Stories Behind the Songs: Will Lee

Will Lee

Photo by Sandrine Lee

As a part of the CBS Orchestra, Will Lee’s bass playing is heard by millions of people every week on The Late Show with David Letterman. Millions more listen to him every day thanks to his prolific recording career that spans nearly 40 years and over 1,700 albums of nearly every genre.

“What I’ve always loved about my career is that the jazzers always thought I was a rocker and the rockers always thought I was a jazzer,” Lee said of his diversity. “I never wanted to be pigeonholed, so that felt great to me.”

The list of artists that Lee has recorded with ranges from fusion legends like The Brecker Brothers to KISS guitarist Ace Frehley to R&B superstar D’Angelo, but no matter the style, the song always comes first.

“You have to support the song, number one,” he explained. “The song dictates what’s needed. Say, for instance, the song is already the song, and it’s got a certain amount of character and strength to it. You know what it’s about, but in the case of what you can do with a song as far as treatment, you can really, really make it a different experience by what part is played on the bass. I’m always riding that fine line of supporting versus adding something.”

All that experience and all the friends he’s made along the way play a part in his new solo album Love, Gratitude, and Other Distractions, due out in the U.S. on August 20th. His first solo effort in 20 years, the collection of songs brings together originals and covers played by the bassist and his musical cohorts, including Billy Gibbons, Pat Metheny, Allen Toussaint, Steve Lukather, Akiko Yano, Chuck Loeb, and many more.

With such a deep well of musical experience, we reached out to Lee for a retrospective of some of his favorite songs he’s recorded on.

1. “Some Skunk Funk” – from The Brecker Brothers’ The Brecker Bros. (1975)

The Brecker Brothers: The Brecker Bros.That was a chop-buster of a song for sure. It had some weird 7/4 bars in it. When we went into the studio, we went in with Harvey Mason, who at the time was just like the hot shit guy in the universe because he got known as the guy that played on Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” Little did I know that when he came in, here’s a guy that was an amazing reader. He also plays mallets, and stuff, and not many people know that. He’s like the legitimate percussion guy with an amazing groove.

He sat down and sight-read that chart in a way that I couldn’t believe what I was playing to and watching it happen. He sat down and stretched the charts across the cymbal stand, and just the way he was reading, it looked like he was feasting on food. It was incredible. He just ate it for breakfast.

Obviously, that made my job 100% effortless. I wasn’t sightreading, and I had actually rehearsed that tune with the other guys without Harvey. I think that Ralph McDonald is the secret ingredient on that track; the way he percolates the percussion just makes it so special. Of course, this is at a time of Randy Brecker’s very fertile writing period where he was really coming up with some amazing, groundbreaking stuff. [He had] done that in the past, but this was a fresh take on what he can do.

I still like hearing that track because it makes me think of how exciting it was at the time, doing this cutting-edge stuff. I was probably playing a Precision bass. This could have been my hitmaker, which was a 1963 Precision that I had bought from Tom Malone. It actually burned up in a fire that same year. I never got a chance to replace it with a bass as good as that one. I’ve been trying ever since. For that reason, since I was not able to find a Precision as good as that one, I switched over to Jazz basses for the most part. Now I’m going back into Precision mode a little bit at a time.

2. “Window Shoppin’” – from Hiram Bullock’s From All Sides (1986)

Hiram Bullock: From All SidesI remember the thing about that track is that Charley Drayton was playing drums. I loved the song so much, I went home and listened to a rough of what we had done and at that point – in a very George Harrison/Pino Palladino kind of way – I actually wrote a bass part. Like George would write a solo specifically for a song and craft it, or Pino would do the same with a bass part and spend eight hours in the studio on a track just to get a coherent part going. That’s exactly what I did with “Window Shoppin’.” I love the way they recorded the bass. It just sounds really good to me.

When I track, no matter what outboard gear it’s going through, whether it’s compression or tube kind of stuff, I really prefer to hear a really direct track in my headphones even if they’re not recording it that way. Just give me a dummy track of just the bass and going through nothing else, and do whatever you want inside. In that case, they had beautiful compression going on, and the bass got some real attention in the studio because they knew how much went into the track.

3. “Higher” – from D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar (1995)

D’Angelo: Brown SugarD’Angelo had done a demo of the song and I believe he had sort of mapped out the feel of what the bass part should be on keyboard. Basically I just brought my five-string in and kind of replicated what I thought was my version of what he was hearing for a bass part. It ended up being a lot of fun. Ralph Rolle played drums.

I don’t know if you think this way, but that D’Angelo is a pretty soulful guy. For his next album, he dug even deeper into his back phrasing vocally in a way that would have made Sinatra look like he was rushing. I think I would have hated being in his live band while that was going on. I would have asked for none of him in my monitors so I could just stay with the groove, otherwise we’d be pulling everyone back and it’d be like molasses by the end of the song.

4. “Westchester Lady” from Bob James’s Three (1976)

Bob James: ThreeThat’s a song that has a really cool bass part. It was actually Bob’s bass line. I was doing my best to play it and it felt like home so I just went with it. It’s another Harvey Mason drum track, too. It was done out at CTI studios. This track would have never happened because by this time it was a couple of years after Harvey Mason was established as a happening guy. Now he’s living in L.A. and has got this syndrome going that everybody in L.A. had, which was having tons of Anvil cases of gear with cartage companies, placing huge burdens on the budgets of all the records that were going on. In this one case, we get to the studio in the morning. We’re at CTI Recording Studios in New Jersey; Harvey’s flown in and his gear has been flown in separately. It arrives, and it’s locked and he has no key. [laughs] I, the shopaholic that I am, in my gear bag had this stupidly happening Swiss Army knife with about 900 blades on it. And wouldn’t you know it that one of those blades was the thing that opened up the locks so we could do that track.

5. “What a Difference a Day Makes” from Esther Phillips’ What a Diff’rence a Day Makes (1975)

Esther Phillips: What a Diff’rence a Day MakesThis is another track from CTI and it was a big disco hit. Joe Beck was the arranger, but he needed something to give it a hook and the hook was the bass line that I came up with. It’s the opening thing that you hear, the thing that keeps repeating throughout the song.

[I made it up on the spot.] It was like, “Well, here- how about this?”

6. “Walk Between the Raindrops” – from Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly (1982)

Donald Fagen: The NightflyI remember utilizing a technique which is the same that Rocco Prestia uses for muting. I really grew up in a jazz household but never really wanted to play upright bass and I find it super cumbersome and all that stuff. I’m doomed to be a “downright” player for the rest of my life, I’m sure. No complaints about that. The thing that I’ve always tried to do is emulate that upright bass sound that I grew up hearing in my household by doing something with the electric bass that could almost get the feel going. I kind of uber-muted for that track.

In the case of that track, the drum part was so precise that it was easy to get a good feel with it. This was an overdub situation, so I was the only person in the studio at the time for it.

7. “Déjà Vu” – from Dionne Warwick’s Dionne (1979)

Dionne Warwick: DionneIt was produced by Barry Manilow; it was a session we did out in L.A. It was a great band: Mitch Holder on guitar, Bill Mays on keyboard, Rick Shlosser on drums.

We were looking for some kind of a feel and it seemed like the best approach that I could come up with for that one was sort of a Earth, Wind, and Fire groove in the vein of Verdine [White]. It ended up being a big hit record.

8. “Get Up Offa That Thing” – from James Brown’s Get Up Offa That Thing (1976)

James Brown: Get Up Offa That ThingWhen we went in the studio, there was an arranger named Dave Matthews who just had a slew of charts for us to play through. This was like number 19, with no title. I remember playing it and thinking, “I wonder what James would do on top of this.” He wasn’t in the studio with us. He came in later. To me, it didn’t seem like the typical James Brown groove, so I didn’t know where it was going to go once we left the studio but I love what ended up happening because it’s a really good feeling track. James is the reason.

I only got to work with James face-to-face on the Letterman show. The first time he came on, it was the first time for me playing with him live so I was ready for anything. What I wasn’t ready for, though, was that when he started to sing and move it was like… For a bassist, one of the greatest things you can do is play with a drummer whose time feel is great. In this case, James Brown’s body movements alone were like the drums that the drummer follows. It was that strong and that secure and that purposeful. It ended up being like just a [dream] for anybody who wanted to get a good feel. You play with him and the feel was built right in. You just got to play along and it was already grooving. He was amazing to work with.

9. “No Regrets” – from Phoebe Snow’s Second Childhood (1976)

Phoebe Snow: Second ChildhoodThat was a song on which I had gotten myself an acoustic bass. It was the Ernie Ball Earthwood bass. It was sort of like a mariachi bass except with frets and roundwound strings. It was a short lived thing, but whatever it was it was the best one of its kind at the time. Me not ever wanting to play upright, I brought it in to play on this song and Phil Ramone was producing. It just seemed to work pretty well with the track. Phoebe was singing live with us and she loved it. It was just like a really easy track to get a little bit of a walking bass line feel.

10. “I’m Every Woman” – from Chaka Khan’s Chaka (1978)

Chaka Khan: ChakaThat was a really fun track to do. Steve Ferrone was playing drums and there was this really simple chart in front of us. There was really nothing there. I brought in my blue faced MXR Chorus/Delay rackmount unit. It almost sounds like a phasing effect but it’s really a chorus and delay. It just created this bit of a different atmosphere for the song and the producer Arif Mardin loved it so I just kept it plugged in.

When Ferrone plays, it’s hard to not get a groove, I must say. He’s like money in the bank for making the room breathe like a big lung. He breathes life into a room with his groove.

11. “I’m in Need of Love” from Ace Frehley’s Ace Frehley (1978)

Ace FrehleyAce played bass on a lot of the tracks on the project and he was really prepared when he came into the studio. I think one of the tunes already had drums on it and the other track I cut with Anton [Fig]. Everything about what he was doing was so guitar riff driven. The song kind of dictated what I should play each time. In other cases he actually had bass on these tracks already and I would hear it with his bass and then say, “Okay, turn the bass off and let me do my thing.” I knew I had to bring something to it because Ace was already a great bass player as it was. So what I tried to bring was a little bit of New York funk into some of Ace’s stuff. So I just had fun with it really. Eddie Kramer was producing and he loved everything so we kept it.

For me, being kind of a studio guy at the time, I was playing out a lot but I wasn’t working with huge bands like KISS at the level of popularity. I was playing with a lot of artists but all that stuff was private and in the studio. In this case, we were recording at a studio that was in the same building as Radio City Music Hall and was just a couple of flights up from the actual theater. I think it was called Plaza Sound. Even though it was kind of its own getaway world, the Rockettes knew about it. Much like the stories I’ve heard about the Beatles recording “She Loves You” in Apple Studios surrounded by women, that’s kind of what it was like doing the Ace sessions because the Rockettes had gotten wind of the fact that we were in there and they were all over the place. Looking in the doors and stuff. I was like, “Yeah! This is big time.” And it was my first real Anton experience, so I loved what that was like. He was playing so great like he always does. I got to begin my lifelong rapport with him right there on the spot.

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  1. I don’t even read, he’s my biggest influence for bass. Period. (funny… I just initiated a topic on Scott Devine’s comunity 2 days ago :D ).

  2. the master. love how he always mentions who the drummer was on the track.

  3. I have a (somewhat crappy) demo copy of the Ace Frehley tune. Ace probably played bass on that. I’ll have to give it and the album version both a listen again to hear how Will put his own stamp on it.

  4. Great stories from a great player, also one my biggest influences

  5. I thought pino palladino was D’Angelos bassist?

  6. I always thought it was really smart of Will to keep the Letterman gig. It gives him the financial freedom to do whatever else he likes artistically, and that band is killer anyways so what’s not to like? Hard to believe others walked away from that gig.

  7. Love Will Lee’s playing. But I don’t understand why ebass players think that the ultra-muting that he uses on Walk Between the Raindrops sounds anything like an upright bass. It doesn’t. It’s cool but it is not an URB sound.

  8. Gee whiz, Uncle Will. This is cool to review some of your stuff. You were certainly a HUGE influence on me over the years. Best regards, bro’!

  9. jrokhead

    that’s not the chaka khan version

  10. keith ruddell

    Oh i thought Anthony Jackson played on I’m Every Woman. Awesome job, Will! I also like his groove on When the World Falls Down by Bowie.