Fontana’s, a dive bar on a trash-strewn stretch of New York’s Chinatown, is just about the last place you’d expect to see Les Moonves ordering a Grey Goose on the rocks. But at 10 o’clock on a cold Wednesday night, the 58-year-old media bigwig who earned $36.8 million last year as the president and CEO of CBS is standing in a packed crowd of long-haired guys and vodka-and-soda–sipping girls, watching his son, Mike, a 20-year-old New York University student, play bass and sing backup in his band, Chief. “Telling you this will embarrass him,” Les says, flashing his toothy smile. “But for his bar mitzvah, I gave him a guitar autographed by Carlos Santana. He appreciated it more than other 13-year-olds could,” he adds proudly.
There’s no shortage of celebrities’ kids who have sought careers in the music industry. MTV’s reality show Rock the Cradle spotlights the latest wannabes (the program pits the offspring of Kenny Loggins, Olivia Newton-John, Eddie Money and Bobby Brown against one another in a musical competition). Many “children of” have certainly become famous and successful in their own right—think Jakob Dylan (son of Bob), Rufus Wainwright (son of Loudon), Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of Serge and actress Jane Birkin) and, most recently, Lily Allen, daughter of British actor and musician Keith Allen. On the other hand, there are those whose musical dreams fell famously flat: Nicole Richie, Lisa Marie Presley, Kelly Osbourne, Bijou Phillips and Rashida Jones (daughter of Quincy) spring to mind. Right now, particularly in New York, there seems to be a flood of celeb-spawn musicians on the scene. Some are happy to work their connections, but others are so low-key about their pedigrees that you’d never have the faintest clue.
The four youthful band members of the Ellis Unit have more A-list connections than most. The 17-year-old lead singer and guitarist is Gus Wenner, son of Rolling Stone magazine cofounder Jann Wenner, and the lead guitarist is Jack Byrne, 18, son of Ellen Barkin and Gabriel Byrne. The band frequently practices in Jann’s brownstone on the Upper West Side. On a recent evening, Wenner, Byrne, bassist David Cutler, 20, and drummer Reuben Fuller-Bennett, 20, have the house to themselves while the media mogul is skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho. Toys belonging to Wenner’s one-year-old half brother, Noah, litter the hallway leading up to their rehearsal room, which is padded with sound-absorbing foam. A portrait of Bob Dylan hangs in the corner.
Dylan is an obvious influence on the band’s bluesy, classic rock–inflected sound, but the legendary musician is more than a distant patron saint. Wenner and Dylan have jammed together, and an acoustic guitar stowed in Wenner’s bedroom bears his autograph. (“Gus—don’t forget to tune it,” reads the Sharpie-etched scrawl.) Wenner, who attended concerts as a toddler and grew up with icons at his dinner table, is the first to admit he didn’t have an average childhood. “It’s forced me to be in a world of music constantly,” he says.