More than two decades ago, Columbia, South Carolina’s Hootie & the Blowfish made their national TV debut on The Late Show with David Letterman, performing “Hold My Hand.” That appearance—and Dave’s enthusiastic approval—represented perhaps the beginning of the avalanche that became Hootie’s multi-platinum debut success with Cracked Rear View. It is now co-ranked as the 16th best-selling album of all time in this country.
So it was lovely and appropriate for the band, with whom I’ve performed and recorded for about two decades now, to be asked back for Letterman’s victory lap, as he ends his 33 years on late-night television. Late the week before, word broke that the guest the night we played would be the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. I made the tactical mistake of mentioning this to my 7-year-old daughter, who began an onslaught of requests for selfies, hugs, autographs and the like until I finally got her on the school bus Wednesday morning. But it was not meant to be.
On Wednesday, I flew to JFK and met Hootie’s bassist, Dean Felber, and his wife, Andrea, for the ride into Manhattan. We talked about the three-minute-and-30-second length the show had requested for “Hold My Hand.” Over the years, that tune has had some nips and tucks live, but it’s mostly just performed faster. Dean’s dad had unearthed and recorded the original Hootie Late Show performance on his phone. (No one else seemed to be able to locate it?) The video was blurry and pixilated to the point of looking like a Lego version of Hootie, but the song was the original arrangement. The audio was pertinent to our needs, so we locked that in for the next morning’s rehearsal.
We drove in black cars to the stage door of the Ed Sullivan Theater about five blocks away from where we stayed. I saw several large, nervous-looking men, which I presumed to be Secret Service, spread out by the door when we pulled up. They were probably just there on the early side, I told myself. We retrieved the stickers that allowed us access to the green room downstairs. The spelling of the band name on my sticker looked more like “Moo Heckle Blood.”
The theater is almost 90 years old, and it was where the Beatles played on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. That makes it a total rock ’n’ roll landmark for me, but as the band’s “avuncular presence,” I try to keep such stuff quiet. The green room is a motley collection of stools, beat-up chairs, an overstuffed couch and random items—a showroom dummy on its side or a framed picture of Ed Sullivan and Topo Gigio, the “little Italian mouse” who was a puppet guest on many Sullivan shows. A television was tuned to professional boxing. We spent only a few minutes there before trundling back up the stairs to the stage.
I remembered one of the times I’d been there before with Hootie, right after Hurricane Katrina. An elevator door opened, and Paul Shaffer emerged with Allen Toussaint, getting ready to sit in with the CBS Orchestra. I’m sure it must have done him a world of good to play with Paul, considering the tragic circumstances in his hometown.
So there we were, shaking hands with the stage crew we’ve worked with over the years. They asked for run-throughs of the song, and we did it three times, making sure the arrangement filled the requisite time. I had a nice rental Hammond B3 organ. I could hear my backing vocals clearly in my monitor.
With rehearsal done, it was far quicker to walk back to the hotel than jump in the car with everyone else, and I loved being in my favorite big walking city. I went back to my room on foot, marveling at the change in the make-up of New York, starting with the big hole across the street from the stage door. That was the former location of Roseland Ballroom, a legendary venue five years older than the Sullivan Theater but that was torn down last year. I had gotten to play there with the Psycho Sisters (Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson) when we opened for The Go-Go’s in the mid-1990s; my mother had danced there as a young woman decades earlier. A 62-story building full of condominiums will replace it.
I didn’t spend much of my New York residency of 1978 through 1987 around those parts, unless it was at a temp job. I’d planned to go downtown to see my old neighborhood, where buildings on Second Avenue near 7th Street had exploded a month before. But I just couldn’t work my way there in the time I had. I was afraid that the site of the explosion and the knowledge of what will go up in its place would be too emotional to handle.
So I slipped back over to the Sullivan Theater in hopes of buying some souvenirs for the kids. Knowing full well that the chances of intersecting with the First Lady were getting slimmer by the second, I thought a T-shirt might suffice as a consolation prize. I was directed by the NYPD to a small delicatessen on the stage-door side of the theater, and I bought shirts and, for myself, a hat.
After another black car ride from the hotel, we stopped at the theater’s proper entrance at 1697 Broadway. Security guards asked if we were carrying guns; we were not. Band members filed into the lobby and were walked down another circuitous path in the bowels of the old theater, ending up back in the green room. The stage door—in fact, the entire street it was facing—had been cordoned off by the Secret Service until Ms. Obama had come and gone.
The boxing match went off the TV, and the show began upstairs as the First Lady and Letterman started off talking about their kids. They got to her projects supporting American veterans and educational programs. She seemed jocular and affable, easily more than any other First Lady I’ve been around to see in 59 years. She is in tune with a savvy media presence. The affinity between guest and host was evident, and Letterman seemed truly delighted when “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band came marching from the back of the house and onto the stage. We heard them, but because of the slight delay on the TV feed, the band’s rhythm upstairs was about a beat off from what we were watching. Slightly psychedelic …
Finally, our time had come. We were transferred to the upstairs green room, which the First Lady and her entourage had occupied only minutes before. Now, there was no trace of them. It was looking bad for any potential fulfillment of my daughter’s request. I sensed they had vacated the theater and were on their way to the FLOTUS’ next appointment.
We were marched onstage while Paul and the Orchestra regaled the audience with “Bustin’ Loose” by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, one of the few hits from the “go-go music” era of the 1980s. Paul used to buy singles from me at the record store I worked at in Gramercy Park in the late 1970s, and the songs would end up in the World’s Most Dangerous Band’s repertoire a week later.
Letterman gave a nice intro, noting that “Hold My Hand” had “started it all.” Darius Rucker began the song, and we were off. I had a cameraman squeezed into a 10-inch-wide space to my left, his video apparatus in tow. We remembered all the changes we’d made to the arrangement and kept the tempo reasonably groovy. By now, 20-plus years of playing the song had resulted in a certain amount of muscle memory for all of us. But the sheer pleasure and honor of being one of Letterman’s guests at the end of his run made this a very carefully executed rendition of “Hold My Hand.”
When it was over, Letterman came out and shook hands with guitarist Mark Bryan and Darius, nodded vigorously to Dean and to Jim “Soni” Sonefeld on drums. I think Gary Greene, percussionist extraordinaire, and I rated slight nods. I dismounted my tiny riser and followed Orchestra bass legend Will Lee, bopping out the door to the hall.
All clues of Michelle Obama seemed to have been wiped clear, save for the sign on the upstairs green room door. I hung my head and knew I’d have to face a disappointed daughter upon my return to Durham. At least a Late Show T-shirt, a big hug and a YouTube stream of the performance before school seemed to worked as a substitute.