By Tom Najarian

Musicians often take a winding path to their ultimate destination. Some are trying to find themselves; others are simply open to exploring anything and everything along the way. Jeff Babko lands solidly in the latter category, citing musical influences as diverse as Blood Sweat & Tears to The Crusaders to Duran Duran to DEVO — and nearly everything in between. Having cultivated a wide variety of styles from his earliest exposure to his father’s music library as well as his own continuing search for new inspiration, Jeff puts them all to effective use in his role as Keyboardist and Arranger for the Jimmy Kimmel Live! house band Cleto and the Cletones. After all, the primary directive of a talk show house band is to competently back up a gloriously disparate roster of musicians and vocalists, as well as provide a ‘something for everyone’ type of musical repertoire for audience members to enjoy during commercial breaks.

That sort of diversity also plays well with comedians Steve Martin and Martin Short, for whom Babko has been accompanist and touring musical director since 2002. But it’s not all about comedy for Jeff, whose additional credits include music icons James Taylor, Smokey Robinson, Willie Nelson, Julio Iglesias, Sheryl Crow, Tim McGraw, Jennifer Nettles, Alanis Morrisette, and Jason Mraz. Clearly, in Jeff Babko’s world, versatility is key — and he’s been training for this his entire life. Despite having to juggle a busy production schedule with Jimmy Kimmel Live! along with his numerous personal projects and the all-important role of husband and father, Jeff was gracious enough to take the time to answer some of our questions regarding how his career evolved, what inspires his creativity, and how Samson products lend a welcome assist in the studio and on the road.

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Image provided by Jeff Babko

The Making of ‘The Man Behind the Keys’

When did you start playing music? What was your first instrument and how many do you currently play?

I began playing the old Wurlitzer spinet piano in my [high school choir director] father’s office at around age 4 — you know, banging out random clusters, and eventually coming up with little songs. Trombone followed when, in about 6th grade, Dad recognized the piano wasn’t going to get me into marching band in junior high. So, we pulled my grandmother’s old trombone out of the garage and I learned it over the summer before entering the new school, and still play it today.

My parents found me a local piano teacher at first who was a bit dodgy, but we soon found Tessie Chua Chiaco, who would teach me Classical until I was 18. We implemented those lessons with “Jazz” or more “Pop” lessons from the brilliant David Roitstein, who had just moved to town to head the jazz department at California Institute of the Arts, which was just up the street from us.

At about age 11, Dave turned me on to synthesizers, showing me around his Prophet-5, and I never looked back. Van Halen’s “Jump” was big at age 12, and when I borrowed a friend’s neighbor’s synth and took it to elementary school and played that, I was pretty hot stuff. I’ve always loved synths and organs and use them nearly every day in my work.

I have a set of drums that I love and really enjoy playing bass, but I am by no means proficient on either. I took trumpet lessons, but didn’t really have the endurance for it, and I did play tuba for a while and really enjoyed it. I’d love to play guitar and have a few, but I am so rudimentary at it that it’s pitiful.

Who were your favorite bands, individual musicians, and vocalists as a youth?

There are so many. As a kid, I studied my dad’s Blood, Sweat & Tears records — both the music and the amazing gatefold sleeves. He also spun Ramsey Lewis’ “Sound of Christmas” record every holiday season, which I remember vividly, and remains one of my favorites. The other record of his that always impacted me as a little kid was The Crusaders’ “Southern Comfort.” Joe Sample’s Rhodes and Wayne Henderson’s trombone sound really reached me.

I was all over the map when I started buying my own records, and mainly cassettes! Duran Duran’s “Rio” was big for me, with Nick Rhodes’ washy magical synths and John Taylor’s bass. I spent every free minute at our local record store in Newhall, CA, and saved every penny of allowance and later jobs for buying tapes. I remember hiding behind the bike racks in 6th grade listening to the dirty words we didn’t understand on Prince’s “1999.” And then I got into Genesis — I wish I could say it was the progressive early stuff, but that didn’t come until much later — I went to the “Invisible Touch” tour at Dodger Stadium. But I loved their “Three Sides Live” album. I also saw the Bowie “Glass Spider” tour in Anaheim. The 80’s were so funny with all that bombast.

Then I discovered jazz and Herbie Hancock’s “Thrust” changed me, along with Jaco Pastorius’ first album. That blew my mind and my ears open. I also really loved and am still blown away by Trevor Horn’s early to mid-80’s production. And when I was in bands in high school, I was listening to a lot of British alternative music, like Depeche Mode and Japan. And DEVO.

Can you name a person (not necessarily a musician) who has had a tremendous impact on you? Perhaps someone who has been a mentor? Why and how did this person impact your life?

Well, Miles Davis always was a great influence, in that he never settled and answered to no one in directing his styles. A lot of artists I really admire: Bowie, Brian Eno, David Byrne, Tony Williams…were and are always expanding and finding new angles and styles to adopt. Honestly, music and musicians have always been my source of inspiration.

There have been many along the way that have taken me by the hand and guided me along. Roitstein, Vince Maggio at the University of Miami, George Stone in Newhall, CA showing me the harmonies of Clare Fischer and Thad Jones, and then in my professional life, all of my colleagues that believed in me and took me along. My parents and entire family have always believed in me and been my biggest fans, which I have to say means a lot.

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Image provided by Jeff Babko

The Genesis of a Professional Musician

Can you recount a memorable moment from your earlier tours?

Playing with Toto was a trip because they were a huge inspiration to me. Looking up while playing David Paich’s parts, seeing Steve Lukather motioning for me to lay back while smiling and egging me on was such cool and great guidance! Growing up outside of Los Angeles, those guys wrote the book on how to do what I wanted to do, and now I was playing their music in place of one of my idols, the underrated David Paich. Just learning his parts, and his personally showing me different nuances was huge for me. I can’t believe it happened sometimes.

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Image provided by Jeff Babko

Are there any others that come to mind from later in your career?

One time on the syndicated Martin Short Show, Billy Preston was backing up Little Richard. Little Richard was late to rehearsal, so for about 15 minutes I played piano while Billy played B3. Mind blowing. Playing with guys like that, and frankly there’s only one Billy Preston, you really soak up their pocket and the depth of their musicality. And in other television weirdness, I once played organ accompanying Placido Domingo. I had no business being there! But he was so cool and supportive.

Another insane moment for me was on a James Taylor gig and Yo-Yo Ma was going to play with us. He was going to play a solo cello piece, which I was really looking forward to. Someone then casually volunteered that I accompany him. I felt I had no place accompanying one of music’s finest players of all time, especially on a classical piece. But I was kind of thrown into it without a choice, and Yo-Yo came over to my side of the stage and we worked out “The Swan.” He was so kind and giving and celebratory of whatever my gift was at that moment.

Talk Show Keyboardist, Writer and Arranger

Jeff’s television work began with Martin Short’s syndicated talk show in 1999 and 2000, followed by an engagement as keyboardist with Wayne Brady’s daytime show. Jeff recounts how these gigs set the stage for what would become his lengthiest and most high-profile musical engagement:

How did you land your gig with Cleto and the Cletones on Jimmy Kimmel Live? Was there an audition process, or were you already on their radar from your previous musical endeavors?

I first met Cleto’s father, “Cleto Sr.”, on my first tour, with Julio Iglesias. Cleto Sr. worked backstage at Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas. He was a then retired sax player, and at that point was a server backstage for the visiting artists. “Senior” is such a positive guy; he’d tell me, “Man, you gotta meet my son! He’s in L.A.

A couple years later, I ended up playing in a band called Cecilia Noel & The Wild Clams — a high energy salsa funk band that was huge in L.A. at the time, and Cleto Jr. was often in the horn section. We connected quickly and even ended up living in the same apartment building, spending many nights at Casa Vega drinking margaritas. Cleto grew up with Jimmy in Las Vegas, and at that point, Jimmy was doing “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” followed by “The Man Show.” I’d see Jimmy from time to time at parties or dinners and he was always great.

Meanwhile, Cleto and I began doing a semi regular gig at a great, but sadly now closed, music club in the Valley, Cafe Cordiale, doing R&B covers. A lot of the Wild Clams guys would play in that band too, and when Jimmy got an ABC late night show, the ABC execs came to Cafe Cordiale and hired us on the spot. Toshi Yanagi, our guitarist, and I had to awkwardly leave the TV show we were already doing, which turned out to be a wise move, as the Kimmel show has now been on for more than 15 years. And I must add, when he got the show, Jimmy asked Cleto Sr. to “un-retire” from the music business and Senior has been playing saxophone with us for all of our run at ABC! Jimmy’s a class act.

Does Jimmy Kimmel personally have anything to do with the band’s musical direction, does Cleto handle it all, or is it a collaborative effort by producer, host, and band?

Jimmy was a marching band guy in high school, and actually loves music. He was an Al Jarreau, Jeffrey Osborne, George Benson fan…and also a huge fan and friend of Huey Lewis. He also loves Elvis Costello, Springsteen and James Taylor. He likes good stuff. He definitely has an ear and has asked us not to play certain things, primarily from his classic rock DJ days! We seem to have a band sound now and this last 7 years or so we seem to have had a specific direction which works.

Jeff Babko
Image provided by Jeff Babko

Musical Family, Project Studio

Is anyone else in your family currently active in music?

My father retired from teaching a few years ago, but still adjudicates jazz festivals and recruits and gives music scholarships. My wife, Songa Lee, is a premier recording session violinist here in Los Angeles, and was on the “Star Wars” score and most other films scored here. My son Theo, who’s almost 6, is taking guitar lessons at Musonia, an amazing little music school in the valley, founded by Delores Rhoads, the mother of legendary guitarist Randy Rhoads. There’s a bit of a shrine to Randy in the front room there. Pretty cool music history! My wife and I often record at the studio we’ve built out of our home, called TudorTones.

Is TudorTones a personal project studio, or is it also a commercial facility?

Well, most of what I do at TudorTones is lots of keyboard overdubs. I have my favorite 1974 Suitcase 88 Fender Rhodes set up with lots of stompboxes and things, my B3 and Leslie, Wurlitzer, lots of synths and boutique organs and things, plus my Steinway piano. I’m working on things all the time, overdubbing, writing, or artists and producers are coming over and we’re all working together at the studio. We’ve also done lots of string group recordings at TudorTones and used to record my podcast “The Caffeinated Keyboardist” there. I’ve done some recordings of brass and woodwinds for film and TV and also my last solo jazz record, “Crux”. But I don’t really hire it out as a studio. It’s primarily for things we’re working on.

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Image provided by Jeff Babko

The Samson Connection

Which Samson products are you currently using? How have they aided you in live performance and/or recording situations?

I have two Samson SM10 line mixers in my studio, which have become such an important tool. I always wanted to have all my keyboards accessible at any time, and with these two line mixers, I find everything’s patched in always, and they’re very quiet. I also use the Samson studio monitoring Z55 headphones and headphone amplifiers. We had to have lots of headphones around, whether I’ve got a string date here or a band full of people listening to my keyboard overdubs with their tracks. Also, when I travel, I often use a Samson USB keyboard for writing. Samson’s done such a great job of creating useful, solid, affordable gear that I’m happy to brag about!

Keeping it Real

What is one characteristic that you believe every musician should possess?

Do you feel that you can still improve as a musician? If so, how would you go about achieving that? Do you have a practice regimen?

100% yes I can improve as a musician. I’m about 1/5 the technician as a pianist I’d like to be. Maybe 1/10! And as a listener, I always feel I’m running behind on listening to things, new and old. Just as soon as I’ve caught up to one genre, there’s 5 new artists coming out and another sub genre I hadn’t discovered.

With Kimmel and balancing all my other work right now, I don’t have a chance to practice like I’d like to. Sometimes I get to read through some Chopin or work through finger exercises. But I do take time to listen. That’s important time to me. And I’m always playing and creating, never resting on laurels. I’m still hungry to burn and create. I get to work through technical stuff on gigs, which helps.

What has been your greatest challenge as a professional musician?

That’s a good question. At this stage in my life, it seems that the challenges lie within staying a grounded human! I am very grateful to have made a life as a professional musician. I don’t take a moment of that for granted. I’ve gotten to play with so many heroes and have some of the most beautiful people in my life that happen to be extraordinary musicians. It’s a challenge to make choices, I suppose. To say “yes” and “no” to the right things and to find balance.

I think one tendency for musicians that have been doing it a while is to lose a bit of their passion. That’s not been a problem for me. I’m still as excited about music as I was when I started. There’s so much to hear and learn.

The Future

Jeff Babko obviously considers himself blessed to have had the privilege of working with literally hundreds of famous musicians and vocalists, both as a touring keyboardist and with Cleto and the Cletones — many of whom qualify as personal influences or idols. But he certainly hasn’t run out of dreams and aspirations:

What musicians or other entertainers are still on your bucket list?

Well, I realize that many of the artists that have impacted my life have either passed away or have maybe moved on from the artistic place in which they inspired me. Peter Gabriel? Kate Bush? They seem farfetched but you never know. I’m a big fan of The Tubes and have been recently dreaming of that…

Where do you see your talent and aspirations taking you in the next ten or twenty years?

That’s the crazy thing about this business and universe; I could never have known where these last twenty years have taken me. I’m open to whatever comes my way. It’s been a ride thus far!