If you’ve listened to rock radio for even 30 minutes over the past 40 years, then you’ve probably heard Kenny Aronoff. One of the most in-demand drummers on the planet, his resume features a dizzying assortment of the most chart-busting, trailblazing and influential names in popular music over the past four decades, a virtual who’s who of post-Beatles rock ‘n roll.
Born in 1953 in Albany but raised in the tiny town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Aronoff’s rise to fame is the stuff of fairy tales: He was inspired to play drums when he saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, one month before his 11th birthday, and pleaded with his mother to call the band to say he wanted to join the group, not knowing that his dream would come true exactly 50 years later, in February 2014, when he performed onstage alongside Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Ringo Starr as part of the CBS special The Beatles: The Night That Changed America.
Self-taught from age 11 to 16, Aronoff played in various bands during junior high and high school – including the orchestra, the jazz ensemble, and a rock group called the Alley Cats – and at age 16 decided to concentrate on classical music. In addition to studying with Boston Symphony Orchestra timpanist Vic Firth, he honed his skills at the University of Massachusetts Amherst before transferring to Indiana University’s Jacob’s School of Music, where he was awarded the school’s prestigious Performer’s Certificate for “musical understanding and technical proficiency demonstrated in recital.” During summer breaks, Aronoff played timpani with the BSO at Tanglewood.
Upon graduation in 1976, several orchestras offered Aronoff spots playing timpani but he turned them down, turning his focus to jazz fusion primarily and balancing his time between Massachusetts and New York for about a year studying and gigging. In 1978, Aronoff returned to Indiana where he spent the next two years playing the Midwest club circuit with various rock and fusion acts.
In 1980, Aronoff got his big break when he landed a gig with Indiana native John Mellencamp – billed as “Johnny Cougar” until 1983 – and from there his career behind the kit got turned up to 11. Mellencamp had released four albums already but reached superstar status with his 1982 album American Fool, Aronoff’s second with Mellencamp, which was #1 in the Billboard 200 for nine weeks and the single from which, “Jack & Diane,” spent four weeks at #1 in the Billboard Hot 100 and introduced Aronoff’s hard-hitting style to the world with a thunderous lead-in as iconic in rock history as Phil Collins’ on 1981’s “In the Air Tonight.” Aronoff backed Mellencamp, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, for 17 years, appearing on 10 Mellencamp albums in total.
In the mid ’80s, Aronoff began doing session work for other artists during his time off from Mellencamp’s band and since then he’s appeared on albums by Bob Dylan, Jon Bon Jovi, Bob Seger, Belinda Carlisle, Indigo Girls, Meat Loaf, Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Lenny Kravitz, Kid Rock, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Slash, Eric Clapton, Dave Grohl, Jack White, Garth Brooks, Alanis Morissette, Johnny Cash, Avril Lavigne, B. B. King, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Beyonce, Mick Jagger, Ray Charles, Alice Cooper, Santana, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Celine Dion, Alice Cooper, and Willie Nelson.
Since the late 1990s, Aronoff has performed and/or toured with a host of top names including Melissa Etheridge, Bob Seger, John Fogerty, Richie Sambora, Smashing Pumpkins, BoDeans and Joe Cocker, and he’s taught as an associate professor at Indiana University – which now offers a Kenny Aronoff Percussion Scholarship – while hosting drum clinics and producing instructional videos. In 2016, Rolling Stone magazine named Aronoff #66 in its “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time” list and several times he’s been selected #1 Pop/Rock Drummer and #1 Studio/Session Drummer in Modern Drummer magazine readers’ polls. Aronoff owns a recording studio, Uncommon Studios LA, in North Hollywood.
In 2016, Backbeat Books published Aronoff’s autobiography, Sex, Drums, Rock ‘n’ Roll! The Hardest Hitting Man in Show Business with a forward written by Neil Peart, illustrious drummer and primary lyricist of the Canadian progressive-rock band Rush, in which Peart wrote “Talent, energy, dedication, discipline, passion, innovation, education, drive, mind, body, spirit, vision, honor, truth, and drums make the man: Kenny Aronoff.”
(by D.S. Monahan – April 2022)
Published on October 26, 2015