Billy Amendola is not only the editor at large of Modern Drummer Magazine, but he is also a musician himself. He is a well-known studio musician and as a member of the 70’s disco band Mantus, achieved worldwide success. The band charted three Top-10 dance singles and toured the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
As a studio drummer, Billy also was one of the first to combine acoustic and electronic drums in the United States, and he received a triple platinum record award for playing on Debbie Gibson’s smash hits “Only In My Dreams” and “Shake Your Love.” Mantus reunited recently and has just released their new album, EST-1976.
I’ve personally known Billy for many years. He and I played in a band together over a decade ago, and we’ve remained close friends ever since, so I was able to get him to open up and talk about a few things he’s never publicly spoken about. Here’s our interview with Billy Amendola.
to this interview by the music group, X: THC.
Billy, How did you get your start in music?
My earliest memory is my father’s brother, my uncle Don who played mandolin and had a music room. He was a prisoner of war and he mellowed and relaxed by playing and or listening to music.
So his love for music actually got me interested at a very young age. Also, my dad played trombone in the navy so he was very supportive (as was my mom) and we always had music in the house.
Unfortunately, just as I was getting a bit of success in music, he passed away from cancer. He was 52 and I was 21. He did get to hear the band on the radio and he saw the album cover before he left this earth. It was all very bittersweet for me.
He actually passed on the second night my band Mantus was scheduled to play at 2001 Odyssey (where the movie Saturday Night Fever was filmed). We then had to cancel the second night of shows cause he passed that morning of the 31st.
The club tried to sue us but the judge threw the case out of court when the hearing came up months later. As we were walking up to the bench, the owner’s son had a copy of our album and was asking us to sign it. So, I looked at the judge and smiled and said, “do you believe this?”
He looked at us long haired rock musicians and said, “Case dismissed, and now get out of my courtroom.” We never did sign the record.
And how did Mantus become a success?
Well, when I was around 14 or 15 years old , I started meeting the guys who would become Mantus. They were all older than me, so I looked up to them. I watched and learned.
We played mostly rock covers of the time, but we always wrote originals from day one. Then after playing every club, block party, and high school dance, in the tri-state area, we started playing hotels and a few larger shows out of state.
Disco was entering the picture so we started playing the “hits of the day” and long story short, we got a record deal with a small independent label, had a few hit dance records, toured, did TV and radio around the world and then we all went off to do other things in the early 80s.
We always kind of stuck out with our own sound as a so-called-disco-band, because we were a bit heavier from our rock days.
Mantus was a successful band in the late 70s early 80s. What challenges did you face in your climb to the top?
We were all young and we were all getting a little taste of the “rock star life.” We were (at the time) 5 long-haired-white dudes from Brooklyn.
Everyone assumed we were a black group because we could funk and sounded R&B. So, the label wouldn’t put our picture on the album covers.
Some of the urban stations actually pulled us from the playlists (after having hits) once they found out we were white.
But, it never really bothered us. Not one of us was prejudiced, so we were proud that we had everyone fooled.
By the second album it became a bit more known. And of course being young, we signed papers we shouldn’t have…bad contracts…we didn’t know where our royalties were going, who owned publishing…the usual band screw.
We all started living the sex, drugs, and Rock & Roll life, but we knew when to stop before it all got out of hand.
What led to Mantus breaking up?
We never really “officially” broke up. We parted ways and still played together in different combos and we remained friends.
Mantus got back together as a four-piece in the late 90s, but we weren’t happy and kind of felt like a parody of ourselves.
No one wanted to hear new music. Every other band from that era didn’t retain the original band members – mostly all sang to tracks. We didn’t want to go that route.
So, again, we went different ways. Some of us had kids, we all had wives. At this point, we all kind of burnt out from playing music and studios were closing.
So, I was a bit lost and tired of the music business at that point and I started working at my bandmate, Kaz’s shop. He was the best boss because if the phone rang and it was for a session, most times I’d say, “I can bring my bass-player!” So, we’d close up shop and go.
At that time I’ll tell you a funny story, well, it’s funny now (laughs) at the time, not so much.
I was still doing sessions here and there and I was playing on a few hit records and commercials and I had played on Debbie Gibson’s first big record “Only In My Dreams,” among others, but that one was a biggie.
It was on the radio every half hour on every pop radio station; so, I’m in the shop and I’m fixing some old lady’s venetian blinds and she’s yelling at me because she was complaining that it still wasn’t going up and down correctly, and the song is blasting on the radio in the background, so I turn to her and say, “hear that song on the radio? That’s me playing drums!” And she says, “yeah right, are you on the dope?”
She only cared about her blinds working properly. At that point, I just had to laugh and say to myself, “what the hell am I doing with my life?”
I always knew that I wasn’t going to stop playing and making music. I was still doing session work and writing songs and producing. I just wasn’t into playing live anymore at that point so, I needed to do something to have money coming in more steadily.
Thankfully, that’s when the Modern Drummer gig came into my life.Honestly, I wasn’t sure at first if that would be my “job.” I had never worked in an office environment before, and I wasn’t sure I would last.
But it was my choice of trying that or making a decision to go back on the road—which I really didn’t want to do.
So again, thankfully it worked out. I’ve been involved with MD for over 20 years now. And even then, I didn’t stop writing and producing music. I just stopped playing live.
Unfortunately, by not playing live, I began to develop a fear of performing live, after not playing in front of an audience for so long. As the years passed, I wasn’t comfortable playing live, and it would give me anxiety when I did.
The other thing was that as a drummer, my body was not prepared for playing live. I was used to writing songs and producing, and if I did play, it was one or two takes to get the track done.
So my body suffered physically from it. That added to my anxiety.
I always felt like I was under a microscope when I sat in on a gig. I’m a groove drummer. I like songs. My crazy “chops” days were and are way behind me. So when I played, I always felt like people were expecting more from me than what I was doing.
But I fought through it, and as I did play and sit in on more and more gigs, I got my confidence back.
And as the drummer that I wanted to be, which is a “song” drummer, I didn’t care about impressing anyone. I had no desire to show off. Plus, I’ve learned a long time ago, that the simpler you play, the more people enjoy it.
The only people who get impressed by “fancy playing” are other musicians. And there’s nothing wrong with that if the music you’re playing allows it. And if that’s the type of musician you want to be – no matter what instrument – then go for it.
Otherwise, it’s really too complicated to most people. In music, it’s all about “the song” and the feeling the drums give it. Plus, I co-write all our songs, and to me, That’s what’s important.
So how did you eventually land the job working for Modern Drummer? Did you have any previous writing experience?
Well, even with my Brooklyn accent, English was always my favorite subject when I did attend school. (laughs)
I’ll admit I was not in high school often. I was already on the road at that point so I went back and forth. And I was writing lyrics my whole life so, yes, I wasn’t a “journalist,” but with the help of the real editors there, I was able to get the answers I needed in my interviews.
And I lived the life, so I related and knew what to ask—and so many drummers and musicians were my friends from years of being in the business.
Before I worked there, I was in MD a few times as an artist. (Thank you Rick Van Horn).
I started at MD as an advertising assistant a few days a week with Bob Berenson and then moved over to the editorial side a few years later when I went full-time.
I was freelancing with them for a few years previously as their “artist liaison” for the MD Festivals. I had a good reputation with a good number of the artists who played—either from working with them in the studios over the years or just being friends. And I also knew a lot of the manufacturers.
So, I guess (the late) Ron Spagnardi who owned Modern Drummer saw something in me that he thought would add value to his magazine. He became like a father figure to me and took me under his wings. He unfortunately got cancer and passed away years after I started working there. I was devastated to lose another person that young and that close to me. He gave me a new start doing something I’d never imagined.
It’s so unfortunate that you lost your father and your father figure both to cancer.
Well, unfortunately that wasn’t all of it. I had an older brother Vinny who had Cerebral Palsy—he couldn’t walk or talk and his brain never developed past a 5 year old.
It was hard watching my parents go through this, and even though he was my older brother, I loved and took care of him like he was my little baby brother.
The doctors wanted my parents to put him away but they never did. They told my parents he wouldn’t live past puberty, but he lived till he was 33—and actually a few years after my dad passed.
So, my mom really had a hard job—and because of this she was very over-protective of me. So, yes, I was spoiled. My mom lived to be 88 and was a very strong typical Italian woman. In her later years, Chris and I took care of her as well as becoming caretakers for her parents who both had Alzheimer’s. Then Chris’ mom and my mom passed away 10 days apart. That was 5 years ago now. I’ve been blessed with a pretty charmed life so I can’t complain—even though I still do) laughs.
Now, your son Matty is quite a success as a drummer/producer/musician in his own right.
Yes, I’m very proud of what he’s accomplished. But he has it both hard and easy being my son especially with both of us being in this crazy business.
And for his generation, the music business is completely different from when I was growing up. We had a shot. This generation will have a hard time making a living and fulfilling their dreams. I won’t say it’s impossible, but at times it will feel that way. But, we all do music because we love it. It has to be your passion. We’re almost even on what we’ve taught each other because he’s an amazing talent on his own. Now, sometimes, he teaches me. (Just don’t tell him I said that) laughs.
So, Mantus is back together with a brand new album, EST.1976. How did that come about?
It was our 40th anniversary from putting out our first record and we missed writing with each other and being in the studio together.
So, we got back together for a few days to see what was what. We wrote 12 songs in 2 days, so we were excited. Then, Matty saw we were serious and he got very heavily involved.
We all agreed that he would be our producer and have full control. He also had Butch Jones with him (Butch was our recording engineer since our first hit record in 1978) so; they kept us somewhat in control. (ha!)
So what advice would you give to the struggling musicians out there? How can they keep going without giving up?
That’s a complex question that no one really has any answers or solutions to. Everyday my advice flip-flops on the subject. If I just got off the phone with someone who pissed me off, I might say one thing.
If a deal came through I was hoping for, I might say something else. No one has any “magic words” and there’s no blueprint for success. To me, the perfect example of “a band” is The Beatles. They invented it like no other. They had each other. It was a team effort. To this day they are still the most successful and popular band in the history of music.
Play music if that’s what you love to do, money or no money. Be true to yourself. Be prepared and don’t expect too much. Actually, expect nothing. I’ll say that again. Expect NOTHING.
Then if and when something does happen, you’ll enjoy the ride. Learn the word NO because you will hear it a lot. You’ll be disappointed constantly so you have to accept it, learn from it, get over it quickly and move on. And seriously, I’d say to pray. It’s worked for me personally and for many successful people I know.
I’ve been blessed with an extraordinarily good life and I’m very grateful. And remember, no matter how many times you fall down, never ever give up!
It’s pretty clear that Billy’s secret of success is being a “people person”. Through just naturally being the friendly, open and loving person that he is, he excels in developing genuine personal and business relationships, and through those relationships, he’s able to achieve success.
Billy knows that it’s important to tell people that you love them, and he’s genuine about it. Here at Rise Up Eight, we’ve always talked about how important it is to be grateful in life. Billy is a shining example of this. He is ever grateful for everything he has in his life, and whenever he has a setback, he looks at what is working, not what is lacking. That’s a key component to living a happy life!
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