A Brief Dissection of Letterman’s Late Night Band
Daylight savings time is on and the old 10:30 is the new 11:30, so more of us might be up at a time to see David Letterman, giant of late night talk shows, following in the tradition of the legendary Johnny Carson. On stage with the gap-toothed Indianian, for the musically inclined, is the CBS Orchestra, once dubbed The World’s Most Dangerous Band. They’ve played Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies, the White House, the 1996 Olympics, and backed huge stars like David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Myles Davis and too many more to mention here. They are the music of Letterman’s Late Show; on a bad night they’re pretty good. We normally only get to hear snippets as they start or end songs, but they are better than your average cover band. It is not unusual for them to back a guest artist or even have a member or three ‘sit in’ and their professionalism is always apparent. (No doubt the lead/rehearsal time for these events is limited.) Let’s take a look at this storied band, arguably the top (paid?) cover band around.
Letterman’s combination Ed McMahon and Doc Severinson is Canada’s own Paul Schaefer, a legend on the North American Music scene. He has had a house gig for thirty years – every musician’s dream! He started his New York career in theatre and on Saturday Night Live in the 70’s. As I’m watching the show on the Monday after the time change his band is launching into a version of “Soul Man”, a song he helped make more famous due to his involvement in “The Blues Brothers”, a Hollywood classic set in the Chicago Blues Scene, featuring some of the greatest musical cameos of all time and the world’s largest car chase. In recent years the music director from Thunderbay has become more ‘schmarmy’, but you cannot deny his success as awards shows and other events have paid top dollar to contract his ‘house band’. His persona as a fruity, skinnier Uncle Fester with a messed up fashion sense is slightly more than awkward at times, but his musical successes are hard to argue with.
Will Lee, bass and vocals: Perhaps one of the most sought after bass players on the New York scene, Will has played with, well, everybody. A few: The Brecker Brothers (who first brought him to New York), Bette Midler, James Brown, Steely Dan, B.B. King. The guy can walk, he can slap; I love his work on David Sanborn’s “Change of Heart”. He also sings on Late Night as well as in his touring Beatles tribute, The Fab Faux. He might be one of the best bass players of his generation and he is an ever-desired studio guy. Lee, too, has had the Letterman house gig for 30 years. Also, he adds humourous sound effects when Dave tells a bad joke; if Lee sucked, that would likely get him fired.
Anton Fig, drums: Anton is the rock of the band. He may wear funny hats, but he plays territorial style drum kit as well as any studio guy. He, too, has backed many major league artists. The South African has been in the band since 1986, replacing the likes of Steve Gadd; quite a challenge, indeed.
Sid McGinnis, guitar and vocals: He looks like he belongs in the Talking Heads, but he’s a genius with the axe. He seems to get the lion’s share of the lead work, tucked away in his corner with headphones on like some musical mad scientist.
Felicia Collins, guitar, percussion, vocals: Well, not to take anything away, but they hit the jackpot and a double minority bullseye with Felicia. I don’t remember her singing as much when she first joined, but she has rock and r&B pipes, can play her axe, and has congas nearby, though I have rarely seen her play those. A member since 1993, she has also worked with The Thompson Twins, Madonna, Al Jarraux, and George Clinton and P-Funk. How she plays without those massive dreads getting caught in her strings is beyond me.
Tom “Bones” Malone, trombone, saxophone, trumpet, flute: Well, what can you say about a guy who is one of the top r&b trombone players in the world and also plays saxes (including baritone). There are very few musicians who play brass AND woodwind instruments and this venerable genius can do both. Trombone players are a rare breed at the best of times. Paul worked with him on “The Blues Brothers” back in 1975 (37 years ago!) and they are still at it. Besides his jazz and blues work, he’s played with Blood, Sweat and Tears, Frank Zappa and The Band.
Al Chez, trumpet, flugel, vocals – Well, the world of High Trumpet playing is a tough one. Maynard Ferguson set up a whole school just to train such beasts; I saw his college players’ show once in the southern states, and suffered tinnitus for a week, but what a rock trumpet show! These rare trumpet fenoms come in second only to sax players for the most brain aneurisms per capita. This guy is always wailing, but I personally find that he is often just under pitch…but he lives in a stratosphere few can attain, so we’ll leave it at that.
Bruce Kapler, saxes, flute, vocals – This guy is solid. He can sing a bit, too, like many in the group; harmonies are always added when possible in this band. He is solid, as I said, but he lacks a Lou Marini, Michael Brecker, or David Sanborn uniqueness. Still, as a dependable pro there is little you can say against him.
Other late night talk shows have wonderful bands, too, and in a world where live music is sometimes scratching to survive, on nights I don’t make it out, I like to see something live on the screen. However, if I can, I’d still rather see some of the amazing talent and authentic live music experiences available around the area in three dimensions.
So there you have it – a brief dissection of what has been called by David Letterman the best party band in America. If they were playing at a party near me, I’d be there in a second, because there is a lot of great music erupting from that octet and each and every one of them is a master at their craft. House bands are usually good; it’s a job every musician would love. But this house band is legendary, not only for their longevity, but for their outstanding musicianship.