Tony Pia was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan the first-born son and first generation American to a hard working Ford Motor Company employee. He first showed an interest in music at the age of 6. “My father loved to listen to Italian opera around the house and it rubbed off. But I was more interested in the guitar.” It wasn’t for a few more years before Tony was able to get his first instrument at school in the fifth grade. “The band program didn’t offer guitar as an instrument to study but I knew if I couldn’t have one that drums would be a close second. All I got was a snare drum and for the first two years that’s all I had, but in the 7th grade my Dad bought me my first drum set.”
Tony took to his new instrument and learned his rudiments and how to read music. He studied music at Hartsig Junior high school and then Paul K. Cousino senior high school in the Warren Michigan consolidated school district.
Detroit had a rich musical history when Tony was growing up and he was exposed to it at an early age by listening to all the current “pop” music of the day on the radio. And if you grew up in Detroit at that time “Motown” was heard a lot. “I used to sit and listen to the radio and be amazed by how every song had a different snare drum sound. I tried to figure out how the bands could segue so quickly from one song to the other and have such different drum sounds. I also wondered if the bands shared the same drum set. I was to young at the time to know that the bands were not playing “live” in the studio but instead a disc jockey was playing their recordings.”
“Radio played a big part in my learning process growing up. It was where I first was exposed to every form of music that I eventually wound up loving and playing when I got older. Everything was there from pop and Motown to Opera, Jazz, and Rock “n” Roll. I remember sitting around my dad’s expensive stereo system in the living room with my friends who were in the first band I was in. We listened to FM late night radio shows that played the “long versions” of some of our favorite songs by the artists we knew. Being from Detroit naturally some of the guys we listened to were from our hometown. Guys like Bob Seeger, Stevie Wonder, and Ted Nugent became familiar to me because of radio.”
It was in junior high school that Tony met His first musical influence. A music teacher named David Hudson who not only was Tony’s band director but also was a jazz disk jockey. He hosted an FM radio show on W.D.E.T. called “Jazz Yesterday” that featured jazz music from 1920 to 1950. He was a very good jazz Saxophonist and arranger and began to introduce Tony to the world and music of Jazz. In addition David also gave Tony some of his first professional experiences playing with a big band. Tony also played with a band that Dave Hudson wrote arrangements for and helped re-form the famous “New McKinney’s Cotton Pickers”, a band that played 20’s & 30’s era jazz. This gave Tony the ability to play in a variety of different musical situations where he learned to be flexible enough to play any style of music, which Tony still does.
He also introduced me to one of my first Drum Hero’s the great Elvin Jones by taking me to see Elvin’s band at a Detroit Jazz club after a gig one night. Even though I was only in the 9th or 10th grade I was smitten by that experience and fell in love with Jazz.
During this period Tony also started private lessons with two local drum teachers, Ray Parker and David Hunt at the East Detroit Conservatory of music who took an interest in Tony’s musical ability and made him aware of Jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Buddy Rich, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis and of course another major drum influence Tony Williams.
It was during this time that Tony’s musical roots became established. Playing regularly with big bands, orchestra band, and marching band at school, rock bands with friend’s, ethnic music and lessons exposed Tony to a variety of music. By High school Tony was listening to J.S.Bach, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Beatles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Motown, an eclectic array of music.
While in high school, Tony earned a scholarship to Interlochen Music camp and played in the Orchestra there.
After high school Tony spent a few years refining his skills with lessons and playing every day in a variety of bands and learning as much as he could about music and his drums. And he even spent summers playing at a resort in Wisconsin called, “Nippersink Manor Resort” where he played 6 nights a week playing everything from “shows to dance music.” Eventually his abilities were used by a number of people coming through Detroit. Artists like, Pepper Adams, Mose Allison, Al Wilson, and Roger Williams.
Two years were spent living and playing 6 nights a week doing a show at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas. “It was a great gig we played 6 hours a night playing two shows and a couple of dance sets. I was the youngest guy in the band and it helped to “season” me as a player.”
Tony returned to Detroit and soon realized he needed a deeper education to excel further so he and his brother Domenico moved briefly to New York. “ I took a couple of lessons there from Peter Erskine and decided I needed to go back to school.” So upon the good advice from his friend Gregg Bissonette Tony soon found himself attending North Texas State University home of the famous “One O’clock Jazz band.” Tony was able to work his way into The One O’clock band after just two semesters of being there. He recorded with the One O’clock band that semester and got to play with some of the guest artists that were invited to the school. People like John Scofield, Randy Brecker, Barry Harris, and Joe Henderson.
Tony did well in school and played 6 nights a week in the house band at a Dallas club that every week brought in a different artist. “It was there that I got to play with Freda Payne (a Motown artist) and Dianne Schuur, as well as many other name acts.”
Soon Tony found himself playing with the “Thundering Herd”, the great “Woody Herman” big band. “It was a very musically rewarding experience and I learned a lot”
After returning to Dallas Tony began to play on the Delta Queen Steamboat based in New Orleans. There he was once again called on to play shows and a variety of music. “We played everything from Dixieland to rock n roll.”
It was while working on the Delta Queen that Tony met Armand Zildjian. “I was playing in the front Lounge at 4:00 in the afternoon and this guy was sitting in front of me watching me very closely. After our set he approached me and told me if I ever wanted to replace my cracked splash cymbal I should give him a call. He gave me his business card and I said thanks as I ran off in a hurry. An hour later I took the card out of my pocket and realized who he was. I went back and talked to him and he was really nice and gracious to me. When I got back from the tour there was a package from him at home with a new splash cymbal inside. I was blown away.”
While living in Dallas Tony began playing regularly in church and was exposed to a lot of contemporary Christian and Gospel music.
Tony left Dallas but not before playing with “The Mamas and the Papas” the Marvelletes, The Shirelles, Frank Sinatra Jr., and then after landing a steady gig at The Fairmont Hotel in Dallas he also played for, Kenny Rankin, The Mills Brothers, and the Four Lads.
Tony moved to Los Angeles where he currently lives with his wife Barbara. Since living there Tony has toured and recorded with the following: Edgar Winter, Maynard Ferguson, Bobby Caldwell, Engelbert Humperdink, Connie Stevens, Brian Setzer Orchestra and he currently tours with the Doobie Brothers.