By Steve Newton
Twenty-five years go today—on May 15, 1990—Whitesnake played the Pacific Coliseum. This was three years after the band had hit its commercial peak with its self-titled album and hits like “Here I Go Again” and the power ballad “Is This Love”, but it had been recently bolstered by the addition of scary-good guitarist Steve Vai.
In advance of the gig I interviewed drummer Tommy Aldridge, who I’d loved ever since the Black Oak Arkansas days. Here’s the story that ran in the Georgia Straight newspaper the week of the show.
After several years in the rock critic biz, it’s easy for a writer to pick up the ONNTD syndrome. That’s an affliction that occurs when you request an interview with a big-name band and the record company won’t let you talk to the main member (usually the singer). “Oh No, Not The Drummer!” moans the critic, feeling like he’s been offered a cheeseburger in a fancy steak joint.
But some drummers are different. In the case of Whitesnake, which plays the Pacific Coliseum this Tuesday (May 15), there’s no reason to cry if you get stuck with the drummer, in this case veteran skin-basher Tommy Aldridge. He might not be as high-profile as singer David Coverdale—or guitarist Steve Vai, for that matter—but he is still a certified hero to anyone who’s been following the hard-rock scene since the early ’70s (when it was known as “heavy metal”).
Like fellow percussionists-for-hire Cozy Powell and Carmine Appice, Aldridge has been a wanted man by many of the top loud bands in the world. His career began as a teenager, when he hooked up with guttural singer Jim Dandy in Black Oak Arkansas. He stuck with that southern-rock outfit for six or seven albums, though not because he really wanted to. They wouldn’t let him leave!
“I joined that band when I was 17,” explains Aldridge, over the wires from Minneapolis, “and I figured I’d use it as a stepping stone. But once I got in there it was like trying to get out of the army—well, it was actually harder than getting out of the army, you know. Six or eight months after I joined I wanted to leave, and I went to tell the manager and he said, ‘Well you can’t leave.’ And that went on for about five years. I mean when somebody threatens to break your arms if you’re gonna leave….it got really stupid. There’s a lot of stuff nobody knows anything about.”
When he finally did escape the clutches of B.O.A.—and the lawsuits that accompanied his departure—Aldridge found friendlier company in Canadian guitaist Pat Travers‘ band, and performed on several of that group’s finest LPs, including Crash and Burn and the live Go for What You Know. But he really hit it big in the early ’80s when he took over the drum seat from Lee Kerslake in Ozzy Osbourne‘s band. Unfortunately, Aldridge’s good times with Ozzy came to an end when the group’s driving force, guitarist Randy Rhoads, died in a plane that crashed while buzzing the tour bus Aldridge was on. Aldridge lost a close friend and the best guitarist he’d ever played with.
“That’s with no disrespect to any of the others,” says Aldridge, “but there’s really no comparison. Randy had it all, you know. He had a lot of chops, but he was a great songwriter, too. Those things seem to be mutually exclusive, with the odd exception of somebody like Eddie Van Halen. But Randy had a lot of taste with what he played–he didn’t have to play a million notes a minute. And he was just the nicest guy you could ever meet.”
With the band’s lifeblood gone, Aldridge lost any real desire to play with Ozzy, but once again he found the gig a hard one to shake.
“I’d been tired of playing with Ozzy for a while, but severin’ relationships is sometimes hard to do. Tours go on for so long, you know. I’d planned to leave Ozzy well before I did, back when Randy was killed, but it just didn’t work out that way.”
Aldridge, 37, joined up with David Coverdale four years ago, sliding into the Whitesnake lineup to join his former Ozzy bandmate Rudy Sarzo, who handles bass. Together the two are a formidable hard-rock rhythm section, having played together, off and on, for more than a decade now. “When you play with someone that long it gets pretty telepathic,” says Aldridge, who counts drummers like Buddy Rich, Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, and in particular John Bonham as early influences. Nowadays his faves include Simon Phillips, Terry Bozzio, and Steve Smith.
Although he’s been playing arenas now for 20-odd years, Aldridge says that he still enjoys the rock ‘n’ roll life.
“I didn’t really think I’d be doing it this long,” says the Florida native, “but there’s guys out there doin’ it that are a lot older than I am. I’ve seen a lot of drummers come and go, for one reason or another, so I feel really fortunate to still be out here playing. It’s a very gratifying occupation.”
Aldridge says that, for him anyway, there’s no real secret to longevity in the dog-eat-dog music biz.
“I’ve just worked really hard at it,” he says, “and made it one of my top priorities. Plus I don’t have any drug or alcohol problems, and I’m pretty easy to get along with. But luck probably plays a bigger role in it than anything else.”
Lucky or not, Aldridge has managed to develop the kind of superior drum chops that make him an ace in the studio as well as a dynamic force in concert. As such, he’s become a very well-payed craftsman of the skins. (He’s currently in a profit-sharing partnership with Whitesnake; with Ozzy it was strictly salary.) And of course he gets to play any kind of drums he chooses.
“I’ve been with Yamaha for quite some time, and I’ve developed this new drum kit with them that I’m using now where the shells are made out of carbon fibre–they’re the only drums like that out right now. They’re prohibitively expensive, but the sound difference is really substantial.”
In conjunction with his drum technicians, Aldridge has designed a new rack that holds the drums, instead of using all the conventional hardware, which he says makes things a bit more interesting on stage. But don’t expect a drum kit that lifts up into the air and twirls around.
“Well, Tommy Lee [of Motley Crue] likes those kinda things. I prefer to try and get as much drumming in as possible, and get as much of a show without turning it into a circus ride or what have you.”
But does he still do his famous bare-handed solo, where he passes up the drumsticks and lets the palms of his hands run rampant over his kit?
“Well yeah, people kind of expect that of me for some reason. It’s like the old gladiator thing,” he chuckles, “they like to see blood if they can. I change my solo every tour that goes out, but I always end up havin’ to stick that back in.”
And here’s my 2001 Tommy Aldridge interview, for those who just can’t get enough Tommy Aldridge.