The second of a two-part story
Life couldn’t be better for Cleto Escobedo III, musical director for the “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” show.
He works for and with his best friend Kimmel, the show’s star. The hours are good ones — the show, now in its 12the season, is taped in the early evening before its 11:35 p.m. broadcast on ABC — so he can spend plenty of time with his wife Lori and their two children in their Studio City home.
He is also one of the few Latino musical directors for a major network program.
“One of first guys I can recall is Sheila E.’s brother, Peter. He did Martin Short’s talk show and also Wayne Brady’s show,” Cleto III said. “But there have not been many of us.
“I hope this is progress. The entertainment industry in becoming more diverse. We have decent Latin presence on our show, for one.”
But the kicker — Cleto III’s father, Cleto Escobedo Jr., is in the band. The father, who plays tenor sax, had been a professional musician but gave it up for 30 years to raise the son.
Cleto III is thrilled his dad is playing full-time again.
“For me, I was very happy to give him back the gift of music,” Cleto III said. “He gave up music for me, to be with me, to raise me. He had loved playing all those years, and I had followed in his footsteps.
“To bring him back to it was really fulfilling.”
A Singer First
The son loved music. And why not? His father had been a musician for years, playing the alto and tenor sax in bands starting in his hometown of San Antonio, TX, then in Los Angeles and Las Vegas where the family now lived.
But Cleto III initially wasn’t interested in playing the sax.
“I like singing, and was kinda good at it,” Cleto III said. “In the sixth grade, as an elective, I signed up for the choir so I could be with one of my best friends.”
But before starting the choir class, his mom Sylvia mentioned to Cleto III that his dad had a brand new sax he didn’t use. The instrument was a gift from one of Duke Ellington’s musicians, Russell Procope. But the father liked playing the older sax.
Not many kids have a brand new pro instrument to start out with; why not learn?
“I said ‘cool,’” Cleto III said.
So Cleto III began learning the sax at age 11. By this time his father had opted for daily work at Caesars Palace as a busboy and waiter, then as a backstage butler for performers. He was soon promoted to head butler, taking care of performers and high rollers in their hotel suites. It wasn’t a musician’s life, but he could be home every night with his family.
Cleto III said his father was always supportive and never pushy about playing sax. “Dad helped me with the basics and gave me a kickstart over other kids,” he said. “My development was rapid. Within two years I’m improvising.”
Cleto III didn’t know it then, but another key person had also entered his life.
A year before picking up the sax, Cleto III spotted a new kid on his neighborhood street. The new kid and his family had moved to Las Vegas from Brooklyn, NY.
“That’s the first time I met Jimmy Kimmel,” Cleto III said. “I saw we were about same age, although I later found out I was a year older. And we were like-minded on what we thought was funny.”
The friendship became a deep and lasting one, Cleto III said. They played baseball and football on the neighborhood streets. They had sleepovers at each other’s house. Sometimes Cleto III’s dad would take the boys fishing in his beloved 1949 Chevy.
“We were very close,” Cleto III said of he and Kimmel. “He moved away at 17 to Phoenix, when I was just starting college. But we always kept in touch.”
Cleto III had enrolled in UNLV as a political science major. But music took over; by his third year a Las Vegas band called Santa Fe (now known as Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns) offered him a job for 15 weeks, at $350 a week. “I wondered how in the world I could spend all that money,” Cleto III said.
After the 15-week gig, Santa Fe got an eight-week offer in Atlantic City. Cleto III’s school work was suffering. He told his father he wanted to take a semester off and work as a musician.
“He gave me his blessing. And I’ve never looked back,” the son said.
Making A Living
A popular cover band, Santa Fe worked all over Las Vegas in hotels lounges and clubs. Guitarist and singer Jerry Lopez took a liking to Cleto III, and expanded his knowledge about music and the music business.
“He taught me about singing and being a band leader,” Cleto III said. “We played every hotel on the strip, because they all had long deals; six weeks here, eight weeks there. The Hilton, Bally’s, Caesars … it was a great education.”
Cleto III wanted to go to Los Angeles, however, and got his chance when singer Paula Abdul asked him to play on her “Spellbound” tour in support of Abdul’s 1988 smash debut album, “Forever Your Girl.”
“At the time Paula, Madonna and Janet [Jackson] were the biggest female stars,” Cleto III said. “I was very excited to get that gig. I was a sax player, but I also played some keyboards and some singing. I did a duet with her in the show, the song ‘Forever Your Girl.’”
Other offers soon followed. Cleto III went out on tour or recorded with Marc Anthony, Tom Scott and Take Six, among others. And in 1994 he got a record deal. Cleto III thought about having his own horn section — having his father play in it.
But the record deal didn’t pan out, so the plan was put on the back burner.
After college Kimmel began his entertainment career on radio, including a stint on the L.A. station KROC. He broke into television in 1997, working the Comedy Central game show “Win Ben Stein’s Money.”
When he got his ABC television show in 2003, Cleto III was Kimmel’s first choice as musical director.
“Jimmy is very loyal to his friends,” Cleto III said. “He didn’t have to ask me; I would have understood if he had hired some famous guy to be his musical director. But he trusted me, and I don’t take it for granted.”
Kimmel asked who Cleto III wanted in the band, and he mentioned the musicians he was working with in Los Angeles — keyboardist Jeff Babko, guitarist Toshi Yanagi, bassist Jimmy Earl and drummer Jonathan Dresel.
“Jimmy then said ‘why don’t you call your dad; wouldn’t it be cool?’” Cleto III said.
“I thought it would be amazing. Dad had worked hard for so many years to support me and was not playing. To get him into this gig, and have no pressure on him with me and Jimmy as bosses….”
Cleto III called his father, told him he was trying out to be Kimmel’s musical director, and asked his parents to come to L.A. for support. He also told Cleto to bring a sax with him, that maybe they could play a song together.
What Escobedo didn’t know: the “audition” was more for him that his son.
The two of them jammed on the Average White Band’s hit “Pick Up The Pieces,” before a select audience that included then ABC President Lloyd Braun. After the performance, Escobedo found out that Cleto III had the job, and went backstage to thank Braun for giving his son the opportunity.
Braun told Escobedo he was in the band, too.
At first, Escobedo wasn’t sure how long the Kimmel show would last, and held on to his butler’s position at Caesars Palace. But the show kept going and going. He finally left Caesars to work in the band full-time.
“I was asked what would I do if I ever didn’t to go [onstage],” Escobedo said. “I never said I’d hate to go on. As soon as I hit the stage, the adrenaline comes over me. And when you hear an audience react, it’s like magic.”
Cleto III also doesn’t want to be anywhere else — or working for or with anyone else.
“For me, as the father of young children, this is the perfect job,” he said. “I can do other things if I want. But I want to stay here as long they will have me. I will always stay by Jimmy’s side.”