BY MIKE LEONARD
Kenny Aronoff is always thrilled to play behind someone he’s yet to work with, but the list of prominent artists gets shorter all the time.
Since he ended his longtime association with Bloomington’s own John Mellencamp in 1997, the gaudy list the drummer has performed with includes Bob Dylan, Jakob Dylan, Elton John, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, The Smashing Pumpkins, Bon Jovi, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Melissa Etheridge, George Jones, and the Buddy Rich Big Band. And many, many more.
Breezing through Hoosierland recently, the effervescent Aronoff could barely contain his excitement over his most recent collaboration with actor Al Pacino. “You can see why he’s the best,” he says. “He’s easy to work with. He loves to perform. He’s just a great guy.”
Aronoff breaks into a spot-on Pacino imitation, his voice rising, his arms animated. “My own band!” he says with relish. “Wow! Yes! I love this!”
Pacino stars in the yet-to-be released movie, Imagine, and portrays what Aronoff describes as a “Neil Diamond kind of character” still known for his hit “Baby Doll” (think “Sweet Caroline”) but whose career otherwise has declined into the best online casino and fan club circuit. The singer, Danny Collins, then discovers a long-lost letter written to him that he never saw during his prime—a letter from John Lennon and Yoko Ono, urging him to keep his own voice and not be swayed by what others want.
The letter prompts Pacino’s character to begin writing songs again and to restart his career. For that, the film producers needed a band. Music producer Don Was grabbed Aronoff and a handful of other veterans, and Pacino was as happy to have his own band as the musicians were to be in a movie with the Hollywood legend.
Aronoff lived in Bloomington from 1972 to 2010 and still calls it home, even though he’s moved to Los Angeles, where he lives with his new wife, Georgina. He credits studying under drum professor George Gaber at the Indiana University School of Music for truly making him a professional musician. “He was not a coddler,” Aronoff says. “He was more like a Marine sergeant.”
The sought-after drummer also credits his IU education for giving him the depth of skills it takes to not only work with countless musicians but to perform in the incredibly difficult tribute shows that typically use one house band to back up a dozen or more artists. We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in 2009 was a prime example. Aronoff backed a score of performers in a variety of genres—from Beyoncé and Usher to Pete Seeger—in a concert telecast around the world.
“No way could you ever learn all that stuff and keep it in your head,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to read music and write music and get the charts ready because there’s almost no time to rehearse.”
At 60, Aronoff still works almost constantly and maintains the ripped physique of a man half his age. “There’s no secret to it,” he says. “It’s discipline. Weightlifting, cardio, stretching, the right food, supplements, water, and sleep. That’s the big seven for me.”
The former Bloomingtonian also is working on a book that will be part autobiography and part inspirational advice, including those seven lessons for healthful living and keeping a career vibrant.