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Drummer Lala, who teamed with a generation of rock stars, dead at 66

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2014 at 07:22 AM

TAMPA — Joe Lala, regarded as one of greatest musicians to come out of Tampa for his drum work a generation of rock’s top performers, died at a hospital Tuesday morning at 66 of complications from lung cancer.

Lala, a Tampa native, performed percussion for such influential acts as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Allman Brothers, The Eagles, The Bee Gees, The Byrds, Eric Clapton, Neal Diamond, Kenny Rogers, John Mellencamp and Barbara Streisand.

He accumulated 32 Gold Records and 28 Platinum records and played on the movie soundtracks of “Saturday Night Fever,” “Staying Alive,” “D.C. Cab,” “Streets of Fire” and many more.

Lala was perhaps best known locally for the Latin-tinged pop/rock band Blues Image, founded in Tampa and famous for the song “Ride Captain Ride” — No. 4 during 1970 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Canadian RPM magazine charts.

He survived by his brother, Michael. Services have not yet been scheduled.

Late Monday night, told Lala had taken a turn for the worse, musician Graham Nash told the Tribune, “Joe Lala has been a friend and musical partner with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young for many years. He is a good hearted man and has a great sense of humor. We all wish him the very best and hope for a speedy recovery.”

Lala died a few hours later.

“He is undoubtedly one of the all-time great musicians in the history of this city,” said Tampa radio personality and Lala’s longtime friend Tedd Webb. “Take a look at his discography and all the people he played with. To play with so many legends you have to be a legend.”

His list or recordings is at joelala.com.

“Stephen Stills is one of the most demanding musicians I have ever known and he would ask specifically for Joe,” said Michael Garcia, former road manager for Stills, of CSNY, Buffalo Springfield and Manassas fame. “That alone speaks volumes about Joe’s talent.”

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Lala also had success as an actor. He hade 58 credits, including roles on “Seinfeld,” “Miami Vice” and “Melrose Place” as well as cartoons such as “Jimmy Neutron,” “Johnny Bravo” and “The Batman.”

Webb, who performed alongside Lala for the past year-and-a-half in a local band called the West Tampa Four, said he will remember his friend more for his heart than his musical or acting talent.

Ten years ago, Lala gave up his career to return to Tampa to care for his ailing mother, Janie Cacciatore Hondal.

“I don’t know many people who would do that,” Webb said. “He had more love in his heart than just about anyone else I ever met.”

Lala’s mother died earlier this year at 98.

Webb said that Lala planned on returning to Los Angeles to revive his career.

“It wasn’t easy on him,” said Lala’s longtime friend Tony Zappone of Tampa. “But his mother did so much for him. His father left them when Joe was a little kid so she raised him on her own. He would never have abandoned her.”

Lala credited his mother with the man he became.

He was born and raised in Ybor City during a time when big bands performed at the district’s social clubs.

Lala’s mother, an avid dancer, would take her son to as many shows as she could.

While his mother danced, he would watch the musicians.

“I’d stare specifically at the drummer and think, ‘I want to be that sweaty guy pounding on the drums,’” Lala said in a 2006 article published in La Gaceta Newspaper.

His first set of drums was a collection of ice buckets. He would turn them upside down and pound them to the beats of the music on the radio.

When he was 14, his mother bought him his first real set of drums and for the next few years, he used to quip, his name was known by every cop in town. Law enforcement regularly had to ask him to stop playing late at night so the neighbors could sleep.

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In 1966 Lala joined the band that would launch his career — Blues Image. It featured fellow Jefferson High School graduates Mike Pinera and Manny Bertamatti, along with Skip Conte and Malcolm Jones.

They moved to Miami in 1967 and opened for The Doors, Janis Joplin, Cream with Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds with Jimmy Page.

In 1969, on the advice of rock legend Frank Zappa, Blues Image headed west to Los Angeles, where they became the house band at the iconic music venue Whiskey a Go-Go.

During his initial year in California, Lala also jammed with Jimi Hendrix, Rick Derringer and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

That year, Blues Image was invited to Woodstock, but on the advice of their manager chose to perform at a venue in Binghamton, N.Y., instead, believing the now historic outdoor concert would be rained out.

One year later, Blues Image hit it big with their song “Ride Captain Ride.”

“That was exciting,” said friend Webb. “They were our band and were known all over the country. I was so proud of them.”

Today, the song remains popular. In recent years, it has been featured in both “Anchorman” movies, on an episode of the television show “Lost” and as the theme song of comedy Central’s celebrity roast of William Shatner.

The band’s success as a group was short-lived, however. They broke up before to the release of a new album in 1971.

Lala’s career was just beginning.

Fellow Tampa native Stephen Stills called him and asked he join his new band, Manassas.

In a 1974 interview in England’s Sounds Magazine, Stills called the Italian Lala who was raised in a Latin community “an answer to a prayer.”

“I desperately wanted to find a ‘Spanglish’ a Latin-Cuban player, cause I was going absolutely crazy trying to play that kind of music with those Turkey white drummers,” Stills said in the interview.

“So one day I’m in the Whisky watching the Blues Image and it was fronted by this big, strapping kid playing congas and singing,” continued Stills. “He was hot! After the set this guy comes up to me and it turns out we went to school in the same town in Florida.”

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Once it became known that the demanding Stills preferred Lala behind the drums, he became one of the most sought after percussionists in the industry and for the next decade lived the life of a rock star.

In an interview he did for the Tampa Bay Examiner in 2011, he reminisced about those crazy days by detailing the time he kicked Mick Jagger and three women out of his hotel room because he was tired and because Jagger didn’t want to “share.”

As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, Lala was forced to abandon his musical career because of a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome.

His girlfriend at the time was actress Nancy Priddy. She advised him to try his hand in acting.

“He was a natural,” said Webb. “The guy went from performing at every major concert hall in the world to acting alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest names.”

He shared scenes with Robert Redford in 1980’s “Havana” and Steven Segal in “Out for Justice” in 1991.

Lala used to say he would practice his lines while bouncing girlfriend Priddy’s daughter on his knee. The daughter grew up to be Hollywood star Christina Applegate.

In 2004, Lala’s mom grew too ill to care for herself and he returned to Tampa.

Former Stills manager Garcia said Lala would get offers for major acting roles and, once his hands healed, music gigs, but he would always refuse. He did not want to commit to anything long-term out of fear he would not be able to fulfill his obligation if his mother needed him.

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Lala stayed busy in Tampa, though, taking parts in independent films and regularly loaning his voice to Ybor City Chamber of Commerce commercials.

Lala was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2013. In September of that year, his musical friends gathered to celebrate his career at Nashville’s 3rd and Lindsley.

“It’s about attitude. Attitude is the most important thing. If you accept that big ‘C’ diagnosis as a death sentence, you are dead in the water,” Lala said in a Nashville ABC news segment promoting the concert. “And like I say, I have too many people I would like to make mad yet.”

As word of his death spread Tuesday, Lala’s Facebook page was flooded with activity.

Old photos were shared. Classic concert footage was posted.

Most of all, friends and fans said goodbye to the man they remembered as a musical legend.

Among them was Mario Nuņez, co-host of the Tampa Native Show, a public access television show focusing on Tampa history.

“If there’s a Rock ‘n Roll heaven,” Nuņez wrote, “they just picked up on hell of a conga player. Play on Joe Lala, play on.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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