WILL LEE is the sensational bassist on The Late Show with David Letterman he joins us for an in-depth interview. Will Lee has released 3 studio albums of his own as well as appearing on thousands of songs by many of the biggest names in music. Will Lee also performs as the bassist in the Beatles tribute band The Fab Faux.
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s our pleasure to welcome the one and only Will Lee. Thanks so much for joining us.
Greetings. It’s my pleasure. It’s nice to be here. How are you guys doing?
We are doing fantastic.
It’s been along time that we’ve been corresponding so it’s great to finally bring this into the reality.
I appreciate your patience. I know how it’s been and you’ve been great about this. Thank you. It’s great to finally connect.
Who is Will Lee?
(Laughs) Well, that’s a loaded question. I guess there’s a different answer for everyone who gets asked that question. You know, in England, they would say ‘that’s your penis.’ But that’s a whole other story. (Laughs) We’re not going there. Um, if you’re a Sesame Street fan, you’d say ‘Oh, that’s the actor who played Mr. Hooper’s real name’, right?
I don’t know if you know that but that’s a little bit of trivia. When the Will Lee actor guy died, people – I actually got a note handed to me from backstage at the Letterman show saying ‘I was a really good friend of Will Lee the actor’s and you still have his name. Please carry it on respectfully and proudly.’ So I hope I do. (Laughs) I’m no Mr. Hooper, I’ll tell you that. But, uh, Will Lee these days is aworking musician, very happy to be working, happy to have a job and happy to be in music, which I love the most, and I don’t take it for granted for one minute. I really love, uh, serving the music, making it as good as I can.
What was life like growing up in the Lee house?
Oh boy, well you know, we were Texans and, uh, in a small town called Huntsville TX where my father was the head of the music department of the Sam Houston Institute of Technology. You’ve probably heard of it – S.H.I.T. (Laughs) No, that’s just a joke. Actually, it was Sam Houston State Teachers College and my parents were both very heavily into jazz so, musically speaking, the Lee household was always filled with music. My mom was a singer ala sort of Sarah Vaughan and that style of jazz singing. My dad was a bebop piano player at heart and a jazz educator as a livelihood so he could support his four kids. I’m the oldest of four. My brother Rob, my sisters Pat and Peg, are below me in age. So it was fun. We all sang together and, you know, enjoyed being together and we’re still close.
Can you remember specific songs that you heard playing around the house?
Um, I can tell you that as far as I can remember – when I was very young, I remember a the sound of Miles Davis’ muted trumpet so I guess that could have been around the kind of blue era, maybe. I’m not sure what year that album is but that was the first thing I remember hearing. And my parents also were big, you know as I said before, fans of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald and, you know, we heard a lot of Joe Williams in that house. And we heard quite a good bit of “Cannonball” Adderley and Nancy Wilson so, you know, and Miles Davis, and “Bird” – Charlie Parker, who dad had played with.
How did you come to fall in love with the bass?
Oh boy. Well, that was, that was not an overnight, uh, ‘love at first sight’ thing. That was a matter of, you know, necessity. When we were, like, 11 or 12 years old as kids in bands and all the kids our age had the mentality of ‘you’re drums or guitar.’ The functionality of the bass was really something that was a little bit over a young kid’s head at that time. First of all, the bass was a brand new instrument, very young instrument, and we’re talking about like 1964, you know, ’65, just after the Beatles hit, hit America. So, you know, I was the drummer in our band which we had put together. The band had two guitar players, drums, and then we added a sax player. But I felt it would have been really nice to have filled out the sound and make us sound just a little bit more professional. So I said we needed a bass player. Unfortunately, nobody our age played bass so we hired a drummer and I said ‘Oh, I’ll just play bass’ like it was nothing. Meanwhile I was the lead singer of the band and I hadn’t realized how tough it was going to be to play bass and sing. So, once we had hired the drummer it was kind of too late to fire him so I kind of went for it, you know? And it seemed – it was pretty humbling to try to be able to,you know, keep singing the lead and now playing bass underneath that, that vocalizing. But, you know, I kept sticking with it and now it’s, like, you know, it’s my passion.
Are there any other instruments that you tinker around with?
Um, I still play a bit of drums. We have this Beatles band, the Fab Faux, a very successful national touring kind of act. We go out every weekend. Um, so I sort of play strictly Beatles music. And sometimes I’ll go back and play drums when our drummer comes up front to sing a lead solo. And, uh, I play a little bit of keyboard and a little bit of guitar in that band. And I mess around with those instruments at home. As a songwriter I kind of play keyboards, you know, at about the level of a basic five-year old.
There have been a lot of interviews with great bass players on this show and I’ve asked a lot of them who their favorite bassists are, ‘who do you think the best bassist is?’ and there have been a lot of answers but the name Will Lee has been on a few people’s list. So who is on your list?
Oh man, my list is huge! You have to go with the masters that most people know about: Larry Graham, Jaco Pastorius is way high on the food chain. Chuck Rainey is my all-time favorite bass player. Of course, Larry Graham, father of thump and slap plunk. Uh, for finger funk you’ve got Pino Palladino, Rocco Prestia. You know, a lot of studio players from New York who I came up with: Marcus Miller, Neil Jason, Sal Cuevas – a great Latin bass player – Ray Brown from the upright jazz world, you know, in addition to Paul Chambers. And a guy who, no day goes by without me thinking about – Mr. James Jamerson, the sound of Motown, is way up on the top of the list as well. And many, many others.
You’ve done a lot of session work over the years. What was the first one?
Oh, my first session in New York? Or my first session period?
Yeah, first session period.
Um, I think the first time I ever went in the studio was, uh, with a band that we had in Miami when I lived in Florida. It was called the Loving Kind, the Loving Kind and that was very exciting. We went into Criteria recording studios where lots of great hit records were made, and did a song that we performed on a local American Bandstand style type show on a Saturday. I think we lip-synced to our recording that we had done. That was pretty cool, pretty exciting.
You played on so many people’s records. Is it possible for you to pick a favorite session?
Well, there’s lots of, you know, lots favorite moments in the studio. The outcome of some of the sessions have been, you know, better or not as good as the sessions themselves. But, uh, there’s was one in particular that Steve Gadd and I played on. We played on and it was one of the most fun and best unknown records that we ever did, and it was the New York Community Choir. And we did two albums with this choir in New York and both of them are so filled with joy, I think everybody should go out and pick them up as fast as they can. I think there’s, some of it is appearing lately as a reissue, on like, the iTunes or maybe as imports. I think you can find it on Amazon. But it’s the New York Community Choir –NYCC – and there are two albums that we did and both of them are really, really special.
There’s someone that I wanted to talk about in particular. You played on a lot of his albums, uh, our passed friend. Uh, his music is still very much alive – Mr. Ralph MacDonald. What was it like recording with Mr. MacDonald?
Oh boy. Ralphie. Well, there are so many layers to my relationship with Ralph. One of them is our personal friendship, which was very, very strong and forever, you know, is dear to my heart. And I’m forever influenced by Ralph’s positivity that he gave me as a musician and friend. In fact, he gave me my nickname ‘Uncle Will’ which people still call me to this day. The Ralph MacDonald musician that we all know about is responsible for writing all those great songs like Where Is The Love Mr. Magic and, uh, of course, The Two of Us and many other album cuts and songs that we’ve heard a lot of. Um, he’s a guy who, I can say very confidently, is the person who introduced pop percussion playing to records, you know? He was he guy who knew what to play on tambourine, knew what to play on congas, knew what to play on cowbell, shaker, you know? And he exercised the utmost elegance and taste in everything he played. So, you know, if you were to look at a discography of Ralph MacDonald you’d be shocked, I’m sure, at how many great records that he made happen.
How did you come to meet Paul Shaffer?
Um, well, back in the days when I was – well, let’s say it was the day when I was a musician for hire and in one instance I had a lot of success with, you know, I had done a lot of Barry Manilow records and, you know, a lot of other records. And he had come down from Canada and he was seeking out a rhythm section of guys that he had heard of. And a producer that he knew from some of the Manilow hits – a guy by the name of Ron Dante – who a lot of people out there may know him as the voice of the Archies. He’s a very special, very talented guy. Ron was Barry Manilow’s producer and Paul Shaffer had gotten in touch with Ron to produce a demo that he was doing with a guy named Paul Jabara, who is, uh, now deceased. Paul Jabara is the guy that wrote Last Dance for Donna Summer and also co-wrote It’s Raining Men with Paul Shaffer. But anyway, Paul had hired Ron Dante to get us all together in a studio to record some of these songs that he was arranging and writing with Mr. Paul Jabara. So Shaffer and I met in the studio on the first day of these recordings, and we hit it off right away as great friends and we’ve been really close ever since. You know, I couldn’t believe how nice of a guy this guy from Canada was, Paul Shafer, and what a great talent and what a great ear he has. And how much he knew about music and how aware he was of what I had done by the time he got to New York from Canada, way back in the ‘70s. So we always, we’ve always had a great relationship.
What do you think about Paul Shaffer as a musician?
Well, Paul Shaffer is a guy who is so well schooled – uh, he can read music really well – but his hearing and ears are so great, when he picks up something that he listens to, and he has a chart in front of him, I’m surprised he can even look at the chart because his ears take over and, you know, sort of always tell him what to play. He’s like a walking archive of music history, too. He can really, he’s really a guy that knows so much about pop music and it’s really hard to fool him. Yeah, I always look, look to him to try to find out what’s the right part of the song that I’m supposed to – the song that I’m playing right now – especially if it’s a cover song that, you know, we’re trying to duplicate or something on the set at Letterman or even in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Wherever we’re playing.
Just a few minutes ago you were talking about Barry Manilow and both you and Sid McGinnis, you both played on Barry Manilow’s albums. What is Barry like to work with in the studio?
Well, Barry is a real –he’s like a real arranger, a real guy who knows how to orchestrate horns and strings and stuff, so he’s a very schooled, accomplished musician. He really knows his stuff.
There have been so many great, great acts that have played on the Letterman show and you’ve gotten to play with so many of them. What are some of the favorite acts that you’ve just had to pinch yourself and thought ‘Man, I’m going to get to play with him tonight.’ or ‘I’m going to get to play with her tonight.’? Who are those people?
Oh man, there’s so many. I mean, you know, Melissa Etheridge is almost a regular on the band. We’ve played with her. Uh, Dr. John has been on the show. Stevie Wonder came and started testing the band, started playing obscure songs and thanks to Paul Shaffer we could jump right in on them. But the number one guy, the number one musical guest of all time, without a doubt, was James Brown when he came on the show, especially in the very early days of Letterman – like maybe in ’82 ,’83 – he came on, brought a couple of his own horn players but used our band to back him up and it was just incredible. That was the greatest.
Just as kind of as a ‘what if’ kind of question, if Letterman was going to retire soon what would you do?
Uh, I’d probably take a nap. (Laughs) I’d probably sleep for the first few hours – the first free few hours I’ve had in a long time. And then I would probably, uh, maybe, you know, skip out, skip out of town for a little vacation. And of course I would get antsy and come right back and probably work on, continue working on my record. My own solo CD that I’m working on..
Ahh. So tell us about that. Is it a follow-up to “Oh!” or what is it?
Well, yes. Actually, I have so many unfinished pieces of music that I’m actually finishing up and trying to record. But I think it would be more than a follow-up. I think I’m, at this time, I’m probably working on about three albums.
And I got some great people playing on some great tracks. I just did a track with Billy Gibbons and Allen Toussaint and, you know, I’m just doing one song at a time and seeing how it goes, and everything’s coming out really nicely.
Is there any, uh, tentative date that that will be coming out?
Well, I’m trying to get the first batch of stuff out by October.
Oh wow. Fantastic.
And since this is, uh, 2012 we’re talking about, I’m talking October 2012, so I’m busy.
Tell us about the Fab Faux. How did that come to be?
Oh, the Fab Faux is a miraculous, a miraculous thing. We formed in 1998 and it started when, um, I was doing a little mini-tour of Europe with, uh, the late, great Hiram Bullock. And Hiram used to always want to have a trio of three guys that played and sang so he could get a three-part harmony going. And he, actually, you know, had kind of exhausted his supply of singing drummers. Uh, nobody was available for this particular little tour that we were doing. So then came a guy named Rich Pagano, who I had never met before. And when Rich came and started playing with us, I could hear right away that he was very Ringo influenced in the tuning of his drums and the way he played. And the way he sang was quite a lot like John Lennon. So, you know, as much of a Beatles freak as I’ve always been, I never had thought of having a Beatles band until I met this Rich Pagano. And after the tour was over, it kind of dawned on me that it would be fun to go on stage and play Beatles music as if we were bringing the records to the stage – you know, note-for-note detail stuff. And I knew right away that a four-piece band wasn’t going to work because you have to have, you know, like, you want to hear all those great percussion parts and double-vocal harmonies and keyboard parts and stuff that are on the Beatles records. Where I think a lot of Beatles bands have made the mistake of trying to look like the Beatles – you know, maybe not a mistake, that’s probably a bad way to phrase it – but they’ve suffered in that they’ve settled for having a four-piece band which really doesn’t allow you to have all those great luxurious sounds. So I knew right away it needed to be a five-piece band. And you know, the genesis, you know, was first calling Rich and having him say yes. And then asking Jimmy Vivino if he would kindly join our band, because I knew he was a guy, like Paul Shaffer, who really was a musical historian and archivist who could really focus on getting all of those details right. And he knew what some of those details were supposed to be, better than I did in many cases. And then we met two other guys – a guy named Jack Petruzzelli and a guy named Frank Agnello – and that completed the five-piece band. And we got busy and got started on seeing what we could do as a five-piece band to make it sound as much like the records as possible. And that’s been many years of, uh, trials and tribulations and successes and lots of really great moments on stage replicating these fantastic Beatle albums and singles and stuff. So it’s been a really great trip so far.
What was it like for you when you heard Paul McCartney had given you props as a bassist?
That was a moment that was actually kind of hard, you know, for me. It was really, uh, a tearful moment. One that, uh, I still can sort of relish and take great pride in knowing that, you know, he has some respect for me as I do for him, you know? I don’t think he’ll ever, ever be able to know how much influence he’s had on me and every other bass player. And, in fact, actually, anybody who has ever tried to think melodically, you know, in this pop world that we have. So it’s been incredible to see that in print and see Paul McCartney saying, you know, “Any great bass players that you dig?’ and have him say, ‘Well, Will Lee and Pino Palladino come to mind.’ and have me included in that statement was pretty amazing.
Yeah. Humbling, too.
Tell us about the gig that they did – I think it was two years ago – when they played on top of the marquee there.
Oh yeah! That was really fun. Well you know, the Letterman show takes place at the Ed Sullivan Theater which, uh, to me it means the place that the Beatles first were seen in America and which really changed the shapeof all pop music from that point. When the Beatles hit the scene, you know, and showed us what they looked like and, you know, fashion-wise, and they took a lot of chances, and they were very confident, and they knew they were getting over and it was incredible. So to see him return to that stage, to that building where he and his other band mates – the rest of the Beatles – changed the course of history, uh, all I could say to him was ‘Welcome home.’
What was recording the Birdhouse album with your dad like?
Well, my dad was a bebopper, you know, and his view of, you know, what music should sound like is all about 4:4 jazz, and how well something can swing, and how well a song is composed. And he had a little history with playing with Charlie Parker – “Bird” – who, you know, who kind of laid down the law as far as what bepop is supposed to sound like, and my dad was a great improviser himself. And, you know, we thought a great place for he and I to come together would be in a setting of Charlie Parker’s material. So we went into the studio as father and son with a bunch of other great musicians – uh, Billy Hart on drums and we invited other guys to perform with us – Randy Brecker and Michael Brecker, and Lew Soloff on trumpet, and the great Bob Dorough on vocals, and John Tropea on guitar. And we got together and played a bunch of Charlie Parker material in our own sort of way. And it, uh, was heartwarming to look over and see dad playing piano with me in the studio – something that had never happened before. So it was a wonderful experience, to have something on tape, so to speak, something recorded with my dear dad who is just recently deceased. So it’s a great memory and a great keepsake of our musical relationship.
As someone who has performed on so many albums, has performed with so many great artists of our time, has recorded albums of his own – all the things that you’ve done – do you still have some dreams you want to pursue? What are they?
Well, for me, I have a ton of things that I would love to finish writing. I keep, you know, I keep these crazy ideas in my head and I just want to see them through. So for me, it’s like, to try to finish, um, these crazy songs that I’ve started writing. And, you know, that’s kind of how “Oh!” happened – my first solo album. There’s quite a few original pieces of music on there. So you know, just to kind of nurture these tunes that I’ve written, and I try to be a writer who’s not derivative. I don’t try to, like, do my version of this other person’s song or anything like that. I try to just go with my instinct and see how far I can take it. So you know, for me I have sort of a list or a supply of unfinished ideas, and I want to keep working on them until they’re finished and move on to the next song. And that’s how the songs are coming for this new album, or set of albums, that I’m doing right now.
What’s the best thing about being Will Lee?
(Laughs) Uh, for me, it’s being the husband of Sandrine Lee. That’s the best thing about being Will Lee. Sandrine is my wife who I’m very proud of, who’s a great, great person who’s a music photographer, who’s having a great deal of success as a photographer these days. And you can look at her web site, SandrineLee.com and see some of what she’s up to. She’s, it’s fascinating for me to watch her grow.
She did the photography for one of Ralph’s albums, if I remember. Isn’t that correct?
That’s true. Homegrown and then the next one, another one called Mixty Emotions. And she was also the photographer of Esperanza Spalding’s two CDs. Pat Metheny’s last album and Mike Stern’s next album and many, many, many other things she’s doing.
For my last question, for anyone who’s listening to this – wherever they are, whenever they hear it – what would you like to say to all the people listening in?
Um, boy that’s a loaded question, man, and I actually have an answer for it. If anybody’s listening – this country of ours has become way, way more divided than I’ve ever seen and there’s really no sense in that at all. I think the only way we’re ever going to be able to move forward, as a country and as fellow human beings, is just to put our differences aside and start loving each other.
Well spoken. Mr. Lee, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
Thank you, Paul. I sure appreciate your time and, again, your patience in waiting for this interview to happen
Well it happened. (Laughs)
Good man. Thank you.
TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA.