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The first time television audiences got something other than a brief glimpse of Paul Shaffer may have been the night when he donned a toupee, a gold chain around an unbuttoned dress shirt that revealed a bare chest, and offered a dead-on impersonation of Don Kirshner, the music impresario whose on-camera introductions of rock bands on In Concert were notorious for a demeanor as stiff and uncomfortable as the music he highlighted was loose and exciting. The occasion was the first appearance of the Blues Brothers on NBC's Saturday Night Live, the show for which Shaffer supplied special musical material and could be spotted playing keyboards. With his receding hairline and spectacles, he bore a slight resemblance to Elton John, but even as he branched out to become a featured performer in the occasional sketch, it's doubtful Shaffer or the audience realized that in less than a decade, he would be as recognizable as the more prominent talent on the late night show. Now, after 25 years as David Letterman's musical director, Shaffer is a national treasure, sort of America's unofficial musician laureate. Whether he's leading the band during the closing moments of 1985's Live Aid concert, or serving as the musical director for the annual induction ceremonies for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Shaffer is the musician to call for the biggest, most prestigious events.

Of course, Shaffer is actually Canadian. Born November 28, 1949 in Thunder Bay, Ontario, he learned to play piano in his youth and was exposed to a variety of music at home, everything from the show tunes and classical music that his mother preferred, to his father's favorites which included such performers as Billy Ekstine and Sam Cooke. “I heard all this as rock and roll exploded,” he remembered. “Hearing rock and roll songs on the radio is what kept me going as a kid because I really didn't fit in. So many of us who went into rock and roll were misfits and found something we could do. That was my experience anyway.”

Shaffer dreamed of a career in music but was aware that success in show business was not a realistic ambition. “I was brought up thinking music was wonderful and a kid has got to take piano lessons,” he told International Musician for a January 2003 profile. “But when it comes right down to making a living, you should really have a profession.”

Shaffer enrolled at the University of Toronto to study philosophy, sociology, and psychology, but giving up music made him feel more like a man in need of psychological treatment. He found himself depressed and sleeping unusually long hours. He had played rock and roll throughout his high school years and now sensed a real void in his life. Once he began playing with a local jazz group, his mood lightened and he realized that music was not an avocation but a calling.

“I knew right then that I couldn't do anything else,” he said. “I had to at least try being a musician because I wasn't happy doing anything else.”

He made a modest living playing at weddings and at clubs, and also rented out his talents to singers who needed musical accompaniment for theatrical auditions. “For 20 bucks, if you were going to audition for a show, you could come over to my apartment and we would rehearse together, and I would accompany you at your audition.” One such experience provided Shaffer with his first big break. Two of his friends had auditioned for roles in Steven Schwartz's long running gospel infused musical Godspell. Schwartz hired Shaffer to both conduct and play piano for the show when it played Toronto. In 1974, Schwartz asked him to take on the same role for The Magic Show, but this time the stage was Broadway. “Before I knew it, I was here in New York,” Shaffer said, and in New York he would remain as his career would reach greater heights.

In Toronto, Shaffer had befriended a saxophonist named Howard Shore. By the time Shaffer was working on The Magic Show, Shore was in New York where he had been hired as musical director for Saturday Night Live, a new late night comedy sketch show that his friend, Lorne Michaels, was creating for NBC's 1975 fall schedule. Shore asked Shaffer to come aboard. “It was a good fit,” Shaffer remembers, “because I already knew Gilda, Danny, and I'd met Belushi when I first got to town. It was a natural that I'd start writing material and working with cast members on musical things.”

Saturday Night Live became a phenomenon, a show that made comedy as hip as rock and roll. If the Beatles and Bob Dylan had been the voice of the ‘60s generation, Saturday Night Live became the voice of the ‘70s. Shaffer was very much in the background, but wrote some of the memorable musical parodies that were often a highlight of the show. In addition to introducing Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi as the Blues Brothers, Shaffer also worked as the composer and musical director for Gilda Live, the show that marked Gilda Radner's Broadway debut.

Shaffer also attracted notice from TV producer Norman Lear who had joined forces with rock impresario Don Kirshner to produce a sitcom, A Year at the Top, about a rock band that had made a deal with the devil for success. Shaffer joined Greg Evigan, later the star of BJ and the Bear, in the show which had a brief five week run in the summer of 1977. It was during the show's production that Elvis Presley died, and upon hearing the news, Shaffer remembers sitting at the piano and playing a solemn version of “Love Me Tender” as a tribute to the rock and roll legend.

After the sitcom was cancelled, Shaffer returned to Saturday Night Live, but when the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players bailed out in 1980, Shaffer decided the time was right to make his own exit. “I didn't see the reason to be the only one to stay,” he said. “Five years was enough and I had other things to do.”

Among Shaffer's projects after leaving Saturday Night Live were recording sessions with Diana Ross, Yoko Ono, and Joan Armatrading, co-writing the Weather Girls hit “It's Raining Men” with Paul Jabara, and a  cameo in Rob Reiner's rock mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap.  By the time the latter film was released in 1984, Shaffer was back on TV, this time leading the World's Most Dangerous Band as musical director for Late Night with David Letterman, which premiered on NBC following The Tonight Show on the evening of February 1, 1982.

Nothing exemplifies Late Night's eccentric quality better than the episode of March 24, 1984 when Bob Dylan made a rare television appearance on a show that also featured flamboyant showman Liberace offering a cooking demonstration.  A show that could bring together two such incongruous figures could do anything, and Late Night broke every rule of the late night talk show, quickly becoming the most cutting edge show on television. Shaffer led the band, of course, but was also an active participant in the comedy, often acting as Letterman's foil. Musically, Late Night was even more diverse than Saturday Night Live with Shaffer and his band providing musical accompaniment for everyone from James Brown to crooner Andy Williams, as well as supplying special musical material, such as the theme for the “Kenny the Gardener” segment featuring Calvin Deforest, aka, Larry “Bud” Melman.  

Then, of course, there was Shaffer's side-splitting imitation of Cher warbling “O Holy Night” that became as much a Christmas tradition as Darlene Love's later appearances on the Late Show to sing “Christmas, Baby Please Come Home.”

Shaffer's prominence as Letterman's bandleader led to other gigs. He led an all-star lineup for the “We Are the World” finale that closed the American portion of Live Aid in 1985, and in 1986 he served as both the producer and musical director for the first induction ceremony for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a position he has retained with each successive year. But Late Night remained the principal showcase for his talents. 

In 1991, the show won the prestigious Peabody Award which hailed Late Night for taking “one of TV's most conventional and least inventive forms - the talk show - and infusing it with freshness and imagination.”

Letterman would often joke that he left NBC because Paul was fired for stealing chalk, but the switch from a network known for its dominance in late night to CBS where there had been no late night tradition, came about after Jay Leno's manager threatened to take her client, then the permanent substitute for Carson, to a rival network unless he was guaranteed the hosting duties on The Tonight Show when Carson retired. The deal was made secretly as early as 1991, and it became official once Carson made headlines by announcing his plan to retire following his broadcast of May 22, 1992.  

The choice of Leno was a slap in the face to Letterman who had long dreamed of hosting the show that set the pattern for late night comedy when it premiered four decades earlier with Steve Allen as host. The resultant controversy generated the kind of headlines normally reserved for peace negotiations in the Middle East. While the “late night war” raged on, inspiring Bill Carter's best-selling The Late Shift, Letterman celebrated his 10 year anniversary on NBC with a prime-time special that brought Bob Dylan back for his second Letterman show appearance. The rock legend performed his classic “Like a Rolling Stone” with Shaffer leading an all-star band that included such diverse musicians as Chrissie Hynde and Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinson. 

Despite the success of the anniversary special, Letterman's days at NBC were numbered. On the evening of May 25, 1992, Jay Leno took over as host of The Tonight Show only three nights after Johnny Carson ended his 30 year reign as the undisputed King of Late Night with a heartfelt goodbye that attracted 50 million viewers, a record for late night. A little more than a year later, in June 1993, Letterman and Shaffer said goodbye to NBC, as well. On August 30 that year, The Late Show with David Letterman premiered on CBS, earning critical raves and immediately dominating the ratings, proving what most viewers knew all along: Letterman, not Leno, was the true heir to Johnny Carson.

The new show was flashier and classier than Late Night, but no less funny. Due to NBC's refusal to relinquish its right to what they called their “intellectual property,” Shaffer was now leading the CBS Orchestra rather than “The World's Most Dangerous Band,” but the music was as dynamic as ever. The ratings would fluctuate after CBS lost many of its affiliated stations in a raid by the Fox network, but The Late Show remains the most consistently entertaining hour on television.

As he did for Late Night, Shaffer composed the Late Show theme. “What I like about my theme is that every night there is room for improvisation,” Shaffer says. “That's what keeps it fresh and interesting for the musicians. And if it's interesting for the musicians, it's interesting for the listener.” And the band plays throughout the show. “We keep the audience excited, interested, and entertained.”

On March 24, 2003, Shaffer even took on the hosting duties while Letterman recuperated from an illness. Mike Smith, the keyboardist for the Dave Clark Five, took over Shaffer's musical duties that evening while Shaffer interviewed Bob Dole and Connie Nielsen. 

Shaffer continued to branch out, and he describes his duties as musical director for the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics as “one of the highlights of my whole life.” Three years later, he was the musical director for the Concert of the Century at the White House, an event that featured Eric Clapton, Gloria Estefan, and B.B. King to raise money for music programs in public schools. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Shaffer took on the same role for Paul McCartney's Concert for New York.

In 2007, he also turned to radio, hosting the daily 60-second “Paul Shaffer's Day In Rock” on Envision Radio. “I've been interested in radio since I was a kid,” he said. “Radio was the way we heard rock and roll. I've always been a Top 40 radio fan.” He also continues to appear in movies, including Look Who's Talking, Scrooged, and as the voice of Hermes in Disney's Hercules. In 2002, he shared a Grammy with Earl Scruggs, Steve Martin, and others for Best Country  Instrumental Performance for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” And he has recorded several albums of his own, including 1989's Coast to Coast and 1993's The World's Most Dangerous Party.

At 58, Shaffer can look back with relish on a career that far surpassed his original ambitions. And there's no end in sight. Letterman has stated that if Shaffer leaves The Late Show, he would likely exit soon after. “That was a lovely thing for him to say,” Shaffer said, but adds that “I have no intention of leaving. It has been too good to me and continues to be fun and interesting every day.” And it continues to be live. “Live music is where it's at,” he says. “There is nothing like the sound of a live band.”

Although he says he “never had a plan for three to five years ahead,” he has announced plans for a memoir to be published in 2009. 

“These anecdotes have been accumulating in my mind for the past three-plus decades. It's been a nutty ride,” he says in his characteristic style, “and I felt it imperative to finally commit my reflections to the page.”
 

--by Brian W. Fairbanks



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