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Bassist Will Lee Went From University of Miami to Late Night to Playing with the Beatles

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: UM grad Will Lee went Late Night and big time.

It's noon on a Tuesday, and Will Lee is still struggling to fully awaken. Then again, he was playing into the wee hours last night. Oh, not just late at night somewhere but for that Late Night, the one with David Letterman that employs him as bassist and sometime singer in the CBS Orchestra.

After 31 years -- 20 of them at CBS, the previous 11 with NBC -- it would seem he'd have more than enough activity to take up his time. The gig is, as he describes it, "unbelievable, almost a little too easy." But he quickly adds, "I love it."

Still, considering the more than 1,700 sessions he's played over the course of his career -- for luminaries like Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, Liza Minnelli, Steely Dan, the Bee Gees, Billy Joel, and Ray Charles -- it's also pretty obvious he's not content to simply stand still.

Lee's a South Florida guy, sort of, a distinction he earned in the early '70s while attending the University of Miami School of Music, where his father, Bill Lee, was a longtime professor. In fact, it was the elder Lee who helped acclaimed guitarist Pat Metheny, another UM graduate, obtain his scholarship. And clearly, the younger Lee made Dad proud. Following graduation, he became a regular on the South Florida music scene before broadening his horizons and gaining fame nationally.

With a new album, Love, Gratitude & Other Distractions, only his second solo effort in 20 years (his first, Oh!, was released in 1993), Lee's again expanding his parameters. The new disc includes both original compositions and an all-star guest list -- New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, fellow UM alumni Metheny, drummers Steve Gadd and Peter Erksine, and Late Night bandleader Paul Shaffer among them. Likewise, his ongoing role in a high-profile Beatles cover band, the Fab Faux, shows he's clearly adept at multitasking. Not surprisingly, then, the Beatles are never far from his mind. He even refers to them when describing the role his bass plays in the music he makes.

"For the album, I did what I normally try to do, had it been someone else's album," he comments. "That is, to support the song. It's always my challenge to take on a sort of Ringo Starr role, taking the song and using my instrument to help shape it and give it a feel. There's that fine line you're always riding of supporting the music while staying out of the way. I love to try to find those sweet spots within the music."

Lee should know. He's had the rare opportunity to play with all four Beatles at one time or another, beginning with his contribution to Ringo's Rotogravure album in 1976. "On the track that I played on, it was a song John had written called 'Cookin' (In the Kitchen of Love).' John had already recorded his keyboard part, and so I never met him in person, but I did get to play with him on that track. So that was pretty great."

His encounters with George Harrison were the stuff dreams are made of. "I was doing an album with Gary Moore in England, and the studio we were recording at was very close to George Harrison's house, Friar Park on Henley on Thames," Lee recalls. "It was during the time of the Wimbledon tournament, and we had been watching it on the big TV during our breaks. And at the end of one of the long days, we were sitting at the dinner table in the big huge mansion/recording studio place that was in a house that belonged to Roger Waters, and around twilight, we see these two shadowy figures approaching in the big picture window. I look closer, and I see it's George Harrison and John McEnroe. We had been watching McEnroe all day at Wimbledon, and there he is in our faces. So it's like whoa, what's he doing here? They heard we were in town, so they just wanted to come over and jam.

"So then George invited us over to his house and blah, blah, blah. A year later, I get a phone call on my answering machine, and it's a message that says [affects British accent] 'Hello, Will, this is George Harrison calling. I'd like to steal you away from that television program to play with me for a night at the Albert Hall. So please call me.' Now I have a brother Rob who does a pretty great George impression, and I assumed it was my brother, so I didn't call him back. At the end of the day, I called my brother and said, 'Hey man, great George impression earlier today. It sounded amazing.' And he said, 'I didn't call you.' So I said, 'Uh-oh, I'll call you back!'

"So I called the number, and it was George Harrison himself inviting me to play at what turned out to be his last concert under his own name at the Royal Albert Hall. It was in '93, I think. And it was really, really exciting. Ringo came out for the encore and played 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' and 'Roll Over Beethoven' with us. So that was just unbelievable. Rock 'n' roll heaven. It was a blast. I can't even describe how exhilaratingly wonderful it was. I was screaming to the people in the front row, 'I'm in rock 'n' roll heaven!' I practically cartwheeled onto the stage!"

His involvement with McCartney was more straightforward but no less memorable. "There were a couple of Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies -- I'm always playing in the house band for those things, since 1985 anyway -- and McCartney always comes up and jams in those situations. But the time I really felt like I was part of the scene was when he did the Concert for New York right after 9/11, and he asked me to play bass on the tunes he was playing piano on, 'Let It Be' and 'Freedom,' a new tune he wrote specifically for the occasion. There were also a couple of other tunes that we did from his new album at the time, Driving Rain. That was pretty wonderful."

Considering the fact that Lee invests a good amount of his time with the Fab Faux, it seems only natural that he would keep those connections intact. One might even wonder if he's ever played the Fab Faux's Beatle covers for the real life Fabs themselves. "I've actually tried to explain it to those guys, but they kind of roll their eyes," he responds. "I think they have a particular disdain for Beatles cover bands."

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