Cleveland native Michael Cartellone has had quite a career in rock and roll. He first started out in the music industry as the drummer for Tommy Shaw’s solo band. That eventually led him to join the supergroup Damn Yankees. The multi-platinum selling group featured Shaw from Styx (guitar, vocals), Jack Blades from Night Ranger (bass, vocals) and Ted Nugent (guitar, vocals) and Cartellone (drums).
After the Damn Yankees went on a hiatus in the mid nineties, Cartellone joined legendary southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd where he has been behind the kit since 1999.
Besides drumming, Cartellone’s other passion is art. He is an accomplished painter and will soon have an exhibit open at the Hilton Cleveland Downtown. Michael will be on hand to welcome guests to see his new exhibit on July 8th.
NEO Music Scene recently spoke with Michael to discuss his new art exhibit and his remarkable career in music.
Greg Drugan: Hello Michael, thanks for speaking with me, how are you doing today?
Michael Cartellone: I’m fine! Thanks for squeezing me into your schedule today.
GD: No problem. It’s nice to have a Cleveland boy come back to town. Tell me about your new exhibit that’s going to open this summer.
MC: It’s Saturday, July 8th and it’s going to be downtown at the new Hilton. They have a really great art instillation at that hotel. I should say that the gallery that represents the Wentworth Gallery are presenting the show that is being held at the Hilton. When the Hilton opened up last year, they contacted me to do a painting for the art instillation which was going to go into the hotel. I painted a drum head for them and there are actually going to be paintings on drum heads at this show that’s coming up.
So when they asked me to do this painting on the drum head, they asked if I would do something that was representative of the Cleveland music scene, which of course I was born and raised there. So the first thing that came to mind was the powerhouse WMMS and the artist, David Helton’s Buzzard. That was just the coolest thing. So I did a little painted tribute and that painting is in the restaurant. I thought the logical thing would be to do the show there since they already have some of my work hanging up.
GD: So the show will have all different kinds of your artwork?
MC: Yes, there will be about 70 different pieces there. The art ranges stylistically from photo realistic portraits, landscapes, pop art, to art history. It really does cover a wide spectrum stylistically. When I started preparing for the show in Cleveland, I really wanted to do something that really tips my hat (to Cleveland) because I’m from there. So I’m doing a handful of paintings that’s really kind of nostalgic memories that I have as a native Clevelander. Right now I’m in my apartment in New York and I’m sitting in front of my easel and I’m finishing one of those paintings. It’s an old restaurant that used to be downtown where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is now. It used to be called Captain Frank’s. This was an iconic Cleveland restaurant from the ‘50s and ‘60s. I’m a child of the ‘60s and it reflects the era I grew up in.
I’m also doing a painting of a bottling company from Cleveland called Little Tom and they made these really bright colored soda. Kids used to go crazy over these things. So I painted the Little Tom soda label, which was really fun. Years ago there was a character we used to see every Christmas called Mr. Jingeling. Mr. Jingeling was a Cleveland Christmas character who would appear at the Hally’s store then of course Higbee’s. You would go downtown and meet him and get a picture with him, but then you would get a key because he was the keeper of the keys to Santa’s workshop. So I also painted Mr. Jingeling’s key. People that are native to the area would completely relate to it and have a fond memory of these things. I also did a painting as a tribute to the Cleveland Indians but I will leave that one a surprise when they come and check it out.
GD: That’s awesome, I love the Cleveland connection. I saw your video on “The Four David’s” where did you get the idea to use the same subject, painting from different angles using four very different styles? It’s a very cool concept!
MC: I should mention that “The Four David’s” will be at the exhibit. My wife and I had gone to Florence, Italy on our honeymoon and we went to see the David in person and it was astounding. I said that I wanted to paint something in tribute to the statue. So I started coming up with ideas, then I realized that I couldn’t come up with just one idea. Then I thought that I’ll paint it more than once. So I thought I’ll paint it four times and if I do that, I’ll paint it in four different times in art history. I started going to museums and started researching art history. So this represents a period from 1889 to 1984. They represent four very different, unique areas of art. I wanted to use those era’s of inspiration and create a brand new work, but have it tip the hat to art history.
GD: You did an excellent job. When did you know that you had artistic ability; were you artistic first or were you musical first?
MC: It was artistic first. My kindergarten teacher saw something and suggested to my parents that they encourage that. The summer in between kindergarten and first grade, my parents enrolled me in the Cleveland Institute of Art and I took a summer course there. At a proper institute they’re going to teach the traditional nuts and bolts. A lot of that went over my head because I was more interested in painting that Planter’s Peanut guy! Which I did, and I still have! (laughs)
That summer course did create a lifelong love of visual art. I then studied all throughout high school and took every art class that I could and I’ve never stopped since. I started drumming when I was 9, so the music and the visual art always coincided. For me, it’s two halves of a whole and I could not imagine only doing one. It’s the perfect balance for me.
GD: What is your favorite medium to work in?
MC: I paint with acrylic. I, more often than not, carry a canvas out on tour when Skynyrd’s on the road. I sit in my hotel room and paint in the afternoon. Acrylic dries very quickly and I have to pack up my canvas and put it on the tour bus to drive to the next city.
GD: Being from Cleveland, I know you were in town last year for the RNC; what do you think of the renaissance that the city has gone through in the past few years?
MC: I think it’s amazing! The Hilton, where the show’s going to be, was built before the convention came to town. I haven’t lived in Cleveland since 1985, but you can kinda mark a ten year period how the city has changed. Especially the last couple of years. I love all the new vitality in the downtown area. There was always something magical about going downtown. I love the new rebirth that the city is having.
GD: Looking back on your musical career; how did you get hooked up with the Damn Yankees?
MC: It begins with me moving to New York City in 1985. I went to work with a British progressive rock musician named Eddie Jobson. He had been in a band called UK, he was in Frank Zappa’s band and Roxy Music and I was a fan of his. So I auditioned for him and moved to New York to work with him. About two years later, I ended up landing a gig with Tommy Shaw, who had just left Styx and went solo. So I went on tour with him to promote the record that he just released and that would have been 1987.
We became the opening act for Rush and we came to Cleveland at the Richfield Coliseum. To come back to Cleveland and play at the Richfield Coliseum was dream come true for me! Fast forward about two years, Tommy decides to get together with Ted Nugent and try to write some songs and see if there was any chemistry. Tommy was going to meet Ted in our rehearsal room, and conveniently my drums were already set up, so Tommy said “Why don’t you come play with us?” Very unofficially, that’s how I became the drummer of the Damn Yankees.
GD: Was that intimidating at all playing in front of those guys?
MC: I certainly was very aware that I was the young, unknown guy in a room full of very famous people. (laughs) However, Tommy, Jack and Ted really took me under their wing and they saw something in me to make them think that I should be the drummer in this band. They were very encouraging and supportive. I have nothing but great memories and I can even bring that up to present day. Just the other night, Night Ranger opened for Skynyrd and I got up with Night Ranger and we played “Coming of Age” which was incredibly fun!
GD: Recently, a lot of bands are having reunions and are getting back together, is that something that may happen with the Damn Yankees?
MC: That absolutely is a possibility! We have talked about it over the years, but we have four people with very busy careers; Styx, Night Ranger, Skynyrd and Nugent. Everyone is working at the same time, so to try and find a window of opportunity where we are all available at the same time has proven at this time, impossible. (laughs) I will tell you, it is not about the desire because everyone gets along great. In fact, we were all just texting yesterday because Ted and Tommy found out I got up with Jack. It would be wonderful if we could do that and hopefully, one day we will.
GD: That would be great! After Damn Yankees broke up, the Skynyrd gig happened. How did you end up with them and did you have to audition?
MC: Well, I have to clarify and say Damn Yankees never actually broke up. It just went on a hiatus that hasn’t lifted twenty years later! (laughs) We purposely kept that door open.
The short version is that I’ve known the Skynyrd guys a long, long time. Back in 1998, they were recording a record in Nashville, where I was living at the time. Ron Nevison who produced both Damn Yankees records, was producing the new Skynyrd record. So he called one day and asked if I would come down and say hello. The next thing I knew, they hired me to play percussion on that record and then they asked me to join the band. Regarding an audition, no that didn’t happen. They gave me a couple of songs to learn and then they said why don’t we play these together to make sure it feels good. So it was basically my gig to lose. Greg, I have to mention that I’m going into my 20th year in Skynyrd and I still get referred to as “That guy in Damn Yankees!” (laughs)
GD: How is everyone’s health in the band? I know that both Gary and Johnny had health scares last year.
MC: Yes, everyone is doing well. I’m knocking on wood as we speak. Everyone is happy and healthy. This thing is a machine. Everyone in this band loves what they do and we have 70 shows on the schedule this year.
GD: Are there any plans for any new music?
MC: Regarding Skynyrd, Gary Rossington, Johnny Van Zant and Rickey Medlocke are writing some new material. I don’t believe with our busy summer schedule, that plans haven’t moved beyond the writing stage yet. There is always new music that will be coming from Skynyrd.
I have a fun little side project that I’m doing. I’m writing some British power-pop music. It’s a little too soon to talk about that yet, but yes there is something that I’m doing just for fun.
GD: You’ve got your art, touring with Skynyrd and your power-pop project. Sounds like you’ve had a great career and a great life!
MC: Life is good! It’s really about a creative release. I need to express this stuff that’s bottled up inside.
GD: Michael, thanks again for your time. I am excited to see your new exhibit in Cleveland this summer and I look forward to seeing you in person.
MC: Greg, thank you so much!
Check out Michael Cartellone’s new art exhibit and meet him in person at the Hilton Cleveland Downtown on Saturday, July 8th from 1 pm – 4 pm. You can check out more of his artwork and music at www.michaelcartellone.com