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As American Idol's Rickey Minor joins the Tonight Show, my list of late night's five coolest bands

Rickey_minor To this longtime musician's mind, late night backing bands are the Rodney Dangerfields of the showbiz universe -- constantly overlooked and underestimated, rarely noticed unless something goes wrong.

For proof, look no further than former American Idol bandleader Rickey Minor, who didn't get so much as a word of encouragement during the bloated, two-hour-plus season finale that marked his last show before leaving to join Jay Leno's Tonight Show.

Minor replaced Kevin Eubanks, who finally could take no more after 18 years (?!) in Leno's backing band. Once upon a time, Eubanks was a seriously respected jazz guitarist, but he traded in much of that cred to play Led Zeppelin covers and chortle behind Leno when Branford Marsalis finally realized the populist late night host would never let him play bebop jazz and original tunes every night while trying to beat the pants off Letterman.

So, as Minor and his core Idol backing band take over the most hallowed gig in late night -- offering the third revamp of the show's theme in less than a year -- here's my list of the coolest late night bands around and a few reasons why they are so great.

5 The Roots on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon: From slow jamming the news to backing the first live rendition of Saturday Night Live veteran Andy Samberg’s rap parody Lazy Sunday and re-creating Paul Simon’s hit Late in the Evening, rap band the Roots have proved their versatility and charisma extends beyond hip-hop (my fave moment: playing on Sarah Jessica Parker with a snatch of the theme from her ’80s-era high school comedy Square Pegs). Led by hip, creative drummer/producer/DJ Questlove, they have become an invaluable assist for a young host still finding his way.

4 Arsenio Hall’s Posse and Grandmaster Flash on The Chris Rock Show (tie): Featuring musicians fresh from gigs with jazz singer Nancy Wilson and funk band Cameo, the Posse embodied Hall’s briefly meteoric success bridging the worlds of old school showbiz and the then-new school rap-flavored R&B of M.C. Hammer and Bobby Brown. And years before Ellen DeGeneres would use a charismatic DJ to fuel her show’s music, comic firebrand Chris Rock anchored his seminal late night ’90s-era HBO show with tunes spun by rap pioneer Flash.

3 The Saturday Night Live band: It had the most star power when led by former Hall & Oates guitarist G.E. Smith and bandmate/bassist Tom “T-Bone” Wolk for a decade starting in 1985. But SNL’s house band also launched its first leader, movie score giant Howard Shore, along with keyboardist and future David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer, who helped invent the Blues Brothers there while honing his new school Rat Pack attitude hanging with early stars John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd

2 The World’s Most Dangerous Band on NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman: All due respect to the crack players working on Letterman’s current CBS show. But bandleader Shaffer’s original ensemble for the NBC version was a musical monster, with legendary drummer Steve Jordan (John Mayer), studio bassist extraordinaire Will Lee and ace guitarist Hiram Bullock, with occasional appearances by New York jazz icons such as Pat Metheny and David Sanborn. Check the YouTube clip of this band backing James Brown for explanation. 

1 Doc Severinsen’s NBC Orchestra on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson: So much of the modern talk show’s formula is rooted in this classic ensemble, from Severinsen’s flashy suits and repartee with Carson to “stump the band” segments allowing Los Angeles’ top jazz players to horse around on live television. Oh, and there were the electrifying moments when Frank Sinatra, Buddy Rich, Sammy Davis Jr. or Ray Charles would borrow the band to throw down.

[Last modified: Thursday, August 12, 2010 2:15pm]


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