Tommy Aldridge is a drum hero. But if told him that he would no doubt humbly laugh and shake his head and quietly thank you for the compliment, all with an egoless smile. However, if you were one of the fans inside the Hard Rock in Biloxi the other night, you know differently. The man is a phenom on the drums, hard-hitting without losing the soul and texture of the song; flamboyant – twirling sticks and playing with his hands – without taking the attention away from the other band members; performing a solo that mesmerized, conjuring memories of when drum solos were exciting, chest-beating testosterone extravaganzas. Aldridge may not claim to be a drum lord but he sure has the chops to prove it.
Born in Mississippi (yet raised in Florida), Biloxi’s show was a sort of homecoming for the man who began his illustrious career in the southern rock band, Black Oak Arkansas. Making a name for himself, he spent time with Pat Travers and Gary Moore before settling in with Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard Of Ozz alongside Randy Rhoads and Rudy Sarzo. His notoriety grew even more upon joining David Coverdale in Whitesnake following the recording of the infamous 1987 album that shot the band to superstardom in the era when MTV videos made or broke careers. “Tommy and I were asked to play on that record, actually to join the band two years before [the recording],” Sarzo told me during an interview in 2013. But certain circumstances, notably the “personality conflict” between Coverdale and then guitar player John Sykes, influenced his decision not to join at that time. “When we got the call again a couple years later, John Sykes was not in the band anymore so it was like a fresh start for Whitesnake.” They made the “Still Of The Night” video and the whirlwind began.
Following 1989’s Slip Of The Tongue, Aldridge worked with Sarzo and Tony MacAlpine in MARS, Thin Lizzy, Manic Eden (also with Sarzo and Whitesnake’s Adrian Vandenberg) in between a second stint with Coverdale’s new incarnation of the band. He has been with Whitesnake this go-round since 2013. Consisting of Coverdale, guitarists Reb Beach and Joel Hoekstra, bass player Michael Devin and new keyboard player Michele Luppi, the current shows are energized in a way you may not be expecting from a band whose lineage goes back to 1978. This is a stellar band, certainly on top of their game, performing a good number of Deep Purple songs from their latest release, appropriately titled The Purple Album, alongside beloved Whitesnake classics. And who better to anchor the band than Tommy Aldridge. “He was the first guy I got to play with in an arena and a stadium so I learned a lot from him about projecting into the audience,” explained Sarzo. “Not as much as a performer but musically locking in with him. Body language, to me, is essential of any drummer. For example, Tommy’s hair. He had this afro-ish hairdo and it would go against the beat when he shook his head,” he said with a laugh. “The hair would go a different direction than the rest of his body did so I was always, ‘Look at his hands or his shoulders. Don’t look at his hair’ because it would throw you off.”
So calling in for our interview after arriving in Biloxi following a show in Oklahoma City the night before, you would think Aldridge would be acclimated to the south’s summertime weather. After all, he grew up in the south. But, “It’s so humid here, I can’t believe it,” Aldridge said with a laugh. “I can’t complain too loudly though. I lived in New Orleans for a while.”
I was going to ask you about that. You were just a young drummer then, getting your feet wet.
It was really awesome. I lived in the Quarter for a year and a half or so, playing around and just trying to get something going. Dr John was coming up at that time and the Allman Brothers would come through. I was playing in a little trio. It was a strange kind of trio with a guitar player and a keyboard player but the keyboard player played bass pedals and we played out in Metairie [a suburb of New Orleans]. There was this place called The Computer. The guy who owned The Computer would let us come in there and play and it was really awesome cause we were playing all original music and it was a place for us to go and play and make enough money to survive doing it, cause most of the places if you weren’t playing on Bourbon Street, you couldn’t play the kind of stuff we were doing. It was really aggressive and most people didn’t want to hear it, you know (laughs). But we were too hard-headed to take no for an answer. But yeah, New Orleans was really instrumental in the early part of my career. I’d play all through Florida and parts of Mississippi and stuff when I was growing up. My formative years, yeah.
Whitesnake just released a new album in May. When you found out that it was going to be all Deep Purple songs on it, what was your first reaction to that?
I was very surprised, because I hadn’t heard anything of it. I mean, I had talked to David about it and he mentioned that he was, you know, he was looking to redo some of the stuff that he did on those two albums but his initial intention was to do it, hopefully, with those guys that he did those records with; of course with the exception of Jon Lord, cause God bless him, he passed away. But with Ian Paice and Blackmore and those guys. That was his original plan and for whatever reason, and I don’t know the specifics of it, they weren’t able to work it out from a business perspective. And his second best thing was to do it with us, so that’s how it came about.
But I was surprised and I was surprised at the songs cause I was a Deep Purple fan. I mean, you’d have to be totally disconnected back then not to have been a Deep Purple fan. But my experience with them had been with Ian Gillan, with the early stuff. Then I’d kind of moved on. So I was not familiar with any of that. I hadn’t heard most of those songs. “Burn” I’d heard, of course, and the blues tune “Mistreated,” cause we’d done that sometimes in the Whitesnake set over the years. But I hadn’t heard a lot of the songs that we did on this record so it was new information for me. So it was surprising, yeah. A good surprise, once we got in and started working on the stuff.
Since this is not your first time having to learn other bands’ songs and other drummers’ parts, what is your preparation process like to learn those parts?
Well, in this instance, like I said, I hadn’t heard a lot of these tunes previously. David had some really rough demos he was working on and I asked his guy to send them to me without any drums or any drum machinery, just some click, and that way I could just approach it, cause David said, “I want you to play these the way you play.” Cause I’m the worst copy drummer in the world. I always have been. Early on in my career, I started having these ideas and I don’t know where they were coming from; well, I know where they were coming from, they were coming from the big guy. But I started early on trying to find my own place and my own direction rather than copying from all these other guys. And consequently, I’m not very good at copying other drummers. That being said, my style of drumming is completely the antithesis to Ian Paice. He’s a big kind of swing, almost big band style of drumming, and I’m essentially a rock guy (laughs). I dig in, I play really hard and I play a lot of notes; sometimes more than I should be, a lot of times (laughs).
But David said, “Do your thing,” and so I got the demos and there were no drums on it. I’d heard “Burn,” and songs like that play themselves. But “Gypsy” and “You Fool No One,” and some of the others, I’d never heard them before. So I would just play them on my own, not so much as I would live because live you get a little bit more adventurous and play a bit more. But from a recording perspective you try and keep it not minimalist but as to the point as possible and play just the song, you know. I knew it was probably a slippery slope whenever you try to go in and do a project like this, because you’re not going to beat those guys at their own game, and that was never David’s or anyone’s intention. It was apples and oranges, you know, because no one is going to beat Ritchie Blackmore at his game. Ian Paice is an iconic drummer. He’s one of the pioneers of our genre so you’re not going to beat that guy at his own game and I certainly wouldn’t even try.
So our approach was, as has always been with David, he really gives you free range to just do your thing, “Because I like what you do.” I work with Whitesnake cause I like how David Coverdale sings. You can’t find a singer like that. I got involved originally with Whitesnake because I was in LA trying to put something together and looking for a singer and I couldn’t find a singer. He was in LA looking for a drummer and couldn’t find a drummer. So it just kind of, necessity is the mother of invention, so to speak.
So that was my approach to it and it was different than playing some of Aynsley Dunbar’s parts [Dunbar was the drummer on Whitesnake]. I have a philosophy: if you go in and there’s a thumbprint that has to be maintained, I feel you have an obligation to faithfully reproduce the character of a song or otherwise you’re not playing that song. So if it’s something real integral to the song, say on the Ozzy song “Over The Mountain,” the intro, better leave that intro like it is. Apart from the thumbprint things that are in the song, I try to just stick to my own guns and play it how I would have approached it if I had recorded it, never at the expense of trying to get my ego in, but just playing what I feel comes naturally to me when I hear the song.
You mentioned Aynsley Dunbar, who is such a great, yet often overlooked, drummer.
Oh he is one of my favorite drummers on the planet. I mean, he’s one of the most underrated yet not underrated because anybody that has heard his playing is respectful, especially drummers. I mean, I heard him the first time with David Bowie. Then I heard him with Frank Zappa once and just an incredible drummer. Journey, all the stuff he did with the early Journey. It just goes on and on. Incredible drummer. We were just in Vegas earlier on the tour and I got a piece of drumstick in my eye. It happens all the time but this one scratched my eye and I had to go to an ophthalmologist, and he said, “Guess who was in here the other day?” And I said, who, and he said, “Aynsley Dunbar.” (laughs) He was Aynsley Dunbar’s ophthalmologist. I lived in the Santa Barbara area in California and Aynsley was there for a long time. I ran into him at a party there once. I didn’t even know he was living in Santa Barbara. We’ve always gotten along really well and he’s a really sweet guy. Then he left Santa Barbara and I didn’t know where he went and he’s been in Las Vegas. He does a lot of corporate gigs and stuff like that. Still playing and doing his thing but unfortunately, sadly, under the radar.
Who was your first big rock & roll obsession when you were a kid?
It would be Hendrix. See, when I was a kid coming up, if it didn’t have wicked drums in it I wouldn’t listen to it, so my music collection was really narrow (laughs). But it didn’t really have a lot to do with music but all about drumming. I’d listen to this really outside stuff, odd-time Jazz cause the drums are really awesome. And it wasn’t until really Hendrix, because, of course I liked The Beatles, but what really encouraged me to become a musician were bands like Hendrix and stuff, and it was the first time I actually started really listening to the music instead of just the drums and I became a huge, huge fan by listening to the music. So that was a real kind of change for me, musically speaking. Of course, then Cream and Blind Faith and Zeppelin and all those guys and they just solidified all that.
Are there any drummers out there today that give you hope for the evolution of the drums?
Of my word, Honey, there are so many scary guys out there. The level of playing, if I had to go and audition and stand in line, the increasingly long lines, and audition these days in LA or New York, I would be so humiliated I’d never get a gig. I mean, I’m serious, I’m not making this up. It’s like the guitar hero ship, that ship has sailed. Being a guitar hero, that’s a dead breed, you know. There are a few guys that made it in before the ship sailed, and it’s the same with drumming. The level of drumming, that bar has been raised so high, it’s so scary because these guys weren’t just listening to one or two guys and learning one style of music. Now these guys are going and getting schooled and they are taking from this genre and that genre. Like Mitch Mitchell was taking from the big band and coming to Jimi Hendrix and it was something new. Or Ian Paice coming from a real swing style of playing and hooking up with Ritchie Blackmore, it created something different, new and fresh. And a more contemporary version of that is Stewart Copeland with the Police. He’s a reggae guy and hooked up with Sting, who had these real pop sensibilities and boom! The Police and put Andy Summers in the mix. So it was all something fresh and new, although there is nothing new on the planet. You just repackage it for the next generation, you know. So it’s scary some of the stuff I’m hearing being played today. It really is. It defies gravity, it really does.
You have a long history with Rudy Sarzo. Why do you think the two of you lock in so well?
Well, first thing, because he is a sweet guy, you know. I mean, we’re talking about people that have been in the business for a long time and people that are successful in any business, particularly in a creative business, they are the ones that know where the blessings are coming from. They know it’s not them. They know that it’s coming from someplace other than themselves. So they live a life of gratitude and in gratitude of that great blessing they are getting. And when you are around people who are aware that they are being blessed, they are always the first ones to bless you. So hey, who doesn’t want to hang around people that are willing to put you ahead of themselves sometimes. It attracts you to those people and it’s a God-like kind of thing and who doesn’t want to be close to Him, you know. And Rudy personifies that. And Randy Rhoads was very much that way. Apart from his playing, he’s a sweet, sweet guy, you know, just contagiously sweet. You just wanted to be around him and when you’re around people like that, they bring out the best in you, make you feel comfortable in the environment and therefore bring out the best or help you reach your highest level.
When you’re working with someone like Randy Rhoads, they are so nice they are willing to reach down and pull you up there with them. And that’s why all the really, really long-term guys that I know, that I’ve heard of, are aware that it’s something they’ve been blessed with so they are really full of gratitude and when you’re around people that are thankful, hey, it’s a completely new experience, has been for me, and the success that I’ve had from being in the company of people like that has had very little to do with me, you know. Just trying to maximize my opportunities and at some point maybe I will get the opportunity to make someone else feel that way and help them express themselves as fluently and without any interruptions as possible; cause it always comes back to you, you know. That old saying, it’s always better to give than to receive, is true. It just takes us so damn long to learn it (laughs), even though you hear it from day one.
But the musical thing with Rudy, when you work with someone for that long, you start thinking very much alike musically so even when you’re on auto-pilot or if things go really well onstage it’s really good. I haven’t worked with Rudy for a while but I’m sure we’ll hook up at some point in time doing something.
He talked about you when I interviewed him.
Was he bad-rappin’ me again? That bastard (laughs). No, I’m kidding.
Out of all the songs you have played in your career, which one would you say wore you out or took the most energy out of you to play live?
That’s a good question and no one has ever asked me that. I don’t know why no one has ever asked me that and I’ve done a lot of drum specific interviews and no one has asked me that. But one of the hardest things for me to learn when I was a kid coming up playing drums was being able to play loud and fast for long periods of time without cramping up or getting tired. I guess it would probably be not one song but would be a portion of a set where there is like three or four songs hooked together. I was doing some stuff with Thin Lizzy and there were some songs that were just relentless, the back-to-backness of it, one song after another after another, and not particularly just one song. With Whitesnake it would probably be, let’s see, what’s physically demanding. Whitesnake music is, well, I make it physically demanding but it’s not (laughs). It’s not in and of itself that way. But probably “Bad Boys” or something like that that’s got the real fast sixteenth notes at the end. And I put them in places where they wouldn’t normally be. So probably that one tune comes to mind presently but it’s more a group or section of a set that makes it somewhat athletic.
After playing with your hands as hard as you’ve played and as long as you’ve played, what kind of repercussions are you feeling from that, if any?
I don’t have any. It’s strange because I actually have carpal tunnel and things like this like a lot of drummers. In fact, Peter Criss, the drummer with KISS, is no longer playing because he had issues now and he had been a heavy hitter. And I’ve thought about that, like, wow, I have to be careful and take care of myself. I’m a cyclist so I do a lot of cycling and it’s my second passion. I take care of myself and I do whatever I need to do to make whatever sacrifices I need to do to do a good job every night. And that list of sacrifices as you get older gets a little longer (laughs). It never gets shorter. But I don’t have any issues with my hands or fingers. I’m not going to do something for the sake of my work that is going to, you know, like an NFL guy after six or seven years in the league he’s going to walk funny when he’s fifty years old. I’m dedicated to my craft but I’m not going to sacrifice my physical well-being, you know. I have cut myself and stuff like that but I don’t have any issues. I’ve got really big calluses and I’m hard-headed and maybe my hands are equally hard (laughs).
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
Jimmy Page. The first time I was eighteen years old and the first tour I’d done out of America and we went to a place called the Speakeasy and I met Jimmy Page there. He was the nicest guy, and this was when Led Zeppelin was at their height. They were like gods. He was so nice and he still is. He’s always at the Whitesnake shows cause of his connection with Coverdale/Page. But just a sweetheart, a gentleman of a guy. And he was the first time I met him and he didn’t know me from Adam’s housecat. Really nice guy, yeah.
What was the craziest thing you ever saw Ozzy do onstage?
Well, when he ate the bat. He thought that was a rubber bat. We were in El Paso, Texas, and someone threw a real one. It was Halloween night and we were playing – and this wasn’t the craziest, this was the next-to craziest – we were playing in El Paso and it was Halloween and people were throwing rubber bats and all this Halloween paraphernalia onstage. And he picked up what he thought was a rubber bat and put it in his mouth and took a big bite out of it. And he was facing me when he did it and he spat it out and it was a real bat. And I jokingly, when we came off the stage at the end of the show, I said, and he was with Sharon, and I said, “You know Ozzy, all bats have rabies. You’re going to have to get rabies shots.” And all the gears were kicking around in Sharon’s head because she hated paying publicity firms worse than she hated paying anyone. So she said, “Oh, right” and she goes straight to the telephone and calls the UPI and said Ozzy Osbourne has been bitten by a rapid bat and is being rushed to the hospital for a rabies shot.” And it went across the UPI and she fired the PR agency the next day.
But the most weirdest one was we were in Rockford, Illinois. Ozzy didn’t want to do the show and he was adamant about not doing the show and Sharon says, “You’re going to do the show.” So she pushes him out on the stage and I start “Over The Mountain” and he goes (singing) “Over the mountain” and he just falls flat on his face on the stage cause he didn’t want to do it. Well, he was laying there on the stage and he was looking around and Sharon wouldn’t let anyone come out and get him. And Randy was looking at me going, “What do we do?” And I said, “Keep playing.” (laughs) So he laid there for the whole song. And you could see him looking around and looking around and wondering, “When is someone going to come and take me off the stage cause I passed out.” (laughs). But they didn’t cause they knew he was faking it so he wouldn’t have to do the show. That was the weirdest thing.
Was it really, really tough after Randy passed?
Oh yeah, it was really tough. Really tough cause I had the job of trying to find someone to come in, try to find a guy. And Brad Gillis was really cool to come in and do it. It was really sweet to come in and do it cause no one playing well enough was willing to do what we needed them to do, which was play Randy’s solos, that would be good enough to play them and not try to go off and do their own thing or just use it as a stepping stone. Yeah, it was a tough time. But we got through it.
What did the concerts used to have that you loved that are missing from present day concerts?
Back then everything was focused on this one genre of music, our genre of music. You’d look at the charts at the top ten and nine of them would be rock bands. And people would go out for a tour and they would be out on the road for a year. I know the first Whitesnake tour I did, we were out for eighteen months, and you’d do five nights in a city. Everyone’s primary focus was you’re on MTV and everybody knew you were in town so it was an unprecedented time for our genre of music. I miss that, just the hugeness of it.
Why should people still come out to see Whitesnake play live?
We’re having a lot of fun now and the band is sounding really cool. I’m not saying that cause I’m part of it but we’re having a good time and I think it translates. Everyone is good buddies and I think it really projects onstage. Everyone is having a lot of fun. David’s singing is amazing, especially when you consider most of what he’s singing he recorded when he was in his twenties, you know.
And Joel is doing good? [Hoekstra replaced Doug Aldrich]
Yeah, he is doing really well. He’s come right in and he’s a very precise, technical player, very clean, has impeccable timing and it’s a real pleasure working with him. Very nice guy.
Note: Whitesnake will continue playing in the US till mid-August, finishing out the year in Japan, Europe and the UK.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough