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Back In The Solo Album Groove With Will Lee

Grammy-winning musician/renowned studio bassist recalls throwing it down at the Plaza Sound sessions for "Ace Frehley," working with the Spaceman and details his new solo album, his Beatles side project and why it's good to be Will Lee.

By Tim McPhate

KissFAQ: Will, before we get into Ace's solo album, you have ties to Gene and Paul's pre-KISS days. Please explain.
Will Lee: Yeah. They had this band Wicked Lester. I was working at Electric Lady in studio A doing all kinds of projects there, different people's records, and they would be back in studio B recording Wicked Lester stuff with Ron Johnsen, trying to get a record deal. I came to New York in 1971, I came from Florida where I lived for six years. My dad was a music educator, in fact he was the dean of the Miami University School of Music. So we moved from Texas in '64 and then I hit New York in '71. Electric Lady turned out to be a studio that was really near my first apartment [in New York]. So I'd go over there and see what was going on and so I got to know everybody. Back in the back room, there were these guys trying to get this record deal, this Wicked Lester. This guy named Ron Johnsen believed in them and was trying to make them sound as good as possible. Ron Johnsen was a great engineer and he was giving all of his time to these guys, trying to get them off the ground.

KF: Wicked Lester is interesting. I remember getting a vinyl copy of those Wicked Lester songs when I was younger and being thrown for a total loop. There were a couple of songs that ended up on KISS albums. But ultimately Gene and Paul decided to abort that project and go in another direction. And that direction was KISS.
WL: Well, they were trying anything. [Wicked Lester] was an eclectic mix -- it was folky, poppy, whatever the hell they were doing. They were just trying to get it happening.


Will Lee
Courtesy of Will Lee


KF: Will, if we go back to 1978, what was your status as a musician at that point?
WL: By then, I was really established as a studio player in New York, and I'd done probably 200-300 albums at that point. I was already known around town as a guy who could get it done. I don't know how I had known Eddie Kramer but we had a good relationship somehow. I think he just liked my playing. And I was just one of those kind of established guys who people knew you could count on to do anything.

KF: So Eddie would have brought you into the fold?
WL: Maybe. It might have been him or Ace. And Anton could have even had something to do with it. I'm not sure. I know that Anton was really itching to play and at that point.

KF: You and Anton go way back. How well did you know Anton prior to Ace's album?
WL: Really hardly at all. I kind of knew who he was, but we hadn't logged a lot of hours playing together. He was certainly the right man for the job on that gig.

KF: Indeed. Will, you mentioned Gene and Paul, but do you recall meeting Ace for the first time?
WL: You know, I think I remember meeting him at Record Plant during KISS sessions. I could be wrong about the chronology of that but I do remember seeing him outside [the Record Plant]. The studios in New York, there was always more than one room in a studio -- usually you have an A room and a B room, or three rooms or something. And then you run into all the other people doing sessions in the hall. And I think that's where I first met Ace in the hall at Record Plant -- Ace in the hall (laughs).

KF: That could be 1977. KISS recorded their "Love Gun" album there with Eddie.
WL: Yeah, it could have been. I mean we were all a bit in a haze in those days, I don't know if you've ever heard of any of that type of stuff.


Will Lee throws down in the studio
Courtesy of WireImage.com


KF: (laughs) Well, judging by the lyrics on Ace's album -- "Ozone," "Wiped-Out," etc. -- I can sort of fill in the blanks. WL: (laughs)

KF: By the time you came onboard for the album, several tracks were cut at the Colgate Mansion in Connecticut. So I believe the sessions you participated in would have been at Plaza Sound.
WL: That's where we were. Plaza was really cool, it was right above Radio City Music Hall. It was in the same structure as that building. And I remember having this moment, I didn't have this reference point at the time [because] I hadn't really heard the story about the Beatles track "She Loves You." But when they were at Abbey Road recording that in the studio, they were surrounded by women. And you can hear the confidence and the excitement and the testosterone that's going on when you hear "She Loves You," you can just imagine that [and] you can really understand where all that incredible spirit came from. There was energy surrounding the building. On the Ace project, we had the Rockettes looking in the window at our session.

KF: The Rockettes?
WL: Yeah, Radio City Music Hall had these chicks called the Rockettes. They're like a bunch of chorus girls. They had heard what was going on upstairs, "Oh God, one of the guys from KISS is upstairs making an album!" So they'd come upstairs and you'd see them peering through the doors and it was like, "Yeah, this is our 'She Loves You' moment."

KF: (laughs) Right. I understand that you worked fairly quickly and that you may have completed your bass tracks as fast as two days. Does this sound accurate?
WL: Yeah, I remember cutting live with Anton actually.

KF: Really? By the time you came onboard, I think Anton had cut a majority of his drums. So I thought it was an overdub situation.
WL: What I remember is, I'm not even sure if we were tracking while Ace was playing, but I'm pretty sure that Anton and I played together along with something that was already recorded. And I just want to say that when I hear those tracks, especially "Wiped-Out," I mean Anton's come a long way, but that was really a very mature, crafted, great part-playing, inspired Anton Fig at his best on that record. And he still sounds the same.

KF: Musically, Anton works in some interesting twist and turns on that track.
WL: Yeah, it's like an M.C. Esher painting, right?

KF: (laughs) There is a different feel for the verses, the pre-chorus and the chorus.
WL: The time turns around, it goes from like 6/4 to 4/4. I have to say, you know I've logged an awful lot of hours playing with Anton, not only with Eric Johnson when we did a bunch of stuff with him in the last couple of years, but also almost every Monday morning we play together with a guy named Oz Noy.

KF: Two fantastic guitarists.
WL: It's crazy. I've gotten to have Anton play stump the band with his turning the groove upside-down many a times.

KF: Your bass line on "Wiped-Out" is cool. Some of the lines almost have a funk feel, and you're getting creative with some slides.
WL: Yeah, I tried to bring the funk (laughs).

KF: There's also some wah-wah tucked in the mix. It's not Funkadelic but...
WL: Well, you know it's New York, part of the New York groove.

KF: Did you and Ace interact in terms of bass parts or did he pretty much leave you to do your business?
WL: Well, it was almost obvious what to play. I mean Ace could have played bass on the tracks that I played on. He could have played his ass off on that shit. But I just remember that everything was so guitar-based and there really wasn't any need to stray too far from the established figures and grooves that the guitars had laid down. It was really strong, you know, you didn't want to pull away from it too much. As a bass player, there's this fine line between totally supporting the song and bringing something special into the song. You're always riding that line. I always think of Ringo Starr. People say, "Was Ringo a good drummer?" I'm like, "You're kidding me, right?" If you're a songwriter, that's exactly who you want to be playing drums on your song. Because he'll not only support the song and bring the beat and basic groove that you need, but he'll bring something so special to it that he'll shape it in a way that nobody else could touch what he does. For me, as a bass player, I'm always trying to be Ringo. I'm trying to bring something but I'm also trying to not fuck with the song so much that it turns into a different piece of material.

KF: I think your bass parts on the songs definitely fit that profile. "Ozone" has more of a laid back, jam-type feel. The solo is based on triplets so Ace's rhythm is fairly regimented. And you and Anton are interjecting some interesting musical accents underneath.
WL: We were just having some fun with it. And that's the same with the other song, "I'm In Need Of Love." I really felt like bringing the funk to that song. Because it was in a good key for it, it was laid nicely on the bass.

KF: That solo section goes to the key of E, which is every guitar player's favorite key.
WL: (laughs) The key of life. Yeah, man.

KF: From the first time you ever played with Anton, do you remember hitting a good groove with him?
WL: Oh hell yeah, it was perfect. He has a way of laying it down, he's not only laying it down, he's listening the whole time too. He's not like a machine. He's like a human who's really in control of the groove.

KF: Generally, do you recall what Ace was doing during these sessions? Was he playing along or in the control room?
WL: He was doing a little bit of playing in the studio. But I think I remember there was a big bed of stuff to play to, because they had already down loads of loads of work before I came him.

KF: Judging from the lyrical themes in these songs, it's obvious Ace liked to have fun and was known to party back in the day. Was it a crazy environment in the studio or was it all about work?
WL: It was kind of boringly work-like, environmentally speaking (laughs). Eddie Kramer wasn't going to settle for a whole lot of bullshit. He didn't want to fuck around, he wanted to get some music on tape. And I also think that a lot of it has to do with things that were established before I came in. I think that the fact that I was in there, there was a little bit of respect coming my way from everybody, knowing that I was really busy and that I wasn't going to fuck around either, and also that I had a pretty good track record. I think it was also probably known by everybody in there that I had been friends with the other KISS guys from way back when. Not that there was a competition, I think there was a little bit of respect coming my way in the kind of way, "This guy's family. Let's let him do his thing and not get in the way." I felt really free to throw down.

KF: Will, would you recall your set up in terms of the bass you used and the amplification?
WL: (pauses) It was '78 so at that point I could have brought in a P-Bass. I had really gone from growing up playing through amps to gravitating towards going more direct in the studio because that way they could do whatever they wanted with compressors and shit. So I think I probably went direct but if I know Eddie Kramer he ran me through an amp in the big room, even though to the best of my knowledge and memory, I think I played in the control room. But I think [there was] an amp and the drums going on outside in the big room and I was behind the glass sitting there by the board with the guys, the producer, engineer, and probably Ace too.

KF: You've worked with some amazing guitarists in your career. What's your take on Ace's guitar work in listening back to these tracks some 35 years later?
WL: Well, no diss to the other guys in KISS, but Ace was the musician in the band, as far as I'm concerned. He's the real musical craftsman on his instrument kind of guy. What can you say? The guy's a mother-fucker man.

KF: (laughs) It seems Ace took people by surprise because everyone -- from the band to the label -- wasn't sure what he was going to bring to the table with his solo album. And Ace ended up turning in this great, guitar-heavy album with lots of attitude and some slamming tracks from the likes of yourself and Anton. And on top of that, he scored the lone hit from the solo albums with "New York Groove."
WL: Yeah, I think he said, "Fuck everything. I'm going to just go for it." And he did.

KF: At the time of their release in September 1978, the four KISS solo albums caused quite the stir. When you were participating, did you get the sense that you were part of such a big project?
WL: Yeah, I remember that I was fully aware of what else was going on. Everything was taking place in New York. Guys were going in working on Gene's record, guys were working on Paul's record, et cetera. The buzz was around. And I don't know how Casablanca felt about it in the end, but they got a lot of platinum out of the concept.

KF: Well, as you're likely aware, they shipped an insane amount of albums, more than 5.3 million. And while the albums sold reasonably well, they didn't sell out of the entire shipment, which ultimately led to a lot of returns. In terms of the project being a success or failure, I guess it depends upon the viewpoint.
WL: Well, I bet a few heads rolled. You've got to hand it to them for taking a chance because it was a good idea. It was also a huge risk because they really didn't know when they were signing the guys up to do this what was really going to come out of them.

KF: Getting into your career, Will. You've played with Anton in the "Late Show With David Letterman" band for years.
WL: 31 years so far.

KF: Is that gig as cool as it seems to be?
WL: Yeah, it's a good gig. Are you kidding, any gig's a good gig (laughs).

KF: And you have a new solo album coming out,"Love, Gratitude And Other Distractions." What can you tell us about this project and who is featured on it?
WL: Of course, what else would it be called? (laughs) There are a lot of great guys on it. Billy Gibbons, Steve Lukather, Pat Metheny, and Oz Noy, from the guitar world. Allen Touissant is playing, Paul Shaffer is playing. It's less of an album than it is just a collection of tunes. The album should probably be called "Sybil" or something like that because of the multiple personalities. But I like a lot of different shit so the album could also be called "Shit I Like."


Will Lee, "Love, Gratitude And Other Distractions"
Available at Amazon and iTunes.


KF: (laughs) When is the album dropping?
WL: It came out in Japan in July. It's coming out in America August 20 and Europe in September.

KF: And fans can check out the album on your website and the usual retailers?
WL: Yeah, we're taking orders at CD Baby, Amazon and iTunes.

KF: Aside from the laundry list of artists you've worked with, you're in a Beatles tribute band the Fab Faux, which reflects your lifelong love of the Beatles. Can you tell us a little bit about this project?
WL: I sure can. We play every weekend. The Beatles were the thing that really kicked my ass into being a musician -- almost anybody would probably say the same thing. It's almost a cliche but it's true. Throughout my whole career, I've been thinking no matter what kind of song or track or flavor of music I'm working on, it's always been in my head like, "OK, the Beatles are always informing me. What would they do here?" It always gives me really, really good guidance and it's been a thread running through my whole career. And not wanting to ever be the guy who is pigeon-holed into any one thing, I've always really loved when jazz guys thought I was a rock guy and when rock guys thought I was a jazz guy. But as far as the Beatles are concerned, if there's any one thing that I don't mind being associated with, it would probably be a guy who is way into the Beatles. That's something I don't mind being said about myself. Throughout all this time, even though the Beatles have been sort of underscoring my whole life, I've never once dreamed of having a Beatles band because I thought, "There's enough of those. Who gives a shit?" But then I met our drummer back in 1998, I was on a little trio tour with the late Hiram Bullock through Europe -- he was a great guitar player and one of my best friends. And he always liked to have singing drummers in the band because he liked to have a trio with three-part harmony going on. And he found this guy named Rich Pagano to play drums on the gig. I had never heard of Rich Pagano, but when I got on the gig I heard something in his voice that was very John Lennon-y and I heard something in his playing that was extremely Ringo-y. After the tour was over, I came back to New York and it dawned on me, "Wouldn't it be fun to go onstage with this guy and three other guys? Not two other guys -- not to be a four-piece Beatles band because you can't bring their records to the stage with four guys. You really need that fifth guy to do the extra harmony part, the extra percussion part or the extra keyboard part." So I said to Rich, "Look, I want to put a Beatles band together. You want to go onstage? Not to have a career out of it, but to just go play some Beatles records onstage, bring it live to the stage." And he was up for it. And the only other guy I really had in mind for it was Jimmy Vivino, who is one of these guys with great ears, knows a lot about music and records, plays his ass off ,and sings. He's kind of a historian in the way that Paul Shaffer is kind of an archivist/musician about music -- he knows all the details. It took a little convincing but I finally got him to say yes. Then I was stuck because I didn't know who the other two guys were going to be, but I found the other two guys. And it's been the same five guys since 1998. And we're playing constantly.

KF: What's your repertoire like? Do you guys mix and match songs and albums?
WL: We do all kinds of shows. We have a four-piece horn section and a two-piece string section. My favorite kind of shows that we do are the unpredictable ones, like a potpourri of different songs from different eras, but way out of order. Just like blast the audience with a song they couldn't have expected was going to be next. And also we're known for doing whole albums, including "The White Album."

KF: "Rubber Soul" is one of my favorite Beatles albums.
WL: Oh yeah, that's a really good one to do. We're going to be doing that a few times in the future. We'll be doing some "Rubber Soul" shows, some "Revolver" shows, some more "White Album" and "Sgt. Pepper" shows, but my favorites are the roller-coaster rides of the unpredictable songs.

KF: I was actually at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in March.
WL: That was fun.

KF: That's another great gig there, Will. Jamming on all of those classic songs and playing with an all-star cast of musicians. How long have you been doing the Rock Hall gigs?
WL: Every year since they've started.

KF: The more I've talked with you, the more I'm thinking it's good to be Will Lee.
WL: It's not a bad thing. I work hard and love what I do.

(KissFAQ thanks Will Lee for his time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums.)



About Will Lee:
To say that Grammy-winning Will Lee has done it all in the music business would be quite an understatement. Perhaps best known as the bassist for more than three decades on the "Late Show With David Letterman," Lee has also lent his considerable talents to more than 1,500 pop, jazz and rock recordings, including work with artists such as Mariah Carey, Steely Dan, Billy Joel, Laura Nyro, James Brown, George Benson, the Brecker Brothers, Diana Ross, and Natalie Cole. On Ace Frehley's 1978 solo album, Lee played bass on three tracks: "Ozone," "I'm In Need Of Love" and "Wiped-Out." An inductee into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, Lee also has the enviable position of having performed or recorded with all of the Beatles, which is thrilling for a guy who is a founding member of the world's premier Beatles band, the Fab Faux. Lee's latest solo album, "Love, Gratitude And Other Distractions" is available at Amazon and iTunes. Featuring special guests such as Billy Gibbons, Allen Toussaint, Pat Metheny, and Steve Lukather, the album debuted at No. 1 on Japan's jazz chart. For more information on Lee, visit him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.