Gary James' Interview with
the bassist for The Fab Faux and
The CBS Orchestra
Will Lee is the bassist for The Beatles tribute band The Fab Faux in addition to being part of the CBS Orchestra on The Late Show With David Letterman. In 2014, he was inducted into the Musicians Hall Of Fame And Museum. He even has a bass guitar named after him, built by Roger Sadowsky. Will Lee spoke with us about his very busy schedule and more!
Q - How much work is there for a band like The Fab Faux? You only play the big places, don't you? You don't play bars, do you?
A - We try not to play bars anymore because we have kind of outgrown them. What we like to do is do our full show, which includes horns and strings. So, in a bar there's never room for that. There's never enough P.A. system to capture what's going on. Having said that, once in a while we'll do like a surprise, five piece gig here or there without our horns and strings just because it's a totally different atmosphere that's kind of our roots anyway as musicians. So it feels great. You get this thing in a small place that's an ambience that you can't get on a giant stage. You hear all the instruments acoustically right next to you and it really just feels great. But, it's rare that we can afford to do that. We have crew and a whole rider with really specific sound needs to honor the music properly that we're doing.
Q - This group formed in 1998?
A - That's right, yeah.
Q - Tribute groups are very popular today, but how popular were they in 1998?
A - I wasn't paying attention to any of that stuff for the most part, even though at that time of course I was obviously aware there were Beatles bands pretending to be The Beatles, dressing up and saying, "Hey look, I'm Paul. Hey, I'm John." But that was probably something throughout my life that probably contributed to never even thinking of having a Beatles band. So, I wasn't even thinking of it even as a business. I wasn't thinking about any competition with what we were doing. All I wanted to do was simply see what it felt like to try and bring The Beatles' records to the stage and I would never even have thought that far into it had I not met our drummer and one of our lead singers, Rich Pagano, who to me had a very good grip on the whole Ringo style of playing and coincidentally reminded me of Lennon when he sang, which is perfect for a guy who doesn't think of a band when the whole point is to basically bring the audio version of what's going on to the stage and not try to do the visual nostalgia thing.
Q - So, it never entered your mind to put on the wigs and put on the collarless jackets? That was never your idea?
A - No. I just don't think like that somehow. I don't have that kind of mentality. I think the music is enough. Plenty.
Q - Do you use the vintage equipment The Beatles used? I'm talking about the Vox amps, the Hofner bass, the Rickenbacker guitars?
A - Yeah. We try to use as much of the original sounding stuff as possible to get the real sound going. If I tried to describe to a layman this, it might not make as much sense, but when I'm playing a song using the proper instrument, that song really comes alive. When I'm playing it on the wrong instrument it doesn't really have the same oomph. It just doesn't feel like the record at all.
Q - Have people picked up on that? Have you ever tried using different instruments.
A - I'm sure their imaginations have gone wild just by playing the right notes. That's most of it. That's pretty much it in a way. But once you start fine-tuning and getting deep inside the records, you understand to make this sound you need this piece of gear. Once that combination happens, something clicks inside of you and you go, "I've got to do this with every song. I've got to try this with all the songs to make it real."
Q - If you walked on stage with a Fender bass as opposed to a Hofner bass, the audience might pick up on that right away.
A - Yeah.
Q - I don't even know if a Fender bass would give you the same sound as a Hofner bass. You would know.
A - It would be a totally different sound.
Q - That's what I thought you would say.
A - Believe it or not, I think we're really talking about some subtle stuff here. This is kind of gear geek kind of talk really.
Q - You would thinks so, but some guys who play McCartney in a Beatles tribute play a right handed Hofner bass and I say, "Hey..."
A - What do you think you're doing? (laughs)
Q - Right. McCartney is left handed. Did you try to learn left handed bass and they couldn't do it. Or the audience never noticed it.
A - That's funny. There are bands that have actually gone that way, like Gary Grimes, who was the bass player in 1964. He's no longer with us, but he was doing Paul left handed even though he was right handed.
Q - Did you ever see The Beatles in concert?
A - I never have been lucky enough to see The Beatles 'live'. I think I had just moved out of Huntsville, Texas when they appeared at the Houston Coliseum, which was only 70 miles away, but by that time my family had moved to Florida. So I wasn't one of those in the middle of the screamers.
Q - You actually met Paul McCartney, didn't you?
A - Yes, quite a few times.
Q - Okay, what was that like?
A - Well, the very first time I met him he and Linda came backstage to a Bette Midler concert. I was the bass player in her band back in the early '70s. She was doing her first national tour and Paul and Linda came backstage. You might notice about The Beatles, especially McCartney, and I guess all of 'em really, they're so clever in a public situation. They always knew how to work the room and how to say the right thing. He said to me, and I knew he was going to say something, "Are you a studio musician, man?" for some reason. And I was a studio musician. Maybe he knew it. Maybe he didn't know it. But it was a very astute thing to ask me at the time.
Q - You said "Yes" and he said what?
A - He said, "Oh, very nice to meet you." That was my first meeting with him and of course any time you've seen him in a situation where he's talking to somebody he can always conjure up things to say that seem appropriate.
Q - Did you meet the other Beatles?
A - I met everybody except John. I've played with everybody including John.
Q - You played with John!
A - Yes. It was actually because of the magic of over-dubbing and audio multi-tracking on Ringo's album, "Rotogravure". There's a song on there called "Cooking In The Kitchen Of Love" which is a John Lennon song and John had already put his keyboard part down, so I just missed meeting him.
Q - You recorded with Frank Sinatra?
A - I did as a matter of fact. And believe it or not it was a Disco version of "Night And Day".
Q - I don't believe I ever heard that record.
A - Well, it was a bigger in the after hours bar when I used to drink. It was on the jukebox all the time.
Q - How many records did you play on?
A - I think it's somewhere between 1750 and 2000, but it's kind of a nebulous number at this point. My wife always thinks I say a lower number because since she's known me, I've played on so many. She thinks I'm hanging on to an older number. I'm not sure.
Q - If you heard a song on the radio, would you know if you had played bass on that record?
A - Yes and no. There's some more obscure moments than others.
Q - Who were you touring with?
A - When I first moved to New York I was in awe of the whole fact that there were such a thing as studio work and being a studio musician. I never dreamed of getting involved in it, but I sort of stepped through the cracks and lucked out and got to be a well-known studio musician. Part of what in my logical brain allowed me to be successful doing that; when I first got started doing sessions I was out on the road with Bette Midler, but I not only didn't tell anybody I was out on the road with Bette Midler because at that point I was just starting to break into the studio scene. I knew why I was getting in. It was because other guys had become unavailable and I didn't want to become one of these unavailable guys that got replaced. So I would fly in to do just a jingle and fly right back out on the road again. Because of that in-demand thing that built after those early days of doing that, I was really needing to stay in town and I didn't do much touring. I tried to stay off the road because I was so into doing the studio work. I loved it. It was lucrative. You'd go into a room and play with a set of players and that would be the first and last time you'd play with those set of guys. Then you'd finish the session and go to another scenario just like that and do that five to eight times a day, playing a piece of music that you'd never have to think about again, and just keep moving on to the new, fresh thing every time you walked into a room. So, I was really, really into that whole career of doing that. So, I stayed off the road for the most part. I did a little bit of touring with Barry Manilow, his first tour. The Brecker Brothers. Some weekends I would go out with Herbie Mann, the flute player.
Q - I forgot to ask, you were in the same room with Sinatra when he recorded "Night And Day"?
A - We actually did it 'live' with the orchestra and the plan was he was supposed to be at the session, but he didn't make the plane, or something happened where he didn't show up and over-dubbed his vocal, which for him was a rarity. He was known for being in the studio with the musicians all the time. We were all in anticipation that was going to be the case and he ended up not showing up. It was like, "Okay, well, we'll just do the best we can," 'cause that's what we were used to doing anyway. Did the track and the over dub later.
Q - Were you a Sinatra fan?
A - I was afraid and excited at the same time.
Q - Were you ever in the studio with Elvis?
A - No. I never got a chance to be around that guy.
Q - How did you get this gig with David Letterman? Did you know somebody or did you just get lucky?
A - Well, I was very lucky first of all, being in New York was ninety per cent of why it was possible. But also, I struck up a really nice friendship with Paul Shaffer and he and I were double-dating with his then girlfriend who later became his wife. Were were good friends. We were doing sessions together quite often. In fact, he had co-produced the second album of a band I had been in called the 24th Street Band. The 24th Street Band had a record that was really successful in Japan. So we were a band that nobody knows about that had a really huge following for about twelve minutes and three albums. That band broke up just before Shaffer got the call to be the MD (Musical Director) of the Letterman show. He knew us all as players and and saw us as a ready made band, but we became his band back in 1982.
Q - When you're on a show like Letterman, you never get to play a song in its entirety, do you?
A - Well, we do.
Q - When it comes time for a commercial break, the TV viewer just doesn't get to hear or see it.
A - The audience sees the whole damn thing.
Q - How many songs would you get to play?
A - I guess we'd play five complete songs.
Q - Was that or is that enough for you to keep your chops up?
A - Well, it was then and it still is.
Q - How many dates are you playing with The Fab Faux?
A - We go out and play a Saturday night and come home and sleep in our own bed on Sunday. It's kind of like that 'cause we take our full gear and truck it all out to the West Coast or wherever we're playing and all back just in time for the next weekend's gigs.