He has performed with Paul, George and Ringo, now he will play at tribute to John
He is familiar to many millions of TV viewers as the studio band bass guitarist on ‘The Late Show with David Letterman’.
Will Lee, a founding member of ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Band’, now known as the CBS Orchestra, is coming to Bermuda. Since the 1960s, he has performed on stage or recorded on tracks with a who’s who of musical greats, including Diana Ross, Bette Midler, Frank Sinatra, and three former Beatles.
Mr Lee and his Beatles tribute band The Fab Faux — which had its genesis in Bermuda — take to the stage at the Second Annual Lennon Bermuda Peace Day Concert in the Botanical Gardens on September 21. The event celebrates John Lennon’s two-month vacation on the Island in the summer of 1980 when he wrote and refined what became his final songs, many of them featuring on the album ‘Double Fantasy’ released in November of that year just three weeks before he was shot dead outside his Manhattan apartment.
Mr Lee has performed on stage with former Beatles Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. And on Mr Starr’s 1976 album ‘Rotogravure’ he played bass on the track ‘Cookin (In The Kitchen Of Love)’, which also features Mr Lennon who wrote the song for Mr Starr to record. Mr Lennon played keyboards on the track, but Mr Lee did not get to meet the late Beatle as they were in the studio recording on different days.
Mr Lee has fond memories of working with Mr Starr. “He’s a funny, funny guy. He’s got a certain wisdom about that’s pretty incredible. His sense of humour is the type that would allow him to come up with an expression like ‘A Hard Day’s Night’.
“I tried to fashion my studio bass playing after his drumming. He’s the guy who rode this fine line of supporting the song versus adding something to it. If it was the proper size hole he would put the right fill in. He’s a musician’s musician, a songwriter’s drummer.”
In February 1964, when Mr Lee was only 11, his passion for music was ignited as he watched The Beatles make their US TV debut on the Ed Sullivan Show.
“The Beatles were really the spark plug to my career. I was a guy who grew up in a jazz household. My dad had bought me a set of drums when I was six or seven. By the time I was 11 I had not really gone near those drums,” he said.
“When the Beatles showed up on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, the minute that show was over I got back on the drums and began my career.”
He joked: “It was simple math equation. You get back on the drums, you play them and girls start screaming — that’s all I needed to know.”
He soon switched to playing bass guitar, explaining: “The band I was in were kind of tired of just hearing guitars and drums and wanted to fill our sound a little bit more.”
His big break came when he was called to audition for the late 60s/early 70s jazz rock band Dreams in New York. In the city he became more visible in the world of music and started to land studio session jobs. “The studio thing is where you really start to get a lot of recognition around the world. You are no longer the guy stuck in a room; now your name is on an album or two.”
He has proud musical moments, including playing on Donald Fagan’s ‘The Nightfly’, Chaka Khan’s ‘I’m Every Woman’ album, Barry Manilow hits and even on Frank Sinatra’s ‘Night and Day’ (disco version).
In 1976 Mr Lee played on Ringo Starr’s aforementioned album ‘Rotogravure’, then during the 1980s he performed with Mr Starr and a second former Beatle, George Harrison, in an all-star version of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ as The Beatles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
Six years earlier Mr Lee, along with Paul Shaffer, formed the NBC house band for the Late Night with David Letterman show. The band later became known as ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Band’. When Mr Letterman moved to CBS, the band followed and — now known as the CBS Orchestra — continue to provide music for the show.
Since the mid-1980s the band has also been the house band for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
While in England working on Gary Moore’s 1992 album ‘After Hours’ Mr Lee had a further encounter with George Harrison. “One day we were at the dinner table and we looked out the window. It was twilight and there was George Harrison and John McEnroe (Wimbledon champion) coming towards us. It turns out they knew we were in town and just wanted to come by and play.
“Afterwards George invited us to his house, which was a mile away. So we hung out and it was just incredible to be in his presence. A few years later my phone rang and it was George asking if I’d come and play with him at the Royal Albert Hall.”
It was a significant moment as it was Mr Harrison’s first live performance in London since The Beatles famously played on the roof of the Apple Records building in 1969. Ringo Starr joined in for the final two encore songs.
Over the years he also met Paul McCartney, including back stage on a tour with Bette Midler, at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions, and a few ‘jamming sessions’.
He has also played alongside Mr McCartney in more recent times. Mr Lee said: “He was doing this concert for New York right after 9/11. He was about to do songs from his new album ‘Driving Rain’. It was rumoured he was going to play some songs where he got off the bass and played either guitar or piano. I knew there would be a hole to fill, so I put the word out that I’d love to do it. By the time he came to town to rehearse it, it was already assumed that I would do it.
“It was really fun, and it was at that time I told him about The Fab Faux. I went up to him, kinda like a confession, and said ‘I know you don’t like Beatles bands, but I have this band that honours the music of you and John and George and Ringo. I said we focus on the more impossible to do songs. The first thing he said was ‘Do you do ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’? I said ‘Of course.’”
That conversation appears in the 2011 documentary movie ‘The Love We Make’ about the 9/11 concert.
It was three years before that meeting that The Fab Faux had been formed, and it all began in Bermuda.
Mr Lee has a long association with the Island. He is friends with Bermudian-American drummer Andy Newmark (who played on Mr Lennon’s final album ‘Double Fantasy and the posthumous ‘Milk and Honey’), and other well known Bermudians including former Savages drummer Howard Rego and ‘Lennon Bermuda’ organiser Tony Brannon (Mr Lee played at the Surf Club when it was run by Mr Brannon).
In the late 1990s Mr Lee was back in Bermuda for a New Year’s Eve party. Howard Rego and his girlfriend invited him to dinner. Afterwards, Mr Lee picked up an acoustic guitar and started serenading his hosts with Beatles songs. That made him think about the possibility of putting together a tribute band.
Earlier in the year he had played with Rich Pagano in Europe. He was struck by how closely his drumming style resembled that of Ringo Starr’s, and further by his Lennon-esque vocals. He knew Mr Pagano had a voice and drumming ability that could make a Beatles tribute band work.
Mr Lee said: “It was the spark of sitting in Howie Rego’s house and the realisation that I know a lot of Beatles tunes. I called Rich the next morning and asked him how he felt about trying to bring some of The Beatles records to the stage — not dress up like The Beatles — but bring the records to the stage.
“He thought about it for a while. In the meantime I knew it couldn’t be a four-piece band, it had to be a five-piece because we needed the double vocals that The Beatles had going on, the percussion parts, the keyboard parts, those extra parts that made it so magical.”
In the days that followed calls were made and the idea grew until eventually the five-piece Fab Faux came to life. The other members are Frank Agnello, Jack Petruzzelli and Jimmy Vivino, the band leader of Conan (from the TBS show hosted by Conan O’Brien).
The Fab Faux (The Beatles were often referred to as the ‘Fab Four’) do not wear Beatles wigs or dress up as the 1960s group, instead they focus on bringing to life the more difficult and complex compositions of the Beatles.
Looking forward to returning to Bermuda, and playing at the concert in the Botanical Gardens, Mr Lee said: “Our object is bring the records to the stage. You want to separate yourself from those Beatles bands with the wigs. You want to go for the real challenge.
“We are going to tribute Lennon for sure. But we are also going to give the people a good all round view of what we, The Fab Faux, do by mixing in some stuff beside just John songs. We’ve got a very good song list ready to go. It’ll be a good, rounded show that feels right.”
Tickets for the Lennon Bermuda Peace Day Concert, which will feature the music of John Lennon, The Beatles and Bob Marley, are available at www.ptix.bm