Late night TV’s ace of bass releases a star-studded solo project


His nightly gig on the Late Show With David Letterman makes Will Lee one of America’s most visible bassists. Since 1982, Lee has excelled in the pressure cooker of live TV, backing countless guest stars. He also tours with Israeli guitarist Oz Noy and takes the stage weekly with the Fab Faux, a group that performs stunning recreations of the Beatles catalog. Now Lee is releasing Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions, his first solo album in 20 years. And though it boasts guests like Allen Toussaint, Pat Metheny and Billy Gibbons, it’s still Lee’s show, with soulful vocals complementing stunning bass work.


What’s the genesis of the record?

At first I didn’t know it was going to be a record at all. I got started with the song “Miss Understanding.” I thought, “Hey that’s pretty cool, that’s fun.” And who cares about albums anymore, right? All you have to do is put a song on iTunes and call it a day. But then I wanted to record “Smile.” When I had these two songs I realized they’ve got nothing to do with each other. So who cares? If this is ever going to be a collection, just treat it like a greatest-hits record. I felt like “Gratitude” should be the first one, somehow.

An autobiographical tune?

Very much so. They all are, but that one’s directly related to my alcohol/cocaine recovery trip that I’ve been on for the last 28 years. I entered rehab on March 1, 1985, and I’m lucky to be alive.


What pushed you to do the album?

I kind of started to explode with information after enough years had gone by. Writing is a time-consuming, selfish project, and you really have to be focused. The only thing that got in the way was the gigs, because I love to do everything.


On the Late Show, how does the band put together the commercial bumpers?

For the play-ons we try to grasp onto something we know about the guest—maybe their name or a movie they’re pushing. But we don’t have a lot of time to figure it out. Everything happens in that same place, whether it’s a comedy rehearsal or a whole band doing a soundcheck. And we have 10 or 15 minutes to figure out our night’s duties.


Any of the countless guests stand out?

James Brown back in ’82. We had a heavy combination of respect and fear when he walked in. But something happens when he gets behind a microphone. There’s a body language that happens—he’s able to undulate with his movements. James is totally establishing the groove, where there’s no doubt of what to play. It was nothing but a pleasure, and we just couldn’t do wrong. We were like the Godfatherettes! He was one of the giants.


You work on the very stage where Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles.

And I never forget that. It’s so ingrained in my being. After I watched that February 9, 1964 telecast, I went back to the drums I had had for years and never played. Suddenly this was my world—I now knew what to do. I saw the obvious equation: “Do this and chicks scream with delight!”


Any advice to aspiring musicians?

If you called my formative years of playing so-called crappy gigs “paying dues,” I would disagree. I’ve never felt like I was anything other than super lucky to be playing music at all. And I think that’s the attitude anybody has to have. You have to just love it to death, and realize that the music is the boss.

–Bob Cannon


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