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The man who keeps the beat

Drummer Jimmy Carnelli reinvents himself after death of Roger Williams

Posted: September 16, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 16, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Jimmy Carnelli with a photo of himself and pianist Roger Williams from a performance in Orange County in 2009. Carnelli accompanied Williams on tour for more than 15 years.

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They were on the road a long time together, drummer Jimmy Carnelli and famed pianist Roger Williams.

When Williams died of pancreatic cancer at age 87 in 2011, Carnelli mourned not just the loss of his employer, but the death of a man he considered a father figure.

“We were cut from the same cloth,” he said. “We became like father and son.”

Roger Williams

Carnelli began playing for Williams in 1996 and was his drummer until Williams’ death.

He played live with Williams’ traditional sextet and more than 40 symphonies across the United States. He was featured on Williams’ live recording of “Pop Goes the Ivories,” which was released in 2000.

“Roger was a wonderful loyal guy,” Carnelli said. “He was also a genius.”

Among the highlights of his time with Williams was the opportunity to play on stage at Carnegie Hall in New York with Williams.

“It was unbelievable. It’s something I will never forget,” he said.

Starting out

Carnelli was born in Long Island, N.Y.

He moved to Arizona at age 14 to live with father, a retired NYPD officer.

“Talk about culture shock,” he said. “I went from Long Island, N.Y. to Apache Junction, Ariz.”

Carnelli, of Italian descent, felt like a minority.

“I’d never seen anyone like them before, and they’d never seen anyone like me,” he said. “I spoke with a heavy New York accent, too. I was eating pasta and meatballs. I’d never seen a burrito before.”

He attended Mesa Community College where he soon felt more at home.

Carnelli helped found a trio and they hit the road, arriving in Los Angeles in 1979.


“I started playing drums with I was 5,” he said.

Carnelli grew up in a musical family. His brother Steve Carnelli is a well-known studio guitarist.

“He was the staff guitar player for Hanna-Barbara for 15 years and tons of movies and television shows,” he said.

Carnelli said his father had a beautiful voice and both his parents sang in church.

Erskine and Spivack

“Erskine was one of the greats,” Carnelli said. “He took me under his wing and taught me so much.

After four years, Carnelli started to train under Murray Spivack.

“He had a 50-person waiting list when I first met him,” Carnelli said. “I played for him and he decided to take me on. He taught the finest, been around the finest. There was nothing that I could play that would impress him.”

Spivack, a legendary drumming teacher and member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame, was 82 when he started to train Carnelli. Carnelli studied with Spivack four years.


While the drums might be Carnelli’s life, he has also had time to study martial arts and scuba diving.

“I love scuba diving,” he said. “When you go down in the water and see what God put down there, it is the most serene, awesome, inspiring place.”

Saving a life

During one dive trip in Hawaii, Carnelli helped save the life of the dive boat captain who, against regulations, went free diving off the boat and nearly drowned.

Carnelli help resuscitate the man, who had stopped breathing for nine minutes.

The man reportedly recovered without any side effects from his near death experience.

“The Lord pushed me forward to help,” he said. “I am CPR trained, so I started to pump him.”

Carnelli credited his sense of timing and strength in his arms, and accurate repetitiveness from playing the drums for more than 40 years and his years studying karate for having the strength and stamina to helping save the man’s life.

“He was dead. There was no pulse. His eyes were staring straight at the sky,” he said.

Then, after nine minutes, Carnelli said the man took a huge breath and coughed up a huge amount of seawater and other material.

Carnelli ended up with a concussion when he was hit in the head by a surfboard as the drowning victim was evacuated by a Coast Guard helicopter.

“That man walked out of the hospital after three days, no brain damage, no broken ribs, and he never called to thank me,” Carnelli said.

Finding his voice

Carnelli, who is making a name for himself in the SCV as a crooner, first found his voice with Williams.

It was the “Theme from the Love Boat” that brought Carnelli’s voice to Williams’ attention.

“During one show, someone in the audience asked if Roger knew that song, and I just started singing it,” he said. Carnelli soon became Williams’ voice on stage and would often ask Carnelli to introduce a song vocally.


Carnelli who exudes a humble demeanor, despite his skills and talents, is quick to thank and remember the important people in his life. Among those he mentions are Roger Williams, his mother Mary Carnelli, his daughters Tiffany and Shelby Carnelli his grandson Hudson James, Ed Finn, Christina Monde, Donald Bothwell, Kenny Nolan, Grant Wolf and Shelley Hann.

The future

“I love to croon,” he said. “Sometimes I think I was born too late.”

Carnelli said Williams wanted him to continue singing.

He has formed Jimmy Carnelli Music and Entertainment and has already seen himself become the darling of the SCV music scene.

He has performed at the Circle of Hope Vine 2 Wine fundraiser, will perform again at the Circle of Hope Theatrical Tea on Oct. 6.

He drummed the walkers down Main Street for the Soroptimist International of Greater SCV’s High Heel-a-thon and crooned on the patio of Salt Creek Grille for the SCV Women and Men of Honor’s monthly’s socials.

He continues to give back to others the gift he was given almost a half century ago.

“I an very blessed,” he said.

For more information visit www.jimmycarnelli or call 661-313-8846.


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