“Forget about the pizza, the deli,” Jimmy Vivino says, heading out on foot from his Midtown hotel at Herald Square. “The noise level is unbelievable!”
The Conan bandleader was responding to an obvious question: What’s it like for the longtime New Yorker to be back in the Big Apple for a week?
As for life in L.A., it’s really all about the job for Vivino, who’s been out there since 2009 when Conan O’Brien took over The Tonight Show–though the versatile and ubiquitous guitarist does get the the chance to return now and then. He’s here now for six year-end shows at City Winery with the Fab Faux.
“I’m a working man!” he states. “I do Conan four days a week, then I’m pretty much on a plane somewhere. But the thing about L.A. is that there’s so much film and music industry—anything you were interested in as a kid: [Phil] Spector, the Beach Boys, L.A. jazz and blues.”
Vivino hails from Paterson, N.J., and has worked with everyone from blues legends Johnnie Johnson and Hubert Sumlin to Levon Helm, Al Kooper, Phoebe Snow, Laura Nyro, John Sebastian and Donald Fagen. He’s currently returning to his roots in cutting his first album with Jimmy Vivino and the Black Italians—a band going back some 25 years to gigs in New York clubs.
“We’ll see if we’re still alive!” says Vivino, whose album with the Black Italians is due in April on Blind Pig Records and will also feature Cuban harmonica player Felix Cabrera, Vivino’s Conan band’s rhythm section of bassist Mike Merritt and drummer James Wormworth, percussionists Fred Walcott and Mike Jacobsen, Gov’t Mule keyboardist Danny Louis and vocalist Catherine Russell.
Vivino also recorded some 20 years ago with Al Kooper in the Rekooperators (he now plays with him in the New Rekooperators), and then “work got in the way” when he signed on with Max Weinberg to play in the Late Night With Conan O’Brien band when the show began in 1993. But he made time for the Fab Faux, New York’s Beatles tribute group extraordinaire, which formed in 1998 and also stars The Late Show With David Letterman bassist Will Lee, keyboardist Jack Petruzzelli, guitarist Frank Agnello and drummer Rich Pagano.
“We’re finishing out the year with six shows in five nights at City Winery—including two on New Year’s Eve,” says Vivino. “That’s 123 different songs, because we’re not repeating anything any night! I panicked when Frank put the set lists together and said, ‘Why are we doing this?’ But he said, ‘Calm down and have fun,’ and it was a load of fun last night [Dec. 27], which was the first night.”
Working with his late-night TV counterpart Lee is especially challenging, Vivino says.
“He’s so talented that you think it all comes so naturally to him, but he’s a very hard worker,” says Vivino. “There’s no such thing as a genius who doesn’t work hard.”
And after 15 years of being in the world’s most acclaimed Beatles band, there’s still plenty of room for growth.
“The fact is, there’s Beatles ‘archaeology’ going on all over the world, with MP3s and streams of real drums and bass parts from the records,” he says. “So we just keep going back and reworking stuff—and never get tired. It’s like the Dead Sea Scrolls: They have all these holes, and then they find the pieces and stick them in and find out that what they thought they said wasn’t what they meant at all!”
But his personal quest for Beatles knowledge doesn’t end with the music.
“I can’t walk by a table at Barnes & Noble and see a Beatles book and not get it!” he says. “I just got The John Lennon Letters. He might have been the last great letter writer! He wrote letters constantly from when he was eight until he died.”
The new year will bring a follow-up to the landmark Johnny Rivers show at B.B. King’s in October, when Vivino, Lee and Pagano backed the legendary rocker. This time they’ll support another legend, England’s 1960s rocker Lulu, on Feb. 16.
On Feb. 9 Vivino will join forces with rockabilly greats Robert Gordon and Lee Rocker–and he still has his regular job, of course.
“I’ve had an incredible career—and I’m lucky to keep working,” he says. “But the main thing is to keep changing up stuff: Just because I sell shoes doesn’t mean I can’t dance! Working with Conan isn’t like working, but I’ve got to make sure I keep my art up and keep my blood going.”
He recalls advice given by the great session guitarist Tommy Tedesco.
“He said, ‘Take the gig—and then learn how to do it!’ If you have an instrument in your hand, nothing is below you. And you learn more about what people want at one bar mitzvah than any jazz gig.”
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