The Musicians on Late Night with David Letterman

Part 1. The Band

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.

Dreams’ first LP, released in 1970.

“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.

Dreams’ second LP, 1971; Will Lee circled.

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.

Soul Mann & the Brothers, 1972.

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.

Bette Midler on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, September 12, 1973.
Will is circled; Don Grolnick is below Will on the organ.

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)

Will playing in Barry Manilow’s band on The Mike Douglas Show, June 10, 1974.

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)

Sid McGinnis in Barry Manilow’s band on Midnight Special, September 3, 1975.

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.

Club date ad for the Erin Dickins band in the Village Voice for June 9–10, 1981.

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)

Phyllis Hyman in a Miami club, circa 1974.

“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)

“Only about ten people came out for her opening night. Word of mouth about her talent quickly spread from those ten people. By the second week, the club was standing room only. In the audience sat Stevie Wonder, George Harrison, Ashford and Simpson, Al Jarreau, and Main Ingredient vocalist Cuba Gooding….”
(Uncredited author, https://sites.google.com/site/pittsburghmusichistory/pittsburgh-music-story/pop/phyllis-hyman)

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.

Paul Shaffer playing behind Phoebe Snow on Saturday Night Live, April 24, 1976.
Hiram Bullock singing behind Phoebe Show on Saturday Night Live, April 24, 1976.

“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 Martin’s “King Tut” on Saturday Night Live, April 22, 1978. Circled is Steve Jordan.
The Blues Brothers on a week tour in September 1978 at the L.A. Universal Amphitheatre. Circled is Steve Jordan.

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.

Cover of the first 24th Street Band LP, recorded in mid-December 1978 and released in Japan only.

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.

Village Voice club ad for the 24th Street Band’s appearance at The Rocker Room, March 16–17, 1979.

Village Voice club ad for the 24th Street Band’s appearance at Seventh Avenue South, August 30–September 1, 1979.
Village Voice club ad for the 24th Street Band’s appearance at The Rocker Room, September 14–15, 1979.
Village Voice club ad for the 24th Street Band’s appearance at The Beacon Theater, May 17, 1980.

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.

Photo from the second 24th Street Band LP, recorded in 1980.
From left to right: Hiram Bullock, Will Lee, Steve Jordan, and Cliff Carter.
Photo from the 24th Street Band’s second LP front cover, 1980.
Cover from the 24th Street Band’s third and final album, 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.

Dave displays the November 1982 issue of Musician on the October 5, 1982 Late Night.

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:

Dave displays the September 1983 issue of Keyboard on the August 22, 1983 Late Night.
Dave displays the June 1985 issue of Modern Drummer on the May 20, 1985 Late Night.
Dave displays the March 1986 issue of Guitar Player on the February 26, 1986 Late Night.
Dave displays the February 1987 issue of Modern Drummer on the February 5, 1987 Late Night.

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.

Cliff Carter playing the synthesizer during Sonny & Cher’s emotional reunion on Late Night, 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.

Cliff Carter with the World’s Most Dangerous Band backing Cher on Saturday Night Live, November 21, 1987.
Cliff Carter and Will Lee during the close of Saturday Night Live, November 21, 1987.

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.

Hiram barefoot on Late Night, July 12, 1982.
Will barefoot on Hiram’s first return to Late Night as a guest performer, November 6,1986.

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.

The Late Night softball team, Summer 1982, with Steve Khan (upper left) and Hiram Bullock (bottom center) circled.

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.

Front cover of Link Wray’s “Bullshot,” late 1978.
Back cover of Link Wray’s “Bullshot,” late 1978.
Close-up of back cover personnel of Link Wray’s “Bullshot,” late 1978.

“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)

Link Wray, Rob Stoner, Anton Fig, and Robert Gordon, c. 1978, venue unknown.

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)

Anton with [Ace] Frehley’s Comet, 1978.

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’s first LP, front cover,1979.

“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 [6] 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.

The Psychotic Cowboy’s Anton Fig, backing up The Thompson Twins at Live Aid, July 13, 1985.
The Psychotic Cowboy’s Will Lee, backing up The Thompson Twins at Live Aid, July 13, 1985.
The Psychotic Cowboy’s Felicia Collins, backing up The Thompson Twins at Live Aid, July 13, 1985.

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.


Postscript

Felicia Collins would appear on Late Night on May 27, 1993, nine shows before its last on NBC, backing up Cyndi Lauper.

Felicia Collins backing Cyndi Lauper on Late Night, May 27, 1993.

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.

Anton Fig, Steve Jordan, and Neil Jason, 2012.

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.

Jim Downey, Steve Jordan, and Bill Murray after the Late Show taping on May 19, 2015.

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.

Spreadsheet #2:
All of the guest performances sorted by band or individual name, along with their song titles.
All of the links many of these performances can be found on my YouTube channel.

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.

Spreadsheet #4:
All of the band sit-ins, sorted by name, with pertinent notes.
(Thanks to Gerald Sylvester for the evolving Tower of Power personnel.)

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 #6:
All of Paul’s substitutions, sorted by name.

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 Guitar
82 – Steve Khan
19 – Jef Lee (audition)
16 – Buzz Feiten (audition)
8 – Sid McGinnis (audition)
8 – Elliott Randall (audition)

Spreadsheet #8:
All of Will’s substitutions, sorted by name.

Top Subs on Bass
89 – Neil Jason
37 – Francisco Centeno
14 – Marcus Miller

And lastly, Spreadsheet #9:
All of Steve’s, then Anton’s substitutions, sorted by name.

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!”

11 thoughts on “The Musicians on Late Night with David Letterman

  1. Only through part 1 but wow. Instead of editing video you put this out. Just wow. I wondered what you would do instead of editing and now I know. Did I say “wow”? I am not a “music guy” but I know you are and here you’re demonstrating the -ologist part. So good. So much stuff I didn’t know (again, not a music guy).

    Like

  2. Hey Don. You done good. This was not only an engrossing history lesson, but great fun to read and absorb. “Me Myself I” was loaded with superstar talent… Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great read — I’m I big fan of these musicians, and I didn’t know half the stuff you mentioned! Thanks for putting this all together!

    Like

  4. Watched as many as shows as possible live, and this filled in so many gaps and gives great context to performers who inspired, surprised, educated and entertained. Great work, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Love this. I fell in love with drumming watching Steve Jordan in 1982. I tried (and failed) to sound like him, had my paiste cymbals way up in the air and had the same Yamaha snare drum. Charley Drayton was my favorite sub for him because sometimes you’d see him playing bass as well. That whole New York 70s scene fills me with admiration and envy. The coolest musicians who ever lived, IMO. I can listen to their stories for hours. Steve Jordan talked about how he got his big break playing with Stuff and Mikel’s because a snowstorm stranded Gadd in upstate NY. Steve got behind the drums and looked over at Anthony Jackson knowing full well this was make or break, and lucky for us it was make. Thanks for this terrific article,

    Like

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