With “Men With Banjos (Who Know How to Use Them)”
An Inside Report – By Dr. Banjo (Pete Wernick)
Well, we did it!
Five banjos, two guitars, one mandolin, and a piano, playing Foggy Mt. Breakdown at top speed for three and a half minutes. Wouldn’t be such a big deal, but in this case something made it daunting – being on the David Letterman show. National TV! Yow!
It all started with Steve Martin, famous comic, actor, writer, and not-so-famous banjo player. A major banjo devotee, and a fine player, he decided to put together an unlikely banjo band, featuring the incomparable Earl Scruggs, Tony Ellis, Charles Wood…. and …. Me!
The idea was to put on a concert as part of the high-arts New Yorker Festival. That’s still to come, in a few days, but the biggie was the Letterman show appearance, set up as to plug the festival. Just how many bands first get together and meet each other in the afternoon, then play their first gig the same night – on national TV? A 9-person band playing at top speed, with an age range of 23 (my son Will) to 81 (Earl). A wonderful opportunity for the banjo, for bluegrass music, and just a bit nerve-wracking. When you’re playing 11 notes a second, and you have to hang together with other people all trying to play at exactly the same speed, well, it’s a challenge.
The big day finally arrived. I’m writing at the end of that big day. Joan, Will, and I flew into NYC last night, got a strange middle-aged cab driver in a yarmulke (Jewish skull cap), who kept talking about Pink Floyd, which is all he listens to, driving the city at night. Drops us off at the Royalton Hotel, on 44th St. in midtown Manhattan. Pretty pricey place, not paid by us, thank goodness. We were thirsty but passed up the $10 bottle of Evian water, and filled glasses from the tap. At about 2am, having had no time to practice, I headed downstairs to ask where in this (ritzy, trendy, overpriced) hotel a banjo guy could practice Foggy Mt. Breakdown without waking up other guests. I was directed to an out-of-the-way bar in the hotel, a circular, small, strange place with enough padded seats to absorb the loud sounds I then proceeded to make for the next hour and a half. Hitting the hay at 3:30am, I was beat, but my hands felt good, and I knew I was as prepared as I could be.
Up at 8:30am, a mighty pricey (but good) breakfast, and then Will and I headed for the Ed Sullivan Theater on West 53rd. Not much more than a half mile away, but morning traffic made it take more than 10 minutes. Such huge buildings to drive among, and the small streets between them clogged mainly with huge semi delivery trucks, cabs, and a lot of people honking.
The stage door was pretty well disguised, but we found it, and were introduced to the stage and sound crew. I had become the liaison from the group to the Letterman show, had drawn up a stage plot showing microphone and monitor speaker locations, and went over the details with the friendly and professional folks at the show. Managed to take photos (soon to be on DrBanjo.com) of Will and I each sitting at Dave’s desk, and of course, the remarkable 3-D lit model of the Triborough Bridge that serves as the show’s longstanding backdrop. As I stood in the familiar Letterman stage area, I looked at the audience seating, and started remembering seeing the Ed Sullivan show Sunday nights as a kid: Elvis, and later the Beatles, and years later, all those Letterman guests, right here from this spot. My racing mind settled for a bit, and I took it all in.
Then off to Steve’s for rehearsal. Steve has a large and lovely apartment with a beautiful view of Central Park. As the musicians showed up, I think everyone felt a bit awkward. None of us banjo pickers had ever played very much with one another, and a few of them barely knew any of the others. We took out instruments. Earl is always up for a bit of picking, and we tried Sitting on Top of the World, Down the Road, Cripple Creek, and then went to work on Foggy. As it was still early in the day, with everyone getting all warmed up, it was a bit rough. Some were more apt and able to pick faster than others at first, but it started coming together. We worked out an arrangement, Steve leading the way, with us regularly checking with Earl for his OK.
After a few times playing sitting in a circle, we stood in the setup like the one I’d just helped put together at the TV show. Still working on keeping the timing really solid, while keeping it quiet enough not to cover up the sound of the lead player. With everyone’s hands wearing down, we took some lunch and a little tour of Steve’s place, featuring really excellent and tasteful art. Good to clear the head and rest for a while, but then back to Foggy. Earl was gaining strength and agility with each runthough, but was used to ending it a certain way, thought we’d decided on a unison ending with all five players going at once. After a few mishaps on the ending, it became my job to cue Earl on the unison part, and by going over that a number of times, we tightened it all up and headed back downstairs to the waiting cars.
Another short-distance/long-driving-time ride to the hotel and our respective rooms, to suit up, then back down and into one 15-passenger van with a total of 10 people and 7 instrument cases. Earl and his wife Louise, and Tony Ellis, all 70 or older, got in the cramped van with no complaints. Troopers! Now in NYC rush hour traffic, the slightly more than half-mile took over 20 minutes. Now there were hordes of people around the stage door, none especially interested in us. Steve and the other Letterman guest, actor George Clooney, were the ones they were after. We just wanted to get inside.
Room temperature in the Ed Sullivan Theater was now about 50 degrees, as I’d heard it would be, and enough to get my fingers cold and stiff in just a few minutes. But we did several runthroughs of the number while the stage, sound, and camera people did their tweaks. Paul Shaffer, the Late Show bandleader, was invited by Earl to join us for a solo, and also supplied solid rhythmic backup, which helped keep us together. Joan, Will, and Bill Ellis (Tony’s son, playing guitar) were on a short riser platform behind us. Making sure everyone could hear everyone else well enough to keep a tight rhythmic sound at 162 beats a minute is both critical and difficult. After probably our 15th rendition of Foggy for the day, we left our instruments in the cold downstairs, not wanting them to rise in pitch any more than when we first took them out.
OK, now upstairs to makeup, where George Clooney (who’d actually turned down makeup) was hanging out with a few folks and talking about his recent death-defying back operation, featuring his own spinal fluid in his nose (!). My son the moviemaker managed to change the subject and was able come away saying George was a friendly guy. Meanwhile, Joan got a pro makeup and hair job, and looked just gorgeous, the prettiest bluegrass girl around!
Now we’re watching the beginning of the show on the monitors in the small rooms in the backstage area. Steve indicated he was nervous, and it surprised me a bit, with his huge amount of successful stage work. I asked, wasn’t the standup comedy he’d done for so many years at least as stressful? No, he said, that came much more naturally to him. Bravo to Steve for building his picking skills to a high level and braving on to this challenging spot, despite music stage inexperience. He pulled it off, too! But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Now the time’s getting close. We’ve been anticipating these few minutes for six months and it’s just moments away. Downstairs into that COLD studio, checking the banjo tuning (still in, YES!). Thinking about the gobs of support I’ve received from friends and fans, making me feel that I’m doing this for a lot more than myself, but for the banjo and for bluegrass music, for the people who have supported me, the community I live in, and the sake of the good honest music I love and the life I lead. Something way bigger than “I hope I do well on TV”, sort of hard to explain. And somehow or other, I just never did get especially nervous. We’d done our prep, we were ready for the big game. At one point, a wave of worry came over me, and I just breathed it right back out. Almost time to go.
We’re in position. Dave Letterman is right over there, introducing us. Earl starts it, and I pull out the clearest, cleanest high chord chops I can, as the rhythm section kicks, in and — we’re off! Uh oh! Big trouble! The audience is clapping along, really loud! I know what usually happens in this situation. They’re going to slow down a little at a time and it will be super-hard to keep the rhythm together with them just a bit behind. I just stay in the groove, chopping away. So far, so good, we’re on top. I come in for my break right after Earl, the band holding time, and me running right through the stuff I’ve been practicing in my practice cabin all week, and right up to last night at 3am in that little circular bar room at the hotel. My hands are working, they’re not freezing up, and the music is moving along, 11 notes a second. I remember to smile a bit, and delivering the music as well as I can. This whole moment of glory lasts just about 25 seconds, and on my last lick, I step out of the way as Steve comes in on his break. Whoopsie, Steve’s not used to playing over this kind of loud clapping and gets a bit jarred, stumbling and almost breaking time.
But it hangs together, and Charles rips through a very tricky and flashy break, followed by Tony’s artful sounds. These guys can pick! Back to Earl, and still winning the rhythm battle over the crowd, into our unison end. Yes! We did it! Steve calls off our names, Dave comes over and says hello, and that’s the show. I’d be feeling some relief about pulling it off, but I knew Steve could have done a better break, and at that point I told him what Paul Shaffer had told me during rehearsal: That if we had problems, we could do a re-take after the show.
OK, back on stage, and with the audience (and Dave) gone, here we are in the same spots, surrounded by cameras and all, and Earl kicks it off again. He sure is sounding good. My turn, holding on to the groove, no clapping to distract, and it works out fine again. Whew! Out of the way for Steve. Much better this time, but following his ride, Paul falls just a bit behind on his amazing “banjo roll” on piano. I almost, not quite, broke time to slow down for him, but you just can’t do that in a 9-piece group. Right back on tempo, and another great pair of solos from Charles and Tony. Earl is playing strong, and we head into the unison with the best effort of the day. A good finish and now we MUST be done.
Well, after a lot of discussion with the sound people, it was decided that the first, with-audience version was the better, other than Steve’s break, and that he would overdub his break in the sound studio downstairs. We went down there and Steve got to work on the overdub. I went back up to let everyone know we were using Take 1. When I got back to the sound studio, Steve is overdubbing Take 2. Turns out that some important camera shots were missed on the first take, and there is no longer a choice. It will be Take 2, replete with a couple of flawed breaks. After trying some banjo re-takes, Harvey, the crack engineer working the show that night found a way to “fix it in the mix”.
We left the studio, still a bit uncomfortable that maybe we hadn’t done too well. Walking out on the street, what a startle when suddenly a lot of cameras flash, and people start calling out, “Hey Steve!”. Kind of like the audience clapping along, a well-intentioned but distracting act, and an inevitable part of high level show biz. Steve, ever the pro, flashed his winning smile and ducked into the waiting car.
Later, over drinks at the hotel, Steve is a wonderful host, chatting with me and Joan, Charles Wood, and Earl’s son Gary, about all sorts of things, bring people out with questions about themselves, and all of us quite a bit more relaxed after the stress of the day.
Cut an hour later to the Wernick family, up in our hotel. The show is on, and we start getting nervous all over again. Was the mixing good, did we really do all right? Performers can be an insecure lot. We had played well, the crowd loved it, the show’s crew and staff seemed very pleased, and yet we were wound up, just as we had been on stage, and just as worried as the pitcher in the _self of the ninth with men on and a 3-2 count. There’s the funny bit about new kids’ books, there’s the Top Ten, there’s Clooney talking about his spinal problems and the clip about his new movie about broadcasting great, Edward R. Murrow.
Now lots, I mean LOTs of commercials. When will they end? Finally — there’s Earl kicking it off. Same right hand I saw on TV at 14 years old, that great tone-generating right hand. That was in 1960. This is 45 years later! He’s not 36 as he was then, but listen to him pick. Wow, now it’s me, and it sounds indeed like I carried it off. There are Joan and Will on the screen, picking it solid, now go Steve and Paul, fixed in the mix, and on through Charles and Tony. Back to Earl, the big unison, and out! Wow, it really did sound good! We even thought we looked good, comfortable and confident. (Now you know better.)
Well, it really happened. There we were, the little Wernick family up in our trendy weird hotel room in midtown Manhattan, having just been beamed out nationwide, even worldwide. Too late to mess it up now. It’s done!
I remembered what Steve had said downstairs just before about the first time he was on Johnny Carson. He had felt “Now I’ve made it.” But nobody around town seemed to notice. After a few spots, he’d have people saying “Don’t I know you?” but they would typically figure that he must have been a buddy of their brothers, or some such. Steve said it took about 15 appearances before people knew his name and where they’d seen him.
Well, it might be 14 more to go, but this was one day and night to remember. I hope the biggest beneficiaries are the music I love and the people who are devoted to it. If some kid at home (staying up a bit too late!) sees us and gets “the fever”, then I’d say, mission accomplished.
It’s great to have this behind us. I am looking forward to the next five nights, where we’ll be with friends and great musicians, both relaxing and performing, enjoying life and music. Back in Colorado after that, then out to California to play with Hot Rize in Golden Gate Park. I sure feel like a lucky guy!