All ‘Starr’ drummer

Mott graduate marches to the beat of his own drum

By: Maria Allard | Warren Weekly | Published August 7, 2020

 Former Warren resident Gregg Bissonette grew up idolizing drummer Ringo Starr. Bissonette now is a member of the former Beatles’ band.

Former Warren resident Gregg Bissonette grew up idolizing drummer Ringo Starr. Bissonette now is a member of the former Beatles’ band.

Photo by Scott Robert Ritchie

 Standing next to Ringo Starr, Gregg Bissonette, fourth from left, takes a moment with Ringo Starr And His All Starr Band.

Standing next to Ringo Starr, Gregg Bissonette, fourth from left, takes a moment with Ringo Starr And His All Starr Band.

Photo by Scott Robert Ritchie

 Gregg Bissonette, top left, and his brother Matt Bissonette, bottom left, once played in the David Lee Roth Band. Also pictured are Lee, center; guitarist Steve Vai, bottom right; and keyboardist Brett Tuggle, top right.

Gregg Bissonette, top left, and his brother Matt Bissonette, bottom left, once played in the David Lee Roth Band. Also pictured are Lee, center; guitarist Steve Vai, bottom right; and keyboardist Brett Tuggle, top right.

Photo provided by Gregg Bissonette

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“Catching Up With Alumni” highlights the accomplishments of local high school graduates. In this issue, we look at 1977 Mott High School graduate and musician Gregg Bissonette.

 

WARREN — While growing up in Warren, Gregg Bissonette spent many hours in his basement on Shady Drive pounding away on his drum set.

The young musician practiced his skills playing Beatles songs while emulating his drum hero: Ringo Starr.

Those years perfecting the Beatles’ music led Bissonette to nab the gig of a lifetime. Bissonette, who graduated from Mott High School in 1977, has been playing drums with Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band since 2008.

The band performs Starr’s solo songs and Beatles classics around the world. The current band includes Steve Lukather, Colin Hay, Gregg Rolie, Warren Ham, Hamish Stuart and Bissonette, who pinches himself knowing he’s in his idol’s rock group.  

“We were supposed to be on tour right now, but it’s postponed until 2021,” Bissonette said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When on stage, the former Beatle and Bissonette spend 70% on double drums sitting five feet from each other — drumsticks flying and down beats rocking.

“I’m right next to him. It is absolutely amazing. I get into his groove and his swing. I want to be locked in,” said Bissonette, who owns a Dixon kit. “I stare at his snare drum. He’s the reason I play the drums.”

Bissonette then takes over the drumming spotlight when Starr ventures out in front of the band to sing “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Photograph,” “A Little Help From My Friends,” “Matchbox” and “Yellow Submarine” for the crowd. In recent years, the band played the Fox Theatre in Detroit and Caesars Windsor Hotel & Casino in Windsor, Ontario.

“The drums are what people dance to. I’m just really into getting the audience moving,” he said. “You set the tempo. You get the beat going. When people are dancing, that’s what makes me happy. When people are clapping and tapping their feet, then you know you’ve done your job.”

Bissonette’s friendship with Starr dates back to 2003, when he joined the famed musician’s other band, Ringo and the Roundheads, which performs on late-night television shows.

“I was just freaking out,” Bissonette said when he first met the music icon, who just turned “80 years young.” “He’s a really great friend. He always says, ‘Peace and love,’ but it’s not some fake thing. He really shows those around him a lot of love.”

There’s also time for reminiscing. On the plane or backstage, Starr will open up to the band about his days with the Beatles.

“We get him talking, and it’s so cool,” Bissonette said. “He has such incredible memories. I tell him I got in a band because of him.”

Bissonette comes from a musical family. It was his mom, Phyllis, on piano and vibraphone and dad, Bud, on drums who set the tone. His brother, Matt, a 1979 Mott grad, is currently playing bass in Elton John’s band. His sister, Kathy, a 1980 Mott grad, works in concert promotion in Los Angeles.


‘The Beatles are staying upstairs’
The year 1966 was golden for Bissonette — he saw the Beatles in concert at Olympia Stadium in Detroit.

“My dad was playing a wedding at the Ambassador Hotel. He came out of a break, and there were thousands of girls screaming,” Bissonette said. When his dad asked an employee what all the commotion was, he found out “the Beatles are staying upstairs.”

Bud inquired about concert tickets but was told the show had been sold out for six months. However, the employee told him to come back at 1 a.m. where the hotel worker had some tickets for $6 a piece. Bud paid the tab and took Matt, Bissonette and a friend to the unforgettable Beatles concert.

“We were up in the nosebleeds. You could barely hear them cause the girls and the whole crowd were screaming so much. I talk to Ringo a lot about those days. They didn’t have any monitors to listen to their vocals back through or their instruments. They just had little amps.”

Bissonette and Matt were so serious about music, they played in jazz bands when attending Beer Middle School and Mott. Gerald Hasspacher was one of their teachers. The brothers eventually joined their dad’s Buddy Blair Band, the house band at the Roostertail in Detroit.

As they grew into their teens, Bissonette and his brother banded together, performing in a lot of groups around metro Detroit, including the band Grand Circus Park. Roma Hall, the Warren Chateau (now DeCarlo’s Banquet Center), Halmich Park, the Boblo Boat, local high school dances, the Michigan State Fair and the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island were among the spots the various bands drew fans. Another group for Bissonette was the Sharette Family, which for the record, was pretty colorful.

“Everything was orange. They had an orange GMC motorhome,” Bissonette recalled. “We all wore orange shirts and white pants. We played a lot of gigs at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club. It was kind of like the Osmond Brothers or like the Partridge Family. I was the drummer. They didn’t have a drummer in their family.”

After graduating from Mott, Bissonette moved to Denton, Texas, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music education at North Texas State University, now the University of North Texas.

“My goal was to get a music education degree so that, if I didn’t make it playing professionally, then I would be a middle school band director,” the drummer said.

But by May of 1982, Bissonette relocated to Los Angeles with his heart set on becoming a recording artist and touring musician. Bissonette’s talent and musicianship landed him spots with many artists, including Maynard Ferguson’s Big Band, Gino Vannelli, the Electric Light Orchestra, Santana, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Duran Duran, Don Henley, Rick Springfield and Toto. From 1985-1992, the former Warren resident played in the David Lee Roth band after Roth left Van Halen for a solo career. Roth’s knowledge of music impressed Bissonette.

“That was my first big rock gig,” said the drummer, adding that, after the Beatles, old Van Halen is his second favorite band. “David Lee Roth knows so much about music, different styles and different bands.”

Warren guitarist Brian Biggs was once a member of Grand Circus Park. He met Bissonette at Beer, and they still keep in touch.

“He’s one of the great drummers. He is one of the top five guys in L.A. getting session work,” Biggs said of his childhood friend. “He’s a very talented player. He gets to double drum with Ringo every night. How cool is that? He is loved not only as a drummer, but as a person.”

In between shows, Bissonette teaches drum clinics and speaks at seminars. During the COVID-19 shutdown, he’s still doing session work and offering virtual drum lessons. His music  can be heard on television shows “Friends” and “Family Guy.” He’s also passed on his musical genes to son, Noah, 22, and daughter, Mary, 19.

Bissonette’s advice to drummers just starting out: “Play with live musicians, bass players, guitar playing, singers, horn players. As a drummer, you have to pick that tempo for the song. You have to hold that tempo for the whole length of the song. Work on all your beats and fills and rudiments.”

You also have to get along with others.

“What kind of person are you? Are you somebody people are going to want to be in a band with? You got to be somebody that lifts people up, that doesn’t complain, and you try to make the band sound great. I still to this day want to be in a band because of Ringo.”

For more on Gregg Bissonette, visit his website at greggbissonette.com.

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