Lester Holt Keeps Things Steady Onstage and On Screen

September 28th, 2017

Around the same time, the broadcasting bug also bit Holt. He read the morning announcements over the high school’s P.A. and started hanging around radio stations, and in his senior year he worked as an unpaid intern at the local NBC TV affiliate. Music remained a passion, and during his first semester at California State University in Sacramento (he majored in government), he played bass for a nearby jazz choir at American River College. While attending Cal State, Holt landed his first pro broadcasting job as a disc jockey with a local Country and Western radio station, where he also reported the news.

Holt didn’t graduate from college, but his skills behind a microphone put him in high demand. After a brief stint as a news reporter for a San Francisco radio station, he moved to New York City in 1981 and went to work for WCBS-TV. “It was an exciting time,” he says. “I was working in a major market and doing something I loved. I still had my bass and would plug in once in a while, but I didn’t have a lot of time, so my playing was kind of here and there.”

For the next two decades, Holt traversed the country. From New York City he went to work for KNXT in Los Angeles (channel 2 before it became KCBS) in 1982 as a reporter and weekend anchor before landing a gig in 1986 at Chicago’s WBBM-TV, where he spent the next 14 years in the anchor’s chair for the evening news while also reporting from hotspots in the world such as Iraq, El Salvador and Haiti. At the same time he also became a family man. He married Carol Hagen in 1982, and they had two sons, Stefan and Cameron. Between the demands of work and his home life, Holt didn’t have much spare time left for playing bass.

It wasn’t until Holt and his family moved back to New York City in 2000, where he joined MSNBC and began his remarkable rise through the NBC ranks—hosting Dateline, covering the Olympics, co-anchoring Weekend Today and subbing the Nightly News before finally becoming that broadcast’s full-time weekday anchor—that he reignited his love affair with the instrument. Spurred on by a Manhattan musician neighbor who invited him to jam with some friends, Holt trekked down to 48th Street (which at the time still had most of its famed music shops) and bought himself a Strunal upright bass.

“It cost $800, which was not a lot of money for a double bass, but it still is a really good instrument,” Holt points out. “And, of course, it’s fretless, which is a totally different feel, but I got into it. I started learning by ear again, and it all came back to me. I really enjoyed playing jazz standards. When some opportunities to jam and play out came along from a few friends I thought, Why not?”

Holt performed around town with another friend, singer Cleve Douglass, and he even sat in with guitarist Woody Mann at Manhattan’s B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill. His renewed interest in playing brought along more instrument acquisitions: a Fender Jazz Bass, an ESP LTD 5-string bass, a D’Angelico hollowbody Excel, and a couple of Yamahas (an electric upright and a Silent bass). He even got an Ultra-Lite Traveler Bass, which he plugs into his phone and passes the time with on many of the lengthy plane trips his job entails.

Several years ago Holt finally nabbed that long lusted-after Fender Precision. “It’s one of the Tony Franklin models, and it’s just gorgeous,” Holt raves. “I saw it in black with the ebony fingerboard, and I was like, ‘Okay, now that’s cool.’ It has a drop-D tuner on the E string, so it gives you that growl. It’s fretless, which can really challenge your intonation, but having played jazz on an upright I manage to do alright with it.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a crazy collector or anything,” he continues, “but every time I would come home with a new bass, my wife would say, ‘And what’s different about this one?’ I’d have to come up with a new excuse each time. I didn’t always have a good answer.”

Word got out about Holt’s musical chops, and while covering various acts for Weekend Today, he was both surprised and delighted to discover that stars were keen to jam with him. In addition to grooving with Earth, Wind & Fire, he’s performed with the Captain & Tennille, the Steve Miller Band, Jefferson Starship and Luke Bryan. “I played with Clint Black and his band, too,” Holt says, “It was during soundcheck, and Clint wanted to get behind the drums. So he played drums and I played bass. We didn’t do country stuff, though. They wanted to play R&B, so we tossed some things back and forth. It was great.”

He’s even tried his hand at professional recording. About 10 years ago, actors Hugh Laurie and Greg Grunberg were laying down songs with producer David Foster for a House soundtrack album, and the regular bassist who played with their group, Band from TV, wasn’t available. A call was put in to Holt: Could he make the sessions? “NBC Universal produced and owned House, so there was a connection,” says Holt. “I flew out to L.A. and recorded with Hugh and the band. Hugh is a great actor and a very serious musician. We did ‘Minnie the Moocher’ and a reggae version of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’ They’re on iTunes if anybody wants to hear them.”

More recently, Holt sat in with the Roots on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, performing a revved-up version of the NBC Nightly News theme (“Mark Kelley, the Roots’ bassist, gave me a quick mini-lesson”). Come fall he’ll perform at Hill Country Barbecue in Manhattan with a group comprised of NBC employees called the Rough Cuts. “It’s mostly editors, hence the name,” he says. “We do a little funk, but it’s mostly rock. The truth is, I’m not a big rocker, so the inside joke was that I admitted to knowing all these songs I’d never heard, like ‘Lonely Is the Night.’” He shrugs and adds with a good-natured laugh, “But that’s what it’s all about sometimes. You have to be a quick study.”

Pages: 1 2

  • Duane Stickney

    Damn Lester change the strings, I’m not sure about bass but on a 6 string they strings lose what I call color after a while. You put new ones on and you get the color back. 😉