never a great theory guy, it used to turn me off.”
Meeting one of his idols, Steely Dan drummer Bernard Purdie, was a high point in his ongoing education.
Through the years, aside from high-profile Americana musicians like Buddy Miller and Vince Martell of Vanilla Fudge, D’Angelo has performed and recorded with a who’s-who of Garden State, Nashville, and Dallas-area musicians, including Paul Plumeri, Billy Joe Shaver, Marc Benno, Buddy Whittington and Jersey Shore bands like Matt O’ Ree and Eryn Shewell.
But there is also another side of him. “I was an environmental manager for Bristol Myers so I was making very good money,” he says. He worked for Waste Management, Lucent Technologies, Squibb, and PSE&G before realizing in 2000, “I just wanted to go back and play drums. The music just wouldn’t go away, and I got into jazz and started taking lessons with (Dave Brubeck drummer) Joe Morello and Purdie.”
D’Angelo’s wife, Christine, is a senior product manager for AT&T. Her promotion necessitated a move to the Dallas area nearly three years ago. There he has quickly made friends on the Dallas-area blues scene and has performed with guys from Billy Joe Shaver’s band, Marc Benno, and other titans of the country, rock, and blues scenes in Dallas and Fort Worth.
Asked about his son, Johnny, who lives in Trenton and has carved a niche for himself touring with Lisa Bouchelle and the Billy Walton Band, D’Angelo says, “I had just started getting back into drumming in 1995 or 1996 and had bought myself a kit. He was listening to me playing one day and then he just sat at the kit and started playing beats. He was like a sponge, he would absorb everything. He made all-state jazz and then he went to Berklee College for two years and then he went on tour with Lisa Bouchelle.”
“He was a performance major up at Berklee, and the teachers up there like Terri Lynne Carrington and others, they asked him, ‘What are you doing up here, you’re wasting your time.’ They said, ‘Just go to Nashville and look up this guy, or go to L.A. and look up that guy.’ And he had a good little band, Bigfoot, with John Bushnell’s son, out of Hopewell, for a time.”
D’Angelo acknowledges he wouldn’t be able to do what he does without his wife’s well-paying corporate job and says he has never been happier.
Enthused to be on a show in a good venue like the new Hopewell Theater with his son as part of the band — Johnny will also play an opening set with the Billy Walton Band — D’Angelo says the Reock and Roll Revue people are all great musicians.
D’Angelo’s group will include himself on piano and vocals; Tom Reock on keyboards and vocals; his son Johnny on drums; Mario DiBartolo on guitar and vocals; Jerry Steele on pedal steel, guitar and vocals; Hal Jordan on bass and Emily Grove, backing vocals.
The program “is 13 songs, all mine, all written and arranged and performed on piano by me. I have had no problems leading a band as a lead singer, and I have no problems over the years leading a band from behind the drum kit, but I have never played piano publicly.”
Not surprisingly, as long as D’Angelo has been part of the Shore, Trenton, and Princeton-area club scenes, he is always ready to offer up some sage advice:
“I try to tell everybody that gets into this business or is trying to get into this business, in rock’ n’ roll, there’s no HR department, there’s no unemployment line, and there’s no severance package. You could be on a gig with Sheryl Crow for three months and then, ‘You know what Joe, we’ve decided to use another drummer,’ and I’m back in the bars with everybody else.”
“There’s no security, and you try to hustle as best you can,” D’Angelo says. “You don’t fill out any applications for rock ‘n’ roll, it’s a rough life. It’s a rough life!”
Joe D’Angelo with the Reock and Roll Revue and the Billy Walton Band, Hopewell Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Saturday August 18, 8 p.m. $22 to $44. 609-466-1964 or www.hopewelltheater.com.