Drumming legend Kenny Aronoff doesn’t look like one of those classically trained percussionists you’d see in a grand orchestra.
Everything about him screams rock ‘n’ roll — the constant sunglasses covering his eyes, the edgy clothes, the rebellious attitude and especially the unrestricted language. Guys like him who have played with the Rolling Stones, the Smashing Pumpkins, Rod Stewart, Cinderella, John Fogerty and Bob Dylan generally have that certain indescribable “it factor” in common.
But there’s more to Aronoff than meets the ear or the eyes. Most are familiar with him as being the rocker that lit up the drums on John Mellencamp’s hit albums for 17 years. Fewer know of his intense training as a musician at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. If anyone can be a musical chameleon while still remaining internally unchanged, it’s Aronoff.
After packing up the last of his stored belongings from Bloomington this spring following a move to the west coast, the percussion master reflected about his times in the heartland.
Even though he’s associated with one of the most iconic Hoosier performers of this era, Aronoff actually started his training back in Stockbridge, Mass., home of Norman Rockwell. Always an energetic kid, he began his own band at age 10 after being mesmerized by The Beatles’ epic film “A Hard Day’s Night.”
“It was really simple. I was a hyper-energetic kid so you gravitate toward things that have energy,” he said. “I was a huge lover of music and the instrument I gravitated toward was the instrument that had the most energy, which was drums.”
Predominantly self-taught, at 16 Aronoff began to seriously study classical music with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. By age 18, he was practicing drums nine hours a day, seven days a week and playing five nights a week in a band. Plain old hard work, he said, gave him an advantage over some of the more gifted musicians.
“Out of everybody there, I was the worst, yet I was the one who became successful and recognizable. That wasn’t my goal necessarily,” Aronoff said. “The key to success is hard work fueled by passion supported by education. All these things ongoing through your life should make you one of the best in the area you’re in.”
Turning points come in unexpected places. After spending his freshman year of college at the University of Massachusetts, he followed a girl he liked to the Julliard School’s Aspen Music Festival and played in their orchestra. While at Aspen, Aronoff met George Gaber, a professor at IU. Gaber struck the drummer as someone he needed to be around, so that summer he auditioned for the competitive IU School of Music and was quickly accepted.
In 1976, he graduated from IU with not only a degree but also with one of the college’s respected Performance Certificates. Later, he would return to the university as an associate professor of percussion. A scholarship is still given every year to a percussion student at the school in his name.
THE B’TOWN BREAK
Once he obtained his degree, orchestras around the globe offered Aronoff places in their percussion sections. The graduate declined and instead opted to travel back home for a year and concentrate on his true love — the drums. In 1977, he returned to Bloomington and joined a few bands, playing at local dives and living in a house that’s now known as The Roach Motel, a name he originated.
Two years later, Aronoff was at a crossroads. Thinking New York was his future, the plan was to move to the big city. But then, a fortuitous tip landed him the break that would go on to define his career.
“All of the sudden, I hear about this audition for this Johnny Cougar guy. I started practicing for that six hours a day and I get the gig,” he said. “I was supposed to have been in that band. There’s no question.”
Getting the gig was one thing. Staying in the band was another. In 1980, the musicians, including Aronoff, traveled to Los Angeles to record Mellencamp’s album “Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did.” Many of the guys stayed at the historic Chateau Marmont and rubbed elbows with up-and-coming actors like Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep. Despite all the Hollywood glitz and glamour, Aronoff still had that Bloomington style.
“When I went out there, it was so glorious, so rock ‘n’ roll. All of us Midwest boys, we were in blue jean jackets and made fun of those (explicative), but we were trying to pick up the chicks. We looked like hillbillies,” he said. “I go to the studio and two days later, I’m fired because I didn’t have the cool gear. In 1980, everything turned into double-headed drums. I had single-headed drums.”
Not to be deterred from such a great opportunity, Aronoff said he told Mellencamp that he refused to give up, instead offering to stay at the studio and learn all at his own expense and with no pay. He recognized Mellencamp was different than most musicians, and that he could be taught a lot from the “pit bull.” Plus, with so much success in his life, Aronoff wasn’t accustomed to defeat.
“So basically he tells me, you know, you go home. And I said no, I’m not going home. He was stunned. It was like Bobby Knight saying, ‘I’m taking you out.’ No, you’re not. I’m staying in. You don’t say that to guys like that,” he said.
Mellencamp eventually agreed and the drummer learned first-hand from the seasoned professionals.
“My goal was when I came home from that horrible experience was I’m going to be on that next record. I don’t give a (explicative) what happens,” Aronoff said. “I’m on the next record to redeem myself. I fought for it. And that was ‘American Fool.’”
People still come up to Aronoff today and admit to air drumming the catchy beat of his solo in “Jack and Diane” off of “American Fool.” The album eventually reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in 1982 with three singles breaking the Billboard top 20.
Once again, recording the record wasn’t easy for Aronoff. He and Mellencamp were both strong-willed, and Aronoff said neither always knew when to back down from a confrontation.
“There was one moment where John and I were face to face with fists clenched and we were about to go at. And I knew that if we went at it, I’d be fired. That’s the end. So I backed off,” Aronoff said. “He knew it. He knew that’s why I backed off. And that’s when I was recording ‘Jack and Diane.’”
For 17 years, Aronoff remained with Mellencamp’s band recording some of the best-known songs about Americana from those decades. In between gigs, he also began playing as a session drummer for other musicians. In 1996, his busiest year, he toured for 11 months while still managing to do 20 albums on his days off.
Ever heard Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven on Earth,” Jon Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” or Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love”? That’s Aronoff keeping the beat in the background. Yet somehow, despite all his success and fame as a drummer, he’s still not a household name.
“I was having a meeting with a business guy and he said everybody knows who you are but they don’t know who you are. They hear you every day all over the radio and they don’t know it,” he said.
While unknown to the average listener, Aronoff’s pages and pages long discography reads like a who’s-who of the music industry. The number of records and soundtracks in which he has contributed astounds many today who are just now entering the profession.
“I don’t know if anybody will have a discography like this again because there aren’t budgets,” Aronoff said. “I know a lot of amazing drummers. Amazing. But there’s not a lot who have the discography or have crossed over in to so many things as me. I’ve always been willing and always loved playing everything where some people don’t like doing that.”
As far as his personal life is concerned, Aronoff has seen it all. He admits to living the rocker lifestyle of private jets, crazy parties and of course loads of women. Now almost 60 and a newlywed, the drummer no longer has any interest in continuing down that path. Health-conscious living, honesty and being a team player now dictate his days living in L.A.
“I think I was so wrapped up in trying to make it. Always about me, me, me, me. It was I was underdeveloped in the team part,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to do that. To be great, you almost have to be selfish in your whole thing. I’m done with it. Basically, I went to the next level. I grew up. I matured.”
Even today, Aronoff works just as many hours as he always has in his trade. Besides being one of the most in-demand session drummers around, he also plays at special functions like presidential inaugurations and Kennedy Center Honors, not to mention world tours and drum clinics.
And then there’s his production studio. Even outside this enterprise, he still creates other albums like the one he’s currently working on with fellow Hoosier singer Matt Gold. There’s no slowing down for Aronoff or his aspirations.
“The key to success in my brain is that hard work is the vehicle of transportation through life. You have to work hard to get good at anything,” he said. “And anybody who doesn’t believe that, they are completely missing the point because there are guys like me who will work 17 hours a day. And I still have that crazy hunger.”