Celebrating 40 years of Saturday Night Live

Volume 115, No. 9September, 2015

Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

Live from New York – and under a union contract – it’s 40 years of Saturday Night Live! We recently asked band members to reminisce about the show. Here’s what they told us…

“What I like best about playing with the Saturday Night Live Band…is playing with the Saturday Night Live Band.”

RON BLAKE (baritone sax, flute)
“It’s been an incredible 10 years being in the SNL band. The commitment and professionalism of everyone is inspiring to witness every time we perform. Memories? (1) Seeing how the show is put together, right down to the wire, every week. (2) Earl Gardner walking me through my first few shows then saying, ‘You got it now, kid. You’re on your own!’ (3) And, of course, playing in the band!”

ALEX FOSTER (alto sax)
“To play in any band for half a lifetime is a rare honor for anyone; to share true friendships with crazy-ass people is truly gratifying. But to share the stage with such tremendous talents from week to week, on top of all that, is an absolute blessing.”

EARL GARDNER (trumpet)
“What I like most about playing with the SNL band is the opportunity to work with such a stellar group of people who care about the music we make and genuinely care about each other. We all do our best to make the music sound as great as it possibly can. We are also fortunate to have amazing musicians like Lenny Pickett, Leon Pendarvis and Eli Brueggemann as our musical directors. Whatever the show needs musically, we can trust that they have it covered! I have played for 30 years at SNL and, certainly, one of the highlights was the 40th anniversary show. I was very proud and humbled to be part of the historic event and see so many people from the various casts who got their big break at SNL. After all this time, I still consider it a privilege and a gift to be a part of this extraordinary show.”

“I’m proud to be a part of this musical family, each drawing from different influences – some familiar, some not – coming together weekly and presenting music on a high level. Historical!”

VALERIE NARANJO (percussion)
“It is wonderful to work with gentlemen who are such masters, and such great people! One of my favorite memories of playing on the show is how Tina Turner totally gave her 20-something backing singers a run for their money!”

“I feel so fortunate and grateful to have had the opportunity to play with the amazing musicians in the SNL band. The world-class level of musicianship is such an inspiration to be around and there is a family atmosphere that we all are very thankful for. Because the show is live there is always a chance something wild can happen. I’ll never forget when I first started back in 1992, I think it was my second or third show, and Sinead O’Connor was the musical guest. She had done the dress rehearsal and everything was straight ahead with her second song, a dramatic a capella vocal where she holds up a picture of a child behind bars as a show of support for Amnesty International, but live on air she wigged out and tore up a picture of the Pope! I remember it knocked the breath out of the whole crowd and made me realize there is no safety net or do-overs with live TV. The show is always a lot of fun and the adrenaline rush when we hit the air is really exciting. I always feel very thankful and lucky to be there.”

LEON PENDARVIS (conductor/piano/organ)
“It has been my pleasure to have been a part of this legendary show for 35 years. Needless to say, I have many memories, which I will cherish for a lifetime. Having said that, one of the most special is being a part of the musical force which helps drive the show. Add to that, as others have said, the solid friendships that have been forged over the years, which are impossible to quantify. It’s indeed a special bunch of people, which translates to one of the most creative forces in the history of the industry!”

“Playing with the SNL band has changed my life. This band can play any style of music and still have our own unique identity. They have truly become family to me. As a guitarist, I get a chance to work on a lot of the recordings and sketches. I remember working with Lenny in his office playing acoustic guitar for a sketch called ‘The Californians.’ I hadn’t even seen it yet and here I was playing the theme on acoustic. Just me solo. Years pass and ‘The Californians’ is one of the most famous sketches in the last ten years and I hear myself playing that theme every time. It always takes me back to that original moment in Lenny’s office. The SNL 40th show was epic! There I am, out in front of the band singing a song to the audience. And who is in front of me? A crowd filled with people like Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Kanye West, Robert De Nero, Leo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, etc. No pressure! But the best moment of the SNL 40th was when Paul Simon had us stand and take a bow. It was truly humbling to be given that kind of recognition by a legend. And of course, it was a blast to play a song with him. SNL has been the most thrilling ride of my life. Can’t wait to see where it goes next.”

STEVE TURRE (trombone)
“The 40th anniversary show was a blockbuster! I was honored to be there. I’ve been in the band for 30 years. How many other TV shows do you know of that have been on the air for 40 years? The thing I like most is that it is a lot of fun, even though it is serious when the red light goes on. It’s like a big family! One funny thing I remember is from my first year on the show. They had a skit called ‘The Fifth Beatle.’ It was an actor wearing an ‘old man wig’ playing the trombone with the Beatles. I had to play trombone behind him, faking it, and they told me to play real ‘bad’ and sound terrible, so much so that people laughed. So that was my first big solo on network TV! It was a real humdinger. I played terribly (on purpose) and people laughed! At first it was hard to wrap my head around that because I’ve worked hard all my life to sound as beautiful as possible, and now when I sounded bad, people really liked it. I even got compliments! But that’s SNL!”

TUFFUS ZIMBABWE (piano, organ)
“I’m thankful to be a part of the SNL band. It is a wonderful experience. Working together with world-class musicians, under great leadership, playing amazing music, and in a high pressure environment makes this an exciting job. One of the best aspects of working in this band is its bond and camaraderie towards each other.”