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photo:Chris Shields

The Road Warrior
By Bill Ketzer

Between a weekly open-mic night, shows with various local bands, and a regular gig backing “Elvis,” Joey Pucci is a drummer in demand

Joey Pucci just flew in from Vegas, and boy are his arms tired. Unlike most people, however, the 39-year old drummer flies into Sin City to pay his mortgage rather than gamble it away.

Pucci, once known locally for his work in rock bands like Dirty Face and the Groove Assassins, today finds himself on call lists at some of America’s most popular resort destinations—venues like the Claridge Casino in Atlantic City and Chicago’s Paramount Theatre. In the basement of his Voorheesville home, no less than three drum kits are at various stages of preparation, one in cases in the garage, ready for the weekend’s shows. His walls are plastered with all-access passes, showbills and drumheads signed by everyone from the Foo Fighters to legendary Elvis Presley drummer D. J. Fontana. Elvis in particular holds a special place in Pucci’s heart, because of the way The King helped build his career.

“The first casino show I did was with an Elvis act at the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City in 1997,” Pucci says. “But I dodged my first Elvis impersonator for six months. Every time I came home I had a message on my machine from this guy. . . . I thought he was crazy, but it turned into a four-year working relationship with the Jordanaires, who backed up everybody from Elvis to Patsy Cline. That’s pretty much how I got to where I am now.”

Using contacts from that experience, Pucci found more work with other impersonator acts, including stints as house drummer at the aforementioned Tropicana, a 1,200-seat room where he performed six nights a week for almost three months. There he befriended top Atlantic City show producer Allen Valentine, who liked his alacrity and soon tapped him as a liaison to impersonators—singers/actors who portray anyone from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson. (“They’re all a little nuts,” Pucci confides.) With that connection and a budding reputation as a reliable pro, he soon grabbed spots at the Gatlin Brothers Theater in Myrtle Beach and the Mystic Lake Casino in Minneapolis.

“In 1998 alone, I did over 400 shows, not including local gigs,” he says. “I also did a run with Don Rickles. I was working with a “Rat Pack” impersonator show (at Mystic Lake) and I got a call to fill in. He incorporated me into his act. He put a long black wig on and said, ‘Girls, what do you think of the drummer?’ Everyone’s hooting and hollering, and he says, ‘Yeah, well, we think these couple of shows will finish the operation and he can complete his sex change. We’re gonna work on that, right Joey?’”

Besides being a good sport, Pucci is what business moguls call a great “road drummer,” meaning that “the production manager never gets a phone call from the cops. . . . They never have to bail me out of DWIs or drug busts,” he explains. “Some guys get on the road and they go insane. Some of the biggest musicians in this area, they think they want this, to be on the road, and then it happens and they’re afraid. . . . There’s a reason for that. Sometimes there’s nothing [waiting] for you when you get back, and let’s face it, if your wife doesn’t say ‘OK,’ you wouldn’t be doing it. Luckily, I get a lot of love and support from my wife Cindy, who was with me before the whole Elvis thing.”

The time away from home is tough, he says, but the learning curve was also difficult because of the business structure and breakneck pace of casino life. “All the musicians are independent contractors. . . . Everyone negotiates their own take,” says Pucci. “It’s not like the local bar [where] the band splits the door. Shows are 60 minutes, to the minute. You go 62 and you’re in trouble because that’s two minutes that 1,200 gamblers aren’t gambling. And that even goes for Elton John! You get one hour to rehearse, then you’re live in front of 1,000 people. It’s a real pressure cooker.”

What’s more, resort gigs last only 10 to 15 weeks, while the cost of living rolls on. Currently, Pucci drums for local party band Good for the Soul (led by the immensely popular Sue Bellens) to balance his checkbook. “They are the best horn band in the Capital District, no matter what anyone says, and they’re only getting bigger,” he claims. “Sue has been in this a long time . . . all over the world. She’s a real road warrior, too.”

By this he means that it’s easier to prioritize his road commitments when working with local musicians who have also traveled. This is an ideal situation in the music trade, where too often egos, resentment and hypersensitivity prevail, almost to a point of psychosis.

“There [are] very few Saturday nights where I’m not making somebody happy and pissing somebody off at the same time, because you can’t be in two places at once,” he says, considering the dilemma a mark of competence rather than just a cross to bear. “Thankfully, everyone in Good for the Soul is on the same page. . . . They know if someone gets a call, they have to go. I’ve had guys get mad because I bag their $100 gig for a $600 show, you know, the whole high-school thing—‘Whaddaya mean you’re jammin’ with someone else?’ It’s so insane to me, but you learn to be low-key about it, because plastering your resume is just gonna lose you work. It’s hard, because you’re proud if it. I just flew to Las Vegas for one show, a gig with a few other guys I know . . . and there were four limos waiting for us when we got there. One for each guy. How could you not want to talk about that?’

“You gotta think about yourself, you gotta learn to juggle. . . . Aren’t you kind of screwed if you don’t?” he continues. “Sometimes you come [home] and you’re going to open-mic nights for gigs. I still host one at the Bayou in Albany, but most recently I’ve been concentrating on teaching as well.”

Pucci emphasizes that teaching requires total focus and dedication; only recently he felt he had come to a space where he could handle it. “I want to give these young guys all I can give them,” he says. “I see myself in a lot of them, and I can help them in a lot of different ways besides drumming. Some of them aren’t going to be drummers, some are, but they’re all drummers right now.”

His care and concern for young musicians began with his father, also named Joe, who worked full-time and played in the High Fives, a Cohoes wedding band, for more than 30 years.

“I remember hearing the car door, the gear hitting the floor at 4 AM,” he recalls. “But it never stopped him from getting up and spending time with us. My father paid for our house with his wedding money. I owe it all to my pop and my mom, Phyllis. They had to put up with a lot. They’d blast the TV so they could hear over the drums. One time all my mother’s good china fell off the wall. But if I’m within 600 miles, the whole family still comes to see me play. . . . My brother Carl, my sister Karen . . . they get rooms, spend the weekend. So really it’s all worthwhile if you’re making someone proud like that.”

Carl in particular, Pucci explains, had a big influence on his decision to start drumming, because music plays such a big role in his life. “He made me into a Keith Moon freak by 6 years old,” he says. “We shared a bedroom, and he’d put those big Princess Lea headphones on me . . . took me to see the Stones, the Who, a few of the Beatles. My mom was nervous a few times, but he dragged me around by the shirt collar and I was fine.”

After high school, Pucci turned down offers to play college football and earned a degree in music education at Schenectady County Community College. (“The only ‘A’ I got in high school was in band,” he admits.) Soon after, he found himself in a van, hitting nightclubs cross-country with Dirty Face. “It was a learning experience,” he says. “I learned that it was either time to get a real job or start making money doing this stuff.”

So he talked his way into Switch, an area cover outfit comprising his brother’s friends. “I was like, ‘Hundred bucks a night? To play drums? You’re kidding me,’” he says. “It was a lot at the time, and within six months I was booking it. I said, ‘These guys could play more,’ so I bought a briefcase, got a demo and booked the thing. Just went in, acted professional and sold it. And I still do it to this day.”

Soon after, Pucci captured the attention of the Groove Assassins’ Jay Yager (now with Burners UK). “So there it (became) $250 a night. For covers! Remember, I resolved to do it for life, and as a drummer there’s not going to be any songwriting royalties, so I wasn’t worrying about that. You’re a hired gun, a utility guy, so keep your schedule busy.”

Armed with that knowledge, Pucci finally returned Elvis’ phone call after a friend told him how much money the act made regularly. Until recently, Pucci shared the stage every weekday in the summer with that very same coiffured impressionist. “We played five times a day at the Great Escape in Lake George, and I was still doing night gigs,” he recalls. “At one point I had drum kits set up in three different places at once.”

That may change in the near future, because Pucci is poised to become a music director at the same resorts he frequents as a drummer. In that capacity, he’ll be the one doing the hiring. Even so, he winces when asked about long-term goals. “No, I don’t really do the goal thing,” he explains. “I know I’ll be drumming, because I’m faster and more relaxed than I’ve ever been. I’d love to hook up with a good national act like Garth Brooks or Annie Lennox. I know I could do it. Anyone I’ve ever worked for on the circuit always calls back. I go in smiling and I leave smiling. There’s no worry. Drummer? Check. Check it off the list. Call Pucci.”

Joey Pucci will perform with Good for the Soul at 10 PM Saturday (Feb. 11) at Mar inara Ristorante (612 Watervliet Shaker Road, Latham). His open-mic night is every Wednesday at the Bayou Café (79 N. Pearl St., Albany). Visit www.goodforsoul.com, www.joeypucci.com, www.blueskyrecord ing.com, or www.bayou cafe.com for more details.


ROUGH MIX

-no rough mix this week-



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