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15 May 2024

John Barbata, Neil Young & Jefferson Starship Drummer, Dies At 79

John Barbata Neil Young Drummer Dies
John Barbata (far right) with Jefferson Starship - Photo: Pictorial Press/Alamy Stock Photo
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John Barbata, the classic rock drummer who played on era-defining records by the Turtles, Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, has died. He was 79.

Jefferson Airplane (and its offshoot Jefferson Starship) confirmed Barbata’s death in official posts on their social media accounts, though a cause of death or an exact date of death were not revealed.

Barbata was “known for his exceptional talent,” Jefferson Airplane wrote in their official statement announcing his death. “Back in ‘72, during a hiatus for CSN&Y, David Crosby introduced John to the Airplane, who hired John instantly. You can hear John’s drumming skills on the band’s final studio album, Long John Silver, as well as the live album Thirty Seconds Over Winterland.”

Born in New Jersey, Barbata moved to Southern California as a teenager, playing in surf-rock bands — he was a member of the Sentinels, whose La Tinia was a local radio hit in 1961 — before joining the Turtles, then riding high after their 1965 cover of Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe. Barbata recorded on their chart-topper and defining track Happy Together and the follow-up smash She’d Rather Be With Me.

Barbata stayed with the group for their final three albums, 1967’s Happy Together, 1968’s The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands and 1969’s Turtle Soup. In his memoir, he recalled a wild London trip where he partied with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, a night that went sideways when a Turtles roadie spilled a pitcher of beer on Lennon.

After the Turtles broke up, Barbata joined CSNY for a run of tour dates that were documented on the live album 4 Way Street, where he played drums on Neil Young‘s Ohio, written in the wake of the Kent State campus shootings.

When that group went on hiatus, Barbata performed on several of its members’ solo albums, including Young’s legendary live album Time Fades Away, Graham Nash’s Songs for Beginners and Stephen Stills’ 1970 self-titled record.

David Crosby recruited him to join the final Jefferson Airplane lineup, and the band later brought him into Jefferson Starship, where he played on hits like Miracles over four LPs: 1974’s Dragon Fly, 1975’s Red Octopus, 1976’s Spitfire and 1978’s Earth.

In addition, Barbata recorded and toured with Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Leon Russell, Doctor John, the Everly Brothers and many more. Barbata, as he recounts in his memoir, declined both an opportunity to drum for Elvis Presley and a chance to join the Eagles, telling the Phoenix New Times that “[David] Geffen walked over to me and said, ‘There is a new group forming, and they want you to be part of it. They are called the Eagles.’ I said, ‘Who the hell are the Eagles? I never heard of them.”

A 1978 car accident and long recovery necessitated his departure from Jefferson Starship, and he largely left the music industry afterward. Barbata published a memoir, The Legendary Life of a Rock Star Drummer, in 2005. He eventually moved to southern Oklahoma, where he spent his last years.

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