Vicki Randle is one of the most visible percussionists/singers in America. You may not know her name, but millions of Americans see her every evening when she steps out from behind her congas to grab the mike and sing The Tonight Show Band into a commercial break. She gets the audience up and moving, clapping and singing along, her radiant smile lighting up NBC’s Burbank studio. Her forceful vocals, charismatic presence, and obvious joy of performing make her leap off the small screen.
Randle is an original member of The Tonight Show Band, recruited by Branford Marsalis in the weeks before Jay Leno took over the franchise from Johnny Carson. “I’d been working with jazz artists, doing festivals in Europe and Japan,” Randle explains, sitting in her home in Venice, California. “I met Branford in Switzerland at Montreaux in the ’80s. I was playing with George Benson, between gigs with Dr. John, Wayne Shorter, and Sadao Watanabe. Jazz was not respected [in the U.S.] then, but it was revered overseas. Benson made it, though, by adding a disco beat to some of the stuff he was doing, so we kept working when other players weren’t. That was great for me, though, because if it weren’t for him putting a pop sensibility into the music, I wouldn’t have been in the band. There would have been no need for a percussionist or vocalist.
“When Branford called I had just finished a road gig, and frankly, TV didn’t seem very creative or interesting to me. The idea that I’d be playing in a band with him was the main reason I took the gig. They’d promised him creative freedom. He was going to have guest artists sit in and the music was supposed to be classy and jazz oriented. Of course, pretty shortly the producers decided they weren’t interested in that anymore. They wanted us to play recognizable pop tunes. That began the slow departure of Branford.”
Randle was the only woman and out lesbian in The Tonight Show Band, so there was a period of adjustment. “The first rehearsal was a little uncomfortable,” she remembers. “I was the only chick, as usual, which I knew going in, as that’s been the case more often than not. I was intimidated by the degrees and credentials the other musicians brought with them. I don’t consider myself a percussion virtuoso, but I’m uniquely competent, extremely adaptable, have a really good ear, and can play most kinds of music. There are amazing players that I could never touch, but the skills I have worked pretty well for the gigs I’ve gotten.
“We call what we do on the show ’groovus interruptus.’ We have three or four minutes to get something going, so you have to start full on. There’s no lead in. It’s very compact and concentrated. If people are talking on screen, you have to play softly and as soon as you’re going to a commercial, it’s 1-2-3 go.” Randle snaps her fingers. “The regular rules get thrown out. It’s amazing how we’ve learned to communicate with each other without talking or looking at each other. You watch the monitors to know what’s going on around you. If someone starts singing on the couch, you have to find the tempo and key to support them.
As the main singer in the band (drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith also sings occasional leads and backing vocals) Randle gets a lot of attention from the studio audience. “I get to take more risks because I’m out front of the audience singing. Kevin [Eubanks, bandleader] directs from the stage, but if something’s happening in the audience, like, if someone is dancing with me, I have the freedom to change the arrangement. You have to be fluid at every moment. We make it look easy, but I often forget how long it took to understand the language we use to wordlessly communicate about the end and beginning of tunes. It’s easier for me now, but I can’t stop paying attention for a second.”
Case in point: the interlocking patterns that Ran2006dle and Smitty lay down every night. “He’s a magnificent musician and not as well known as he should be. He calls me Big Sis, cause I’m older than he is. We don’t work anything out. Generally, he keeps time and I try to play in the holes, but he could fill up all the available space if he wanted to. It’s only because of his largesse that there’s any room for me to do anything. We try not to duplicate what the other one is doing, unless I’m playing a bell part on the 2 and 4. We try to be as musical as we can within the constrictions of the show.”
On stage, Randle has a djembe, a pair of congas, and a small percussion table with an assortment of toys she uses to punctuate comedy bits, which she says she goes to more than anything else. “Adding percussion is a way to build the music and layer in flavors, but we’ve usually got three minutes to play, so sometimes it’s just loud and louder.” Randle chuckles. “What do you mean dynamics? I’m playing as loud as I can!”
Randle reports to the studio five days a week, 46 weeks a year. “We get six-week-long breaks every couple of months, except for August, when we get two in a row. The only holidays we don’t work are Christmas and New Year’s Day, but they make up for it by making us do a ’Live To New York’ show any New Year's Eve that falls on a weekday. I’ve done about 3,800 shows with Leno. When I started, I thought it’d be fun for a year or two, then I’ll go do something else.”
The typical workday requires a combination of versatility and patience. “We can learn as many as five new songs a day,” Randle continues. “We have about 400 songs in our repertoire at any given time. I usually get in to the studio sometime after noon, after fighting lots of traffic. I think I get paid most for driving in traffic and waiting. Sometimes we work with the people who are writing the comedy bits. [The band] sits on stage without playing while the producers hash things out, which is harsh. We sit for 20 minutes, then play 20 seconds of music, then sit again. Obviously, that’s not my favorite part of the gig.”
When new songs are added to the repertoire, it usually takes a couple of hours of rehearsal. “Then I have to get ready for the show by getting my curly locks in order and having my makeup done. We hit the bandstand at four, and shoot the live show from four to five. We’ll do overdubs after the show if we missed a cue. If [the producers] change their mind about something, they have us punch it in or I might sing in one of their faux commercials. We’re usually done by 5:15.” Randle laughs and adds: “It beat working, but now that Kevin is leaving the show, I’m going to be leaving as well. We talked lots about [his leaving] over this last summer and both came to the conclusion that 18 years is certainly a long time to be doing any one job.”
Randle was born in San Francisco in 1954, the oldest of seven kids. Her father was a jazz pianist and her mother sang and played classical piano. “I wanted to play guitar when I was young,” Randle recalls, “but my parents were not happy with that. They came from a time when everyone had a piano in the house and I’m sure they thought that it’s not that hard to learn. Which is probably true, but they weren’t very good teachers. After days of me sitting on the piano bench and crying, they gave up. My father was intensely musically literate. He went to the San Francisco Conservatory Of Music and was a complete snob about jazz.
When she was still quite young Randle’s father moved the family down to L.A. to try and make a go at being a musician, working a full-time job at the Post Office to make ends meet and playing nights and weekends. Meanwhile, Randle sang Gregorian chants in the Catholic church choir. When Randle’s parents broke up, the musical parameters of the matriarchal household changed – slightly. “My mom loved The Beatles, so suddenly we could listen to pop music. When I saw them playing and singing with guitars and writing their own songs, that changed something in me. I got obsessed with playing guitar and my mom got obsessed with keeping me from doing it.”
Randle also had to contend with the pressures of coming from a bi-racial family. “The first neighborhood I grew up in was full of bi-racial families: Chinese/white, Japanese/black, black and white. I didn’t know what this race thing was going to be like in the real world because we lived in a bubble. Then we moved to Orange County where there were a lot of social rules I’d never experienced before. We were the only ’black’ kids at my high school. I was a painfully shy, with a stammer, but when I sang, I felt relaxed and powerful. Playing music made me a rock star at school and I got asked to do it a lot, but I never felt truly accepted by them as an equal. In the seventh grade, that was a rude awakening.”
Despite her mother’s resistance, Randle was determined to become a musician, even if she had to do it on her own. “I had a busted Sears Silvertone my next-door neighbor found and gave me. Between my babysitting chores, I taught myself how to play guitar. It would have been easer if I had known what chords were, but I invented my own. I listened to records of guitar players and moved up and down the neck until I could reproduce what I heard. Years later I taught myself to read and write music well enough to communicate with band members and, eventually, even learned to play piano.”
In high school, when her mom relented and allowed her to begin taking guitar lessons, Randle immediately starting looking to join a band. “I hung with the arty crowd – the thespians and the kids who went to renaissance faires,” he remembers. “My first gig was in a band called Fat Daddy. We played Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Neil Young tunes, but girls weren’t allowed to play guitar in bands back then. You could sing and play percussion though – hand drums, not traps. Instead of fighting, I chose the path of least resistance and started playing congas. I loved the way they felt and sounded. I had fingertip calluses from the guitar, but those were useless for playing congas. I’d sit in front of the TV and practice slap tones and open tones. I started on a borrowed conga and moved onto bongos and Brazilian and African percussion instruments. When I didn’t have a drum, I’d practice on a wooden tabletop, because you can tell if you’re getting a slap tone or an open tone and it toughens your hands up, but it drove my roommates crazy. I learned mostly by playing in clubs with bands. I also started playing and singing in piano bars with my guitar and busked in front of the L.A. Art Museum. I did anything I could to get experience and just keep playing music.”
Randle split her time between playing percussion in rock bands, singing her own songs in folk clubs, and doing sessions as a backing vocalist. She even had a few brushes with fame. “I wanted a record deal, but nobody was interested in my songs. I got offers from a few majors who wanted to dress me up and put me into the machine as an R&B singer. They asked me to lose weight and wear gowns and sing about guys treating me bad. I didn’t want to pretend I was someone I’m not to make a bunch of money and I didn’t like the music or the style.”
Randle eventually moved up to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she had extended family and the scene was open to renegade purists like herself. “My first break was playing percussion with (steel drummer) Jeff Narell in Salsa de Berkeley. We played calypso, reggae, Latin jazz, and Caribbean music. I’d play congas and bells. I played and sang with Babatunde Lea, who would show me conga rhythms before we played a song, then go back and play traps on the next tune.”
Word of Randle’s prowess as a singing multi-instrumentalist spread, and she was soon gigging and touring with Bay Area giants like Pete Escovedo, Ray Obiedo, Mickey Hart, the late Norton Buffalo, Merle Saunders, and Narada Michael Walden in a band that included future American Idol judge Randy Jackson on bass. After singing backup on Cris Williamson’s groundbreaking album The Changer And The Changed, Randle went on to become a session player appearing on albums by Pharaoh Sanders, Stacy Lattisaw, Herbie Hancock, Sheila E., The Doobie Brothers, Celine Dion, and George Benson. Between high-profile gigs, even after joining The Tonight Show Band, Randle kept appearing solo at coffee houses and folk clubs singing her own songs.
“Once I got [The Tonight Show] gig, the idea of a solo career became more and more remote as my available time decreased. Friends would wag a finger at me and tell me I needed to make a solo album, but I really wanted to do three records: an R&B/blues album, a folky singer/songwriter set, and a jazz record. I play in all three genres and write in all those styles.”
In 2005, Randle’s friend, hit songwriter and producer Bonnie Hayes, got her into the studio to make a solo album, Sleep City. “It was an interesting project for me,” Hayes says. “Vicki is a successful player, singer, performer, and supporting musician, but had not put herself out there as a songwriter. The process was easy because of our friendship and the network of players and professionals who adore her and made time to work with us, including Stephen Bruton, Herman Matthews, Freddie Washington, Julie Wolf, and Val Garay. Vicki's work schedule kept us from doing the record in the traditional ’month in the studio’ way. We did it in bits and pieces, here and there, which made it more varied and interesting in the end.”
“My album is the opposite of what people see me doing every night,” Randle says. “I went into the studio and played live with Bonnie’s band to see what would happen. The music’s a bit rough, but that’s the way I wanted it. There’s a blues tune, ’I’ve Been Thinking,’ that was improvised during the session and you hear it just as it happened. It’s a very introspective and personal album, which made it even more difficult to make in the time I had to make it.” Randle put the album out on Cris Williamson’s label, Wolf Moon, and would like to tour to support it. And with The Tonight Show gig wrapped up, she may finally have time to pursue it.
“When I started playing music, I figured I’d be the person showing up empty handed at Christmas,” Randle says philosophically. “My dad played music, but was never really successful. I was surprised I could make a living making music, which I did, long before The Tonight Show.
“Music isn’t a job or lifestyle to me, it’s part of who I am, like being left-handed or having brown eyes. I don’t intend to quit. The balance is always how to feed my soul, pay my bills, have time for a loving relationship, and still make music. That’s the ongoing conundrum for any musician. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve been really, really lucky. I know other players who have worked just as hard and not gotten any fame and fortune to show for it. I’m eternally grateful to the meaningless void that seems to have guided my path.
“I’m 55 now. In L.A., women turn invisible when they hit 40, but I’m somehow still on TV, although that’s now going to change. I’ve grown and matured in a way that I never would have been able to without Kevin and The Tonight Show band. He gave me the freedom to be as creative as I wanted to be – within the confines of the show – and I've learned so much from him, both as a musician and personally. I have a few ideas about where I want to go now. I'd like to write and record, something that has been, maddeningly, almost impossible with a five-day-a-week job, and try some musical options I've never done before. I'm ready for anything right about now.”