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All About The Tonight Show Band, The Roots

Everything to know about the Grammy-winning Legendary Roots Crew from Philadelphia, who've backed Jimmy Fallon since he became a late night host in 2009.

By Samantha Vincenty

As house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Roots have been integral to the program's sound since its inception. Like the talk show bands that precede them, from The Max Weinberg 7 to Paul Shaffer and the World's Most Dangerous Band, The Roots play intros for the Host and his celebrity guests, provide smooth transitions between breaks, and engage in more than a little banter. 

How to Watch

Watch The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on NBC weeknights at 11:35/10:35c and next day on Peacock

Yet The Roots have forged their own unique legacy as The Tonight Show's ensemble. They participate in Jimmy Fallon's games alongside stars and audience members, provide iconic Tonight Show cues (such as the "Thank You Notes" segments' poignant piano plinks), and choose singularly-creative walk-on music for celebrities. And after backing him on two NBC late night shows, The Roots seem to have an almost psychic connection with Jimmy Fallon, able to launch into the perfect musical answer to a mere eyebrow raise from the Host. 

Thank You Notes: Christmas Carolers, Rockefeller Center Skating Rink

Then there's the fact that they were already a Grammy-winning, critically-acclaimed rap group before they got the call from Fallon. The Tonight Show Musical Director, drummer Questlove, is also a producer, author, and Oscar-winning filmmaker outside of the show.

Here's everything you need to know about The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon band The Roots, from its members to how they got the job that moved them from their native Philadelphia to NYC.

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Who are The Tonight Show band members of The Roots?

The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

The original members of The Roots were its co-founders, rapper Tariq Trotter, who goes by Black Thought, and drummer Ahmir Khalib Thompson, best known as Questlove. The friends started the group in 1987, after meeting at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts—in the principal's office. 

"I was in trouble. He was not," Black Thought told the Paris Review in 2021. "He struck me as an odd fellow but also a serious musician." 

Though their lineup of musicians has shifted over the years, Tonight Show viewers are familiar with current members Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, Questlove, guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas, keyboardist James Poyser, Damon Bryson aka "Tuba Gooding Jr.," keyboardist Kamal Gray, and bassist Mark Kelley. 

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Bringing the brass on The Tonight Show, The Roots are joined by saxophonist Ian Hendrickson-Smith and trumpet player David Guy, former members of late soul singer Sharon Jones' band, The Dap-Kings.

The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon episode 1845

Who is The Tonight Show band leader? And who is the drummer on Jimmy Fallon?

They're one and the same: Questlove is Musical Director for The Tonight Show. 

In addition to the six Grammys he's racked up—including a Best Musical Theater Album trophy for co-producing the Hamilton original cast recording—Questlove is a 2022 Academy Award winner. As director of the 2021 film Summer of Soul, which told the story of the historic 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, the drummer and producer earned an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The film also earned a BAFTA and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary.

Questlove joined The Tonight Show as a guest after his win, telling Fallon what winning an Oscar (and then carrying it around all night, and "spooning it" on the plane back) felt like. 

Questlove Was Meditating Right Before Winning His Oscar

He has also authored several best-selling books, including 2015's Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove

The Roots' albums and Grammy awards

The Roots have released 11 studio albums: Organix (1993), Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995), Illadelph Halflife (1996), Thing Fall Apart (1999), Phrenology (2002), The Tipping Point (2004), Game Theory (2006), Rising Down (2008), How I Got Over (2010), Undun (2011), and ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (2014). 

They've also released three collaborative albums: 2010's Wake Up! with John LegendBetty Wright: The Movie with soul singer-songwriter Betty Wright (2011), and Wise Up Ghost with Elvis Costello (2013). The Roots also have two live albums, The Roots Come Alive from 1999, and Nagoya Blue Note: Live in Japan - September 7,  

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In total, the group has earned 14 Grammy nominations and three wins. Their first win was Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group for 1999's "You Got Me" featuring Erykah Badu. Wake Up! nabbed two Grammys: R&B Album, and Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for The Roots and John Legend's "Hang On In There."

How did The Roots get on The Tonight Show? 

In 2009, The Roots first joined Jimmy Fallon as his backing band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The choice surprised many at the time, given that a rap group was an unorthodox pick for a late night band. Plus, the Philadelphia band had a thriving career.

But as Questlove told it in a 2015 Brooklyn Magazine profile, after 20 years of successful-but-intense world touring, they were tired, and some members were ready to settle down. 

“It’s one thing when your babies are not of age and you do five weeks in Australia,” Questlove told the outlet. “But it’s a whole ‘nother thing when they’re 8 and you’re not making baseball practice.” Longing for "a Celine Dion situation" like a residency, he said everything changed in 2008 when Questlove met Jimmy Fallon in L.A. and invited him to a show of theirs.

Backstage, he was shocked to find Fallon "making a human pyramid" with the other Roots members. 

The Roots, Jimmy Fallon, and Fergie pose for a photo together

"He was able to disarm us in seconds," Questlove recounted. "And I’m looking at my manager and we just stared there shaking our heads. I was just like, we’re stuck with this guy, aren’t we. And he just looked like, I’m afraid so. And that’s when I knew, I instantly knew."

Do The Roots still tour?

Yes! If you want to see The Roots perform live, keep up with their concert dates at their website. 

Who was the band on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno?

Kevin Eubanks and the Tonight Show Band.

Watch The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon weeknights at 11:35/10:35c on NBC, streaming the next day on Peacock.