Even for those who hadn’t read the program, there was a dead giveaway that the Center Stage luncheon would have a very different kind of keynote speaker: A full drum set in the middle of the stage.
Alternately wielding the sticks and the mic, legendary drummer Kenny Aranoff wowed the 2023 GPA Midstream Convention in San Antonio with lessons learned from playing on numerous Grammy-winning and nominated songs and albums.
Aronoff credits his four decades of success collaborating with chart-topping artists to continually adapting and essential skills like leadership, teamwork and dealing with adversity.
Since seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show when he was 10 years old, Aranoff focused on forging a career as a drummer. His decades as a go-to drummer in pop, rock, and country, led to playing with his inspiration Ringo Starr in a 2014 CBS special on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 appearance.
“To be successful and stay successful you have to love what you do,” Aronoff said. He juggles performances, speaking engagements, recording sessions, podcasts, teaching and writing, and at age 70 isn’t slowing down. “I don’t want to turn off the lights at night because I’m digging what I do.”
He regaled the audience with behind-the-scenes stories of playing with artists, including The Smashing Pumpkins, Melissa Etheridge, Jon Bon Jovi, Elton John, Bob Dylan and numerous others. Aranoff was part of making iconic music that sold 300+ million records, including more than 1,300 albums that went Gold, Platinum, or Diamond. Rolling Stone Magazine chose him as one of their “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time.”
One of his longest-running collaborations was with heartland rocker John Mellencamp, which included studio albums and eight years of touring.
The experience of turning a Mellencamp-written song into an indelible part of the American culture was a collaborative effort involving each member of the band, Aranoff told the gathering. “We all look through a different lens that comes from the world we grew up in.”
Mellencamp, he said, would look to Aranoff to transform a simple beat to something that would lift the song from good to transcendent. “You start simple, embellish that, embellish again and then go entirely outside of the box.”
He got behind the drums to demonstrate, and then drummed to several Mellencamp hits.
Mellencamp “was always trying to elevate to sell his product,” Aronoff said. “Being innovative and creative was absolutely imperative to stay relevant. You adapt or die.”
Before ending with a mind-bending drum solo and a medley of hits he backed including the title song of the movie “That Thing You Do,” Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” Meatloaf’s “Anything for Love,” and Jon Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory,” Aronoff called on attendees to find their purpose.
“When you live your life doing what you’re supposed to be doing, you will find joy and purpose,” he said.
Audience members gave Aranoff a standing ovation when he concluded. As one long-time GPA Midstream member put it, "That's the best keynote speech I've ever seen, and it wasn't just the drumming."