Paul Shaf­fer: Same dude, same band, dif­fer­ent time

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - STEVE KNOPPER

A long, long time ago, in the dis­tant po­lit­i­cal era of 2013, Paul Shaf­fer was band­leader for “Late Show with David Let­ter­man” and heard of the Roots play­ing an in­stru­men­tal ver­sion of a pro­fane Fish­bone song to in­tro­duce then-U. S. Rep. Michele Bach­mann on “The Tonight Show Star­ring Jimmy Fal­lon.”

Later, Shaf­fer dropped in a snip­pet of the same song as part of a Top 10 list in­volv­ing the tea party leader. “The dif­fer­ence was, I didn’t tweet it,” Shaf­fer re­calls. “Be­cause you know what? No­body rec­og­nized it or even com­mented at all. It went by. That’s sort of a gen­er­a­tional dif­fer­ence.

“(Roots drum­mer) Quest­love, of course, is all about the tweet, and I have noth­ing but the ut­most re­spect for a man who is an in­cred­i­ble drum­mer,” adds Shaf­fer, 67, the band­leader who left late-night TV when Let­ter­man re­tired in 2015. “My thing was to lay these things in, and you can get away with a lit­tle more stuff. Quest­love was like the crim­i­nal who tweets, ‘I just robbed a bank LOL,’ and won­ders why the feds can find him.”

Af­ter “Late Show” ended, Shaf­fer, the bald, wry, eru­dite Cana­dian who punc­tu­ated Let­ter­man’s jokes with sub-Ed McMa­hon cack­les for 33 years, had lit­tle to do. He told Newsweek he planned to learn to sight-read mu­sic, play the Ham­mond or­gan bass ped­als and do some act­ing. He has prac­tised the ped­als, some­what, but ran out of time for the other en­deav­ours when he de­cided to make an al­bum, “Paul Shaf­fer & The World’s Most Dan­ger­ous Band,” ear­lier this year, and go on tour with his “Late Show” col­leagues.

“There is a school of thought that says, ‘You’re not re­ally an or­gan player un­less you’re play­ing the ped­als’ — that’s why it is su­per-im­por­tant to me,” the long­time key­boardist says, by phone from Man­hat­tan. “Act­ing, though, no one has come up with the right three-episode arc in ‘Hawaii FiveO’ or ‘New Girl.’ Not yet. And I can ab­so­lutely read mu­sic on score pa­per, but sight-read­ing is an­other skill al­to­gether, and that is just a ques­tion of putting in the time. I thought I was go­ing to have more time than I do.”

Shaf­fer be­came Let­ter­man’s shticky, syco­phan­tic side­kick when the In­di­ana broad­caster pre­mièred “Late Night with David Let­ter­man” in 1982. As Dave slowly grew into an ironic, self-dep­re­cat­ing suc­ces­sor to Johnny Car­son, Shaf­fer built a killer band (in­clud­ing long-run­ning bassist Will Lee and drum­mer An­ton Figg), draw­ing top-tier mu­si­cal guests from James Brown to Bob Dy­lan to ... just about ev­ery­body. He re­counts the his­toric mo­ment when Dave hired him: “We only met be­cause he was get­ting a show at night and had his peo­ple call my peo­ple. Well, I had no peo­ple at that time. Just me.

“In the meet­ing, the pro­ducer kept say­ing, ‘What kind of band would you have, and by the way, you can only have four guys.’ That was what I did when I was a kid — four-piece rock bands,” he con­tin­ues. “I said, ‘Like an or­gan trio, but four of us, and in­stru­men­tal ver­sions of great Mo­town and soul tunes.’ Let­ter­man said, ‘That sounds per­fect.’”

Born and raised in Thun­der Bay, On­tario, Shaf­fer was a clas­si­cal pi­anist as a child who nailed a Mozart sonatina at a syn­a­gogue recital of prodigy bar mitz­vah stu­dents. Later, he played in rock bands, han­dled the mu­si­cal di­rec­tion for a lo­cal pro­duc­tion of “God­spell,” made con­nec­tions with co­me­di­ans Martin Short and Gilda Rad­ner and, by 1975, landed at “Satur­day Night Live.”

Shaf­fer com­posed mu­sic for “SNL” and worked with the late Rad­ner on her Broad­way show as well as with Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi on their Blues Broth­ers rou­tine. He also did some act­ing, notably as the pro­moter in Rob Reiner’s im­mor­tal “This Is Spinal Tap.” Af­ter Let­ter­man hired him, the host bor­rowed from an old Dick the Bruiser wrestling rou­tine and dubbed Shaf­fer’s group The World’s Most Dan­ger­ous Band.

For the band’s re­cent al­bum, Shaf­fer cedes most of the songs to stars such as Rilo Ki­ley’s Jenny Lewis, coun­try singer Dar­ius Rucker, rock leg­end Dion and, in a bizarre lounge-mu­sic skit, co­me­dian and “Late Show” favourite Bill Mur­ray.

““Such a dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing a guy’s side­kick for 33 years and fronting the or­ga­ni­za­tion. But I’m hav­ing an ab­so­lute gas and find­ing that it is an art form unto it­self; and ev­ery time I do it, I learn more.”

Shaf­fer still meets with Let­ter­man ev­ery few weeks.

“We worked pretty hard for those 33 years, and from the two times that I got to host (the show), I couldn’t be­lieve the dif­fer­ence. ‘Oh my good­ness, this is what he’s been do­ing ev­ery night,” Shaf­fer says. “A per­son doesn’t have to work that hard for­ever.”

MIKE COP­POLA, GETTY

Paul Shaf­fer

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