In 1947 my mother and I were amongst the first American military dependant families to live in Germany. The German prisoners of war at my father’s depot had a great Dixieland band. Every Friday I got to sit and listen to this band in the warehouse, before they had to report back to the stockade. It was my first experience with live music and has stayed with me ever since. When we returned from Germany in 1950, we moved to Chicago, and that’s where I heard my first Fender electric bass, which helped nudge me closer to music. After a couple more moves, and high-school bands in Olympia, Washington and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I graduated in 1959. I immediately put on my Princeton t-shirt, and took my fake ID to the world famous Somers Point, New Jersey traffic circle, home of Bayshores, Tony Mart’s, and Steele’s Bar. I’d spend day after day, night after night listening to the legendary Jimmy Cavallo & the House Rockers. That’s when I decided I’d like to be a drummer.
He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
A gifted percussionist, he began his career in music after forming a band in college (St.John and the Cardinals) part of which became the root for the Atlanta Rhythm Section. After college he relocated to Los Angeles, where he went on to play on over fifty gold and platinum albums with top artists of the sixties and seventies.
His name may not be instantly recognizable, but during the height of his career in the sixties and seventies, Dennis toured and recorded with several top artists, drumming on sixteen top-10 records and over fifty Gold and Platinum albums. If you’ve ever heard the Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow” or “Spooky” or “Spiders & Snakes” or Linda Ronstadt’s “Desperado” or Neil Diamond’s “Forever In Blue Jeans” or “America”, then you’ve heard just a small sampling of the hundreds of recordings featuring his playing.
Dennis crossed paths with an impressive number of artists such as James Brown, Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Roy Orbison, Ronnie Milsap, Sammy Davis Jr., Liberace, Little Richard, Rufus Thomas, Tommy Roe, The Standells, Otis Redding, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. But he’s best known as Neil Diamond’s drummer and musical director from 1971-81. Several herniated discs forced him to quit active touring in the early 1980s and he formed a talent development company, guiding many future performers to stardom in the years after.
He described the most memorable event of his career as the 10 days of recording Hot August Night in 1972 (at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles) saying “it was by far the most energetic, creative, and satisfying gig I’ve ever played.”
This link to a Classic Drummer Interview with Dennis gives a great insight into Rock and Roll in the early days.
Dennis died from complications of esophageal cancer on June 5, 2012 at the age of 70.
Taking to Twitter to pay his respects, Neil Diamond wrote, “Lost my old friend Dennis St. John. His drumming graces my recordings from Hot August Night to The Jazz Singer – I’ll miss him big time.”
Entry on his obituary: “I knew Dennis. He used to come to the bar I worked at for many years when he came to visit his mother. My husband always referred to him as the guy with the pony tail. He was a true gentleman and always took time to talk to me even though I was just a bartender there. I often introduced him to people, but they always seemed to fail to understand what impact he had in the music business. I have not worked for around 4 years and was so sad to hear that he had lost his battle with cancer. He always took such good care of his mother and felt bad if he didn’t feel she was being taken care of correctly. Everyone was so happy to see him when he visited. There just aren’t enough words to do this man justice.”