PRX “Member of Distinction” Jason Wilber on David Letterman

PRX lauds Jason and our program as a new “Member of Distinction”

Jason had a great time recently playing with John Prine on Late Night with David Letterman. Jim James from My Morning Jacket joined them for a rendition of Prine’s  “Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows”. To me, Jason getting to meet Don Rickles must have topped the night! – Rich

Here is Jason’s take on the experience:

What it was like playing The Late Show with David Letterman

As you may know, I was in New York City earlier this week to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman. I was playing guitar, accompanying John Prine and Jim James (from My Morning Jacket). I jotted down a few notes and reflections to share with you. Hopefully this will give you a sense of the experience.

We really had a great time playing Letterman. The whole Late Show staff was wonderful. Very nice people and a well run production. The show runs in real time when they tape it just as it does when you see it on TV. So the taping of each episode is done in one hour. But the rest of the day is taken up with pre-production, set up, rehearsal, etc. For our part, we were there on and off most of the afternoon and early evening.

Dave Jacques and I arrived around 1:30pm. On our way to the dressing rooms we ran into Sid McGinnis, the long time guitar player in the Late Show band. We asked him how it was going, and he said; “Great! I love to come to work. I never know who is going to be on the show, I just let it be a surprise.” We introduced ourselves and told him we were playing on the show that day and he said how much he liked John Prine’s music.

Later when we were doing our sound check, Sid came over and asked me some questions about my G&L Broadcaster guitar. We talked for a few minutes and then it was time to run through our song again. You have to do it several times for audio, lighting, cameras, etc.

After we played our song another time, Sid came back over with his 1950 Fender Broadcaster (the 1986 G&L Broadcaster I play is kind of a rare instrument, but Sid’s old Fender Broadcaster is much more so). He held his guitar up next to mine and said, “Look, we’re both playing Broadcasters!”. So we laughed about that and talked for a minute or two about Leo Fender and the two eras of his Broadcaster guitars. I told him he should play his on the show and  then we’d have the “dueling Broadcasters”. He smiled and said, “Maybe I will, you never know!”. He did, and he sounded great, as always!

Having watched David Letterman on TV almost my whole life, him sitting behind his desk cracking jokes, seeing other artists appear on the show over the years, as well as Paul Schaffer and the band, it was a real thrill to finally get to play on the show. Kind of surreal though. We watched the first 45 minutes or so of the show on the monitors in the dressing room and in the makeup room. Just like watching it at home, except during the commercial breaks the screen is just blank or you see the band playing.

A few minutes before we were on, we took the elevator down to the stage level and waited at the side of the stage. Don Rickles was the guest on right before us and I shook hands with him as he was coming off stage. He was very nice and said “Good luck Kid, see ya on TV”. Then after a minute or so, they ushered us to the stage.

Photo by Ed Feeney

And what a stage this is! It’s the Ed Sullivan Theater. This is the stage were all of the great performances that millions of people watched on the Ed Sullivan show actually took place. The Beatles, The Stones, Elvis, Sinatra, the list goes on and on. And those are just the musicians. The list of great actors and comedians is probably even longer. So many of the show biz greats played the Ed Sullivan show. Not to mention all of those who’ve been here since Letterman moved his show to this theater. It’s definitely hallowed ground in show business!

So picture this: Suddenly, instead of looking into a TV and watching the Late Show with David Letterman at his desk and Paul Schaffer and the band over across the stage, you’re standing there IN the show looking out at the audience from the stage with Dave and Paul on either side of you and that classic skyline backdrop just behind you. Instead of hearing Dave’s voice through a TV speaker, it’s coming from just a few feet away, unamplified. And you’re looking over at him in profile, from back behind and to the side of his desk. It reminded me of one of those movies where the characters get zapped into the TV show they are watching. A little strange, but a lot of fun. Then Dave intros us and we’re on. What a thrill. I won’t lie to you, this is one of those show biz things I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid and there we were doing it. Pretty cool.

Our song was about three and a half minutes long, and it went by fast. Usually when we perform we are doing a whole concert, or at least an hour long set (like at a festival). But on a TV show like this, all the travel, preparation, and effort is for a one song performance. So there is this big build up and then it’s over quickly. Afterwards Jim James said it was like having all of your energy for a whole concert compressed down into a few minutes. I think that sums it up pretty well!

I didn’t get a chance to talk with David Letterman personally, other than just to say hello. He came around and shook all of our hands on the air after we played, and then after the show was over he thanked the audience and then came around again and shook all of our hands again and said “Thank you” or “Nice job” or something like that. Judging by the attitudes of the people working on the show and the general atmosphere on the set, David Letterman is a good guy to work for (recently publicized issues not withstanding).

Long time stage manager Bif Henderson was there backstage as we were going on and coming off, very friendly and polite. I ran into Paul Schaffer backstage right after the show and we chatted for a minute or two. He was complimentary about our performance, and I told him how much I’ve enjoyed hearing him and the band over the years. I had a similar conversation with Will Lee a few minutes later as we were waiting for the elevator to the dressing rooms. He told me about touring with Bet Midler in the ‘70’s and how John Prine’s song “Hello In There” was always one of his favorites that he played with Bet.

We (John Prine, Jim James, and company) went out to dinner that night and celebrated our triumphant 3 minutes on TV. Our old pal Chip Taylor and his engineer Huck joined us for dinner, along with some other friends. I had interviewed Chip a day earlier for my radio show In Search of a Song. Look for that episode coming up soon. It was fun to get to hang out with him a bit and catch up. In addition to being enormously talented (writer of “Wild Thing”, “Angel of the Morning”, and many other hit songs), Chip is a heck of a nice guy.

All in all a wonderful day. Great show, great people, great city. It’s fun to get to do something you’ve dreamed of for a long time and have it not be a let down. I always enjoy visiting the big apple, but this particular visit was definitely a career highlight.


About Executive Producer Rich Reardin

Rich Reardin is the Executive Producer of IN SEARCH OF A SONG with Jason WIlber. Rich is a radio producer, recording engineer, artist, cartoonist, and musician.
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