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Rich Pagano drumming

We Are Upstate NY With Drummer, Producer and Activist Rich Pagano

By Contributing Author Sal Cataldi

Inside+Out is delighted to present an exclusive interview with Rich Pagano, one of the Hudson Valley’s busiest musicians, producers, educators and activists.

A groove-oriented drummer in the tradition of his idol Ringo Starr, Pagano may be best known to some for his years helming The Fab Faux, the ultimate Beatles’ tribute band comprised of top-flight New York session players like longtime David Letterman band bassist Will Lee.  But as a drummer, record producer, vocalist and/or musical director, Pagano has also supported some of the biggest names in music, from Rosanne Cash, Patti Smith, Ray Davies, Elvis Costello, Roger Waters and Sheryl Crow to Hudson Valley-based legends like John Sebastian, Levon and Amy Helm.

Rich Panagon singing and playing drums while on tour with his band

Photo by Lucas Noonan

The Brooklyn-born and Long Island-raised Pagano has been active in the Hudson Valley music scene for over 25 years, most recently with side projects like the roots rock Toombs Dixon and Early Elton Trio, acts you can catch regularly at Colony Woodstock and The Falcon.  When COVID-19 slowed the business at his Manhattan-based recording studio, Pagano relocated it to his current home in Stone Ridge.  And if you watch closely, you just might catch his smiling face behind the drum kit during the musical segments in the Amazon TV series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Recently, Pagano and his wife, Karen Marks, artistic director for the Howard Greenberg Gallery, have worked to turn a personal tragedy into a socially positive advocacy organization by founding The Nic Pagano LGBTQIA+ Scholarship Foundation.  Created in memory of their son Nic, a young gay man who lost his life to an accidental Fentanyl poisoning in July 2021. Its mission is to bring inclusion, relevance, acceptance and financial ease to those in the LGBTQIA+ community who are battling substance use.

On January 26 at 8:00 PM, the City Winery in New York City will present Songs of Deep Emotion and Bright Light, a night of song and art supporting the work of Pagano’s new scholarship fund.  An A-List of his musician pals will be taking the stage including Bettye LaVette, Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, Martha Redbone, Marshall Crenshaw and Hudson Valley-based stars like Kate Pierson and Rachael Yamagata.  Attendees will also have the opportunity to take home some classic rock photography at a charity auction at the event.

What else is Pagano up to as he attempts to do all of the above and master the making of a Seafood Fra Diavolo in his scant leisure time?  Read on to find out…

Event poster for The Nic Pagano LGBTQIA+ scholarship Foundation for Recovery show at the City Winery in NYC in January 2023

Rich Panago playing the drums with a band at City Winery in NYC

Photo by Andy York

INSIDE+OUT: Where are you originally from and how did you wind up in the Hudson Valley?

Rich Pagano: I was born in Brooklyn and raised, from the age of three, in West Babylon, Long Island.  My NYC time really became intense when I attended the School of Visual Arts as an illustration major.  And although I’ve lived in the Hudson Valley for 10 years, I’ve been working here, playing gigs and recording, for over 25 years.

When did you realize that you wanted to be a musician and how did you get your start?

My mother had the kitchen radio on every morning while we ate breakfast so the tunes of Top 40 became a huge influence.  My dad also had a beautiful Lafayette stereo and would play percussive jazz on weekends. When he bought The Beatles’ album, Abbey Road, hearing the song, “Come Together” fly out of those huge mahogany-encased speakers was like a sonic narcotic hit me and I was hooked.

As for my interest in the drums, that came from my dad.  In high school, he played concert snare drum for a minute. He showed me how to hold sticks, play a couple of drum rudiments and that was it for me.  Drumming was more about facilitating a pulse while honoring and supporting the idea of the song – which was what compelled me. Had he not given me sticks, it could have been rhythm guitar or tuba (laughs)!  My whole philosophy of playing was and still is to just lay it down for the song – to support the song and the other players in the band. I also had a great teacher and mentor as a young musician by New York big band drummer, Charles Busterna.

Who are some of the musicians you have worked with?

Too many!  I have recorded, performed live or toured extensively with many and have been very grateful for all these opportunities. But I would say the most memorable are Rosanne Cash, Roger Waters, Levon Helm, Patti Smith, Marshall Crenshaw, Willie Nile, Lady Blackbird, Teddy Thompson, Bettye LaVette, Faith Hill, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Ray Davies, Amy Helm and Rachael Yamagata.  As you probably know, a few of these are Hudson Valley-based.

Rich playing drums on stage with with Rachael Yamagata singing

Photo by Derek Meade

Tell us about some of your current musical projects.

I am very passionate about a new body of original music that I have written to be released this spring. Hold Still Light Escapes is an album based on five years of my life (2016 – 2021), a time of consequence, deep love, deep pain and compassion.  In February 2022, I completed three years of episodic drumming for the Amazon TV series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  That means playing with the band on the set live during filming.  And I just loved watching Rachel Brosnahan own her character in take after take from my vantage on the drum stool.

I was on the road in early 2022 playing drums in the U.S. for folk and pop artists Teddy Thompson and Jenni Muldaur.  Then I went over to Europe for a tour with soul jazz artist Lady Blackbird. In between those gigs, I was shuttling over to London to help Puremix produce an in-depth recording technique series with famed Beatles’ engineer Ken Scott at Abbey Road Studios.  By the summer, I was playing drums with guitarist Jimmy Vivino on Joe Bonamassa’s “Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea” cruise.

Fab Faux band

Photo by Kim Mancuso

When I’m home, I have fun playing with an ‘origins of rock and roll’ retrospective called Toombs Dixon and also an interpretation of very early Elton John music called Early Elton Trio. And although we have shifted down considerably, I still book The Fab Faux, an all-star Beatles’ tribute band with Will Lee of “Late Night with David Letterman” fame and Jimmy Vivino (a former Hudson Valley resident) a few times a year.  Why?  Because it is still such a fun challenge to recreate The Beatles’ classic albums and we have so many loyal fans. My new Hudson Valley recording studio, VlyTunes Recording, is busy at this time recording and mixing tracks for Ian Hunter, Jimmy Vivino, singer-songwriter Pamela Laws and a documentary based on the organization, Sandy Hook Promise.

Recording tools and instruments in a room at Vly Tunes Recording studio in Stone Ridge NY

As you just mentioned, you’re also a producer and engineer. Tell us about New Calcutta Recording and some of the work you have produced there.

New Calcutta Recordings was my New York City recording and rehearsal studio for 23 years and where I cut my teeth. With COVID-19 turning New York City into a ghost town, I decided to move it all to my new studio, VlyTunes Recording in Stone Ridge.  I tell people “it’s where clean air, peace, quiet and inspiration abounds!” I am grateful for my years with New Calcutta Recordings yet it ran its course. I have great memories of producing, recording, mixing sessions and/or coordinating rehearsals for Patti Smith, Ian Hunter, Marshall Crenshaw, CBS Television, Willie Nile, Bettye LaVette, Beth Ortin, Jackson Browne and Keb’ Mo’.  It was also the site for tons of my “Drumming-While-Singing” and “Recording Classic Drums” classes. It’s also where I made my last record, Rich Pagano + The SugarCane Cups, which I am very proud of.

Rich working with with Patti Smith in a studio

Photo by Skills

Through Hi-Fidelity Music you are also a musical contractor, an organizer/music director of the bands for some well-known benefits and fundraisers. Tell us about that.

Through managing and contracting The Fab Faux for over 20 years, I developed some close working relationships with agents, managers and talent buyers. To make some extra money, I became a music contractor and eventually started to become trusted as a Music Director for corporate and benefit events.  These days, I cherish being a music director for benefits as much as I love playing them. Curating a night of music is an amazing challenge and when I can steer the flow of musical colors and interpretations from artist to artist, it is like creating a sonic painting – and for a good cause too. I have wonderful memories of corralling A-list artists and raising money by music-directing for The Robinhood Foundation, The Michael J Fox Parkinsons Gala and the Annual John Lennon Tribute to name a few.

You are also an educator with the “Art of Recording Classic Drums” program.  How and where are you sharing your knowledge and who are the greatest classic drummers to emulate?

I taught recording at The Clive Davis Institute of Recording at New York University (NYU) for five years as an adjunct instructor. I created my own class that was based on the Golden Age of Recording (late ‘50s – late ‘70s) and called it “The Art Of Recording Classic Drums.” I started this series at my NYC studio and, although I still teach it at my new Hudson Valley studio, I hope to resume it at NYU now that we are mostly post-COVID-19. As for the course, each week we conquer a different period of drum sounds. We start with the Rudy Van Gelder sound, the man who recorded classic jazz with John Coltrane and many others, then move on to Motown, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and then a hybrid sound. It is an incredibly rewarding experience for both drummers and the engineers that try to capture these sounds.

Rich Padano at a drum kit teaching a group of people watching

Photo by Lucas Noonan


Tell us about your son Nic, the charity you founded in his name and the upcoming fundraiser at City Winery.

The Nic Pagano LGBTQIA+ Scholarship Foundation was created out of our son’s mission to bring inclusion, relevance, acceptance and financial ease to those in the LGBTQIA+ community who are battling a substance use disorder. Nic, who was gay, was a welcoming entity for young adults entering treatment who also happened to be gay and apprehensive.  Unfortunately, my son had a tough week of self-doubt in late June 2021 after being sober for nearly six months. We lost him to accidental Fentanyl poisoning on July 2nd of that year.  Life has been difficult yet we are proud that his name lives on, in part due to two treatment centers that remembered Nic’s virtuous energy, Caron Treatment Centers and Release Recovery.

The charity concert we are organizing will take place on January 26th at City Winery in New York City. I think it will be an entertaining night of music, art and diversity, one that I hope will be the first of many.  Friends have rallied around us with incredible support through our personal loss and to bring this charity and event to life.  We are grateful to the evening’s performers which include Bettye LaVette, Rosanne Cash, David Driver, Steve Earle, Kate Pierson, Marshall Crenshaw, Bobby Harden, Martha Redbone, Soulsa, Willie Nile and Rachael Yamagata. Plus, we will have a segment that will auction off some incredible music-related photographs, curated by my wife, Karen Marks.

The Fentanyl epidemic is taking a generation. Since its inception in the fall of 2021, The Nic Pagano LGBTQIA Scholarship Fund has awarded nine financial scholarships to clients in need of substance use treatment.  The services also address stigma, internalized homophobia and discrimination, as well as addiction. Over the last 18 months, overdose deaths are up 25% in New York with the LGBTQIA+ community. And as a group, up to 30% of it is due to lack of treatment information or simply a fear of being different.

Nic and Rich Pangano with Bettye LaVette in the dressing room

Photo by Kevin Kiley

Why is the Hudson Valley music scene so good?  And who are your main collaborators on the scene?

Well, like any other scene, a band or artist must get the word out about an imminent show because club ownership is a business yet the partnership is more respectful and communal compared to other regions. I like that there is no tolerance for creative pretense from buyers and patrons and lots of respect for the songwriter and songs. The scene is soulful and real.

In my opinion, Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble helped to bring back a roots music renaissance that then permeated the rest of the country. We also have some wonderful recording studios here with analog sensibilities like Dreamland Recording in Hurley. One of my constant collaborators is guitarist Jack Petruzzelli who also resides in the Hudson Valley. Jack and I shuttle tracks back and forth between our studios for clients and/or our own original music.

Levon Helm and Rich Panago playing drums together at a show

Photo by Tony Ferrari

What are you working on now that you’re excited about?

My own original music for the upcoming album, Rich Pagano, Hold Still Light Escapes and Jimmy Vivino’s new Blues record that I am co-producing and mixing.

What is your favorite non-musical activity?

Sleep and perfecting a Seafood Fra Diavolo

Contributing writer Sal Cataldi is a musician, writer and publicist living in the Hudson Valley.


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