Saturday morning, deadly cold, and New York City’s biggest blizzard of the winter is going to start dumping snow all over us any second now. Usually, I’d be curled up at home with a cup of cocoa laughing at all the suckers who have to be out there in the two-foot drifts.
Today, however, it seems like the laugh’s on me, since my assignment to spend a day on the set of Saturday Night Live with pocket drummer extraordinaire Shawn Pelton just happens to be on January 22, when anyone with any sense is home and staying there. But what I don’t know yet is that the next 14 hours are going to add up to one of the strangest, most memorable days I’ve had in a long time.
A day at SNL may be a mindblow for the average civilian, but for Pelton, who’s been doing it since 1992, it’s a nuttiness he’s learned to live with. “It’s a long day,” says Pelton, whose soft Southern-gentleman drawl belies the raw power of his playing. “If you’re starting out at 10:00 A.M., by the time it’s after midnight — well — you’ve been playing since that morning. It’s more like a focus/concentration thing, because you’re totally worn out by the end of the day.
“But it’s such a lucky break, because it’s only 20 live tapings a year and you’re free to do other things. It’s like having a steady live gig in town that allows you to keep roots in what’s left of the New York City session thing — if you’re always out on the road, producers don’t necessarily know if you’re in town.”
I’m standing at one of New York’s more famous addresses, the NBC building at 49 W. 49th Street, smack in the middle of the city’s famed Rockefeller Center. The blizzard of ’05 is about to show up, so is Shawn Pelton, and I’m eager to meet him. He has a reputation as one of the most solid pocket drummers in the business, at a level that’s seen him compared with Bernard Purdie, Rick Marotta, Steve Gadd, “J.R.” Robinson, Al Jackson Jr., and Jeff Porcaro — damn good company. It’s a skill that’s not only kept him on the SNL stage for a decade-plus, but put him on tour or on record with the likes of Sheryl Crow, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, David Byrne, Billy Joel, Buddy Guy, the Brecker Brothers, and hundreds more.
Pelton seems like he’s a few minutes late, and the 11:00 A.M. rehearsal with the rest of the SNL band is coming on fast, so I pull my phone out of my pocket to check the time. It goes off in my hands: it’s Pelton, who asks me where I am. I tell him I’m outside the chocolate shop on 49th where we said we’d meet. Turns out he’s standing inside. Score one for street smarts on this frigid day.
Safely inside, Pelton and I shake hands. He’s wearing his trademark black cap and a sleepy grin, and takes me over to the security desk for my visitor’s pass, which will be my lifeline for moving in and out of this TV world for the next half-day plus. Thus armed, Pelton and I bypass the metal detectors and head to the elevators, which work on a system too complex for my frozen brain to figure out. Fortunately, Pelton’s been pushing the buttons long enough to know the trick, and up we go to NBC’s legendary Studio 8H.
Upstairs, I’m blown away to be striding quickly through a hall packed with props and the smell of fresh glue and paint, through to a studio I’ve been watching on TV ever since my parents started letting me stay up on the weekends. Originally built to accommodate NBC Symphony radio broadcasts conducted by the great Arturo Toscanini, 8H has been home to Saturday Night Live since the show premiered on October 11, 1975.
Absorbing the fact that this is where the original cast of comic greats — from Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Jane Curtin to this year’s group, including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Darrell Hammond — romped has to happen quickly. That’s because next I have to absorb the fact that some of the most memorable musical performances I’ve ever seen also took place here, by Nirvana, En Vogue, Big Country, Foo Fighters, Sinead O’Connor (if you call ripping up a picture of the Pope and the sound of silence music), and the SNL band itself — the backbone of it all.
While I’m trying to drink it all in, Pelton’s just trying to drink his coffee as he and I breeze past the cluttered sets, through jumbled masses of actors and stagehands, to climb past a heavy curtain (which is there to keep the noise of the band down on the set during their rehearsal) and up on the riser where the band does its thing, 20 Saturdays a year. If Pelton seems a little blasé about being a regular on one of TV’s most storied stages, it’s only because he’s worked damn hard to get there and stay there.
“There’s a school of music in Bloomington — University of Indiana — and I was a jazz major,” the 41-year-old Pelton explains of his life after growing up in Kansas City, Missouri and Louisiana and before making it to New York City, “but I was really lucky to be able to study privately with Kenny Aronoff. It made me a lot more well rounded and not just come out here as a jazzbo. Being around him before he broke as the successful session player that he is today, seeing what he was dealing with — it was a valuable experience to be around Kenny at that time. The stuff that he would work on, like the Mellencamp records and the way he dealt with people and issues that came up, handling the business and stuff, it was a real education.