You may not know his name but chances are you've heard his pulsing beat. For the past 20 years, Michael Cartellone has been behind the drums for one of rock and roll's most iconic bands, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Lynyrd Skynyrd. Before that he was a founding member of 90's rock super group Damn Yankees. In between were studio stints on albums by Cher, the late Freddie Mercury, Vince Neil, and many others plus a year on the road with another rock and roll hall of famer, Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty.
It's a career that has seen chart topping hits, platinum records, sold out performances and memories that will last a lifetime. And for Michael Cartellone, none of it would have happened if it hadn't been for a visit to a cousin's house.
Beyond the Beat: Lynyrd Skynyrd/Damn Yankees drummer Michael Cartellone
Family means everything to Michael Cartellone. Ask him about the highlights of his career and a common theme flows through his recollections, concerts where his parents and a multitude of family members were in attendance, and for good reason. It was his parents, and one cousin in particular, who set Michael on the path to where he is today.
Michael says the first time he picked up drum sticks was when he was 8-years old and visiting family. His older cousin Bert had a drum kit and much to Bert's dismay, young Michael was drawn to his drums right away. Cartellone recalls, "Every time we'd visit Bert's house, I'd sneak away into his room. And he knew I was going to do it so he hid the drum sticks and I'd take pencils and play on his kit."
Eventually Michael's parents gave in to their son's passion and arranged for him to take drum lessons. From the same teacher as cousin Bert.
10-year old Michael learning the drums
As Michael's love for drumming grew, others began to take take note and soon he would be playing his first professional gig. "I played a bar when I was 11 and I made $3 that night," says Michael.
Michael's drum teacher played accordion in a polka band and when students had reached a certain level of ability in their studies with him, they got to play a night with the band. The show took place at a small bar near what is now Northfield Park and in the front row of the audience were Michael's parents. The first of many shows they would attend in support of their son and a habit that would lead to what Michael calls the proudest moment of his music career.
But before that pinnacle could happen, Cartellone would first have to cut his chops on the Cleveland club scene.
Clubbing in Cleveland
Bananas, Breakout and a Notion
Many parents and music students may have viewed a polka gig in a small bar as a "nice reward," not necessarily a launch pad for a career in rock and roll. But for Michael Cartellone, that night's performance was only the beginning.
A few years later, Michael would team up with some classmates to form, Anna Banana, a Top 40 cover band that turned out to be an invaluable experience for Michael. "That was my first time playing in a band. Playing at school dances, battle of the bands... it was great fun."
Michael is on the far right in this group photo of his first band, Anna Banana
Anna Banana would evolve over the years, becoming Breakout with and eventually The Notion. according to Michael, playing in the notion would set the tone for what it would take to make it as a professional musician, "I was still in high school, playing four nights a week in bars all over town. It was where I really cut my teeth because you're playing four sets a night, from 9 to 1am, and then waking up for high school the next morning but it was a great learning experience and I have fond memories of that."
"I had the good fortune of playing in a lot of great bands here in Cleveland," Michael continued. "Some were those Top 40 cover bands and I played in a few original bands. One was called Boy Wonder, One was called Jewel of the Deep. Those were fun to be in because it was a very creative time."
The Cleveland Club Years - Michael Cartellone's early bands
Michael, wielding the drumsitcks, in the band Breakout in 1976.
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Michael, wielding the drumsitcks, in the band Breakout in 1976.
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Of course Michael couldn't have spent those high school nights with various bands over the years had it not been for key contributors behind the scenes. "My parents. They were incredibly supportive of my even trying to be a musician. They would always come out wherever I was playing. And they would come out to the dingiest of beer bars and be there right up front with smiles on their faces."
Speaking of clubs, any music fan who was old enough to frequent the Northeast Ohio music scene in the 70's and 80's can tell you it was quite vibrant back then. They were never short on options for live music and everyone had their favorite hangout. For Michael, when it came to performing, one venue in particular held a special place in his heart. "Easily, my favorite place to play back then was the Cleveland Agora, downtown on East 24th. Very famous, storied venue that has had so many famous names and famous recordings come out of that building. A lot of the great memories I have as a Cleveland musician, was on that stage at the Cleveland Agora. No question about it."
The Agora was Michael's favorite Cleveland club to play in during his early years
Because they played all original music, Michael and his bands got to open up for the artists like Billy Idol and Squeeze. Eventually those original bands would run out of steam for one reason or another and Michael was left looking for his next opportunity to grow as a drummer. And he would find it in the form of a legendary British musician.
New York state of mind
A budding friendship sets the stage for stardom
Over the years Michael had become a fan of English prog rock and one instrumentalist in particular. Eddie Jobson is a keyboardist and violinist known for his work with synthesizers while a member of Roxy Music, Frank Zappa's band and the British prog rock supergroup U.K.
While playing in a Doors cover band, Moonlight Drive, Michael starting writing to Eddie in the hopes of securing and audition to work with the Jobson. That correspondence paid off as Cartellone landed an audition and subsequently moved to New York in 1985 to work with Eddie.
Jobson, who was in renowned British progresssive rock groups Roxy Music and UK, convinced Michael to move to New York and eventaully became a close friend and mentor
"When I left Cleveland for New York, it felt like the next logical step for me. At that point I was a freelance drummer hoping to find a home somewhere," says Michael. "So to go there and work with Eddie felt like a natural progression."
The two collaborated on projects for the next several years with Jobson becoming a mentor to Michael. To help make ends meet, Michael took a job in the garment district in the art department of a children's clothing company.
As time passed, Michael saw many of his contemporaries getting touring gigs and he wondered if he should take that route as well. His friend and mentor Eddie thought it would be good for Michael to get a tour under his belt. In search of leads for possible road gigs, Michael started hanging out in the New York club scene and eventually got word that Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw was looking to put a band together to tour in support of his solo record.
NEWARK, NJ - JUNE 26: : Guitarist Tommy Shaw of Styx performs at Prudential Center on June 26, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)
Dave Kotinsky, Custom
Seizing on the opportunity, Michael reached out to Tommy's management team knowing that securing an audition may be a long-shot for the unknown kid from Cleveland but he did have an ace in the hole. "It's very political, getting into these auditions in New York because, being a small fish in a big pond, I didn't have a lot to offer." Michael recalls. "When I mentioned I was doing a recording project with Eddie Jobson, the man from Tommy's management office knew who Eddie was and said, 'Oh! If you work with him, then yes, you can come in and audition."
Michael would beat out 25 other drummers and get the gig in Tommy Shaw's band. Their first tour? Four months on the road opening up for some future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. Michael remembers the moment like it was yesterday. "When I found out I got the gig, Tommy's manager called, I was painting in the clothing company at the time. They said 'You need to take a leave of absence because next week, you're playing Madison Square Garden, opening for Rush. Which was baptism by fire."
But that wasn't the best part of the tour. "Five days later, we came to Cleveland and we played the Richfield Coliseum which is where I saw my first concert back in 1976. It was a dream come true and my parents and all my cousins were in the audience."
As a member of the Tommy Shaw band, Michael Cartellone opened for Rush at the Richfield Coliseum, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
The Tommy Shaw Band tour was a great experience for Michael. One that would prove to be the cornerstone to becoming a multi-platinum artist.
Those Damn Yankees
We know Tommy, Ted and Jack, but who's the skinny kid?
The Tommy Shaw band project would last for a little over a year and when it ended, Shaw was debating whether to return to Styx or embark on a different venture. But an executive at Geffen Records suggested to Shaw's management team that he and rocker Ted Nugent get together and see if there was any chemistry.
The two guitarists agreed to meet and of course they needed a drummer but Cartellone did have his reservations about the pairing. "One day out of the blue, Tommy calls and he says 'Hey, I need you to come in because Ted Nugent is going to fly in and we're going to bounce some ideas off and see if maybe we can put together a project.' I said, 'Yeah, that sounds great.' and I hung up the phone and I thought 'That's never going to work' because they are opposite ends of the spectrum." Contrary to his initial impression, Michael says a case of "opposites attract" actually did make the paring work because "They brought to each other some sensibilities to balance out the other."
Not long after that initial gathering, Shaw would again call Cartellone. This time informing him that another 80's rocker was joining the fold, Night Ranger bassist/vocalist Jack Blades. "Jack turned out to be the perfect balance between Tommy and Ted." says Michael. "When the three of them clicked together, it was undeniable that 'Oh yeah, this is going to work."
Even though he had been involved from the start, Michael wasn't convinced that he would be a full-fledged member of whatever band was taking shape. "I'm the unknown kid from Cleveland, sitting in this room, playing with these three, looking at my watch, thinking 'Yeah, I'm going to be outta here pretty soon."
As the high-powered trio put plans together for a demo, to Jack Blades, the choice for who should be the drummer was obvious. "Michael had played all the songs and it was so easy with him. He fit right in. He picked up things very fast. Ideas we'd throw at him, he could play them. It was always like, 'He's going to be the drummer." And just like that, Cleveland's Michael Cartellone became a member of the 90's version of a super group, Damn Yankees.
In 1990, the Damn Yankees released their self-titled debut album and it took the rock world by storm. Thanks to heavy airplay on radio and MTV, the record would climb to number 13 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
Damn Yankees would sell over 2 million copies and the first four singles from the album, "High Enough", "Coming of Age," "Come Again," and "Runaway" went straight into the Top 10 of the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, with "Coming of Age" peaking at Number One. Their debut single, "High Enough", peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100.
Their second album, Don't Tread, was released in 1992. And while its singles performed well on the rock charts, the group's sophomore effort didn't quite reach the same level of success as the Damn Yankees debut.
Three singles from the album, "Where You Goin' Now," "Don't Tread On Me" and "Mister Please" would land in the Top 10 of the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart but only "Where You Goin' Now" would see any success on the pop charts, peaking at number 20.
Don't Tread on Me would end up being certified gold for selling over 500,000 copies. After a world tour in support of the album, the group decided to take a year off.
Damn Yankees members receiving gold records in acknowledgement of their debut album selling 500,00 copies.
While the Damn Yankees' run was brief, it made for some memorable moments for Michael and he still finds it hard to believe that he was part of rock and roll history. "It was a bit surreal. Even to this day, in my head, I'm still that kid from Cleveland who played down at the Agora, that 11-year old at the polka bar again."
Michael playing the drums while on tour with Damn Yankees
Even though the chart topping music was over, that kid Cleveland was far from done with music and performing. His journey forward would include touring with one Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and becoming a permanent member of perhaps one of the most iconic bands of all time.
Life after Damn Yankees
Freddie, Fogerty and more
During the Damn Yankees' hiatus, Ted Nugent recorded a solo album and Michael toured with him in support of the album. Michael also recorded with Tommy and Jack for their Shaw Blades album and embarked on a short tour with them to promote the record.
Michael playing while on tour with Ted Nugent in 1997
At the end of a year, the four got back together to write new songs. In between various tours for Styx, Night Ranger, Nugent and eventually what would become Michael's longest gig to date, they would continue to meet and write. While a new album has yet to materialize, Michael is quick to point out that that does not mean the Damn Yankees are finished. They never purposefully disbanded and are keeping a reunion an open door to this day. Fans hoping for a reunion can get a glimpse of what one might be like in the video below.
Back on his own as a musician, Michael would become a sought after session drummer for a diverse set of artists like Motley Crue's Vince Neil, Roxy Music's John Wetton, Peter Frampton, Cher and on Freddie Mercury's posthumous solo album, The Great Pretender, for the single "In My Defence."
It was an experience he describes as "quite magical." "I went into the studio, sat behind a drum set, put on the headphones and in those headphones I'm hearing Freddie Mercury play the piano and singing. And then I'd just play along. It was incredibly cool." recalls Cartellone.
Another cool gig that came Michael's way was becoming the tour drummer for Creedence Clearwater Revival founder and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, John Fogerty. "Playing with John was wonderful. An incredibly nice guy. To spend a year with him, was so fun." says Michael.
Here's Michael and John Fogerty during their appearance on the Today Show concert series back in 1998.
Cartellone's time with Fogerty could be viewed as an apprenticeship in southern rock because shortly after the tour ended, he would end up finding a permanent gig with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band.
The Yankee in the Rebel Band
Sweet home Lynyrd Skynyrd
It's not a huge secret that the rock and roll community is very tight knit and can be very tough to break into. But once an artist has achieved a certain level of success, the door to opportunity is thrown wide open as tours overlap and musicians meet up to swap stories of the road, trade licks on various instruments, or watch each others' show and simply bond over a love for rock and roll.
A pivotal career intersections took place in 1998 when Tommy Shaw asked Michael to tour with the newly reformed Tommy Shaw Band opening up for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group Lynyrd Skynyrd. Call it fate or pure coincidence, but Michael's return to the Tommy Shaw Band ended up becoming a prolonged scouting mission for the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
According to Michael, "I learned later that they had been watching our shows and watching me play, thinking 'This could be a fit for us."
Later that year, Lynyrd Skynyrd went into the studio to record what would become the album Edge of Forever. The producer for those sessions was Ron Nevison, the man behind both Damn Yankees albums. Feeling that the sessions could use some extra percussion and knowing that Michael knew the members of the band, Nevison reached out to Michael and asked if he'd sit in. Thinking it was a one-time event, Michael agreed and signed on to play percussion on the album. The members of Lynyrd Skynrd had bigger plans in mind for Michael, "After recording the percussion they said 'What are you doing now? We need a new drummer."
Having played a few Skynyrd songs during his time in Cleveland cover bands, Michael jumped at the opportunity to play with the iconic group but there were some challenges. "Really diving in and learning the catalog was daunting." Michael admits. "But at the same time it ws exhilarating because I realized 'Wow, I'm going to get to play these legendary songs. When you talk about 'Free Bird' and 'Sweet Home Alabama,' those are iconic. I once had a friend say that they were the American equivalent to 'Stairway to Heaven' and I don't think that's that far off. They've become a part of American culture. I don't think I've ever been to a show, with another band, where someone in the audience didn't yell 'Free Bird.' It just happens."
Living the Legacy: Michael Cartellone with Lynyrd Skynyrd
Michael behind the drums for Lynyrd Skynyrd
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Michael behind the drums for Lynyrd Skynyrd
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Twenty years, 5 albums and countless tours later, Michael is still keeping the beat for Lynyrd Skynyrd and doing his best to live up to the legacy of the band's founding members. "I take a lot of pride in playing those songs and by doing so, respecting those original recordings. I look over at (founding member) Gary Rossington as he's playing his trademark part in Free Bird, the slide, and I can become that 7th grade kid again and think, 'Is this really happening?"
It did happen and will continue to do so for the next several years as Lynyrd Skynyrd will kick off their a world tour in May. It is being billed as the band's farewell and Michael says the tour will take approximately three years. Fans, his mom and cousins, will be able to catch Michael and the band when they come to Blossom Music Center with Blackberry Smoke and the Marshall Tucker Band on Friday July 27th. Tickets are on sale now.
Michael heading off to another concert with Lynyrd Skynyrd
Even though there is a light at the end of the touring tunnel for Michael with Lynyrd Skynyrd, that doesn't mean he is done. Remember that job in the art department of the New York clothing store? Michael has been trading his drum sticks for paint brushes.
Where You Goin' Now
Trading banging for brushing
In addition to bringing the cymbals, snares, kickers and different drums on the road, Michael also packs acrylics, canvas and brushes. Why? Because Michael Cartellone is an accomplished painter whose work has been featured in galleries across the country, including last summer at the Downtown Cleveland Hilton.
Michael Cartellone's paintings
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Painting has been a passion of Michael's for almost as long as he's been drumming. "For my life, I've been doing both simultaneously. It really is two halves of a whole. At any given time on any given day, I'm a drummer who paints or a painter who drums."
We caught up with Michael right before his Cleveland exhibit premiered and spoke to him about the inspiration for his artwork.
Whether behind the drum kit or the easel, one could argue that Michael Cartellone is one of the most creative individuals to have come out of Northeast Ohio. And he himself believes that being a Clevelander played a key role in his success.
Coming of Age
Reflections on a career that is far from over
It's no secret that Cleveland has been the butt of many jokes over the years and many outsiders have questioned the city's place in the rock and roll hierarchy. But from Alan Freed first coining the term "rock and roll" on WJW radio back in the 50's to diverse artists such as The Raspberries, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Tracy Chapman, Bone Thugs n Harmony, Devo, The Black Keys, Marc Cohn, The OJay's, Bobby Womack... the list of notable artists who hail from Northeast Ohio could go on and on; Michael knows there is only one rock and roll capitol of the world.
"I consider myself very lucky to come from the home of rock and roll. It's not by chance that this town has produced a lot of great rock musicians, because it started here. The people who haven't experienced Cleveland enough, just don't know what we have and what is in our history. Once they understand it, they get it."
Michael on the drums during a recent Skynyrd concert
And there's something uniquely Cleveland that has made him, and other artists from here, successful. "We're a great blue collar town. And I know the work ethic that was instilled in me as a kid playing the clubs, is in all my other music playing friends that have gone on to do substantial things. You become a sponge and absorb a little bit from every different direction and those end up making up who you become as a musician with your own voice. But it really does come from what you absorb and I absorbed it in the home of rock and roll."
When asked about his journey so far and whether or not he would like to have done anything different, outside of perhaps some 80's haircuts and make-up, Michael says he's happy with the path his career has followed. "I don't think changing anything would have made for a better outcome. Because who I am now is a culmination of everything that led up to this point. Whether it's good or bad experiences, that's created who I am now."
From his time on the Cleveland club circuit to breaking big with Damn Yankees and finally landing with Lynyrd Skynyrd, Michael has countless memorable experiences but there is one that stands above them all. Naturally, it revolves around his beloved hometown and the most important people in his life, his family. "Without a doubt, the highlight of my career has been when the Damn Yankees record went gold. We were on tour and we came and played in Cleveland at Nautica, and my parents and all my cousins were at the show. Afterwards we had a big party backstage and I presented my parents with the gold record. I've had some great experiences since, but nothing has topped that."
The highlight of Michael's career, presenting his parents with his first gold record.
Michael Cartellone still has plenty of notes left to play, but when he does finally lay down the sticks permanently, he will do so knowing that the kid who used to sneak away to play on his cousin's drums realized his dreams. "When all is said and done, I will look back with a feeling of accomplishment because that kid playing in the basement along to my sister's Beatles records... to have achieved what maybe that 9-year old hoped to achieve, I would feel very satisfied."
The journey from a curious kid to Cleveland clubber to chart topping rocker and legacy upholder