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Legendary Tampa percussionist Joe Lala dies at 66

Joe Lala played with stars ranging from John Lennon to Dolly Parton.
Joe Lala played with stars ranging from John Lennon to Dolly Parton.
Published Mar. 20, 2014

TAMPA — His heyday as one of the best percussionists alive lasted 20 years and encompassed dozens of the biggest names in popular music.

Joe Lala, king of the congas, played with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the Bee Gees, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. He played with John Lennon and Ringo Starr, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand, Etta James, the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, Whitney Houston and Herbie Hancock.

The list goes on.

Mr. Lala tasted success early as a founding member of Blues Image, a band that included two fellow Jefferson High School students and produced the 1970 hit Ride Captain Ride. He never looked back.

He accumulated 32 gold records and 28 platinum records in his career, and they lined the walls of his west Tampa condominium. Later, he switched to acting, appearing in movies such as Eyewitness to Murder and television shows including Miami Vice, Seinfeld and General Hospital.

But Mr. Lala never really put aside his drums, not really, despite the carpal tunnel syndrome that kept him from performing full time. Even after returning to Tampa 10 years ago, he continued to record with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, the acoustic band Firefall, Dan Fogelberg, Dolly Parton, Rod Stewart and many others.

He cared for his mother, who had dementia, lunched with old friends on Armenia Avenue and coached young actors at the Italian Club in his native Ybor City.

Mr. Lala, whose mastery of the popping, slapping rhythms of the congas and other percussion instruments made him a coveted commodity for musical stars across several genres, died Tuesday at St. Joseph's Hospital due to complications from lung cancer. He was 66.

"I didn't know anybody who really played the congas until I met Joe," said Rodney Justo, a founding member of the Atlanta Rhythm Section. "He had an authenticity, is what he had."

Justo met Mr. Lala 60 years ago at the Ybor City Boys Club. The son of a Sicilian father who had worked for mobster Santo Trafficante Sr., Mr. Lala ran numbers as a boy.

"I didn't know what it was then," he told the Times in 2006. " 'Here's a bag. Take it there.' You don't ask questions."

He spoke fluent Spanish and Italian and developed a taste for cooking that he would refine over the years. He continued to buy his chicken and pork sausage ingredients from Cacciatore and Sons on N Armenia, even when he was living in California.

As a teenager, Mr. Lala found the competition for drumming gigs formidable. "Tampa had a crazy list of really good drummers," said Justo, 69. "He couldn't crack that upper regime."

He switched primarily to the congas, and suddenly the game changed.

Despite the success of Ride Captain Ride, Blues Image broke up in 1970. That left Mr. Lala free to join Stephen Stills' group Manassas. Mr. Lala joined Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in time for an outdoor stadium tour in 1974. He went on to play for the Eagles, the Bee Gees and Jackson Browne, names that helped define '70s rock.

"He said, 'There's no feeling like it in the world, no duplication, being on stage when you get that kind of response from all those people,'" said Tony Garcia, 58, a longtime friend from Ybor City.

The carpal tunnel intensified in 1988, and Mr. Lala turned to acting. In 1994 he met Ginny McSwain, a customer in a Los Angeles hair salon that Mr. Lala had entered in order to sell some of his famous Ybor City sausages.

They married in 1996. In the meantime, McSwain, a well-known voice actor and casting director, introduced Mr. Lala to yet another career in voiceovers and commercials.

He got steady work and was content at first to leave the drums behind. McSwain bought him another set.

"Frankly, it's when I saw Joe the most confident," she said. "There was a glow, something that no one could touch when he played."

They divorced in 2004, the same year Mr. Lala returned to Tampa. The two had since reconnected and were taking trips together last year, including a trip to an October tribute to Mr. Lala in Nashville. Though diagnosed with late-stage cancer, Mr. Lala showed up to accept the honor of his peers. Surrounded by other drummers, he took to the congas and played for all he was worth.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

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