Will Lee

Letter Winner
Photos by Sandrine Lee
Photos by Sandrine Lee

Musicians being artists and artists needing to express themselves, it says something that Will Lee’s new album, Love, Gratitude & Other Distractions, is only his second in 20 years (his first was 1993’s Oh!).

Mostly, it speaks to the fact that since James Brown is no longer with us, Lee may well now be the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business”; his bread-and-butter gig has long been helping bandleader Paul Shaffer back David Letterman on the famed TV talk show at the Ed Sullivan Theater in midtown Manhattan, where for three hours each weekday, he and several hundred other people watch Letterman tell jokes, read a “Top 10” list, and talk to (mostly) famous people. When the show goes to commercial, Shaffer, Lee, and company entertain the audience with a few pop songs.

Most weekends find Lee jamming with Jimmy Vivino (VG, July ’13) and a few other friends in Fab Faux, a renowned Beatles tribute act they formed in 1998. Pile on his frequent session work and that leaves precious little time for solo projects.

Lee, 61, grew up in a family of musicians. His father taught jazz and for 18 years served as dean at the University of Miami’s music school. His first instrument was piano, followed by violin, trumpet, and French horn. But, typical of kids of his generation, The Beatles on their first “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964 nearly pushed those instruments from his mind, and toward drums, then the electric bass, which he studied at Miami.

While attending college, he worked locally until 1971, when he joined the New York jazz-rock band Dreams with trumpeter Randy Brecker, jumping aboard in time to help the group record its second album, Imagine My Surprise. Not long after, he began working with a list of artists that eventually included Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, B.J. Thomas, David Sanborn, Boz Scaggs, Carly Simon, Frank Sinatra, Spyro Gyra, Ringo Starr, Steely Dan, Cat Stevens, and Barbra Streisand.

(LEFT TO RIGHT) For his gig on “Late Show With David Letterman,” Lee relies on his four- and five-string Sadowsky signature-model basses. Both also feature prominently on his new album, Love, Gratitude & Other Distractions. Lee’s Beatles influence manifests itself through this ’60s Höfner bass – lefty configured!
(LEFT TO RIGHT) For his gig on “Late Show With David Letterman,” Lee relies on his four- and five-string Sadowsky signature-model basses. Both also feature prominently on his new album, Love, Gratitude & Other Distractions. Lee’s Beatles influence manifests itself through this ’60s Höfner bass – lefty configured!

In 1975, Brecker and his brother, Michael, asked Lee to join them in a new funk-fusion group, The Brecker Brothers Band, where he stayed for a few years before joining guitarist Hiram Bullock and drummer Steve Jordan in The 24th Street Band. That unit released three albums that proved very popular in Japan. From that band, Lee, Bullock, and Jordan were hired by Shaffer to play with Letterman beginning in early ’82.

One of the millions who were watching “The Ed Sullivan Show” on that fateful night in February of ’64 (when the Beatles made their first U.S. television appearance), Lee has lived the babyboomer-musician’s dream by at various points sharing a stage with three Beatles. And, he’s perpetually tickled by the fact he goes to work every day in the joint where that band played that night. “I gave Paul McCartney a hug when his son, James, was on Letterman,” Lee recalled. “Being in the Sullivan Theater, I told him, ‘Welcome home!’”

Lee’s new album, Love, Gratitude & Other Distractions, features original songs rendered with help from guitar slingers Steve Lukather, Pat Metheny, Billy Gibbons, Leni Stern, and Oz Noy, along with several other top-tier musicians including Shaffer.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he says of the disc. “I usually like listening to it, and there’s nothing better than when someone tells you they feel something when they hear it.”

Is there any particular reason you waited 20 years between solo albums?
I think because I was working (laughs!) It’s funny though, all these song ideas fill my brain to the point I just can’t do my day-to-day work anymore! They drive me nuts and I’ve got to get them out. In the back of my mind, I was always ready to start another album, but it took a certain spark, which was the recording of “Miss Understanding.” That song was done at a songwriter’s circle where we were playing original tunes in front of an audience, and somebody recorded it. I sent the file to a drummer I wanted to hear it, and he liked it so much he put a track to it. That was the genesis.

(LEFT TO RIGHT) Further evidence of the influence of the ’60s; Lee’s Vox Phantom bass. 1963 Fender Precision Bass. 1965 Fender Precision in Olympic White.
(LEFT TO RIGHT) Further evidence of the influence of the ’60s; Lee’s Vox Phantom bass. 1963 Fender Precision Bass. 1965 Fender Precision in Olympic White.

The album mixes funk and jazz but has a pretty strong pop vibe…
If I had to call it a genre, I’d say it’s “s**t I like.” I have a bunch of ideas for songs in the works for the next one – another plethora of stuff – and as much as I’d like to say, “I’m gonna do a funk album,” I think I’d lose interest. I like having a bunch of irons in the fire; I can’t focus on one song for too long.

How did you choose guitar players for the guest spots?
I just thought about who’d be perfect for each song. In the case of Billy Gibbons, it was interesting. In the midst of doing the album, I woke up one morning with the song “Get Out Of My Life Woman” in my brain, then the phone rang; “It’s Gibbons. I’m in town.” I said, “What are you doing tonight? Do you want to come over and sing ‘Get Out of My Life Woman’ with me?” And he goes, “I got a terrible cold – let’s get this recorded before it goes away.” He was so happy that I asked him because of his f***ed up voice that day! I can’t imagine any other singer having that reaction. And the song is really strong – a good juxtaposition of two voices. It reminds me of Sam and Dave, or maybe more Allison Krauss and Robert Plant.

So, the track happened fairly spontaneously?
Very spontaneously. Luckily, guys in New York really hustle, because as soon as Billy said, “I want to do this,” I got on the phone with drummer Shawn Pelton and told him, “I have Gibbons coming over tonight to sing this song, can you do me a drum track that sounds like this, at about this tempo?” (makes a click-track sound) Shawn was running to yoga class at the time, but remembered the beat and the tempo and sent me a loop. We cut it up a little to create different sections, but it all happened so quickly; it was one of those miraculous things. And it continued when I called Allen Toussaint and said, “Hey, are you gonna be in New York?” He said, “Next week.” And I said, “How would you feel about playing some piano on that tune you wrote?” And he was up for it. It was one of those amazing, organic things that happened without a lot of sitting down or outlining and stressing over.

How about the Steve Lukather track?
Luke and I have been really good friends since before Toto. He and Jeff Porcaro used to call me when they were forming the band and say, “Hey, we want you to move out [to L.A.] to be in this band.” I kept saying, “I love you guys for asking, but I’m doing really good in New York. Thanks anyway.” But we’ve remained good friends and I was lucky to be on a few sessions and some live stuff with him.

On his track, “The Natives are Restless,” I was trying to get this energetic feeling. It’s a song about how we’re f***ing up the environment and how we’re having to scramble just to survive – floods, fires, unpredictable weather, and all that stuff. So I thought it would be great to have Luke blaze a solo to help illustrate. Sure enough, he did a great job.

And Metheny?
Yeah, Metheny’s on the record, uncredited. My father gave him a scholarship to the University of Miami, and he has always felt very thankful. I played on his album, Secret Story, and we’ve always had a mutual admiration. So I wrote a little solo section with him in mind for “Gratitude,” the first song on the album. I requested that he use that sound of that synth guitar – a very horn-like sound. I thought it would bring something to it and boy did he ever bring it home.

(LEFT) Lee’s five-string Pedulla in Arctic Blue finish. (RIGHT) Lee makes great use of this modified Fender bass. Its frets have been sanded down, its pickups replaced with active EMGs in a Jazz Bass configuration, with controls modified accordingly.
(LEFT) Lee’s five-string Pedulla in Arctic Blue finish. (RIGHT) Lee makes great use of this modified Fender bass. Its frets have been sanded down, its pickups replaced with active EMGs in a Jazz Bass configuration, with controls modified accordingly.

“Simple Way to Say I Love You” and “Smile” are bass solo/melody tracks.
“Simple Way” is a song I wrote for John Tropea’s album years ago. I was producing and always thought it would sound good played by a fretless player, and I found one I could afford – me! I thought it lent itself to the sound of that instrument. So I was happy to have Tropea play on it, along with Peter Erskine and Gary Schreiner, who I recently met. He plays a nice chromatic harmonica solo.

Which instrument did you use on it?
I think I used my vintage Fender Precision-turned-Jazz. Somewhere in its life, I had Sadowsky put EMG pickups in it, way before he was making basses, and luthier Woody Phifer filed down the frets.

How about “Smile”?
It’s funny, I had figured out a bit of that song within the harmonics that were really available to my eye and ear on a bass, to the point where one night in Japan, while playing with Hiram Bullock, he had a technical breakdown and there was time to fill. So I started playing that melody. Being onstage with Hiram was always fertile ground for creativity, and it was in Japan, where the open-mindedness of the people is enough to make you take chances you’d never take anywhere else. I hadn’t really thought the song through, but my fingers found some spots; some of it worked, some of it didn’t, and the parts that did, I remembered – luckily.

The thing that really turned it into music was Chuck Loeb and the amazing soundscape he created with his great harmonic knowledge. It makes it sound legit, I think.

Which basses and amps do we hear on the record?
The only time there was an amp used, it was my Ampeg Micro-VR, which is really cool. I use it in my studio, to test basses and practice, once in a while to record. I needed it to bring out some harmonics on “Papounet’s Ride.”

I used a Pedulla fretless five-string, and for a few of the tunes, and an early-’60s P-Bass, mostly with flat wounds. That’s on “Get Out of My Life Woman” and “Miss Understanding.” I’m sure I used the Sadowsky 5 on “Simple Way to Say I Love You,” but that melody is being played on the fretless Fender. I used my four-string Sadowsky signature on the rest.

What about the Letterman gig has kept you there for 31 years?
Oh man, it’s such a great gig. I get to sit there and watch a really great TV show and a great comedy show happening while keeping my hands on my instrument, keeping my chops up. I hate practicing on my own, and it’s a great excuse to not practice!

And, you’ve been doing Fab Faux for 15 years.
Yeah, same five guys. It’s pretty amazing. We’re still spelunking, we’re still…we still have our shovels out, trying to dig for what the real elements are that made these songs so great. We’re still picking them apart to try to find the right notes and parts and instruments and sounds.

How do you work the set with that band?
Yeah, we try to make it a roller-coaster ride, unless we need to package something into a theme of some sort, which sells tickets but may not be the best show. It’s more fun when we jump between eras – play a psychedelic song, then go back to a Cavern song and move it all over the place.

Did you start noodling on guitar after you saw the Beatles, or did you opt first for bass?
It was drums, actually, because my father had given me a drum kit when I was six or seven – a totally happening Leedy/WFL Ludwig kit. I didn’t have the first idea what I wanted to do with it until the Beatles played Sullivan. As soon as that show was over, I started practicing.

Banging out Beatles’ songs?
There was a lot of stuff going on. We had the Beach Boys, we had the Ventures, which was a great outlet for us kids who didn’t have any microphones and everybody plugged into one amp.

What was your first gig?
There was an outdoor park where a Catholic youth organization had a picnic and needed a band they could pay six bucks per man.

Once a fretted instrument caught your interest, was it guitar or bass?
It was bass, by default, because there were no bass players our age – there were plenty of guitar players and drummers. 12-year-olds don’t have much sense of the function of the bass, but it seemed to me we’d be a cooler band if we had a fuller sound. So, like an idiot, I volunteered. Of course, I soon realized it was impossible to play bass and sing at the same time. That’s another thing I had to figure out.

What was your first bass and amp?
Something my father bought me for Christmas – a Kalamazoo amp, and a no-name Japanese bass. It was very brown, with not the loveliest headstock.

Being a jazzer and a music educator, was your dad okay with immersing yourself in pop music?
Yeah, I don’t think he saw me as a really disciplined kid. But when he bought that bass, he knew I wanted the white Fender Precision in the music-store window, and the fact that he didn’t buy it for me probably was the best thing he could have done, because after waking up Christmas morning and seeing that goofy bass, I knew I’d have to earn the Precision somehow. And when I did, it was a much better feeling than just having it handed to me.

How long did it take?
A couple/three months – and it was still in the store for some reason. It was such a beautiful thing!

Do you still have it?
No, it had been through too many LSD-inspired incarnations, I think (laughs) – sanding the finish down to the wood, changing pickups. I might have just traded it for a better-sounding P-Bass because it really wasn’t that great. It was just beautiful, and at the time I didn’t know much about tone. I’m still learning about that!

Speaking of, what was your first decent amp?
I had an early Bassman that had everything going for it – the Tolex gave off the most delicious scent, and when I hit the Standby switch, I was off and running. But for me, being a pocket player, the first thing that really got my rocks off was a solidstate Standel. It was instant – the note came out at the exact moment you played it, and that felt really good. I don’t know if it was because I was used to playing drums or if I just wanted to be able to not have to anticipate the note. In fact, once I started becoming a studio musician in New York, I’d have the engineer split my track so he could get direct signal from me or whatever and do whatever he wanted to with compression and all the beautiful-sounding tube stuff and feed me the unaffected direct track so I could really be in the pocket with the drums.

Is there a particular type of music you prefer to listen to when you’re not working?
There are really two kinds of music, right? I like the good kind! I get something out of any music that grooves and isn’t out of tune! I like it all, I love what we’re doing with the Fab Faux – I never seem to tire of doing Beatles songs. I love what Jimmy Vivino does, his passion is the blues and I love that whole thing. I love jazz because both my parents were jazzers. I didn’t really want to be the same kind of musician as my father, who was locked into bebop city, you know? I grew up in Texas, and he hated country music. I never hated it – I couldn’t, for some reason. He didn’t see harmonicas as musical instruments, but I couldn’t hate the harmonica, because to me it depends on who’s blowing into it. If you’re Howard Levy, you can get all the notes. And if you don’t want to go for all the notes, that’s fine, that’s called ‘taste in space.’”


This article originally appeared in VG November 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.