Guitarist Jimmy Vivino has been a member of Conan O'Brien's late-night band since the host's first television broadcast in September 1993. Vivino has followed O'Brien from Late Night to a short-lived run on the Tonight Show and the showbiz limbo that followed. For the past eight years, Vivino has been the bandleader of Conan's Basic Cable Band, and for 20 years he's also made time to tour consistently with the Fab Faux, a wildly popular Beatles tribute act.
Vivino spoke with New Times about his work with the Fab Faux during a break from his late-night show duties while O'Brien filmed an upcoming special episode in Italy.
When Vivino and bandmates Will Lee, Rich Pagano, Frank Agnello, and Jack Petruzzelli began covering the Beatles' music, their aim was to reproduce the albums that the Fab Four never played live. Frustrated by audiences that screamed instead of listening, and still reeling from the fallout over John Lennon's comments about the band being "more popular than Jesus," the Beatles called it quits on touring in the fall of 1966 and concentrated on studio innovation until their split in 1970. The Fab Faux began playing the music of the Beatles' later records in 1998 but eventually expanded to include their complete repertoire. "[We] found out that things are even more difficult about doing the early stuff, having no extra trappings to lean on," Vivino says.
Beatles tribute acts come in all stripes. "Soundalike" bands often perform in suits and mop-top wigs, and Vivino says he's seen all-female cover acts, versions that put on thick Liverpudlian accents and act out the band's onstage banter from actual shows verbatim, and even bands that cover the Beatles' songs with the lyrics translated into different languages.
The Fab Faux take on an orchestral approach. "We want to bring the records to the stage the way a chamber orchestra or, say, the philharmonic, wants to bring Mozart or Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. Maybe there's, somewhere, an orchestra with powdered wigs doing accents, but, no, we appreciate people that do that, [but] that's the furthest thing from what we want to do... The music touches so many people and in different ways, and they're all valid, so I would never say, 'Well, that's corny or not right.' It's not right for us. Our thing is to bring the record to the stage... as we feel it is our classical music from our youth."
The Beatles' musicianship was recently called into question by legendary producer Quincy Jones during a bizarre set of interviews in which he called the members "the worst musicians in the world" (and worse). Vivino says that as a trumpet player and arranger, he's always held Jones in high regard, but he found the comments confusing. "It's just not true. There's too much evidence against that being true. It's an odd thing." The comments reminded him of the Beatles' jazz contemporaries in the '60s, who also dismissed the band's musical chops at the time.
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Vivino didn't need further proof of the Beatles' talent, but he got it when he shared the stage with Paul McCartney at a Songwriters Hall of Fame performance. The band, including Billy Joel on keyboards, was performing Ben E. King's "Stand by Me" when it came time for McCartney to sing a verse. Vivino laughs heartily when he remembers what happened next. "He turned around to me and he said, 'John never let me sing this one.' He still looks up to John as a big brother. He turned to me and looked at me as if to say, 'I'm getting away with something.'" As a lifelong fan who at the age of 9 fell in love with the Beatles' music, he says it's a moment he holds on to. "We didn't take a selfie; there's no video of it. There's only our memory of it, and that makes it even more precious."
His love of the Beatles' music has also fortified his 25-year friendship with O'Brien, who is also a big Beatles fan and, like Vivino, an avid guitar collector. "We have a very common musical taste, and the guitar playing is the thread to that... He's constantly wanting to learn things from me, and I'm learning and teaching him things... If he had it his way, he would just be playing Beatles and rockabilly."
O'Brien almost got that wish long-term when he lost the Tonight Show in 2010 during a now-infamous corporate PR blunder. As they figured out their next move, O'Brien and Vivino became bandmates on the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, on which they shared the stage with the likes of Jon Stewart, Spoon, and Jack White. "We went on the road until we could find another job, and we didn't care what the job was," Vivino remembers. "We went indie." He says O'Brien launched the tour in an effort to keep his production crew afloat during a challenging time. "He's very loyal to us all as a family... My life is so enriched by that kind of relationship. You just don't find it every day."