An Interview with Thommy Price of Joan Jett & The Blackhearts & Billy Idol

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Thommy Price’s discography reveals how revered and influential the New York-based drummer has been in the Rock ‘N’ Roll community.

Aside from being an accomplished session musician, playing with the likes of Roger Daltrey, Blue Öyster Cult, Ric Ocasek, and Michael Monroe, among others, Price is perhaps best known for his work with Billy Idol, and as a member of Joan Jett & The Blackhearts for over three decades.

From his earliest introduction to the world of music as a teenager growing up in Staten Island, to his most recent endeavors, we discuss Thommy’s decorated career in the industry in this career-spanning interview.

Andrew:
Who do you consider to be among your most prominent drumming influences, Thommy?

Thommy:
Well, I grew up in the 60s and 70s, so it was pretty general. It was Keith Moon and John Bonham, but I also really had a passion for R&B music. I used to listen to a lot of Blue-Eyed Soul music, like The Righteous Brothers and The Young Rascals. Dino Danelli from The Young Rascals was a big, big influence on me. John Bonham, Keith Moon, Dino Danelli — somewhere between those three guys — I was born. They influenced me and I took it from there.

Andrew:
Among the many interesting aspects of your career, you burst onto a booming New York music scene at a very young age. What was your earliest introduction?

Thommy:
I moved from Brooklyn to Staten Island when I was a teenager. I met a bunch of musicians out there, and one of them was a good friend of mine, Kasim Sulton, who played with Todd Rundgren’s Utopia for quite a few years; still works with Todd. When the Meatloaf’s first Bat Out Of Hell record came out, Meatloaf used most of Todd’s band, so Kasim was on that record. We were very young back then — seventeen or eighteen years old. So, it came time for Meatloaf to put a band together to tour, and Kasim had said to me, “Listen, Meatloaf is probably auditioning players. You should go up and check it out.”

I went up and checked it out; it was a big loft. Back in those days, in the 70s, bands used to share lofts for rehearsals. So, there was another band that was just hanging out in there and they had just gotten signed to RCA Records, a band called Flame. Jimmy Iovine, the producer, happened to be working with [Flame]. And after I auditioned with Meatloaf, Jimmy asked me to audition for Flame because they were going to the studio to record. I wound up turning the Meatloaf thing down because, first of all, the music wasn’t the kind of music I wanted to do; it was theatre music. The first Bat Out Of Hell record was kind of all over the place. It was a little weird for me; I just wanted to play with a Rock band. So, this other band, that happened to be sharing the loft with Meatloaf, auditioned me like a week later or something, and I got the gig. And that’s how I hooked up with Jimmy Iovine. After that, I did some records with Jimmy; he had me come in and do some other records with him. So, it was kind of a stepping stone for me.

Andrew:
So, how did you end up landing the Scandal gig shortly thereafter?

Thommy:
The bass player, Ivan Elias, and I worked and recorded records with Helen Schneider. Ivan and I had done two records with her, and then Ivan had gotten the Scandal gig. When it came time that [Scandal] needed the drummer — Frankie LaRocka was playing before me, he did the very first Scandal record — [Frankie] had left the band, and Ivan called me and asked me to come in. So, it was kind of through a musician fellowship-friend thing.

Andrew:
When you were recording The Warrior album at Electric Lady Studios, had you any idea that it was poised to take off with MTV?

Thomy:
Not at all. We had Mike Chapman producing that record, so there was a good chance, and we were coming right off of “Goodbye to You.” So, with The Warrior record, we knew it was gonna make some noise, but we didn’t expect it to go as far as it did.

While I was making The Warrior album at Electric Lady, Billy Idol happened to be working upstairs at another studio. They needed a drummer and heard me downstairs while I was making The Warrior album. So, that’s how I got the Billy gig. I was recording Rebel Yell and The Warrior album at the same time. I went up and down the stairs every other day; I’d run upstairs and do a couple of tracks with Billy then come back downstairs, and work on a song or two with Scandal.

The Scandal tour was forever, man. We were on the road for about a year straight with no breaks. That “Goodbye to You” record [Scandal], once that thing took over, that kept us on the road forever. So, by the time I had come in to start recording The Warrior album, I was ready to make a change already. Once Billy approached me and asked me to make a move, it was a smarter business move for me. I never even toured for The Warrior record.

Andrew:
That’s what I was going to ask because if the timeline matches up to how I’m envisioning it, you couldn’t have done The Warrior tour. It would have overlapped with Rebel Yell.

Thommy:
No. Not at all. In fact, I didn’t even finish recording The Warrior album; Andy Newmark had to come in, because at that time, I had finished Rebel Yell, and I was already doing gigs with Billy. Like New York, local gigs; doing some pre-production tour stuff. I think there came a time where Scandal needed me in the studio, and I just couldn’t do it, because I was out of town with Billy or something. And I had to get Andy Newmark to finish The Warrior album.

Andrew:
So, which songs did you play on?

Thommy:
The whole album. I think there are two songs I didn’t play on; the last two tracks of the record.

Andrew:
Do you recall your first encounter with Billy and Steve Stevens?

Thommy:
Well, I happened to be downstairs in Studio A. They had come downstairs, and were hanging out in the lobby, and heard me through the door. At the same time, they were going through some drummer changes. I think they had put only samples on the Rebel Yell record, and at the end of the day, they needed to put real drums on the stuff. That’s when they heard me playing with Scandal, and by the time I walked out, they approached me — both Steve and Billy.

Andrew:
Rebel Yell remains iconic to this day. I actually listened to it just recently. What are your memories from recording the album?

Thommy:
They were great times. I had just met Steve and Billy and it was all fresh to me. It was all really new. Like I said, I had just come off the road with Scandal after almost a year on the road, so I was kind of ready for a change. It was a great vibe. Great atmosphere. Keith Forsey produced that Rebel Yell record and Michael Frondelli engineered it. Making that record was cool, because we would stay there, sometimes all night, and record the stuff. Then right after that, there was this great bar called The BeBop Café that was right next door. After hours, they’d keep it open for us. We’d go in there, eat hamburgers, drink a bunch of beers, and hang out until there until seven in the morning, or something. That was a good time, back then, because 8th street was booming.

Andrew:
I recently had a chance to do some extensive reading on a long flight, and went with Billy’s autobiography, Dancing With Myself, which was fantastic. He paints a vivid portrait of what the West Village was like during that period.

Thommy:
Aw, man, it was so exciting. It was a really, really exciting time. We’d go out every night; we’d work in the studio, and then we would either go to The China Club, or we’d go to The Limelight or Club Nirvana on 42nd Street. I mean, we were all over the city. It was just a great time for him; this was right when “White Wedding,” and “Dancing With Myself” were big dance club songs. This was right before Rebel Yell came out, so it was pretty exciting.

Andrew:
I remember the title track, “Rebel Yell,” having a pretty cool music video; the drums on that track sounded amazing. Do you have any recollection of recording the song?

Thommy:
The very first song that they had me play on — I think they had already pre-recorded it but didn’t have drums on it — was a song called “Do Not Stand In The Shadows.” I think that one and maybe “Blue Highway,” and then of course, “Rebel Yell.” And [“Rebel Yell”] was also one of those songs we didn’t know was gonna be as big as it was. We shot the video for it at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey. From there, that’s when the record came out and it really shot up the charts quickly. It kept us on the road for a long time.

Andrew:
Now, did you play on every track, Thommy, or were any other session drummers used?

Thommy:
I’m the only drummer, but there’s a lot of drum machines; a lot of LinnDrum on the Rebel Yell record. It’s in and out — I mean, “Catch My Fall” — maybe a little more than half the record is real drums, and then the rest is samples.

Andrew:
The drumming on that record is brilliant. It allowed songs like “Rebel Yell,” and “Eyes Without A Face” to further distance themselves from contemporary songs of the time.

Thommy:
Yeah. I mean, people are still hiring me these days just for me to play that same groove that I did on “Rebel Yell.” I just did a record two days ago with a local guy here in San Antonio, and he’s a big Steve Stevens fan. And he’s got a few songs on his record that have the same feel, and vibe of “Rebel Yell.” So, he knew what he was getting when he hired me for his songs.

Andrew:
Keith Forsey served as the producer, but he also did the drum programming on that record if memory serves. What was Keith like to work with?

Thommy:
Keith was a riot, man; he was one of the band members. First of all, Keith’s a drummer. That’s him playing on “Dancing With Myself.” That’s Keith Forsey. Like you said, he did all the LinnDrum programming, all the drum programs. Back in that day, he made it sound like a real drummer; the way he set up grooves. I started making other records after that, years later, and I used all of his ideas of how to play to a drum machine. How to play real drummers; how to get a really, cool sixteen-note shaker vibe going. His grooves were always so cool. He understood everything I played, and vice versa. We worked really well together.

Andrew:
Did Billy ever extend you an offer to be an official member or was it more, album-by-album session work?

Thommy:
Well, he made me an offer for me to leave Scandal. I don’t know if it was really a band member, but in those days, [Billy] didn’t use anyone else. So, it was the same guys for many years. Mostly through ’84 until ’89, I did his tours and his records.

Andrew:
So, Billy extended an offer to entice you to leave Scandal?

Thommy:
Well, he offered me a good business proposition that Scandal wasn’t offering me. They wanted me to stay in the band, but Billy was actually offering me a piece of the pie, which I was fighting for for years with Scandal, and they weren’t giving it to me. And Billy, out of the clear blue — not even knowing me — made me feel that he needed me bad enough that he gave me a piece of the records.

Andrew:
I understand that your relationship with Joan Jett pre-dated you joining the band in 1986. How was the relationship initially forged?

Thommy:
Well, I’m an old friend of her partner, Kenny Laguna. I met Kenny in the 70s, around 1976/1977. He was producing this guy that I did some demos with that was signed to Leber-Krebs Management. Kenny happened to be sharing an office space with Leber-Krebs, and when this kid got signed to Leber-Krebs, they asked Kenny to do them a favor and produce these demos. Anyway, I was the drummer on those demos — and these were way before he was even involved with Joan. So, over the years, we kept in touch and called each other from time to time. So, once he started working with Joan, he had to put a band together for her. He had called me to come up and play with Joan and see if I dug it. And in fact, I went up and I played with her, and this was before she had Ricky Byrd; I think Gary Ryan was the only original member. They offered me the gig, and I had just secured the Mink DeVille gig at the time, and I had booked an entire European with them, so I couldn’t really do anything with Joan.

By the time I had come back from Europe, Kenny had already hired a drummer, which was Lee Crystal of The Blackhearts. So, that was that. And then, years later, Lee left the band, and Joan was doing a movie with Michael J. Fox called Light of Day. So, the producer on the record was Jimmy Iovine, so he wanted me to do this Light of Day soundtrack with Joan. And this was the very first time over the years that we fell out of touch that I saw her again, and I started working with her. So, I did the Light of Day record, and then I think she might have toured for a year or two until the next record they called me for, which was Good Music. And I think from that record on, I was in and out with Billy, and I started making Joan’s records, and started doing gigs with her. So, whenever I wasn’t working with Billy, I’d be working with Joan. So, in the mid-to-late 80s, I was doing both gigs; I was doing some gigs with Billy, I’d come off the road, and go into the studio with Joan. I did that for quite a few years until I just stayed with Joan.

Andrew:
You’ve spent three-plus decades with Joan, so in what ways, if at all, has your role within the band evolved over the years?

Thommy:
Well, I don’t know if I really ever had a role, besides being the drummer in the band and helping [Joan] create a sound. Joan and I went through different incarnations of The Blackhearts; it was always her and I through all those years, but we always had different guitar players and bass players. So, I think she kind of leaned on me as far as being, if you wanna say, the musical director. We’d always talk about — when it became time to get another bass player, or she was getting tired of the guitar player — she would consult with me. She didn’t live in New York City, she lived outside of New York City, so I was always going out. I knew the locals, I knew a lot of the local bands throughout the years, so she kind of always leaned on me towards at least bringing them into a rehearsal or a record.

Andrew:
In 2015, Joan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Take me through that night.

Thommy:
That was spectacular, man. It was the highlight. A couple of years before that, she was getting awards every week, for this, for that, so we were on like a roll of doing award shows every week. So, by the time the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony came, that was like the highlight of all of the award shows we were doing. That was one of those nights you never forget; we had Tommy James on stage with us; we had Miley Cyrus on stage with us; a couple of the original Blackhearts. Dave Grohl was on stage with us. It was a great night; it was fabulous.

Andrew:
That’s obviously a testament to Joan’s accomplishments, but also yourself, Thommy. You were a member of that band for over thirty years. That’s special, man.

Thommy:
I sure was. It was a family. They’d always make jokes about the “Blackheart Mafia.” It was one of those things where even if you’re not in the band anymore, you’re still part of the family; they never meant to let you leave. But it’s an all-around great experience working with Joan. She taught me a lot, and we’ve been buddies for a long time — more than half our lives.

Andrew:
I doubt you get asked about this one a lot given your lengthy discography, but in 1989, you and Steve [Stevens] reunite for his Atomic Playboys album. Ted Templeman was involved in that, as was Beau Hill. What can you recall from the recording process?

Thommy:
Well, those were the days where we used to cut everything live. Not like the way it is now. I think we did that record up in Media; I can’t remember. But yeah, working with Ted was incredible. He was at all the pre-productions — I think we rehearsed at SIR [Studios] — and he came to all our rehearsals. That was a great experience doing Steve’s record. He put together a great band and had really good songs.

Andrew:
So, you and Steve obviously maintained a relationship over the years.

Thommy:
Oh, yeah. For sure. To this day, I keep in touch with Steve. In fact, over the years, we’ve done gigs with Billy while I was with The Blackhearts; we’d be on the same bill at a lot of festivals in the states, so I’d run into those guys every once in a while.

Andrew:
Steve’s solo in “Eyes Without A Face” remains one of my all-time favorite solos.

Thommy:
Oh, yeah. That’s great. He does it great live, too. He does it exact live. It’s beautiful.

Andrew:
You also worked with Michael Monroe on 1989’s Not Fakin’ It. Michael is a brilliant, creative artist, so what was it like working with him on that project?

Thommy:
For the Not Fakin’ It record, he had collaborated with some friends of mine; this guy Phil Grande, who was — he passed away — an incredible songwriter and guitar player. Kenny Aaronson played bass on that record, too. So, Michael had a really incredible band. Michael had put together a really fantastic band. We did a couple of Japanese tours with that band. I think maybe, by the time he toured, Kenny had left, and Sami Yaffa played bass with us. But Michael, he’s a character, man. He’s an incredible entertainer. I mean, he is the ultimate frontman. He’s an incredible harp player. It’s badass, man; he writes really good songs. Another guy, over the years, that I’ve kept in touch with quite of a bit. He’s back in Helsinki, and he’s got Steve Conte playing with him now.

Image credit: Backstage VIPS

Andrew:
By your estimation, what are the qualities that make you such a highly coveted session drummer?

Thommy:
First of all, I’m easy to work with. I’ve been recording for so long, that I’m very comfortable in the studio. I know what to do and I work with engineers really well. Of course, I get hired for my style and my feel. So, if a song calls for like we were talking before, the “Rebel Yell” alley — that kind of style — then they’ll hire me. I kind of do it the best. [Laughs]. I mean, it’s not just that style, either. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of these Tex-Mex bands here in San Antonio, and up in Austin. I just did a new record with Patricia Vonne; she’s this Tex-Mex gal that’s incredible. I did her Christmas record that’s out now. I’m doing this Mickey Gilley record, so I’m kind of getting into this Texas vibe here. People are starting to hire me for other things, and I’m enjoying it. I really dig it, because for so long, people were kind of pigeon-holing me, and hiring me for that one sound. Meanwhile, I can do whatever it takes for the feel to sound good. I hate getting hired for the exact same thing over and over and over again. It does pay the bills, but I like to do other stuff, that’s why I’m having fun doing some of this music coming out of Austin, and San Antonio these days.

Andrew:
Very cool. So, you’ve adapted to Texas pretty quickly it seems?

Thommy:
Yeah, I did, man. I’ve had a little bit of help here; I have this incredible partner, this guy Matthew Medellin, and he’s been taking me around and introducing me to people. He’s in the music scene here in San Antonio, so he’s opened up a lot of doors for me. Helping me with introducing me to different people — [such as] a couple of producers up in Austin that I’ve been getting some work from. It helps to have someone. I’ve never lived outside of New York — I’ve traveled all over the world — but never left New York. I always went back to New York; I’ve lived there all my life. So, this is a new thing for me, and it’s a great experience, living somewhere besides New York City.

Andrew:
What does a typical day entail for you, Thommy? Being in such high demand, I imagine you’re always in constant motion and spreading yourself pretty thin.

Thommy:
Well, the past eighteen months, I haven’t been with the whole COVID thing. But it’s starting to open up just recently, the past four or five months. People are starting to know that I’m actually in town, and living here. So, the word is spreading a little at a time. It was only recently that I started going back to work; I was off for quite a few years because I’m a cancer survivor. So, that’s what took me off the road with Joan. Right after the Hall of Fame thing, we did a tour supporting The Who. Right after that tour, we had come off the road, and I had gotten diagnosed with cancer. So, that really put a damper on the next five years of my life.

It was a journey. My entire life changed. I went from being on the road constantly, and that was the height of The Blackhearts, in 2016. We had just done the Hall of Fame, we had just come off supporting The Who, so I was walking on clouds, and then all of a sudden, I get hit with that, and my life drastically changed. I haven’t done many live shows; I did a Robert Gordon show last year, before COVID, in New York before I left. And that’s really the last live dates that I’ve done. And I’m just getting back to work now.

Andrew:
Session artists typically operate in relative anonymity. That said, is there anything that you’ve played on that most wouldn’t know?

Thommy:
I’ll tell you what, going way back to the Punk scene, there’s a few records back then that probably a lot of people wouldn’t think I’d have done. Remember the band Television? I did a solo record with Tom Verlaine after he left Television; I think it was 1977. I love that record, it’s called Words From The Front. But yeah, there’s plenty of stuff out there; a lot of European records; a French record; an Italian record. Every once in a while, somebody will post a record that looks familiar to me, and I’ll say, “That looks awfully familiar,” and then I’ll remember, “Oh, I played on that record!” There’s a lot of stuff from the 70s and 80s that I’ve done that I don’t remember. The 80s were rough, man! Drugs were good back then.

Andrew:

What’s on the horizon for you in the new year, Thommy?
Thommy:

Well, I hope to be starting up doing some live shows here. A producer friend from Austin named Danny Harvey — he produces a lot of local and bigger records, too — he does a lot of local gigs. I was talking to my wife about this the other night, about, you know, “I gotta start getting out there a little at a time.” I don’t wanna go right into arenas with a band; I want to start playing again and just gradually get into it to break the ice. I’m looking forward to doing some local gigs here; just getting up and playing a set or two with some local dudes. And then, of course, I’m gonna continue doing these records here in San Antonio and up in Austin, too with these couple of producers. I’ve got a new website that’s now up, and running now, too, for drum tracks: www.thommyprice.com. If you go to that, you’ll see all the choices of custom drum tracks that I can do virtually.

Interested in learning more about Thommy Price? Check out the link below:

Dig this article? Check out the full archives of Shredful Compositions, by Andrew DiCecco, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/shredful-compositions-archives/

About Post Author

Andrew DiCecco

Predominantly known for his NFL coverage, Andrew DiCecco is a Pennsylvania-based journalist with a profound passion for Rock music and its illustrious history. What initially began as a childhood hobby collecting CDs eventually evolved into a full-blown absorption into the world of Rock and Roll. An aspiring rock historian, Andrew seeks out every autobiography and documentary on Rock artists imaginable to further his knowledge to go along with a growing collection of vintage albums and magazines. Andrew’s musical preferences include, but are not limited to, Def Leppard, Van Halen, AC/DC, Guns N Roses, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, Scorpions, Foreigner, and Journey. An innate appreciation for guitar heroes, Andrew cites Vito Bratta, Eddie Van Halen, John Sykes, George Lynch, Dave Meniketti, and Neal Schon as some of his personal favorite players. Andrew is also a regular listener to SiriusXM’s <i>Trunk Nation</i> with Eddie Trunk, his primary source of inspiration.
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