Whether anchoring the nightly news from NBC’s Rockefeller Center studios or laying down the foundation playing bass onstage, Lester Holt enjoys providing a solid, trustworthy presence.
By Joe Bosso| Photos: Ryaon Richards
For most people, the question “What’s more unnerving—interviewing a world leader or jamming with Earth, Wind & Fire?” is a purely hypothetical one. Lester Holt, however, isn’t most people. As a longtime broadcast journalist for the past 35 years and current weeknight host of NBC Nightly News, he’s squared off with presidents and prime ministers from across the globe. But Holt is also a skilled bass player, and in 2008, while doing a segment on the iconic R&B band for Weekend Today, he got a rare opportunity to jam with his idols during a sound check.
“Let’s face it. No matter how many times you’ve done it, any time you sit down to talk to a world leader is a little unnerving,” he says. “But there’s definitely an intimidation factor to playing with Earth, Wind & Fire, too. I mean, come on, they’re the greatest R&B group of all time, if not the greatest group in my lifetime. Verdine White? The guy’s amazing. The whole time I was onstage with them, I was thinking, I can’t believe I’m getting away with this.”
Holt’s reputation as a steady, reliable and trustworthy presence behind the anchor desk has kept NBC Nightly News the most-watched evening newscast since he assumed the post in 2015, attracting seven to eight million viewers on an average weeknight. Interestingly, he cites those same attributes as essential to playing the bass, although he notes that both roles sometimes call for him to go off script at a moment’s notice. “There’s definitely a synergy between doing the news and playing bass,” he says. “I play a lot of jazz. I love jazz. A lot of times you’re reading off a chart, but sometimes you’re just using your ear. That’s part of what keeps it interesting, that sense of the unknown.
“The same holds true for doing the news,” he continues. “Sometimes you’re reading a story, and then it’s breaking news and everything kicks into high gear. I don’t want to minimize it by saying you’re winging it, but you have to fill in the blanks and lead people along. You have to have a foundation there, but you also have to be ready for anything and keep it all together.”
Breaking news blasts have been coming fast and furious over the last few months, and for Holt, who has seen scripts change minutes before a news cast and even mid-show, music remains a calming salve for his high-pressure, high-profile gig. “There’s a lot of stress in this job, for me and everybody,” he says. “I absolutely rely on music, and I play it a lot in the office. I have a desk here in the newsroom, and it’s got a little Bluetooth speaker on it. I’ll crank some music and take requests—‘It’s music time, folks!’ I think it lightens the mood in a good way. Maybe they’re just saying that because I’m the boss, but I think everybody enjoys it.”
Holt’s first significant musical memory goes back to his childhood. His father, Lester Holt Sr., served in the U.S. Air Force and moved the family around a bit, spending four years in Alaska before finally settling in Sacramento, California. Holt Sr. had a hi-fi system in the house (“It was one of those big console things, like a piece of furniture”), and one of his favorite records was Harry Belafonte At Carnegie Hall. “Day-o!” Holt sings out, his booming voice echoing down the hallway. “Day-ay-ay-o. I remember listening to that and thinking it was great. I didn’t play an instrument yet, but I loved music, especially some of the jazz legends. The music of your youth is so important. It stays with you.”
Sometimes a confluence of occurrences lead to a single epiphany moment. Holt recalls one such instance taking place in junior high as he watched the school’s stage band perform “Black Magic Woman” during an assembly program. Holt had, of course, heard Santana’s version many times on the radio, but this time something felt different. One of the musicians was playing an upright bass. “It sounded so cool to me,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘What is that?’ It made the whole song sound totally new to me. Or maybe I was just listening with new ears. I loved that bottom end, the way it held everything together. I was drawn right in.”
The next occurrence happened shortly after. Holt was already singing in his school’s jazz choir, and one day he heard that the conductor wanted to put together a rhythm section for the ensemble. “That was the moment when it all came together for me,” he says. “I was like, ‘I could play this bass thing.’ It set me in motion.” His family’s finances were tight, but Holt scrapped enough money together from his newspaper route and hustled over to a pawn shop in downtown Sacramento to buy his dream bass, a Fender Precision.
“Well, there was no way I was gonna get that!” he laughs. “Not with the money I had. So I kind of kicked the tires and saw what else was around in my price range.” Holt wound up with a beat-up red hollow body bass—he can’t remember the name of it—that was incapable of staying in tune. He also purchased a couple of Mel Bay books and immediately set off on a course of self instruction. “I had taken a summer guitar course—I didn’t own a guitar, but the school provided one—but I found the idea of forming chords to be really hard. Playing bass came pretty easily to me. I had the feel for it.”
Pretty soon, Holt joined up with a group of kids who had formed their own band and were performing songs like the Carpenters’ “Close to You.” “They did pretty simple stuff,” he notes, “but the thing is, I knew how to fit in with them. I understood how the bass worked with the music.”
He points out with an understandable degree of pride that he never used a pick: “I started out with my thumb, but then I realized that it was much more efficient to use my fingers. Even teaching myself, I didn’t get into bad habits.”
By his mid teens, Holt’s abilities progressed, and he joined his high school jazz band. The group’s repertoire consisted of Count Basie standards, along with newer selections by Chuck Mangione and Maynard Ferguson. He was considered the “number two” bassist in the group, and when the band’s top bass player graduated, Holt was bumped up to the number one slot. Finances continued to keep that coveted P Bass out of reach, but he got the next best thing: an Aria. “It wasn’t a Fender, but it was close enough,” says Holt. “That was my bass all through high school and for years afterward. I still have it, and I’ve never changed the strings on it.”
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.”