"You Keep Us Hangin' On!" Spotlight on Vanilla Fudge’s Carmine Appice
By Spotlight Central
originally published: 06/23/2020
Carmine Appice is an elite rock drummer known for his work with Vanilla Fudge, Cactus, Rod Stewart, King Kobra, and more. His book, Stick It!: My Life of Sex, Drums and Rock ’n’ Roll, isa no-holds-barred account of Appice’s life as a world-class rocker.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Appice to chat with him about his childhood as an aspiring drummer, his work with various musicians, and what he’s up to these days.
Spotlight Central:You grew up in Brooklyn — which was risky, hanging out with your gang, The Thirty-Eighth Street Park Boys, and with the Mafia all around you — but your ticket out was getting interested in music. Is it true that it was after seeing a concert at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theater that you first considered becoming a pro drummer?
Carmine Appice: It impressed me — I didn’t know anything about being a professional drummer yet — but I liked the drums from seeing that show. My mother took me to that show, and they had a backup band with two drummers, and once I saw them play I said, “I like that!”
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Spotlight Central:In your book, Stick It!, you reveal that after you got your first drum kit, you practiced in your basement on top of a platform which you made from your grandmother’s antique table top placed on top of four concrete blocks. What gave you the idea to do this?
Carmine Appice: Well, it just looked like a stage. I saw the table top just laying down there — and my grandfather and my father always had cinder blocks and bricks around — so I said, “OK, let me put it on there,” and I took four cinder blocks and put it all together and it looked cool.
Spotlight Central:And then you put the drum set on top and played it from up there?
Carmine Appice: Yeah, and I probably ruined the table top.
Spotlight Central:When you were a kid, you used to enjoy spending time at the Jersey Shore in Lakewood, didn’t you?
Carmine Appice: Yeah, we had a bungalow in Lakewood, and every summer, we would go there and become like the Our Gang kids. We’d go to the lake, find these sunken boats, bring them back home, caulk ’em up and get ’em back in the water, and then we’d get oars and go all around.
And they also used to have these talent contests in town at the municipal building, and I played a drum solo and I won! I won a lamp! Also, I used to have my drums out in the front of the bungalow — I used to put them up on a “stage” by the door when I was a kid and I would play — but, yeah, I went to Lakewood, easily, for ten years of my life every summer.
And just a few years ago, I got to play with Vanilla Fudge at The Strand Theater in Lakewood. Besides it being the first time playing my new drum kit there, playing at The Strand really meant something to me, because I used to go to that place when it was a movie theater when I was a kid. So when I played the Strand it really meant something to me because of those memories.
Spotlight Central:At age 11, you started taking drum lessons and, later, attended a music high school where you learned music theory and harmony. You said that, growing up, you admired several drummers — Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Joe Morello, and Max Roach — all jazz musicians. Were you a jazz fan or more a fan of their technical expertise?
Carmine Appice: I was more a fan of the drumming, and they played jazz. But there were a few rock things that were cool, too, like “Teen Beat” and “Let There Be Drums” by Sandy Nelson, and “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris. And there was Cozy Cole with a song called “Topsy Part II” — so all of those were influential — but there was also stuff like Little Richard’s “Keep a Knockin’,” which had a great, great drum intro which later on, I believe, Led Zeppelin stole.
There was a lot of stuff going on, but the technical drumming I liked most was the jazz played by Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. I was really a fan of Gene Krupa’s technique, but also of his showmanship. My mother used to tell me she used to go see him at the Brooklyn Paramount and he’d have everybody dancing in the aisles, and that left an impression on my head. The first album I ever got was Krupa and Rich. You know, people always ask, “What’s the first album you ever got?” and a lots of people say it was something by The Beatles, but my first album was by Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.
And, later, I was in a horn band playing R&B — doing Motown and all that stuff — and I loved the Motown drumming and Bernard Purdy’s work with Aretha Franklin. All that left an impression on me. So I guess you could say I got my first ideas about technique from those four drummers, and then I started creating a style of my own — which I didn’t know I was doing; I just did the stuff I needed to do out of necessity.
Spotlight Central:Your first band was The Vidells, where you got your famous Gretsch red sparkle drum set. What was it that inspired you to want a kit with a large bass drum?
Carmine Appice: It really wasn’t until I joined Vanilla Fudge, which was originally called the Pigeons, that I needed it. When I started playing with The Pigeons, I started playing louder and with more power, because that’s the kind of band they were. Our guitarist, Vince Martell, had a big Standel amp at the time. Tim Bogert had two Dual Showman amps for his bass, and I used to put a mic in my bass drum and plug it into his bass amp trying to create that Motown kind of sound. But even then I said, “Man, I’m banging these things hard!” The bass drum always sounded great, but it didn’t seem to be loud enough.
So one time when I was in Poughkeepsie, New York, I went to a pawn shop and I bought a Leedy Ludwig 26 x 15” bass drum from the 1940s for $5.00. I bought it and then I ordered some red sparkle wrap from Downbeat which would match the rest of my kit. I did all the work myself — I cut it out, I cut the holes, I glued it, and everything — and then I set it up, and it was bigger and louder, and it sounded really great. Later, when I got my endorsement from Ludwig, they asked, “What kind of drum set do you want?” and I said, “I want an oversized kit with two bass drums.” So the first drum kit I ordered was all oversized drums, but after I placed the order, they called me and said, “Are you sure you want these sizes?” They’d never built a drum set like that before. And I said, “Yeah, definitely!” And when I got it, they were even louder, but I realized that in order to get the sound I wanted, I had to hit ’em even harder, so I started hitting ’em even harder.
Spotlight Central:Whatever gave The Pigeons the idea to remake The Supremes’ song, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”?
Carmine Appice: At the time, there was a fad going on in Long Island of doing what we called “production numbers.” A production number usually involved slowing a song down and making it longer, but we took it one step further. We used to listen to the lyrics of songs and try to make the music and lyrics match. So if you take a song like “Keep Me Hangin’ On” — which was fast, where they’re singing [sings rapidly] “Set me free why don’t you babe,” it was really the wrong feel — the wrong vibe — for the lyric. Those are really what we called “hurtin’” lyrics. If you put yourself in that position, in a love relationship — you’re really hurtin’ — it’s heartache. So we slowed it down, as the fad was on Long Island, and we made it more hurtin’. The same thing happened with “Eleanor Rigby,” when we did that one. We made it about six and a half minutes of eerie, mystical, weird, churchy, cemetery, haunting music to match the lyrics. It’s a very lonely song, you know?
Spotlight Central:Oh, yeah. And at the time, did you ever think your version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” would become a Top 10 hit?
Carmine Appice: Well, before we recorded it, we noticed that when we played all of our other songs, people would try and dance to our music, but whenever we played that song, people would stop dancing and they would come up to the front of the stage and just watch us. We had a crazy stage show. Everyone was a bit mad on their instruments — you know, Mark Stein was waving his hands above his keyboards, I was stick-twirling and grabbing my cymbals and jumping off my seat, Tim Bogart looked kinda spastic when he played, and Vince Martell was a good-looking guy with a lot of guitar moves — so the audience used to come up and just watch us on that song. We all noticed this — I said, “Wow, that’s pretty wild — they just stopped dancing to watch us!” — and when our producer, Shadow Morton, saw us, he noticed the same thing and said, “We’ve got to record that song!”
So we recorded a demo of the song in mono where everything was done in one take. Now we say it was “the seven and a half minutes that changed our lives.” Shadow Morton was right. He got the song played on a new radio station, WOR-FM in New York. Atlantic Records heard the song and, from that, they signed us..
Spotlight Central:But wasn’t it when you signed with Atco Records that they wanted you to change your name from The Pigeons to a new name?
Carmine Appice: Yes.
Spotlight Central:How did you come up with that new name?
Carmine Appice: We were playing gigs, and we met a woman in a club called The Page Two, and she came up to us and said, “Man, you guys are like Vanilla Fudge — white soul!” and we thought, “Wow, that’s a good idea!” So when the record company said, “We want you to change your name,” we said, “How about Vanilla Fudge?” I mean, at the time, there was Strawberry Alarm Clock and all these other weird group names anyway, so Vanilla Fudge made it — it was a cool name and it meant something.
Spotlight Central:In both 1968 and 1969, you and Vanilla Fudge played The Ed Sullivan Show. What was that experience like? Were you nervous playing in front of millions of people?
Carmine Appice: In 1968, we did “You Just Keep Me Hangin’ On” on The Ed Sullivan Show— that’s when I played the red sparkle drum kit with the big bass drum — and in 1969, I played the Ludwig set with double bass drums. And I can remember asking the elevator operator as were going down, “Hey man, how many people watch this show?” and he said, “Oh, about 50 million,” and I went “Woah!” My stomach started churning there until I got on the drums.
But I have to tell you something about that drum set with the big bass drum: When we went to England, all the big English drummers were there — The Who’s Keith Moon, and Jim Capaldi of Traffic, and Mitch Mitchell who played with Hendrix, and Cream’s Ginger Baker, everybody — and they were all flipping out over my big bass drum.
Spotlight Central:You were a trendsetter!
Carmine Appice: I guess I was!
Spotlight Central: After Vanilla Fudge, you and bassist Tim Bogart started the blues rock group, Cactus, but after that, you began playing drums for Rod Stewart. Many people may not know that you co-wrote two of Rod Stewart’s biggest hits, “Young Turks,” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” On those songs, would you say you were more involved with writing the lyrics, melody, and harmony, or more involved with creating the groove, or both?
Carmine Appice: With “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” we started with the chord changes for the verse and the melody for the bridge. My buddy, Duane Hitchings — who is a keyboard player and a songwriter — had a little studio. We recorded the song on his little eight-track system and presented it to Rod with the groove and the chords and the melody for the bridge. Now Rod had told everyone in the band, “I want a song like ‘Miss You’ by the Rolling Stones,” so everybody in the band went back home and came back with something. I came back with this, and when we originally played it with the whole band, we had three guitars, bass, drums, and Dwayne on keyboard. It sounded really big and fat and really hard rock, you know? But Tom Dowd was the producer and he told us, “You guys did your part, now leave it to me,” and so we left it to him. When we came back a few days later, he had gone from one 24-track machine to two 24-track machines, and there was an orchestra on it, and Tom Scott was on it, and David Foster was on it, and there was a percussionist on it. When you put all that stuff on it, it shrinks the original track, you know, in width — in terms of the overall sound. We heard the arrangement he had come up with and we were all like, “Uh-oh, it sounds more like disco than rock,” but he said, “Trust me,” and we did. When the record came out, it went to #1 in pretty much every country.
Spotlight Central:Is it true that Rod Stewart is credited with the pronunciation of your last name?
Carmine Appice: Yeah. Back in the day, I was called Aa’-puh-see like my brother, Vinny, but everywhere I went, people would call me Uh-peece’, Uh-pice’, Aa’-pa-chay — all these different pronunciations. So when I went with Rod, he said, “Look, I know everybody has a problem with your last name. How do most people say your name?” And I said, “Well, everywhere I go, I have to correct people from saying Uh-peece’ to Aa’-puh-see — so most people say Uh-peece’. Rod said, “It would be so much better if there was just one way to say your name. When I announce your solo in front of big arena audiences of 20,000 people, I’d like to say, ‘Carmine Uh-peece’ on the drums — and just have one way to say it.” Rod really knew how to build an image — he was really smart that way — so I said, “OK, I’ll go with it.”
And then Ludwig, who I was working with as my drum company, took out a huge ad — it was a full page ad with a black and white portrait of my face with my arm up on a Chinese cymbal; a beautiful piece of art, actually — and it said, “Everyone wants a piece of Appice.” And that went into every rock magazine in the world so, then, even more people knew how to pronounce my name.
Spotlight Central:Speaking of magazines, in addition to your memoir, you wrote another book, Realistic Rock Drum Method which has sold hundreds of thousand of copies,and you also gave drum clinics with proceeds going to UNICEF. You organized Drum-Offs — drum competitions which would have thousands of people attending — and in 1981, you were even honored when the mayor of Los Angeles proclaimed it “Carmine Appice Day” for all of your charitable and educational work. With all that acclaim, however, you said one of your proudest moments was when, following a Carmine Appice Drum-Off, Buddy Rich introduced you on camera to a news journalist and called you a “great rock drummer.”
Carmine Appice: Yeah, he said, “Carmine Appice — he’s a great drummer, but what do I know?” We became friends after that — I knew Buddy for the last seven or eight years of his life — and I even helped him to get on The Muppet Show. It was really my idea to do the show, not his. I wanted to do it.
Spotlight Central:To do a drum battle with Animal?
Carmine Appice: Yeah. What happened was my manager called Jim Henson and told him the idea. Somebody turned me on to Animal and the Muppets when I was in Australia. I’d never heard of the Muppets before — I had never really watched much TV back in the ’70s; I was always on the road, or in the studio, or something — and especially something like The Muppet Show, which was a kids’ TV show. But some people I knew said, “We saw you on TV!” and I said, “With Rod Stewart?” and they said, “No, with the Muppets!” And I said,’ “The Muppets? What’s the Muppets?” and after I saw a video of Animal, I said, “Oh my God! That does kind of look like me — the curly hair and lots of drums and everything. Maybe they got the persona of Animal from my persona?”
So I went back and talked to my manager and I said, “What do you think?” and he said, “Yeah, I think they might have gotten that rock drummer persona from you.” So I said, “OK, I want to challenge Animal to a drum battle!” So my manager called them and they said, “We’ll get back to you,” but when they called back, they said, “We’ve got good news and bad news.”
“What’s the good news?” he asked. They said, “We love your idea and we’re gonna do it!” So my manager’s thinking, “What could the bad news be?” and that’s when they said, “We’re gonna use Buddy Rich.”
And I heard this and I said, “Oh man!” and I called Buddy and I said, “I hear you’re doing The Muppet Show. You’re gonna have a battle with Animal,” and he said, “How do you know? Nobody’s supposed to know!” And I said, “Because it was my idea! My manager called Jim Henson’s office and pitched them the idea,” and Buddy said, “Well, they wanted the best!” And you know, he really was the best.
Spotlight Central:But how cool is it that he was one of your childhood idols and then the whole thing comes around full circle with him calling you a “great drummer” — that’s cool.
Carmine Appice: Yeah, very cool. And a similar thing happened with Joe Morello. I got to know him, and he used to call me Carmine “Apache.” I did this movie called Black Rose where I had a couple of lines. It was all about this guy who was the devil and he ran a band, and it became a cult movie that was on USA network and VH-1 and all that. But my character was Vinny — like my brother — but “Apache” — so I thought it was funny how that happened, too.
Spotlight Central:It is! Now, eventually, you went on to tour with Ozzy Osbourne, you started a hard rock band, King Kobra, and you even recorded a series of Guitar Zues albums which featured many great guitarists…
Carmine Appice: Well, here’s a weird thing about the Guitar Zues thing — check this out. In 1997, we wrote a song for Guitar Zues II called “Code 19.” And you know how everyone is saying lately, “It’s like living in a movie” — everyone’s staying at home, with Times Square empty, and Vegas empty? The opening line of that song is, “It feels like I’m living in a movie” and it says, “It’s not a dream, it’s Code 19,” and, also, the lyric, “Homicide, suicide, genocide,” is part of the song.
Spotlight Central:With COVID-19, that’s very prophetic!
Carmine Appice: Yeah. I’ve been watching what’s been happening over the past few months. First, the “genocide” comes from the virus, right? And then we started to hear that there are more suicides now — including suicides by doctors. After I heard that, I said, “Well, there’s the suicides, but what kind of homicides are there going to be?” And then the riots started.
Spotlight Central:Unfortunately, we’ve seen all of that come to life.
Carmine Appice: Yeah, the whole thing just came to life. I called my co-writer, Kelly Keeling, who wrote the lyrics, and I asked him, “Why did you pick Code 19? Why not Code 14 or 15?” and he said, “I don’t know. Code 19 just sang well.” I’m thinking now might be the time to do a lyric video of that song and put a little explanation at the beginning of the video saying something like, “This song was written in 1997. We don’t know what it was — if it was foretelling the future or what — but you decide.” And then have the video play the song with the lyrics.
Spotlight Central:That’s a good idea! In the meantime, is there anything you’d like to say to all of your fans who are looking forward to seeing you play live again?
Carmine Appice: I’m looking forward to playing gigs again. Our Vanilla Fudge gigs which were originally scheduled for April were moved to July and then to October, but the managers don’t think it’s gonna happen — everybody thinks next year is when it’s gonna happen. We also had Cactus gigs moved, and my Rod Experience group — that’s a show I do with other members of the Rod Stewart band — was moved, too. So it looks like 2021 is when everything is gonna start happening, and one of the things we’re working on is a tour featuring Cactus, Pat Travers, and Rick Derringer together, so that should be a fun tour.
Spotlight Central:And what else are you up to these days?
Carmine Appice: We’re mixing a Cactus record right now that we were recording before all this crap started, and we had just signed a Vanilla Fudge record deal before all this happened, too. We want to call the new album, Supreme Fudge, and we want to do five Supremes’ songs, three other R&B songs, and two or three originals.
Also, we’re doing a live show on Facebook. It’s called Artists on Lockdown, and it’s on every Friday at 7pm. It’s me and my brother, Vinny, and Ron Onesti, who owns a theater outside Chicago which every rock act in the world has played. Ron hosts the show, and my brother, Vinny, and I are the panel, and every week we bring somebody in. We brought in my friend Derek Sherinian, the keyboard player from Sons of Apollo and Alice Cooper and Joe Bonamassa. Last week, we had Eric Singer from Kiss. This week, we’ll have Danny Serafine from the band Chicago, and next week, we’ll have Slim Jim Phantom from The Stray Cats. Basically, it’s a rock talk show where we all share our experiences together, because we’re all friends. For example, Eric was discovered at one of my Drum-Offs and I gave him his first recording job with a name band back in 1987, and we’ve also done gigs with Chicago, and Vanilla Fudge influenced Chicago a lot — so it’s been a lot of fun, and we have lots of stories to tell.
Lastly, I’m currently managing and producing a great little band called Kodiak. They come from Toms River, NJ, and everyone’s saying they sound like a young Van Halen. The funny thing about them is that in addition to my book, Realistic Rock Drum Method, I have another book, Realistic Rock for Kids. 11 years ago, Warner Brothers said, “We want to do a DVD of Realistic Rock for Kids,” andI said, “OK, but if it’s a kids’ DVD, let’s get a kid to teach,” so we held a contest in Modern Drummer magazine and this kid, Pete Biggiani, won the contest. And Pete is the drummer in the band, Kodiak. I’ve been mentoring them all these years, and I’ve seen them doing stuff that I thought could be successful, so now I’m managing and producing them. If people want to listen to them, they can check them out at We Are Kodiak on Facebook.
Spotlight Central:You’ve always been a busy guy, as a performer, producer, writer, and mentor — and as an educator, too!
Carmine Appice: Oh, yeah, I’ve always been happy to teach people. I used to have a drum studio on Long Island — had I kept that going, I think I’d probably have a whole School of Rock chain, which didn’t come along until twenty years later — so I guess you can say I’ve always been ahead of my time!