“I went to NYU for several years but was in the School of Business. I knew Steve [Winer] from film screenings around town and such places as The Museum of Modern Art. Though Steve most definitely got me my job at Letterman.” — e-mail from Rick, August 24, 1994
“I began as a film consultant to the show the first week of March, 1982, but at the time I was working on my Masters in Finance. Finally they said I was making too much money as a consultant, so they hired me on staff the first week of June. When I first started out, I shared an office with Chris Elliott and Edd Hall. Although the office was actually just the coffee/supply room.” — AOL Late Show site: Taste Test, February 5, 1997
Rick was one of the longest-employed staffers on Dave’s late night talk shows, starting as a said-consultant a month after Late Night’s February 1982 debut on NBC, and staying on until Dave’s retirement on CBS’s Late Show in May 2015. His official position throughout was “Film Coordinator,” responsible for providing film footage the show would often need at a moment’s notice. For over 33 years it was referred to on both the NBC and CBS shows as “Shecky Footage,” little mind the last name missing the first “c.”
But Rick was far more than that both inside and outside the show. Inside, he was one of Late Show’s producers, though never titled as such, sitting in the back row of the control room during the tapings, being at the ready for any Shecky Footage that might be required ASAP. He was also responsible for distributing clips to legitimate parties requesting them. Viewers, though, knew him more for his on-camera comedy skits in which he was asked to participate, perhaps his most enduring as Late Night’s Elvis Presley. But he also once took a vicious punch on Late Show from Bruce WIllis, who in another piece gunned him down, accompanied with his most famous movie phrase, “Yippee ki yay, Shecky!!”
His interests outside the show were far more vital to him: early- to mid-20th-Century films. He had acquired an enormous collection of rare movies and had his own business as the Chairman of the Board at F.I.L.M. Archives. He was highly regarded within the legacy film industry and was known there for his film expertise rather than his decades-long association with Dave.
He had also amassed a gigantic collection of comics, baseball cards, and film posters. Visiting his home was like entering a museum. His basement contained thousands of videotapes, nearly all of them old films. One of his upstairs rooms was filled with thousands of DVDs, all neatly stacked, both his tapes and discs retrievable only via his immaculate computer databases.
Others who knew him far better than me, his decades-long close friends on the show, his decades-long close friends off the show, will choose to share their own Rick memories. Here’s mine:
I first “met” Rick on CompuServe’s Letterman message board in 1991/92, when, while at NBC, he had been producing A&E’s nearly-year-long run of syndicated Late Nights. He had been soliciting suggestions for shows to air from the board members. I remember sending him a list of around 40 Late Nights. Highly impractical, but I’d never had that sort of access with him or any other staffer before, so I went a little nuts.
We then reconnected in 1994, when he was at Dave’s Late Show on CBS. We would trade tapes. He would invite me into his office on one of the top floors in the Ed Sullivan building to watch shows while he worked downstairs.
In early 1995, Rick called me and asked if I had any videos of Academy Award shows. I did, so I stayed up all night dubbing all that I had. Little did I know then that they were meant for Dave to screen as part of his prep work for hosting the Awards show in late March. I take some pride in contributing in my own small way to what many then considered a fiasco.
Other video and data requests from Rick and others at the show soon followed.
Rick became not only an essential contact to Dave’s show but a friend as well. He was extremely generous with his time, sharing all sorts of Late Night/Late Show trivia with me for the next 25+ years, much of it confidential. He was a walking encyclopedia of Dave knowledge and the keeper of the institutional history. That in itself is such an incalculable loss.
After Late Show ended in 2015, Rick would alert me to staff alumni who had begun their final journeys or were about to, so I could then begin preparing YouTube compilations in their honor — Kenny Sheehan, Tony Mendez, Alan Kalter. That he entrusted me with such then-private news was an honor for me that I’ll always cherish.
When I learned of Rick’s illness a few days ago, I distracted myself from the thought of his deteriorating health by putting together a short tribute. Due to various restrictions, I was limited to screen captures and public-domain footage. The piece lasts only over a minute.
Rick’s first on-camera sighting on Late Night was on March 18, 1982 — shortly after being hired as a consultant — standing next to his friend and LN Writer Stephen Winer, both of them staring at Robin Williams as he dropped by the show for a surprise walk-on to join guest Norman Lear at homebase. That’s the first image here.
The rest are selected screen-captures from various highlight appearances on Late Night, plus three of his more-familiar Shecky Footage clips, which would air on both Late Night and Late Show.
The last image is one I took in his home basement on September 21, 2018.
Rick loved old campy-style music. Thus the soundtrack for this small piece. It was extracted from the Monkey-Washing-a-Cat loop found on the YouTubes, a clip from the Shecky Footage archives, and also included here.
God speed, Rick. You were one of the good guys.
Thanks to Lori Styler, Steve Winer, Jerry Foley, Alex Bennett, and Mike Chisholm for their presence.
The Letterman Channel has uploaded their own tribute, and it’s magnificent:
David Letterman’s final Late Night on NBC occurred on June 25, 1993. As he left to prepare his Late Show’s debut on CBS on August 30, his former network imposed certain “intellectual copyright” restrictions: Larry “Bud” Melman could no longer be called by his character but instead by his actual name, Calvert DeForest. The Top Ten list would now be called “Late Show Top Ten.” And Paul Shaffer’s house group could no longer be referred to as The World’s Most Dangerous Band (WMDB). They were hereafter the CBS Orchestra.
The core members of the NBC band continued on to the CBS show: Paul Shaffer, music director and keyboards; Sid McGinnis, guitar; Will Lee, bass, and Anton Fig, drums. Added for Late Show were two new players: Felicia Collins, second guitar, and Bernie Worrell, second keyboards. Felicia had first performed with Will and Anton at Live Aid in Philadelphia on July 13, 1985, and she had appeared on Late Night backing Cyndi Lauper on May 27, 1993. Bernie was the famed Parliament-Funkadelic co-founder and keyboardist; he had sat in with the WMDB once, on February 26, 1991.
Bernie would leave Late Show after two months, his last day on October 29, 1993. On the following Monday, November 1, he was succeeded by a two-person horn section that consisted of Tom “Bones” Malone on trombone and 5,000 other instruments, and Bruce Kapler on saxophone and, occasionally, flute. Tom and Paul had known each other since the 1975-80 SNL days and had together assembled The Blues Brothers in 1978. Still, Tom had sat in with the Late Night band only once, on August 22, 1991.
Bruce Kapler, though, along with his musical partner Alan Chesnovitz (Al Chez), had been sitting in frequently with the WMDB since their first joint appearance on September 14, 1988. Bruce would make 26 further sit-in appearances on Late Night.
Bruce and Al were hardly the first to sit in with the Late Night band. There’d be 370 Late Nights with music-guest sit-ins; some would have their own music segments, others only to play with the WMDB throughout the show.
The band sit-ins tradition continued on Late Show. Of the 4,214 Dave-hosted shows and 30 Guest-Host shows, 278 featured sit-in music guests.
Al Chez was a frequent CBS Orchestra sit-in and would officially become a permanent member of the horn section on February 28, 1997. The band personnel would then remain stable for the next fifteen years. Bruce would leave on February 2, 2012, and Al would follow five months later on July 26.
After months of auditions for the saxophone chair, Aaron Heick was officially brought in as Bruce’s successor on June 18, 2012. Auditions for Al’s trumpet chair began immediately after his departure, and on September 17, Frank Greene would begin his permanent position as Al’s successor. The band personnel from then on — Paul, Sid, Will, Anton, Felicia, Tom, Aaron, and Frank — would continue until the final show on May 20, 2015.
Part 2. The Performances
Of likely more interest to the more casual Late Show fan are the music guests. Gathered in the following PDF spreadsheets are complete rosters of the guest performers and song titles as well as all of the band sit-ins and substitutions.
The first PDF spreadsheet presents the overall history of the music performances and song titles sorted sequentially by show broadcast date, along with all band sit-ins and substitutions.
Gary Campbell. Annie Sutton. Phyllis Hyman. Denny Morouse. Stephen Schwartz. Richard Gottehrer.
These are the names that triggered pivotal events in the music careers of Will Lee, Sid McGinnis, Hiram Bullock, Steve Jordan, Paul Shaffer, and Anton Fig. It was an eleven-year journey that would lead to the formation and then transformation of The World’s Most Dangerous Band, a group that would change the musical culture on American television late-night talk shows.
Presented here is not an exhaustive history of the players; that would take an encyclopedia. Rather, it’s a look at the moments that changed these musician’s careers, described in their own words from published interviews and private emails and phone chats. There’s also a deeper dive into selected consequential instances of the Late Night band.
Will Lee, bass
Will‘s story begins with Jerry Coker, a tenor saxophonist born in 1932 who fronted his own band in the ’50s and played with, among many, Mel Lewis and Stan Kenton. By 1965 he was directing the Indiana University Big Band, which that spring had included a 19-year-old student trumpet player named Randy Brecker.
Randy was also playing with the Indiana University Jazz Band, led by Buddy Baker. In that band was a tenor saxophonist named Gary Campbell. The two become friends, touring together a year later with the school’s big band and its smaller jazz sextet in the Mid-East and India.
Later in 1966 Jerry Coker became the Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Miami and was soon thereafter the head of the university’s Jazz Studies.
Flash-forward five years later to the Spring of 1971. Will is a French horn major at the University of Miami while playing electric bass six nights a week in a local “Chicago-y kind of band” called Goldrush:
“This first year of college, I’d screwed up my grades and my only chance to stay in school was to impress the assistant dean. Luckily he was a very hip cat and I played him some tapes of this group called Goldrush—three horns, three rhythm—I was playing bass in. And he loved the way I sounded so he let me stay around to study electric bass.
“Miami had a real nice jazz program with people who were pushing for the fusion of jazz and rock. Except no one was satisfied with listening to Chicago. Then Dreams came along with this funky street shit, plus everyone was impressed by Mike [Brecker] and Randy [Brecker]’s ballad solos and [drummer] Billy [Cobham]’s work.
“Then one day in class, Jerry Coker’s wife brought me a note from the office. She got a phone call from Randy Brecker for me to call him. I didn’t even recognize the name, much less the New York area code. Then when the guy next to me told me who Randy Brecker was, I thought it was a joke. It turned out Randy had gotten my name from a tenor player named Gary Campbell who’d been at Miami and heard a bunch of the students jamming. Dreams was looking for a funky bass player but they had exhausted the New York supply after Chuck Rainey had quit the band. Gary’s taste was pretty different from theirs, but they were so desperate they took a chance.” (Will’s first national profile in downbeat, April 21, 1977)
Will traveled to New York City to audition for the band. After a hazy afternoon hanging out with the band’s keyboard player, Don Grolnick, Will was beside himself playing with musicians he loved so much on record, and they hired him on the spot.
After recording its second LP in mid-late ’71 (now with Will), Dreams broke up in mid-1972, no doubt set in motion from its disappointing commercial attraction and Billy Cobham being lured away the year before to join John McLaughlin’s new band, Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Will’’s musical career was set from that moment on. After Dreams disbanded, a September ’72 tour with B.J. Thomas followed; then a Spring ’73 tour with Horace Silver and Will’s former Dreams-mates Michael and Randy Brecker; and a new and lucrative career in the recording studio, starting prominently with jingles work. His first LP session was a “Shaft” knock-off album fronted by organist Sy Mann, and the personnel included former Dreams players Don Grolnick (here on piano), Sy’s son, guitarist Bob Mann, and, according to Will, possibly Randy Brecker.
Spring 1973 brought recording sessions with Bette Midler, followed by a Summer/Fall tour with Bette, her musical director Barry Manilow, and the keyboardist who got Will into her band, Don Grolnick.
After a Christmas break back in Miami, where he first heard Jaco Pastorius perform at the Lion’s Share, Will was back in NYC by the beginning of 1974, and back to studio work and a brief January 1974 stint with a revamped Count’s Rock Band, which included guitarist Steve Khan and, yes, Don Grolnick.
(Meanwhile, Bette was back on tour in late 1975; her band included a young bassist named Francisco Centeno, who would later sub for Will on Late Night in the late ’80s and early ’90s.)
By March, Will was touring with Barry Manilow’s own band. “I did about 6–9 months with him. He had no hits, but a solo album with ‘Could It Be Magic’ on it.” (email from Will, August 13, 1996)
Enter Sid McGinnis, guitar
After a few months break, Manilow resumed his touring in October 1974. Will was no longer available, having immersed himself back into studio work. Sid McGinnis had recently moved from the Midwest to New York City. His girlfriend and future wife Cynthia had been roommates with then-Ten Wheel Drive’s lead vocalist Annie Sutton. Will was friends with Annie. Through that connection, Will recruited Sid to join Barry’s band for the new tour. In a May 21, 1996, phone chat, Sid told me about the Annie Sutton connection and, while there’s no mention of Will in his 1974 datebook, he knows that Will was the link to the Manilow tour.
Sid: “I came to New York in 1973 to visit some friends. I ended up staying.” (Bill Milkowski profile of Sid in downbeat, August 1988)
After Sid’s involvement with Manilow’s band ended in December 1975, his own career trajectory was now established, and he soon found himself extensive studio work, club dates — he played with Erin Dickins and the Relief Band in at least two NYC clubs in the Spring of 1981 and Fall of ’82 — and tours with Andrew Gold, Peter Gabriel, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, and, in the spring of 1984, Laurie Anderson. He then got the call that late summer to audition for The World’s Most Dangerous Band’s guitar position that had been held by Hiram Bullock since the show had begun two years earlier in February 1982.
Hiram Bullock, guitar
Hiram was another music student at the University of Miami, arriving there in 1973 from Baltimore, two years after Will had left his academic career to join Dreams in NYC. Jaco Pastorius was briefly one of his instructors. (He and Hiram would play together in NYC twelve years later.) Also there was Cliff Carter, a keyboardist, who was Will’s age.
“I was a member of [Phyllis Hyman’s] band from June of 1974 until February, 1976. Clifford Carter was a member from the Fall of 1974 until I left the group. The group was called ‘Phyllis Hyman & the PH Factor.’” (email from Hiram, June 3, 1997)
“I met Will in 1974 right after I met Jaco. Will was already in New York City, and he was famous to us and was already playing with Bette Midler and recording jingles. At that time I was playing with Phyllis Hyman in Miami Beach at the Eden Rock Hotel, and one night in walks Will Lee. I’m freaking out saying, ‘Oh, it’s Will Lee!’ and asked him if he wanted to sit in. Will says yes and I asked him what he wanted to play, and he says, ‘Squib Cakes’ by Tower of Power. Now, ‘Squib Cakes’ for a musician is a tricky little ditty, it’s funky, but it’s an odd choice, but Will played every note wrong, but someone it was great, I couldn’t believe it. Will was so groovin’ it was definitely an educational experience for me.” (Sounds of Blue’s Bob Putignano’s interview with Hiram, 2005)
“Will was already in New York when I arrived in Miami, but during the PH Factor’s year-long engagement at the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach, he came and sat in. We hit it off immediately, and he was a big help to me when I first came to NYC. … We are really close friends to this day.” (email from Hiram, June 6, 1997)
Will: “Before I met Phyllis I was already totally prepped by two devout fans (my sisters!) who had started going to see her at the Checkmate in South Miami. When I finally got down to see her it was at the Doral Hotel on Miami Beach. My first thought was ‘how can I get next to this goddess of perfection?’ While I was busy fantasizing, I was temporarily awakened by her voice over the microphone calling my name to come sit in! That’s not normally an unusual thing, but on this occasion, the guitarist was Hiram Bullock with whom I have [since] maintained a strong friendship and musical relationship for about 23 years! After that night I became friends with Phyllis and her husband Larry Alexander and played on some of her albums and though we were kinda close I found her to be kind of a ‘down-to-earth complex personality’ that I liked and miss very much. Whew!” (The Hang, May 5, 1998)
[Hiram says it was Eden Roc Hotel; Will says it was the Doral Hotel.]
“Hiram and I met way back in the ’70s, down in Miami Beach. He was playing with a woman named Phyllis Hyman. They were playing at a hotel — Dural, I believe it was — and they asked me if I wanted to sit in. I sat there and watched the whole set, and I was blown away by how great everybody sounded.
“You know, sometimes, something can happen with a person that you are with for the first time, and you know how it’s gonna feel for the rest of your life with that person. And that was one of those moments on stage with Hiram that night. Where it just felt so good, that we both knew that there was a future for the two of us.” (Will Lee interview that was included on the 2-DVD set “Gimme the Night: The Hiram Bullock Tribute Concert,” which occurred September 9, 2008, at the Cutting Room in NYC, in honor of Hiram, who had passed away on July 25.)
“Mark [Egan], Cliff, and Hiram. They were in the lovely Phyllis Hyman’s band in Coconut Grove, Miami, at a club called Scamp’s. I went there every single week on my only night off.” (Caris Arkin post on Facebook, February 6, 2021)
“Immediately preceding the trip to New York, [Phyllis and the PH Factor] had gone to Belize for a week (playing several different venues). That was the only gig I did with her outside the South Florida area.” (email from Hiram, June 3, 1997)
“During the Christmas break of 1975, [Phyllis’s] band landed a gig uptown at the Cellar, a club right around the corner from Mikell’s, where the likes of Michael and Randy Brecker and David Sanborn and a host of other hot New York players regularly hang out. These notables would stop in to see this new singing sensation, and it was on this gig that Hiram first met Sanborn.” (Bill Mikowski commentary preceding his interview with Hiram in downbeat, June 1986)
“The gig at The Cellar was one night, either the 22nd or 23rd of December, 1975. I played with Phyllis until I joined Sanborn’s band.” (email from Hiram, June 3, 1997)
“[Phyllis and the PH Factor then] performed five nights a week at Rust Brown’s, a now-defunct club that was on 96th St. and Amsterdam. The gig lasted from late December 1975 until February, 1976.” (email from Hiram, June 4, 1997)
Hiram: “Phyllis created a tremor. All the celebrities and great musicians I dreamed of meeting were coming by every night … And one night the Breckers came by to see us. They knew that Sanborn was looking for a guitarist to play on his album, so they got him to come see me. And I got the job …. I had only been in town for about six weeks when I got the [Sanborn] gig.” (downbeat, June 1986)
“Will Lee brought Mike Brecker to Rust Brown’s.” (email from Hiram June 6, 1997)
By February 1976, Hiram had left the PH Factor to join David Sanborn’s band. They played regularly throughout 1976 at Mikell’s, situated a block from Rust Brown’s, and Hiram would remain in David’s band for the next decade-plus. Phyllis Hyman, now without Hiram, would also begin performing at Mikell’s near-nightly from mid-March until early June 1976.
Paul Shaffer: “All of us in the ’70s were blessed with the existence of a club on the Upper West Side called Mikell’s. They had a house band there that was sort of like a soul heaven. Richard Tee, Cornell Dupree, Eric Gale, Steve Gadd, Chris Parker, Gordon Edwards, the leader. They later recorded under the name Stuff. But initially they were just guys that were playing r&b every night at Mikell’s.
“There were a certain group of musicians that hung around up there. Hiram was one of them, and I was one of them, and that’s actually when we met.” (Paul’s interview in “Gimme the Night”)
Once in NYC, Hiram’s trajectory skyrocketed. By mid-April, Hiram appeared on Saturday Night Live as a backup vocalist for Phoebe Snow.It was towards the end of SNL’s first season, and in its house band was pianist Paul Shaffer.
Paul: “I remember Hiram appearing on — I guess he started working with Phoebe Snow — and he appeared on Saturday Night Live. I was in the house band. Phoebe sang with the house band but with the addition of two background singers, one of whom was Hiram. Not playing guitar, then, just singing background for Phoebe Snow.
“Those were the first two times I remember seeing Hiram. I would just see him around, because that was a time we had a thing called studio work, where, constantly, there were records being made with studio bands and commercials as well. It was possible to make a living that way. And so Hiram and I became friends in that way.” (Paul’s interview in “Gimme the Night”)
Steve Jordan, drums
Steve had been just outside the studio orbit, but he entered into it in early February 1977.
“Around the time that Jordan met Stevie Wonder, he started working at Mikell’s a lot with Wonder’s former saxophone player, Denny Morouse.” (Rick Mattingly’s interview with Steve Jordan in Modern Drummer, June 1985, conducted on December 11, 1984, right after that night’s Late Night taping.)
Backing up Denny for two February ’77 weeks at Mikell’s were John Tropea (guitar), Leon Pendarvis (keyboards), and Will Lee.
“That led to Jordan’s first recording session, which was a demo for Morouse… ‘I started getting a lot of dates, because in Denny Morouse’s band, people like Will Lee, Leon Pendarvis, Anthony Jackson, and David Spinoza would play. I had gotten into that scene because I had played in Joe Beck’s band. He had been using people like Will and Chris Parker, but he couldn’t get them to go out on the road, so I got to be in the band. He really liked me, and he started trying to use me on as much stuff as he could.’” (Modern Drummer, June 1985.)
The 24th Street Band
In early June, 1977, a new band had debuted at an East 73rd club called Doctor Generosity’s Musical Saloon. The band’s name was “Hiram Bullock’s 24th Street Band,” and it consisted of his old PH Factor bandmates Cliff Carter on keyboards and Mark Egan on bass. The drummer was Steve Jordan. Steve and Will had continued playing with Denny Morouse at Mikell’s that July and August.
By mid-September, Mark Egan had left Hiram’s band to join Pat Metheney’s new group, and Frank Gravis succeeded him on bass. He had arrived from Miami to NYC that previous July and had stayed with Hiram and Cliff. He recalls John Evans (from The Magic Show — long after Paul’s 1974 tenure there) sitting in once or twice before he joined the band. (phone call with Frank, April 17, 1997)
Frank left the band in late summer, 1978. Months before, Steve had finished his first season as SNL’s drummer and, with Paul Shaffer, helped organize John Belushi’s and Dan Aykroyd’s Blues Brothers, as well as participate in Steve Martin’s classic “King Tut” performance, both on the same show, April 22. He’d leave the show after the Rolling Stones had appeared at the beginning of its fourth season on October 7, 1978.
Steve: “Then Frank [Gravis] left [The 24th Street Band], and we didn’t have a bass player again. I had always wanted Will to be in the band. He didn’t want to, and yet he was fascinated by the fact that I had left Saturday Night Live to be in this band. I was even canceling on a lot of sessions to devote myself to this group, and Will couldn’t understand that. He wanted to know what was so special about this band.
“Finally, I convinced him to join. He claims that I gave him drugs or something, but I just felt that he was too young not to be taking risks. He was settling into this studio scene, was making all this money, and was very comfortable. He was playing with great people, but there was no risk involved. So I eventually talked him into joining the band, and we both went broke together. [laughs] It was great. I doubt if he’ll ever join another band again.”
[Actually, Will was playing in SNL-saxophonist George Young’s US’N at a NYC club called Eric throughout the Spring and Summer of 1978. They would reunite for a week at the reconstructed Birdland in late January 1999. And he’d tour Japan with another NYC-based band, Joe Cool, in the Summer of 1985.]
‘No one could believe that we had actually gotten Will to commit to something. That’s what we heard from all of the record companies; people just couldn’t believe that we were going to commit ourselves to this band. So we were considered a high risk. In Japan, we were able to get one-record deals, but in the U.S., everyone wanted three-year contracts, and no one thought we would stay together that long. …
“We did commit and we lost our shirts, but it was worth it. It was the greatest. We had some wonderful experiences in Japan. People who were really grooving to our music would rush the stage. I had been in those situations with the Blues Brothers [September 9 to 17, 1978 at the L.A. Universal Amphitheatre] and with Joe Cocker, with twice as many people even, but I was a sideman. Here it was our band.” (Modern Drummer, June 1985)
Will’s first-publicly-known involvement with the band was on December 13, 1978, the first of three days recording its first LP, released in Japan only. He would then begin playing with the band live the following March.
The band would play in both the NYC area and in Japan throughout 1979 and 1980, its last concert on January 21, 1981, in Kyoto.
The 24th Street Band recorded three albums, all for the Japanese market only: the first in mid-December 1978, and the last, a live recording in Tokyo, on January 17, 1981.
Its second LP was recorded between March 24 and April 26, 1980, and its co-producer was the keyboardist ending his five-year-run at SNL, Paul Shaffer.
Paul: “Some of the studio cats that I knew put together a band, The 24th Street Band: Hiram, Will Lee — eventually, because first they had some other bass player — Steve Jordan, and Clifford Carter on the keyboards. They had a great following among the musicians and cognoscente of New York, but in Japan, they had an even bigger following, a more far-reaching, less esoteric. So they sold records in Japan. I was friends with all four of them. They brought me in to co-produce a record for them. And that‘s where we really locked in.” (Paul’s interview in “Gimme the Night”)
Paul Shaffer, keyboards
Paul’s music trajectory took off in Toronto after agreeing to play the piano for both his then-girlfriend Virginia and a fellow entertainer named Avril for their auditions as cast members for the new Toronto-based production of Godspell, then a year-long smash in NYC. Its composer, Steven Schwartz, was conducting the auditions. The show was to open the first week of June, 1972.
From his autobiography We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives, pp.100–103:
When [Virginia, Avril, and I] arrived [for the auditions], we saw that the auditorium was bustling with young performers waiting their turn. The audition line was long. Avril was called early. I went to the upright piano on stage, and Avril took her place before the mic. She sang the hell out of “Bless the Lord,” a song from the show. Virginia was next. Her number was Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to Be with You.”
From the dark void of the empty audience, a voice rang out. “Very nice, young lady. Might I have a word with your piano player?” I walked to the edge of the stage. A well-spoken man, also in his early twenties, approached me. He was well dressed and well mannered.
“I’m Stephen Schwartz,” he said. … “I like the way you play. You’re a rock pianist, aren’t you?” “Try to be.” “Well, you are. And to be honest with you” — here he brought his voice down to a whisper — “my audition pianist doesn’t quite get rock. He’s a typical theatrical pianist with a light touch. I need that percussive feel that you seem to have. He doesn’t understand that this is a rock musical and most of the aspiring singers are coming in with rock songs. How’s your general knowledge of rock songs?”
“Good,” I said. “Excellent.”
“That’s what I thought. Would you be willing to take his place and play for the rest of the auditions?” “Of course.” “Just give me a few minutes to dismiss him.” …
[After accompanying the rest of the singers, including one Gilda Radner, Stephen came up to Paul.]
“Good job. How would you like to put together a band and become musical director of the show?”
I had come to the Godspell auditions merely to make a few bucks. But I left with a whole new career direction.
[end book citation]
That fateful day would eventually bring Paul to NYC for the cast recording of Godspell. He’d later return to the city and find himself involved in the Fall of 1973 with a failed Off-Broadway production titled More Than You Deserve, whose cast included a young singer named Meat Loaf; a year’s run as musical director of Doug Henning’s Magic Show, which opened on May 28, 1974; and a five-year stretch at Saturday Night Live, from Fall 1975 until Spring 1980.
All the while getting himself immersed in the NYC studio scene. He first met Will Lee at a 1975 recording session for Paul Jabara, a disco romp called “One Man Ain’t Enough.” (Eight years later he and Paul would co-write “It’s Raining Men.”). Hiram at Mikell’s in early ’76; and Steve at SNL, where both played in the house band, Steve starting there in its third season, 1977–78.
So when Paul was asked to co-produce the second 24th Street Band LP in March–April 1980, he had become well-acquainted with at least 3/4 of its members.
Forming the World’s Most Dangerous Band
Paul: “When I got this job on the David Letterman show, and I needed a band, in particular a four-piece band, it was very natural for me, having just finished that album, to hire — I wish I could have hired Cliff, but I was only allowed four pieces, so I could only have one keyboard — but I hired Will, Steve, and Hiram. They took the world of late night television by storm. That band, spearheaded by Hiram, and the way he could play rock guitar, the hippest of jazz feeling added to it. Schooled musicians just jamming and getting off. It had never been seen on late night television. It was something, that first band. (Paul’s interview in “Gimme the Night”)
Late Night debuted on February 1, 1982, and the music press began to take notice. The first significant article came in the November 1982 issue of Musician. Dave promoted it at the end of his October 5, 1982, show.
Other magazine profiles would follow, including cover stories in Keyboard and Modern Drummer, and an extensive spread in Guitar Player, all of which Dave would display when they were published:
A brief aside on Cliff Carter: There was nothing personal, and there were no slights taken when he wasn’t included in the Late Night band; for one, the 24th Street Band had stopped existing a year before Late Night’s debut, and everyone had moved on while still frequently involved in studio projects in one collective form or another. Two, Cliff continued to play around town with other bands and forming his own, called Elements, and he eventually became part of James Taylor’s studio and touring band, one of two keyboardists. The other was, of course, Don Grolnick. After Don passed away in 1996, Cliff became James’ primary keys player.
Also, Cliff sat in with the World’s Most Dangerous Band on one of Late Night’s most memorable shows, the Sonny & Cher reunion on November 13, 1987.
A week later, on November 21, Cliff would join the World’s Most Dangerous Band on SNL, along with guitarist G.E. Smith, to back Cher on both of her guest music performances. Cliff and Will can later be seen happily chatting it up during the show’s close, a captured moment with one-half of the 24th Street Band, six years later.
And lastly, Cliff would frequently play with the CBS Orchestra on Dave’s Late Show for various music performances. So, despite not being included in the original Letterman band, he was always within the Letterman band’s orbit.
Back to Paul’s narrative on the original lineup of the World’s Most Dangerous Band:
“All three of them — Will, Hiram, and Steve — were absolute maniacs when I hired them. All three had reputations as being the most unreliable guys in town. I knew what I was getting into. There’s a famous story about Will Lee, that he was going to play a show with Steve Khan, the great jazz guitarist, at Carnegie Hall.* And Will showed up an hour and a half late. They had to wait for him. But Will said no problem; they went into overtime, a golden time with the crew at Carnegie Hall. Will said, ‘I’ll just pay the overtime.’ That’s the kind of guys that these guys were. So not that I didn’t know what I was getting into.
*This was most likely the Carnegie Hall concert fronted by vibes master Mike Mainieri on October 7, 1978. Its personnel included Steve Khan, Don Grolnick (who else?), Will, and, on drums, Steve Gadd.
“What I’m getting to is that Hiram had to eventually leave the band. The schedule of having to be there day in, day out, on time, is a lot for a real creative kind of person like Hiram was. But we remained friends.” (Paul’s interview in “Gimme the Night”)
Hiram’s 2-plus-year period with the Late Night band was legendary; when he was first hired, he had to get his guitar back from a pawn shop. He’d frequently play barefoot. When he first came back on the show as a music guest two years later in November 1986, Will honored his return by playing barefoot during Hiram’s performance.
Over the November 20–21, 1983, weekend, Hiram attended Randy Brecker’s wedding party and ended up with a broken leg. He showed up at Late Night the following Monday, his leg in a cast, because Sly Stone was the featured guest:
“I played the Letterman show that day with Sly Stone with my leg broken and unset. I didn’t go to the hospital until after the show for fear they would have tried to prevent me from playing (they would have; I didn’t play again for a week or two).” (email from Hiram, June 6, 1997).
He’d return after only a week.
(Steve likewise injured his leg during a recording session in mid-January 1984 and was out for over two weeks. Drumming in his place were studio-session giants Alan Schwartzberg and Steve Gadd, both of whom had separately filled the drum position during Dreams’ final months in 1972 after Billy Cobham had left.)
Earlier, in mid-June 1983, Hiram left the show for two months, reportedly to enter rehab. (Will would follow that path two years later.) There were shows when he didn’t show up at all, or showed up late after the taping had begun. After one such no-show, on April 16, 1984, he turned up the following day. But then one more no-show the next, on April 18, and he was dismissed from the band.
Paul: “There was this time I’ll never forget: It may have taken place at a club downtown called Heartbreak. Hiram was just starting to do his own gigs and get together his own band. And he said to me, ‘I’m sorry by what I took you through, now that I’m starting to put my own thing together. I see what a leader has gotta do, and, really, I had no idea.’ I never forgot that; that was pretty big of him, pretty nice of him. He was a sweetheart of a guy.” (Paul’s interview in “Gimme the Night”)
Steve Khan was asked to step in until a replacement guitarist could be selected. An email exchange with Steve on November 13, 1998:
Don: “On your replacing Hiram when he split for good from Letterman in 1984: You played in that band for a month and a half after he left, and you were even featured in a ‘Meet the Staff’ segment, when you showed your Bar Mitzvah photos on the May 3, 1984, show.”
Steve: “Most of the time, I was called to sub (there were a couple of long 6-week stretches) because Hiram was at drug rehab. But, for me, being known as a ‘TV Guitar Player’ or ‘TV Personality’ was not something I viewed as good for the overall direction of my musical life. Hiram was and is a terrific guitarist and great performer, and though I respect his talent a great deal, we never socialized.”
Don: “At the time, were there plans afoot for you to become the band’s permanent member, or was everyone passing time until Paul had set up his summer audition schedule for Jef Lee, Elliott Randall, Buzz Feiten, and, finally, Sid?”
Steve: “I was never asked to join the Letterman show band. Though I probably subbed on it more than any other player. It’s probably just as well. In some ways it’s a great job, but it’s not what I would want to be known for. I have had and do have a great time as a sub to this day. But I don’t have some of the talents of the other players. I don’t sing and can’t do background vocals, which Paul likes to have. … I always love coming in and seeing Will, my oldest friend there, and I’ve been friendly with Paul, Sid, and ‘Bones’ [Tom Malone] for years as well.”
The Late Night staff had put together a softball team during its first summer in 1982. A group photo included both Steve and Hiram playing on the show’s team.
After Steve’s sub period was over that Spring of ’84, Waddy Wachtel sat in for the week of June 12, 1984. Then began the summer of auditions for the guitar position. Jef Lee, Buzz Feiten, Elliott Randall, and Sid McGinnis were given between two to four weeks to see how well they’d fit into the band. These stretches of time included second rounds. In the end, Sid was finally chosen, and on October 29, he was officially welcomed as the band’s permanent member.
Anton Fig, drums
In March 1980, all but one of the 24th Street Band personnel, plus Paul, were in the studio, recording a new LP for Joan Armatrading to be called “Me Myself I.” Steve was unavailable, presumably because he had had a commitment recording Kazumi Watanab’s LP, “To Chi Ka.”
So in Steve’s place was a 27-year-old drummer named Anton Fig.
Anton’s music trajectory had far different origins than the Miami/NYC/Toronto axis of Will, Hiram, Steve, Sid, and Paul. Born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, Anton grew up in the rich musical culture of his upbringing but nevertheless craved any and all American and British rock music. He was accepted into the New England Conservatory of Music, and, in his last year there, on March 8, 1975, traveled to NYC to perform in George Russell’s ensemble in Carnegie Hall, positioned behind Tony Williams.
A month later Anton was at NYC’s Bottom Line, playing with jazz guitarist Pat Martino, and touring with him that spring and summer, which included a week-long residency at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner in early July.
“I moved to New York and did weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. It was funny because I was playing with all these jazz guys and they were saying, ‘You’ve got to get back to your roots.’ They were wearing dashikis; at the time, Herbie [Hancock] was into Mwandishi and all that stuff. I said, ‘Wait a second. My roots? I grew up on The Beatles and Cream and Hendrix.’ That’s what I used to listen to when I was young and playing in bands.
“At that point, I started to play rock again and I immediately got work.” (Jonathan Mover’s interview with Anton in Drumhead, October 2015)
The group Dave Bravo & Friends was formed shortly after Anton moved to New York City. It consisted of Anton’s South African friends who were all also now in the city. They mostly rehearsed in Anton’s loft but rarely performed live. One such live date was at Kenny’s Castaways, a music venue in the Village, on July 1, 1976. The group lasted for around 18 months.
Soon after, Anton entered into the orbit of bassist Rob Stoner — Rob had played on Bob Dylan’s “Desire” LP in 1975 and was the music leader of Dylan’s subsequent Rolling Thunder Revue in the Fall of ’75 into the Winter of ’76 — that led, in time, to an association with both Robert Gordon and late-’50s “Rumble” sensation Link Wray. The latter’s solo album, “Bullshot,” was recorded in late 1978 and was one of Anton’s earliest studio sessions.
“I first played with [Link] when I toured Europe with him and Robert Gordon in 1978. I played on his ‘Bullshot’ album soon after that and also his ‘Live at the Paradiso’ in Amsterdam a few years later. … He was the first to punch holes in his speakers to create a distorted sound — and he loved to create controlled feedback. He also inspired some very heavy guitarists to take up the instrument. I learned a lot about intensity and commitment and colors of sound from Link. He was one of a kind.” (Anton’s web site)
At around the same time, Anton had been forming a band in early 1978 with Amanda Blue and Holly Knight called Siren.
“Siren was auditioning bass players and one of them we did not end up using, Larry Russell, told me of his friend Ace [Frehley], who was about to make a solo record, and he asked me to do his album — which was the first of many. This may have been my first album in the States, although I also did Link Wray’s ‘Bullshot’ around that time.” (email from Anton, February 4, 1996)
“So I went up and played with Ace and we demoed four songs. Then I went up and did some more. It was great at the time, but you know, I actually didn’t even know who Kiss was, quite honestly. To me, Kiss was a band on the side of a bus, and I wasn’t into the whole folklore of them though I knew they were huge. I asked Ace, ‘Are you a rhythm guitarist or a lead guitarist?’ I really didn’t know.
“Anyway, he asked me to do the record. We went up to the Colgate mansion in Connecticut, and we cut the record with me on the landing of the staircase and Ace sitting next to me, with his guitar amps in another room and [Producer] Eddie Kramer in the truck outside.” (Drumhead, October 2015)
“I met Will [Lee] for the first time on that session. We did not actually play together because the album was recorded just with me on drums and Ace on rhythm guitar with the overdubs added later. I met Will at his overdub session.” (email from Anton, February 4, 1996)
Will: “This is the first of many albums I worked on with Anton Fig & I couldn’t resist bringing a little of the funk into this track [‘I’m in Need of Love’]. The mood was right, so my bass part ‘stuck to the tape.’ Legendary Eddie Kramer was producing at Plaza Sound, above Radio City Music Hall in NYC. KISS was so huge at that time (1978) that once the Rockettes heard that one of the members was recording upstairs & they came to hang with us during their breaks (ah, showbiz!!) Of all the solo albums done by the KISS members, this one sold the best!” (Facebook post from Will, November 11, 2020)
All of which led to Anton playing, uncredited, on a number of subsequent KISS albums.
Siren played in various NYC clubs from the Summer of ’78 until the Fall of ’79, before changing its name to Spider while recording its first LP. “Siren—the predecessor of Spider (name unfortunately changed for legal reasons).” (email from Anton, February 4, 1996)
“Spider toured off the first album; we played clubs around the Eastern area. We also toured opening for Alice Kooper in stadiums as well as local clubs like CBGB’s and the Bottom Line [August 8 and October 8, 1980 at the Bottom Line]. I don’t think we played after the second record and definitely not with [Anton’s next band] Shanghai.” (email from Anton, February 17, 1997)
Anton’s association with Robert Gordon began in 1978, but he wouldn’t become a constant player in his live club performances until 1983.
But in March 1980, that association would play a key role that would bring Anton into the 24th Street Band orbit, recording Joan Armatrading’s “Me Myself I” album:
“The way I got to the Joan Armatrading sessions was because I was working with Robert Gordon. His manager was her producer [Richard Gottehrer]. The other guys were on because they were the ‘hot guys in town.’ I had no idea I’d end up in a band with them  years later, a band on TV, I mean.” (Anton in a Compuserve interview, August 14, 1995)
Jonathan Mover: “So, doing that record, I take it, led to meeting and playing with Paul [Shaffer] and Will [Lee], which, at some point, is what brought you to Letterman.”
Anton: “Right. Marcus Miller was on that record too, and Chris Spedding. That’s a great record.”(Drumhead, October 2015)
(Richard Gottehrer had also introduced Robert Gordon to Link Wray four years earlier in 1976.)
Anton’s next-known direct involvement with Paul was in late September and early October 1983 when both were backing up Paul Butterfield at the Lone Star Cafe.
It was on July 13, 1985, when Anton received his largest exposure to date with an international audience when he backed up The Thompson Twins at Live Aid in Philadelphia. Accompanying the Twins was a knock-off ensemble that called itself the Psychotic Cowboys. It included Will Lee and a young woman making her first public performance anywhere, Felicia Collins. Her appearance came about from her friendship with Nile Rodgers, who was also in the band for that one performance.
On January 29, 1985, while he was still working as Late Night’s drummer, Steve Jordan was in Paris, recording with Arcadia and jamming with the Rolling Stones.
“I’m recording with Arcadia, and one of the guys on the Duran Duran crew knew someone on the Stones crew. I had become friends with Charlie Watts when the Stones played SNL. It was my last show. So the guy on our crew called his friend on the Stones crew, and said, ‘Steve Jordan’s here, and he’d like to talk to Charlie Watts.’ I spoke to Charlie and said, ‘I’d love to see you.’ And Charlie said, ‘Okay, come to our session tomorrow night.’
“…[The next night] I’m walking around in the middle of this neighborhood outside Paris, it’s freezing cold. I can’t get a cab… I’m walking around and walking around, and all of a sudden I see this light in the distance. So I … go to the glass doors of the building, and I can hear the Stones playing inside. … A guy lets me in, and I’m the only one there except for the band, the engineer, Keith’s father, and Ron’s wife. They were set up live playing this reggae groove, and it was like I was at a private concert. They were facing me, and it was unbelievable.
“Then they came into the control room … and Charlie introduced me. They were so warm; it was like I had known these guys forever. Later that night I ended up playing a little tambourine. The next night I played tambourine and bass drum, and it just progressed until I had a kit. And Keith would stand right in front of me and play. It was freaking me out. I would look up, and he would be staring right through me. I was thinking to myself, ‘Just stay in the groove man.’
…The next thing Steve knew, he was getting phone calls from Keith. “I would be at my Arcadia session, and Keith would call and say, ‘Steve, you’re coming down tonight, right?’ And he would send a car for me. So I would leave one session and go right to another session. I was doing about 20 hours a day between the two of them, but it was one of the most fun times I’ve ever had recording.” (Rick Mattingly interview with Steve in Modern Drummer, April 1989)
By the following year, 1986, Steve was getting restless with his nightly routine playing on Dave’s show. “One night, [the Stones and I] were at Woody’s [Ron Wood] jamming into the early hours. At one point we were playing ‘Paint It Black,’ and we must’ve played it for an hour. We just kept playing it over and over, and the more we played it, the more Keith remembered what he had played on the original record. It was just great.
“So then I went home to get a few hours sleep, and then I woke up, and it was time to do the [Letterman] show. But I just didn’t want to. … But finally I got up and went to the studio. I got there about 15 minutes late, and the Late Night band was already rehearsing. And the song they were playing was ‘Paint It Black.’ I almost died. I said, ‘Hold it, God. What are you trying to tell me?’ So I got behind the drums and started playing, but … So I realized that my not wanting to do the show wasn’t a matter of me being lazy or being burnt from staying up all night. It was the difference between doing something real over here, and then I come to the show and … I definitely had fun, but I got out at the right time. It wasn’t ugly or anything when I left.” (Modern Drummer, April 1989)
Steve and Paul decided to part, and Paul had to find another drummer, and fast.
Anton: “Whenever I would see Paul, I’d say, ‘Let me sub on the show.’ He’d say, ‘Oh, you’ll get your chance one day.’ Eventually, I just gave up and finally thought, ‘F*ck it. These guys are never going to call me.’ Then eventually I started hearing rumors that they were asking about whether I could do the gig, I think because I was more of a rock drummer that did sessions as opposed to a session drummer.” (Drumhead, October 2015)
On either February 21 or 22, 1986, Paul and Will went to the Lone Star Cafe to evaluate Anton’s drumming as he was playing with Robert Gordon. The other players those two nights were Chris Spedding on guitar and Tony Garnier on bass.
Anton: “I knew they were checking me out. Soon after I got a call. ‘Steve’s away for a week. Can you come and do a rehearsal?’ I went and did the rehearsal, and after the rehearsal, they said, ‘Actually, he’s away for two weeks. Can you do two weeks?’ I said okay, did the two weeks, and Steve came back.” (Drumhead, October 2015)
Anton’s first show subbing for Steve was on March 10, 1986. After the show, Anton and Tony Garnier went to a pay-per-view television event to watch the Marvin Hagler fight. Then they went to one of their homes to watch Late Night and catch the camera angles on Anton. Tony thought then that he suspected Anton would be on the show for some time after that first night. (phone call with Tony Garnier, March 4, 1996)
“When Anton was approached to be on the Letterman show, he was pretty nervous about it. We talked a lot about whether he was right for the band, ’cause Steve Jordan played so much differently than Anton. I kept saying that his style was EXACTLY what the band needed, and the rest is history, I reckon! I believe that Jordan was starting to screw up and not show sometimes, which ain’t too cool for TV.” (email from keyboardist Carter Cathcart, January 23, 2000. He was a friend of Anton’s who had played with him on Ace Frehley’s first solo LP in 1978 and on Chris Spedding’s LP “Enemy Within” in the Fall of 1985.)
Indeed, after Anton’s two-week sub for Steve had ended on March 20, Steve failed to show up in time for the March 27 taping.
“I got a call a few weeks later: ‘Steve’s not here. Come down to the studio.’ I ran to the studio, got there and went straight on-stage and played the show.” (Drumhead, October 2015)
Steve finally showed up in the penultimate act.
“I had a feeling something was going down though I didn’t know anything. A couple of weeks later, Paul called and said, ‘Steve is leaving the show, and we like the way you subbed the set; the job’s yours if you want it.’ And that was it. Within a month of subbing, I had the job.” (Drumhead, October 2015)
April 3, 1986, was Steve’s last appearance on the show. Anton then filled in the drum spot for the next month, and, on May 5, Paul announced that Anton was now the band’s permanent drummer.
From that date on, the core Letterman band was set for the next 29 years.
Felicia Collins would appear on Late Night on May 27, 1993, nine shows before its last on NBC, backing up Cyndi Lauper.
She would be added to the CBS Orchestra for Late Show’s debut show the following August 30, remaining there throughout the entire 22-year run of the show.
Finally, a photo of both Steve Jordan and Anton Fig, accompanied by frequent sub for Will Lee, Neil Jason.
Steve would occasionally appear on Late Show, backing up various bands and receiving a warm welcome from Dave, and he turned up after the taping of the penultimate Late Show on May 19, 2015, posing in front of Dave’s desk with Bill Murray and former Late Night head writer James Downey.
Part 2. The Guest Performers and More
I’ve put together spreadsheets that document all musicians’ appearances throughout the entire Late Night era, from 1982 to 1993. They’re split up into the following:
Spreadsheet #1: All data arranged in chronological order: All of the guest performances and song titles. All of the band sit-ins. All of the band substitutions. Pertinent miscellaneous notes. Note: There are misspellings to Allan Schwartzberg’s name throughout these spreadsheets (“Alan” 3 times and “Schwartzbert” once). My typos. They’re all one and the same person.
The top Guest Performers (5 or more times on the show): 17 – The World’s Most Dangerous Band 14 – David Sanborn 8 – Lyle Lovett 8 – Lou Reed 7 – Belinda Carlisle (includes The Go-Go’s) 7 – Michelle Shocked 7 – Warren Zevon 6 – Rosanne Cash 6 – Joe Cocker 6 – Nanci Griffith 6 – Indigo Girls 6 – Carole King 6 – Aaron Neville (includes Neville Brothers) 6 – Graham Parker 6 – Tom Waits 5 – Tony Bennett 5 – Blues Traveler 5 – James Brown 5 – Robert Cray 5 – Melissa Etheridge 5 – Dr. John 5 – B.B. King 5 – k.d. lang 5 – Cyndi Lauper 5 – Randy Newman 5 – Robert Palmer 5 – Iggy Pop 5 – Bonnie Raitt 5 – Todd Rundgren 5 – Dwight Yoakam
Spreadsheet #3: All of the network television debuts, sorted by name.
Top Band Sit-Ins (5 or more) 112 – David Sanborn 27 – Bruce Kapler 21 – Al Chez 16 – Tower of Power Horns 7 – Buddy Guy 6 – Robert Cray 6 – Warren Zevon 5 – Hiram Bullock 5 – Uptown Horns 5 – Allan Schwartzberg
Spreadsheet #5: All of the band substitutions, sorted by date.
Spreadsheet #7: All of Hiram’s, then Sid’s substitutions, sorted by name. Sid’s attendance was near-perfect, missing only four shows. Plus all of those who auditioned for the guitar position in the Summer and early Fall of 1984.
Top Subs on Drums 70 – Charlie Drayton (for Steve) 21 – Anton Fig (for Steve) 16 – Steve Gadd (for Steve) 11 – Allan Schwartzberg (for Steve and Anton) 7 – Steve Ferrone (for Anton) 6 – Kenny Aronoff (for Anton)
Finally, an explanation on Will’s absence on Late Night’s final week while Francisco Centeno subbed for him. He was in Japan, touring with saxophonist Sadao Watanabe.
“I had been told that Dave didn’t want to make a big deal out of the last shows, but in the end, I think maybe he got just a little (understandably) nostalgic and even sentimental!” (email from Will, April 2, 1996)
From Will Lee’s Prodigy Chat a few weeks later, on April 30, 1996:
Q: “Where were you during Dave’s final week on NBC? You were noticeably absent.”
Will: “Here’s the scoop: Every year I get some nice offers to go to different countries to play. I have to turn most of them down. When some are really big I consult Paul and ask him what to do. This is all brought to the attention of the producer. At the time that was approaching the close of the NBC show, I got a big offer to play in Japan that last week. I was told that Dave was not going to make a big deal out of the last few shows, which of course was true until sentimentality crept in and Dave got a little nostalgic and decided to go out with a bang!”
My dad was not larger than life. He was a common man with uncommon potential never realized or even desired. He was not an overly ambitious man, and I’ll always be haunted as to whether that was a good thing or not. But he was the most unassuming person I knew. He never put on airs, he never tried to impress, he just was who he was. And he assumed that others were as well, which, of course, wasn’t always the case.
I thought I’d share some biography, and I’ll try not to get too deep in the woods.
To begin, Dad was smart. He grew up in Baltimore and skipped two grades in Junior High and High School, entering City College at 16. Which made his social life a bit challenging. His graduation yearbook:
After graduation he found work in a furniture store called Grand Rapids in downtown Baltimore as both its accountant and business manager.
During World War II, he was inducted into the Army. Because he was good with numbers, he spent his war years behind a desk while serving in Hawaii. He’s told his glider story a few times, and hoping I could someday do it justice, I recorded him retell it in May 2018:
“While training in the U.S., I was in Fort Benning in Georgia, which was a main paratrooper base. There was training for gliders that would carry the paratroopers. And a jeep would back into the front of the glider, its purpose to establish communication over enemy lines after the paratroopers had dropped and the glider had safely landed.
“Unfortunately, the U.S. government military engineers hadn’t thought it through that well. Because when a glider is connected to its mother plane, it has enough power to stay like this [hand in horizontal position]. But when the glider plane is now detached from the engine plane, and over enemy lines, the paratroopers are discharged. Then the glider, with the jeep in the front, is doing this [hand slowly drifting down, still in horizontal position] and losing speed. And then it gets a little top-heavy [hand now curves downward] And it’s very hard to drive a jeep off a plane that lands like this [hand in vertical position, heading downward toward table]. So there was a little thing that had to be worked out.”
My dad had met my mom sometime before he had been enlisted, and while in training, during leave in April 1943, he came back to Baltimore to get married. They wed in her family’s home, which was connected to her dad’s grocery store. They honeymooned in New York City. Then he went back to Fort Benning for more training.
Dad was then transferred out to Indianapolis, then near San Francisco, headed for Hawaii by ship. It took ﬁve days, and Dad got seasick, because the troop ship was overcrowded in the seven-high bunk cabins. So he took his blanket and slept on deck. For ﬁve days.
After arriving in Hawaii, he was eventually shipped to Okinawa in August 1945, just before V-J Day. His war activities mostly involved paperwork, Bridge, Chess, and Tennis; he was not in the center of the hostilities.
After the war ended, he was shipped back to San Francisco and then finally back home to Baltimore, where he returned to work at Grand Rapids.
At the same time, he also set up his own accounting business at home, ﬁrst in an area just outside the city boundary, from 1953 until 1959, and then in a newly-built place within the city’s borders for the next eleven-plus years.
He was always working, during the day at Grand Rapids, then at night, either visiting clients or when they would come to our place in his home office. Every month my sister and I would help sort his clients’ checks on the living room ﬂoor. That was our family entertainment.
My mom and dad loved each other, though it was never all that physically apparent. To my pre-teen and teenage eyes, they simply got along well. Hey, it was Mom and Dad; what else did I need to know? Still, it was unthinkable that theirs was anything but a stable marriage. One memory that’s stayed with me: On Saturdays Mom would drive me downtown for my weekly piano lesson while she visited her folks at the grocery store they still owned, buying food for the next week. And after spending the rest of the day walking around the city, pretty much killing time, I’d make it to Grand Rapids in time for Dad to drive me home. There was a fellow employee who asked him to drive her home as well. I sensed she had eyes for him. But when we got in the car, he had her sit in the back while I sat in front. Just so there’d be no misunderstanding and that she was wasting her time with him. That’s how solid my parents’ marriage was.
They got along great, but there were times when they’d get into these ridiculous arguments, talking past each other. I remember one night I listened to him arguing about one matter, and my mom arguing about another, neither of them realizing that they were both arguing about different things, and neither understanding why the other couldn’t see his/her point. Finally, I piped in and tried to explain just that: That Dad was talking about A, and Mom was talking about B. I don’t quite remember what happened next. Maybe I returned to my room to record songs from my radio. Who knows.
In early 1971, Mom and Dad had had enough of the Baltimore winters and decided to move to Miami. It wasn’t much of an immediate disruption for my sister and me; she had married the previous fall and had herself moved to Miami, and I was in the middle of my college years. Still, it was a major change.
Dad had some initial difﬁculty setting up his accounting business, but he got lucky with one particularly wealthy client, and he soon thereafter found solid footing.
In late 1987, my mom found herself afﬂicted with cancer, and she spent the next year dealing with the radiation and chemo treatments, and they seemed to work; she was in remission. But then the cancer returned in the ﬁrst half of 1990, and she passed away that late July.
Dad was lost without her. I felt we grew closer because of it.
A year later a friend introduced him to Joan; she’s since said that it was the City College ring that opened her heart to him. That he’d still be wearing it, decades after graduating, moved her. I’m eternally grateful that Joan saved my dad’s sanity and made him whole again.
Joan passed away in April 2020, and Dad spent his remaining years at home, successfully avoiding covid, reading the daily newspapers and working on any crossword puzzle he could get his hands on.
But in mid-March 2022 his 100+-year-old heart had finally caught up with him, and two weeks later he finally found his own peace.
I want to ﬁnish this by mentioning the puns. My dad loved puns. He made plenty of them, and nearly all were very bad, obvious, and, well, frankly, pathetic. But he never gave up, and there was one that I thought struck gold – it was a combination of brilliant and cringe-worthy, and I’ll never forget it. It was the mid-‘80s; he came up with the name of a Chinese health-food restaurant: He called it “All Wok and Yoplait.”
“Hot take: Viewer Mail was the greatest recurring late night talk show segment in history. Its comedic range was just so great, as it went in so many different directions. It was also its own little sketch show inside a talk show.” — Jason Zinoman, author of the best-selling critical profile, Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night, collected tweets, January 6, 2022.
[Co-creator and Head Writer Merrill Markoe] came up with probably the most artistically fertile segment in the history of the show: Viewer Mail, which she imagined as a parody of 60 Minutes. “Their mail was always intelligent and well considered,” she said. “When we got on the air, and I started reading our mail, I quickly realized it was mainly insane people. So I thought it would be funny to just present our viewers; irrational, insane, illiterate.” — Zinoman, Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night, p. 56.
“Viewer Mail was key to the scrappy, underground nature of Late Night. Homegrown stuff from freaks across the nation being read on national late-night television and treated and responded to with Dave’s (and his writers’) brand of humor, whether ironic, surreal, wise-guy, sappy, or absurd. It was a high form of public-access type of audience interaction.” — An anonymous friend
Viewer Mail was born on July 11, 1980, at the end of the third week of Dave’s 18-week-long morning show on NBC. (It was owned by his production company Space Age Meat.) Its name hadn’t been established when Dave introduced this new Friday segment:
“This television show has been on the air for around three weeks, and we feel that today we would not only like to respond to the accumulated mail but also share it with you, the home viewers. So let’s do that now, shall we? The following is a sampling of the mail that we here at the David Letterman show have received in the past three weeks.”
Dave read eight letters but gave replies to none of them.
The end of the following week, July 18, Dave began the segment with “Friday is Mail Day.” He read six letters. This time, he gave one-line “snappy” replies to each letter.
[Within a week,] Viewer Mail evolved. It was no longer simply the host reading dopey letters and assuming the audience got the jokes. Now he added insulting quips that became known on the show as Snappys. … Viewer Mail had turned from being about the stupidity of the letters to the nastiness of the host. As a result, the bit became more satirical, because who else on television was treating an audience this way? — Zinoman, ibid., p. 64.
The July 25 show is missing. The following week, on August 1, Dave again introduced the segment with “Friday is Mail Day,” and each of the five letters read were once again accompanied with short Snappys. These retorts were the only replies until August 22 (Week 9) when a prop art card was utilized. While the Snappy replies remained the norm, more elaborate comedic answers would occasionally find their way to replacing the one-liners.
It wasn’t until September 5, the end of Week 11, when Dave deviated from his “Friday is Mail Day” introduction with this: “Today is Viewer Day. Mail Day. Viewer Mail Day is what it is.”
And the name stuck for the next thirteen years.
On its final show on October 24, some of the Viewer Mail letters were submitted by staffers, including Barbara Gaines and Dave himself.
After his morning show ended, Letterman was without an outlet for Viewer Mail for the next fifteen months until NBC brought him back to host another talk show, this time owned and co-produced by the network and Johnny Carson”s production company, and airing after Johnny’s Tonight Show at 12:30 am.
Late Night with David Letterman debuted on February 1, 1982, airing four new shows a week, Mondays to Thursdays. (The schedule would change in mid-1987 to Tuesdays to Fridays, with repeats airing on Mondays.)
The first Viewer Mail segment occurred at the end of its second week on Thursday, February 11. All five letters were answered with Snappys. The following week, February 18, four of the five letters read were again Snappys; they would eventually be phased out in favor of phone calls to the letter writers, props, live sketches, and comic scenarios prepared on tape. The Snappys would usually be assigned to Letter #1 for the rest of its Late Night history.
“Dave didn’t want to be doing any kind of performance stuff. Like, you would write things where someone would pull a gun on him and he’d have to act scared. And he’d say to us, ‘Nah, I won’t do this.’ Unlike the morning show, the late-night show didn’t want to have fake characters. One way we figured out how to get around this was with Viewer Mail.” — Late Night writer Tom Gammill (1982-83), quoted in Brian Abrams’ ebook And Now…An Oral History of “Late NIght with David Letterman,” 1982-1993
“Yeah, those Viewer Mails were probably the closest things that we had to sketches. It was more budget-related. They really didn’t have the money to do costumes and weird effects on every episode.” — Late Night writer Max Pross (1982-83), quoted in Abrams, ibid.
I found that by late 1985, Dave’s mood had become somewhat darker when presenting the letters. But the comedy became more surreal. There were recurring bits, such as appearances by Flunky the Clown (writer Jeff Martin); firing, first, Old Henry (Paul Andor), then writer Gerard Mulligan; the band trashing the set; the Actor-Singer (Jeff again); Biff Henderson’s Realm of Mystery; Peggy the Foul-Mouthed Chambermaid; and a host of other off-beat characters and sketches. One of my favorite bizarre live skits came in the last letter on November 27, 1987, seen here:
Late Night with David Letterman’s final show aired in late June 1993, as Dave was soon to leave NBC to host an 11:30 PM show on CBS. His Late Show with David Letterman debuted on August 30, 1993, with new shows scheduled on all five days of the week. Due to intellectual copyrights claimed by NBC, the name Viewer Mail was changed to CBS Mailbag.
Three weeks passed before the first Mailbag segment aired, and that was on a Thursday. The next occurred the following Friday. The third Mailbag segment aired two weeks later, and the one following that three weeks later on a Tuesday. It took a few years before the Mailbag fell into its more reliable weekly routine, but on Thursdays before finally finding its more traditional place on Fridays.
By the beginning of 2005, the Mailbag itself was replaced with “Week in Review,” and the 25-year-long tradition answering viewers’ mail had ended.
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Late Night’s debut, I’ve cataloged the names of every Viewer Mail letter-writer that Dave (and others) read on the air from both the 1980 morning show and the 1982–93 Late Night. I’ll eventually add the CBS Mailbag names.
The first spreadsheet shown here is a chronological listing of the letter writers to all of the Viewer Mails; weeks that didn’t include them are due to repeats, preemptions (various sports highlights coverage), and Late Night specials. All detailed in the “Notes” field.
A glossary on the fields:
Show: DLS – The David Letterman show that aired live in the mornings for 18 weeks in 1980. LSwDL – Late Night with David Letterman, which aired after The Tonight Show, February 1982 until late June 1993.
The corresponding numbers refer to my Viewer Mail system, not to the show episode numbers. For example, “LNwDL 2” signifies the second Late Night show to air a Viewer Mail segment. Of the 1,810 Late Nights, 450 include Viewer Mail segments.
Show #: The episode number attached to the broadcast. Thus, “LNwDL 2” is Late Night episode #12.
Airdate: The date the show was broadcast. While aired after midnight, the date reflects the day before. That is, Late Night episode #12 aired on February 19, 1982, at 12:30 am, but every official Late Night database and log IDs it as February 18, and that’s to what I’m adhering.
Letter #: The order in which the letters were read on each show. The total for each broadcast varied from three to five (and sometimes six and eight) letters from 1982 to early 1989, but by late February 1989 it had settled into a consistent four letters per show.
Cumulative: The running total of viewer mail letters read. In 1987, the show wanted to commemorate its 1,000th letter but had no documentation as to when that would occur. So the producers reached out to Mark Hamill, an avid Late Night fan, for help. He provided them with a prospective date: December 18, 1987, and the milestone was thusly arranged for that show.
However, while cataloging every letter, I found that the 1,000th letter actually occurred eight months earlier, on April 16, 1987.
Name, City, and State fields: Self-apparent. Of all of the letters read, there were 61 with no last names, 15 where no names at all were given, and a smattering of nicknames, anonymous, and incomplete name IDs. Likewise, a number of letters provided no home locations. But when they were mentioned, they’re included here.
Notes: Items of interest or explanation. For example, I’ve identified letters that encored on anniversary shows (with their respective Cumulative # retained to when they originally aired). Also, I’ve included some “Firsts”: the first time an actual photo of a letter was shown rather than a generic card provided by the show’s graphic department; the first time the pencil smashed through the window; the first time Director Hal Gurnee was asked to announce the letter numbers; the first time the “fanfare” was added after a Snappy — Hollywood-like roving spotlights, the confetti cannon, the ping-pong balls, a siren, all accompanied by the band playing frantic renditions of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and other Broadway and patriotic tunes; and the first parade. Also documented are instances when a viewer had a second or third or fourth letter read on the air — Dave Nelson had the most at nine, with Brian James Bancroft and Ralph Mira a distant second at five each — as well as multiple authors to individual letters (Dave: “It took two people to write this”). And more.
The second spreadsheet lists the letter-writer names in alphabetical order, with all of the anomalies (no last names, etc) added at the end. Each name and location corresponds with the show date, episode number, which Viewer Mail within each particular show, its cumulative number, etc. In other words, the fields and the information within those fields are identical to the first chronological spreadsheet, just reordered and sorted by name.
As I was preparing Dick the Bruiser’s 1980 morning show appearance for a YouTube upload, I got caught up on a side tangent: Dave had mentioned in his January 1989 interview with Bob Costas that Dick had long ago been referred to as “The World’s Most Dangerous Wrestler.”
And Dave had introduced him as such on the July 2, 1980 appearance.
So I wanted to trace how the name became attached to Paul Shaffer’s Late Night band, and here’s what I found:
Morphing Dick the Bruiser’s tag into Paul’s band name was clearly Dave’s idea.
For the first five months of Late Night in 1982, Dave would refer to Paul and his group as “The World’s Most Dangerous Band” when closing the show, sometimes alternating it with “Paul Shaffer and the Orchestra,” “Paul and the Organization,” “Paul Shaffer and the Folks,” “Paul Shaffer and the Melody Makers,” and a combination: “Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Orchestra.”
On June 8, 1982, after Dave had introduced Paul at the end of his Opening Remarks, Paul said, “And how about my band, really, the most dangerous, as you coined it, the most dangerous band in show business.”
Calling the group “The World’s Most Dangerous Band” abruptly stopped after that. For six shows in April 1983, Dave referred to the band as “Paul Shaffer and the Party Boys of Rock and Roll.” That continued only throughout the month, though a week later a Viewer Mail letter for the May 5 show mentioned “Paul Schaeffer [sic] and the Party Boys of Rock and Roll.”
Then no special band names for the rest of ’83 and all of 1984 and ’85. Because the band had prepared a music video (“Dress Cool”) for the November 30, 1985, Film Festival special, Bill Wendell included Paul in his opening announce with just “Paul Shaffer and the band.”
In that 1989 Costas interview, Dave and Bob spent a little time discussing their memories of professional wrestling (Dave while growing up in Indianapolis, Bob while living in St. Louis during his early career). Included were the scariest wrestlers “from parts unknown.”
It was a phrase Dave brought back when introducing Will Lee’s performance of “Stagger Lee” on May 13, 1986: “From parts unknown, Will Lee.”
For the first six and two-thirds years of Late Night, Paul had never been included in the opening announce (except for the ’85 Film Festival). That changed on September 24, 1986. On that date, for the first time, Bill Wendell began adding Paul and his ensemble in his announce with “Paul Shaffer and the Late Night Band.”
On the next night, and continuing until October 6, the announce became “Musical Director Paul Shaffer and the band.”
The next evening, October 7, Bill accidentally messed up his announce by saying “Medical” instead of “Musical” and laughed at his screw-up. The following night, October 8, “Medical” was then written into the script until the end of the month.
Then, from November 3, 1986, and for the next nine months, until August 4, 1987, the announce was shortened to “Paul Shaffer and the Band.”
But within that period, on July 29, 1987, Dave ended his Opening Remarks with “Here’s our good friend Paul Shaffer and the NBC Orchestra.” In the meantime, Bill continued with just “Paul Shaffer and the Band”
Until August 6, when Bill began announcing “Paul Shaffer and the NBC Orchestra.” Every night up to the end of the month. Then a two-week vacation break.
When the show returned on September 15, both Bill and Dave would refer to the band as “Paul Shaffer and the NBC Orchestra,” Bill in his Opening Announce and Dave at the end of his Opening Remarks. Up to the 24th.
On September 23, 1987, Paul and Dave discussed which band title each preferred, “NBC Orchestra” or “World’s Most Dangerous Band.” Paul preferred the latter, feeling that the former rightly belonged only to Doc Severinsen. He again gave his preference for “World’s Most Dangerous Band” the next night, September 24.
With that preference noted, on September 25, 1987, Bill changed his announce from “Paul Shaffer and the NBC Orchestra” to “Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band,” and Dave followed when introducing Paul at the end of his Opening Remarks. Paul then announced that the group’s name was now officially the World’s Most Dangerous Band.
The name lasted until the end of Late Night’s run on June 25, 1993. Because of NBC’s “Intellectual Property Rights,” it was prohibited from Dave’s Late Show on CBS, and so Paul’s group thereafter became “Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra.”
Until that show ended on May 20, 2015.
Two years later during the summer of 2017, and twenty-four years after that name had last been used, Paul embarked on a national tour with his CBS Orchestra, renaming it and thus coming full circle, with “The World’s Most Dangerous Band.”
All come about from Dave’s boyhood enthusiasm for professional wrestling.
The Dick the Bruiser upload can be seen here, with clips from the 1989 “Later with Bob Costas” interview, Dave’s introduction to Will Lee, and an audience call-out to Bobby “The Brain” Heenan” from Late Night’s 6th anniversary special at Radio City Music Hall:
I’d wanted to do this for decades, but the enormity scared me away. But with my YouTube channel approaching 100 million views, and wanting to commemorate it in a significant way, I figured if not now, when? I had the resources and the means that no one else had, so it was for me to take this on.
The original concept was to include images of Dave at his desk from every late night show he had hosted from 1982 until 2015. That meant scanning through the video files to select 6,028 images from both his Late Nights (1982-93) and Late Shows (1993-2015). After weighing the task vs. my sanity, I decided to scale it back to just the Late Night era, so just 1,810 shows. Still, I’m calling this “Part 1,” so maybe the Late Show era will follow at some point, like, say, when the channel someday reaches 200 million views.
The other plan was to include every show-image of Paul in the upper right and the band in the lower left. But, again, sanity.
With the scope now more manageable, I began scanning through every Late Night, searching for the typical Dave expression — not too extreme, not too tame, though I did include a few goofy expressions as well as other images. The aim was to select shots of Dave looking directly at the camera. I later discovered that there were a few where he was instead looking at the cue cards positioned directly under the camera, as seen below, but they were fleeting, so I let them go:
The image order was based on when the show was taped, not when it was broadcast. There were a number of shows — especially in the earlier years — that aired out of sequence from when they were taped, the most extreme being Show #531, taped April 3, 1985, but not broadcast until six months later on October 29. It had been set aside to be transformed into graphic animation. But the project was eventually scrapped, and so the original video finally aired instead.
And, yes, every show, including January 16, 1991 (#1416), the night the first Gulf War broke out with news coverage preempting all regular programming. The show never aired, and there’s reason to believe that I may now have the only copy.
Searching and selecting appropriate screen-captures took a full month. “Tedious” doesn’t begin to describe the slog. Here’s a screen-capture of the computer directory, looking at the screen-capture for Show #71, June 3, 1982:
Next was fixing the color. The shows all came from different sources, from poor- to pristine-video quality, and the hues bounced all over the place. So each image had to go through the color-correction wash in Photoshop. Not having any training, I struggled to come up with acceptable improvements.
Here are some of the more successful Before/After images:
With the images now prepared as best I could came the next stage: placing them into a video editor. I used iMovie 9 for its relative simplicity. Instead of importing every image into one iMovie file, which would have slowed the processing down considerably, I instead chose the modular approach, creating one file per show year. Here’s what the first 42 images from 1982 looked like when imported into iMovie:
All images were timed at 1 second each, along with a 1-second cross-fade. Exceptions for the first and last, which were set at 4 and 3.5 seconds, respectively, and no cross-fade for the last image. That file was then processed into a 5 1/2-minute video. Here’s what all of the 1982 images looked like after being processed and re-inputted into iMovie:
I then sped up the processed 5 1/2-minute file 500%, which would reduce the duration to just over 1 minute:
After placing the year chyron in position, I processed that into yet another file, now done for 1982. I then set it aside and repeated the inputting/processing sequences for the remaining 10 1/2 years of the show. (This all took considerable trial-and-error until I found what worked to my satisfaction. Also, I had considered ID’ing every image by show number and broadcast date, but I couldn’t guarantee that the placements would be seamless from one image to the next, and, once again, sanity. So I limited it to just the year.)
It was at this point when I realized that all of the color-correction done in Photoshop had been negated when processed through iMovie, so I gave up tweaking everything to “perfection.” The images were what they were.
With all 11 1/2 years now processed at 500% and chyroned with their respective year, I then combined them into one new iMovie file, the “Final Build” (more on that below).
The next stage involved the soundtrack. Except for the 1982 broadcast performance of “Green Onions,” I used music never heard outside the studio. And made sure the timings fit:
1. “Late Night Theme,” Close, then the Open edited in at the end. From January 20, 1982, the first “shakedown show,” and the first time the theme was ever heard. A cooler, “downtown” jazzy feel. The harmonic twist that transposed the theme to a new tonic center (right before what would later become a consistent 10-beat count) was missing here. That wouldn’t be added until the fourth Late Night in early February.
2. “Green Onions.” From April 28, 1982, broadcast.
3. “Late Night Theme,” Close. From December 6, 1982, post-tape. This was found in one of my source tapes.
4. “The Way It Is.” From September 11, 1990, mid-show music break. With a snippet edited in near the beginning from Late Show, December 2, 1993, to fill in the brief silence when the picture went dark. Both with Bruce Hornsby, who sat in with the band on both shows.
5. “Late Night Theme,” Close. From April 20, 1983, here with the full ending that had been cut off when broadcast.
6. “Late Night Theme,” Open. From February 6, 1992, the 10th anniversary special at Radio City Music Hall, here without Bill Wendell’s announcement voice-over.
The last stage involved add-ons preceding and following the main event, the last clips from both aired and unaired videos, with audio extracted from still more unaired material. The audio doesn’t sync with the video, because they’re from entirely different shows, but I wanted to include material never previously seen or heard.
The source material:
1. Prologue chat with Dave and Paul from December 21, 1989, broadcast.
2. Empty desk from May 18, 1982, broadcast.
3. End of faces montage empty desk from March 27, 1992, broadcast.
Epilogue audio and videos:
a. Bill Wendell video from February 23, 1982, Cold Open “Audience Point of View” broadcast.
b. Bill Wendell audio from June 20, 1983, post-tape, extremely low volume, raised here.
c. Dave video from April 18, 1983, post-tape.
d. Dave audio from January 7, 1983, post tape.
Here’s a two-part screen-shot of what the “Final Build” looks like in iMovie, each “Faces” file at 500% comprising every Late Night year (you’ll notice that the 1988 file is shorter due to the prolonged mid-year writers strike):
This isn’t as polished as I would like, but that’s what happens when one takes on a project with near-zero expertise. I hope I’ve done some justice to the upcoming 100-million-views milestone, a number I never imagined when I began this adventure.
This is dedicated to Pam, who would have loved the concept, regardless the execution.
At around 8, 8:30 PM last night, I heard a faint knock on the door. After putting my pants back on, I opened it. There was this guy in a suit who said hello and offered his hand for a shake. I refused it, asked what he wanted, and figured he was a Jehovah’s Witness.
I was wrong. He told me had a subpoena for me, and I was like, um, what? He wanted to hand it over to me, but I didn’t take it, thinking that once I did, he could then split without any explanation. So I asked him what this was all about and looked at the document while still in his hand. It took me around five minutes to realize this was all on the level. It was the Harvey Weinstein case, and for some bizarre reason I was somehow involved in it.
The subpoena instructed me to go to court the following morning and submit a video of a particular Letterman interview. When I came to the broadcast date it required me to provide, I assumed it was the prosecution that wanted the Gwyneth Paltrow clip I had uploaded in October 2017, when the Weinstein news went full throttle. I didn’t inspect the date closely enough — 1997; I forgot that the Paltrow interview was in ’98 — I just assumed that’s what this was about. Also, the subpoena said “Late Night with David Letterman,” so I knew they weren’t in full command of his career. Later I briefly explained the history to both Subpoena Man and the lead attorney, who was on speaker phone.
The guy, a private detective hired here as a process server, told me that I had put the clip up on YouTube but then had taken it down, and they needed the full interview. I said sure, but as far as I knew that clip was still up. So there was some confusion about that.
He also said that I wouldn’t have to go to court if I could get him what he wanted right then and there. So I said yes, let’s do that.
I asked him why they hadn’t asked (or subpoena’d) Worldwide Pants for the video, since it was their content. He told me that they first contacted CBS, who then directed them to Pants. He then said that there was no time to get the show from Pants, as they needed it for court the next day. So they turned to me.
I invited him inside, which was of course a mess. He was taken aback what was in here — the tapes, the equipment, the “stuff.” He called it a museum. I called it a fire trap. We went into the earth station, where I showed him the status of the Paltrow video, that it was still up. He acknowledged that it was and, with my ok, took a photo of the screen. So he was as confused as I was.
Then he told me which interview he needed, and it wasn’t Paltrow; it was Annabella Sciorra. And he wasn’t with the prosecution, he was with the defense. Yikes. That lead attorney on the phone was Donna Rotunno. That changed everything. (I watched an clip of her in the Variety site today. Yep, that was her voice.)
Anyway. they had assumed I had put the Sciorra interview up on YouTube but then had taken it down. I told him that was someone else’s upload, not mine.
He then said the defense team had found me from the 2017 NY Times profile. He seemed quite impressed with the video- and audio-digitizing setup and the ease at which I could find on the computer what he wanted. He turned around and saw a Charlie Parker CD set and marveled at that. So he was a nice guy doing a job he was hired to do. His business is situated in Chicago. He ended up showing me a photo of a music group he was in with his wife, who he said would love what I was doing. So none of this was in any way confrontational. Just at first confusing and suspicious, and then I did what I was required to do, even though it was for Weinstein’s defense. That felt creepy, but I had no option other than to comply.
So I found the show, extracted the interview, and sent it to him via wetransfer. We waited for him to receive the email from the site that there was a file to download. He began downloading it on his phone but it was taking too long. He said would download it on his computer when he returned to his hotel. And then he’d email me to verify he had it and would then state, in writing, that I had complied with the subpoena and was no longer required to go to court. That finally happened after 11.
I asked him about the size of the defense team. He said there were 6 attorneys (we chatted with Donna several times last night). He said the prosecution had at least twice that. So I figured they were strapped for resources and thus the last-minute subpoena for the video.
His email was taking a long time to show up, so I called him (earlier he had given me his card). Talked to someone else, maybe his wife in Chicago. He returned my call just as his email arrived. I asked him how much I could share about this publicly. He said that while he and the attorneys were under a gag order, I wasn’t, so I could talk about whatever I wanted. Thus this blog post.
I then asked him what if I weren’t home when he knocked on my door. Would he have left the subpoena by the door, or was he required to hand it to me in person? He said that it sounds extreme, but he would have had to put a surveillance team on me, waiting outside the building until I showed up. I then asked what if hadn’t heard him knocking, that I was home all the time, and his team would be waiting outside for nothing. He didn’t really have an answer for that, other than nothing’s perfect, these things happen.
I forgot to ask how he even got into the building. Maybe a neighbor let him in, who knows.
As we ended the call he hoped we’d meet up again under friendlier circumstances. We both knew that would most likely never happen, but he was just being nice. He really liked what I was doing with whatever it is I’m doing.
Postscript: While I was waiting for his email last night, I watched the Annabella Sciorra interview with Dave and now understood why the defense wanted it. She testified this morning for the prosecution (google the news for that) and this afternoon is being cross-examined, where, I suspect, the defense will play a portion of the interview where she tells Dave she lies a lot. There’s lots of context missing here, but that’s what they’ll focus on. So they wanted the video to attack her credibility. I feel awful helping them do that, but being in contempt of court isn’t on my to-do list today.
Update. The defense did indeed play the video. I put up the complete interview here so that folks can see for themselves the full context of what the defense selected to challenge her credibility:
The only decent thing I did last night was refuse Subpoena Man’s offer to compensate me for my services; this was before he told me he was working for the defense. So I have a clear conscious about that. Still, what I was legally compelled to do will haunt me for a long time. I hope Sciorra’s testimony prevails.
With CNN’s upcoming “The Story of Late Night” now publicly announced, the NDA everyone signed is now partially no longer in effect. Partially, because those involved can now talk about it to a limited extent but agree to divulge no specific details nor say anything disparaging.
Which is easy, because the director, producers, and crew were an absolute joy.
I had been approached in September 2018 to be interviewed for the series. I initially turned it down, because I’m well aware of how I turn into Elmer Fudd when a camera and microphone are aimed at my face.
But when I subsequently learned that Bill Carter was involved, I reconsidered, and we set up a date for early October. The interview took place in the Lower East Side in a private triplex rented out for various film productions. I had assumed that one of the producers would be handling the questions, but when I got there, someone pointed me to Bill, and I knew then that I had to step up my game. I met Mark Malkoff as he was leaving; he was the first to be interviewed. I’d be the second. I was introduced to Bill, who, amazingly, knew who I was. So that put me at some ease.
We began at around 2 PM and finished at 4. There was a multi-page set of questions prepared for Bill, but I don’t think any of them were asked. I’ll post the sheets after broadcast. During one break (due, I think, to a truck driving past) I managed to sneak a short video with my iPhone.
Afterwards, Bill and I gabbed about “The Late Shift,” Late Night music, and other topics.
Near 5 PM, the crew (without Bill) and I Ubered to my place, where we spent another two hours having me pretend to so stuff — walk up the stairs, enter my apartment, search for a videotape, stick it in a VCR, and start digitizing — all the while talking about this, that, the other.
That finally ended at around 8 PM. Over the next year, I was asked to supply clips and information for them. I’m confident there’ll be an acknowledgement.
I recently learned that the day was all for naught: For reasons I can’t explain yet but fully understand, my segment won’t be included in the series. In the meantime, though, in addition to the video, here are two photos I took: Bill and me after the interview, and the director, John Ealer, and me in the Uber riding to my place.