STANLY THE MAGAZINE: Louis Cato considers band leadership at ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ a ‘dream job’

“It’s ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ … featuring Louis Cato and The Late Show Band.”

It’s been a year since the Albemarle native first heard those words, but music and performing is nothing new to Louis Cato.

“I was always interested in music. There is not a time in my memory before my interest in music,” said Cato, who has been performing on Colbert’s show since 2015, when Grammy award-winner Jon Batiste was the show’s band leader.

“Jon Batiste had called me to work on the theme song and through that experience I joined the band,” Cato, 39, said in a phone interview.

“I learned so much. In some ways it was a fast friendship and a very spiritually aligned brotherhood, but in other ways, personality-wise, he is so much his own creative being,” he said of Batiste. “I had to learn a lot about getting out of my comfort zone, which is something that he has been doing his whole life.

“He believes in the art that comes from uncomfortable places, like not just playing exactly what you rehearsed or practiced, but challenging his bands to go beyond that. I learned a great deal.”

Louis Cato performs at Millpond. (Photo by Cedric Pilard)

While he learned from Batiste, Cato said his mother was his first teacher.

“In terms of influence, I’d say my mother, first and foremost, just growing up with her,” Cato said. “She was the one who had the inkling to get me a drum set for my second birthday, had me singing and playing in church as a toddler at 4 years old. My mom and my sister and I would sing in church, around the house and on road trips.”

He began playing guitar and bass at age 8 and added low brass instruments in the seventh grade, including trombone and euphonium. Tuba came along in the eighth grade.

“Music was always around in the house. In terms of my interest, my earliest memories are through that lens,” he said.

As far as musical influences, The Beatles, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Nina Simone and Miles Davis are just a few who come to mind for Cato.

“They never get old,” he said. “I love music that you can listen to it in any era and there’s a tone in the emotion, in the story, in the performance that it feels like I can come back to it after not listening to it for years and you’re still finding life in it.”

Besides his mother, he met other key influences at North Stanly High School.
Aza Hudson taught Cato for five or six semesters of her 23 years as chorus/handbell teacher at North Stanly.

“He was and still is an amazing musician. He considered himself an instrumentalist, not a singer; however, he had a beautiful singing voice — great tone quality. He also had perfect pitch,” said Hudson, who retired in 2019 after 35 years of teaching.

Cato attended North Carolina All-State Chorus in 2001 and 2003.

“Mrs. Hudson was so giving of her time and would just work with me as much as I wanted to. She got me to All-State Choir twice,” Cato said.

“It is an honor to be chosen to sing with these extremely talented high school groups,” Hudson added. “After being chosen to attend, the students spend many hours learning the music prior to attending. Students are screened before rehearsing with their choirs. Louis auditioned and was awarded a solo in his group both years. One year, he even composed and played a percussion part for a trap set for one of the pieces at the formal concert.”

Hudson said “it was a joy to have Louis in class.”

“He had incredible talent, but remained humble. He aimed to please. In addition, he was respectful of me and his peers — always kind. He wanted to participate in so many musical activities that at times he had a hard time working everything in,” she said.

Two of Hudson’s favorite memories include Cato singing the solo for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” in the Choral Spring Concert, and accompanying him and Lainie Hinkle, “another talented musician,” as they sang the duet, “The Prayer,” at their high school graduation in 2003.

“I just was really grateful for Mrs. Hudson. She just had a profound gift of being able to make us country bumpkins sound good,” Cato said. “She had all these cool tips and tricks that I’ve later learned of some of the technicalities. She just had a way of breaking it down in a way you could understand. I learned so much from her.

“It was also just having someone that believed in me. I think for any human being that turns out to be really important.”

The other North Stanly influence who found Cato to have something special was Chris Crumley, who was in his first year of teaching at North while Cato was a freshman.

“He picked up on the basics extremely well and as we left marching band and began concert season, I was playing a possible selection for the Christmas concert. A particular piece (‘First Suite in E-Flat’ by Gustav Holst) began with a tuba solo and Louis was playing along perfectly. At the conclusion of the solo, I asked him if he’d played that before. He said no, that he was ‘just following along.’ I knew then he would become a formidable musical talent,” said Crumley, who is now a guitar instructor at La Vergne High School in Tennessee.

Louis Cato, right, meets with Chris Crumley, his former instructor at North Stanly High School. (Photo courtesy Chris Crumley)

“His innate perfect pitch and rhythm was put into use for the band program at NSHS when I selected a Dave Matthews Band theme for the 2000 marching band show,” Crumley said. “Without band-specific arrangements to purchase, Louis assisted me in transcribing those tunes from the CDs. With notation complete for the woodwinds and brass, John Almond joined us both in writing the percussion parts for an award-winning year for the Marching Comets. My suggestions to Louis’ mom for him to begin looking at Berklee School of Music took a while to sink in, because ‘Boston, Massachusetts is just too far away.’ Eventually his mom agreed that’s where he should continue his journey as a musician.”

Cato would make the NC South Central All-District Band all four years at North, Crumley said.

“His senior year, he was selected for both euphonium and tuba at the district level and was also invited for the North Carolina All-State Bands on both instruments,” Crumley said. “As we were leaving All-State rehearsal in the spring of 2003, the clinician, Bob Buckner, who was one of the directors at Western Carolina University, told Louis he could have a full ride at WCU if he wanted it. Louis smiled, thanked him profusely, and said that he was already enrolled at Berklee.”

Cato and Crumley have stayed in touch through the years, first by just phone and email.

“I even hired him to be a marching band technician to assist with the brass section and marching for my new gig at Sycamore High School,” Crumley said. “Eventually social media was added as a contact and we’ve had lengthy chats as he made Paris his home whilst touring with Bobby McFerrin as his percussionist.

“His promotion as band leader of the Late Show Band has pretty much guaranteed that I can tune in weeknights and still see that freshman that I can now claim as former student, friend and colleague.”

Looking back again at North Stanly, Cato said he was a drum major his senior year.

“For marching band to practice, we would paint up the parking lot so we could practice our sets and our drills. Lot of memories of being out in the heat on the asphalt at North Stanly,” he said.

Cato also recalled a talent show where he performed Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

“I don’t remember how well it went. I remember people were impressed and that felt cool,” he said.

Cato said he joined “The Late Show” in part because he wanted to work on his own music. It has allowed him to stay in one place long enough to write and record.

“Touring as much as I was doing previously did not really allow for that,” said Cato, although he admits he loves touring as well.

He released his second album, “Reflections,” on Aug. 11, 2023. It follows “Starting Now,” which was released in November 2017. During this interview, Cato admitted he was working on a third album related to a project he started on social media where he reinterprets songs and plays all the instruments.

To say Cato marches to the beat of a different drum would be cliche, but it would also be an understatement, as Cato plays a slew of instruments.

“I have a few primary instruments and then it sort of goes down the tree from there with less and less proficiency,” he said. “I feel most at home on guitars, basses, acoustic and electric drums, drum sets, hand percussion and then keyboard instruments. And then it probably goes down and out from there. Oh, no, I forgot about trombone and tuba and euphonium — those feel really at home, because I spent so much of my childhood on them.”

He also can play piano, trumpet and baritone saxophone.

Though the instruments seem to come naturally for Cato, it wasn’t until North Stanly when he learned his voice could be an instrument. It was Hudson who made him believe.

“She made it her mission to convince me otherwise,” Cato said. “Now I can see myself as a singer. It turns out she was right. There are people who ask me, because I play a lot of instruments, and people often ask me, well, what’s your favorite instrument? Or like if you had to choose one, what would it be? Lately I find myself saying it would be my voice. The instruments all have their limitations.

“The voice, for me, really is like the architect for it all. Like if I had to choose one, I feel more like I would take my voice over any instrument that I play.”

Besides Batiste and his other teachers, Cato thinks highly of Colbert as well, calling him “great to work with” and “a thoughtful entertainer.”

“He’s brilliant mentally. Just smart as a whip. His ability to recall is unlike anything I have ever seen,” Cato said. “It can be genuinely intimidating. He can pull up things, he can recite old passages from books he read when he was a teenager, whole excerpts of scripts from anywhere throughout the years. It’s really nuts.

“The way that he plays the teleprompter is sort of a work of art. I’m lucky enough to be kind of following out of the corner of my eye out of my own teleprompter, and he really doesn’t need it.”

Cato said Colbert is often editing the script in real time, and that is fun to watch.

“Whereas it can be intimidating trying to support someone like that who is so quick and brilliant, it actually ends up feeling more invigorating than intimidating because he is a gracious improviser. He very much wants everyone on stage to succeed,” Cato said. “He is never trying to get one in on you or stump you. He is a really gracious entertainer I find, and he is serious. He takes his job seriously. He takes the people he works with seriously. He cares about making sure people feel good and that people around him that he is working with feel good about the work we’re doing.

“It’s really a dream job.”

“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” airs at 11:35 p.m. weeknights on CBS, in the Charlotte viewing area on WBTV.

B.J. Drye is general manager/editor of The Stanly News & Press.