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The six baddest bands in late-night TV history



As the Roots prepare to usher in a new era of late-night talk show house bands, providing the musical power behind tonight's 12:35 a.m. debut of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon on NBC, I got to thinking about which past groups were the best.

Here's my list of the Top Late Night TV House Bands, for geeks like me who keep track of such things:

The CBS Orchestra (Late Show With David Letterman):
Filled with crack New York studio musicians and fueled by leader/keyboardist Paul Shaffer’s encyclopedic pop music knowledge, it’s the gold standard. That quality started with the first group, the World’s Most Dangerous Band, from Letterman’s NBC tenure in the ’80s — a taut four-piece with Shaffer, drummer Steve Jordan (of the John Mayer Trio), bassist Will Lee and guitarist Hiram Bullock. Also the first band to show there was another way to back a late-night talk show beyond the big band jazz of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.

The Tonight Show Orchestra:
Doc Severinsen led some of the West Coast’s best jazz players in a nightly homage to the form. Kicking off most episodes with a spirited rendition of the show's theme song, the band got a chance to shine when musical guests such as Buddy Rich or Ray Charles would stop by and borrow the band to throw down.

The Saturday Night Live Band:
Most visible when former Hall & Oates guitarist and bassist G.E. Smith and Tom “T-Bone” Wolk led the group in the mid ’80s, it’s always stacked with aces. Movie score composer Howard Shore was the first leader, and Shaffer made his showbiz bones here backing the Blues Brothers and Bill Murray's lounge lizard before taking off to work with Letterman.

Arsenio Hall’s Posse:
Even though the band was led by mediocre smooth jazz pianist Michael Wolff, it was backed by a bassist and drummer fresh from pop-funksters Cameo, lending a totally new sound to late-night TV in the late ’80s and early ’90s, back before network TV talk shows realized they could snare a young audience by booking hot rap and R&B acts.

The Max Weinberg 7:
Bruce Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg sold Conan O’Brien on the retro-cool of a jump blues band for his show in the early ’90s. Weinberg told me years ago that he ran into O'Brien on the street in Manhattan and pitched a backing band playing some of the music he was listening to as a fan back then.

Jay Leno’s Tonight Show Band:
When Branford Marsalis led the group, backed by musicians who had played with his brother, Wynton, and Sting, it was the most overqualified cover band on the planet. Why Marsalis thought populist Leno would let the band groove on original or unknown jazz tunes, I'll never know. But guitarist Kevin Eubanks, who replaced Marsalis as musical director a few years in, knows how to bring the bad Led Zeppelin covers and act as a foil for Leno’s sharper jokes.


[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:55pm]


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