In many ways, Louis Cato began growing toward the role of bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert when he started playing drums at the age of two. Since then, Cato has become an accomplished singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist — in addition to drums, he plays guitar, bass, various brass instruments and an array of percussion. He released the solo album Starting Now in 2017 (there's another on the way), and he's an in-demand musician whose collaborators have included John Legend, Talib Kweli, A Tribe Called Quest, Jack White and, of course, Jon Batiste, his predecessor on The Late Show. Among such a wealth of experiences, though, arguably none did quite as much to prepare him for his current gig as playing in Boston-area wedding bands in his 20s.
It was such an education in learning how to connect with an audience," Cato says. His job then was to serve the moment, to gauge the crowd's energy and keep the dance floor moving while bearing in mind that a good wedding band enhances the experience without making itself the focal point.
"What a beautiful opportunity to learn those skills," Cato says. "How would I have had any way of knowing that would be such an essential part of my job now? The difference is that instead of people being there for a wedding, they're coming for a comedy show — they're coming to see Stephen.
Cato was part of Colbert's Late Show from the start — in fact, Batiste called Cato out of the blue in 2015 and asked for his help in the studio with some music for an unspecified TV program Batiste was working on. Turned out they were recording a theme song, which became clear when Batiste called again a few weeks later to ask if Cato was interested in joining the house band, Stay Human.
"I already felt invested when Batiste asked me to join the band," Cato says. "I liked the idea of being able to create something new in such an established television slot that David Letterman and Paul Shaffer had made their own. Stephen had this blank slate to find his identity, and so did we as a band."
Cato by that point had been honing his own musical identity since he was a kid growing up in North Carolina, where he built his chops playing in church — three churches, to be precise. His mom came from the Church of God in Christ, while his dad gravitated toward the Southern Holiness-Pentecostal tradition. Meanwhile, his friends were part of the Hillsong Pentecostal denomination.
"For those formative years, I was playing in all of those churches," Cato says. "It was my dad's church on Sunday mornings. Then my friends' church on Sunday nights, which my mom had been coming over to, and then it was always my mom in the cracks."
As Cato neared graduation, his high school band director nudged him toward pursuing a career in music by giving him brochures for Julliard in New York and Berklee College of Music in Boston. When Cato realized that the jazz drummer Kenwood Dennard, one of his influences on the kit, taught at Berklee, he packed his bags for Boston.
After two semesters there, Cato was getting steady work at recording sessions, in clubs and on tour, so he traded the classroom, and tuition, for the life of a gigging musician. That's around when he joined up with Night Rhythm, a wedding band available in various configurations. Cato was playing guitar and trombone and singing back-up in one Night Rhythm ensemble, and playing drums and leading the band in another, which opened up a vast new musical horizon: Top 40 songs.
"My mom would famously say, 'Only Jesus music in the house,'" Cato says. Between the two Night Rhythm bands, he had to familiarize himself with a lot of music he hadn't heard as a kid. Maybe it's an understatement to say he quickly got up to speed.
"I felt like a hungry chickling bird in a field of worms," Cato says, laughing. "It was like, 'What, you have to learn James Brown and Earth Wind & Fire and the Rolling Stones and the Beatles?' I had a paid excuse to learn what the rest of the world had been listening to for the last 40, 60, 70 years. It was really great for me.
Though Cato has new music coming later this year, his primary focus now is on steering the Late Show band, using a combination of his native passion and all the skills he's learned and developed over the years.
"It directly calls upon my authenticity as a deliverer of songs, as a singer, as a guitarist," Cato says. "And also as an arranger, as a communicator and a lifter of vibes. Those are core parts of my identity in the Ed Sullivan Theater, just as they are in the outside world."
Ultimately, Cato's open-minded view of the world is reflected in both the collaborators he cultivates and the music he creates. He is humbled when playing with the likes of Bobby McFerrin, Dave Matthews, James Taylor and Joe Walsh but is given equal respect from his contemporaries. Cato's original music flows from a place of honesty that exudes authenticity and is immediately arresting and recognizable. His best work is surely ahead of him as his artistry grows with each passing day.