By Lee Zimmerman
You would think being the bassist and sometimes vocalist with the Paul Shaffer-led bands on David Letterman’s late-night talk shows would be more than enough activity to take up the average musician’s time.
Not so for Will Lee, who sums up his 31 years under the late-night guitar strap — the last 20 for CBS’ “The Late Show” on the same stage where The Beatles first performed in America on “The Ed Sullivan Show, the 11 before that at NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” —as “Unbelievable … It’s almost a little too easy, but I love it.”
Luckily for music lovers, Lee is not one to rest on his laurels. He’s played more than 1,700 studio sessions in his career for artists including Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, Liza Minnelli, Steely Dan, The Bee Gees, Billy Joel and Ray Charles.
Lee squeezed in time to put out a new album this year, “Love, Gratitude & Other Distractions” — only his second solo effort in 20 years. (His first, “Oh!,” was released in 1993.)
Like many contemporary musicians, Lee has been influenced by The Beatles. He got a drum set when he was very young, but he didn’t get serious about music until he saw The Fab Four perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
But the role in which he cast his bass for “Love, Gratitude & Other Distractions” is straight from The Beatles playbook — albeit it Ringo’s page.
“For the album, I did what I normally try to do had it been someone else’s album,” Lee says. “That is, to support the song. It’s always my challenge to take on a sort of Ringo Starr role, taking the song and using my instrument to help shape it and give it a feel. There’s that fine line you’re always riding of supporting the music while staying out of the way. I love to try to find those sweet spots within the music.”
Lee should know. He’s had the rare opportunity to play with all four Beatles at one time or another, beginning with his contribution to Ringo’s “Rotogravure” album in 1976.
“On the track that I played on, it was a song John had written called ‘Cookin’ (In the Kitchen of Love).’ John had already recorded his keyboard part, and so I never met him in person. But I did get to play with him on that track. So that was pretty great,” Lee says.
His encounter with George Harrison was unexpected.
“I was doing an album with Gary Moore in England, and the studio we were recording at was very close to George Harrison’s house, Friar Park on Henley on Thames,” Lee recalls. “It was during the time of the Wimbledon tournament, and we had been watching it on the big TV during our breaks. And at the end of one of one of the long days, we were sitting at the dinner table in the big huge mansion-recording studio place that was in a house that belonged to Roger Waters, and around twilight we see these two shadowy figures approaching in the big picture window. I look closer, and I see it’s George Harrison and John McEnroe. We had been watching McEnroe all day at Wimbledon, and there he is in our faces. So it’s like, ‘Whoa, what’s he doing here?’ They heard we were in town, so they just wanted to come over and jam.
“So then George invited us over to his house, and blah, blah, blah. A year later, I get a phone call on my answering machine, and it’s a message that says (affects British accent) ‘Hello Will, this is George Harrison calling. I’d like to steal you away from that television program to play with me for a night at the Albert Hall. So please call me.’
“Now I have a brother, Rob, who does a pretty great George impression, and I assumed it was my brother, so I didn’t call him back. At the end of the day I called my brother and said, ‘Hey, man, great George impression earlier today. It sounded amazing.’ And he said, ‘I didn’t call you.’ So I said ‘Uh oh, I’ll call you back!’ So I called the number, and it was George Harrison himself inviting me to play at what turned out to be his last concert under his own name at the Royal Albert Hall. It was in ’93, I think. And it was really, really exciting. Ringo came out for the encore and played ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ with us. So that was just unbelievable. Rock and roll heaven. It was a blast. I can’t even describe how exhilaratingly wonderful it was. I was screaming to the people in the front row, ‘I’m in rock and roll heaven!’ I practically cartwheeled onto the stage!”
Lee’s performances with fellow bassist Paul McCartney are no less memorable.
“There were a couple of Rock And Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies — I’m always playing in the house band for those things, since 1985 anyway — and McCartney always comes up and jams in those situations. But the time I really felt like I was part of the scene was when he did the Concert for New York right after 9/11, and he asked me to play bass on the tunes he was playing piano on, ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Freedom,’ a new tune he wrote specifically for the occasion. There were also a couple of other tunes that we did from his new album at the time, ‘Driving Rain.’ That was pretty wonderful.”
While nothing beats performing with the real thing, Lee does enjoy channeling his inner Beatle when he performs with the Fab Faux. But he’s not expecting Paul or Ringo to show up at any of the cover band’s gigs any time soon.
“I’ve actually tried to explain it to those guys, but they kind of roll their eyes,” he responds. “I think they have a particular disdain for Beatles cover bands.” GM