By Kevin Zimmerman
Paul Shaffer: Renaisance Man
Paul Shaffer hardly needs any introduction. David Letterman’s bandleader since 1982 (first at NBC, now at CBS), he’s also been a familiar face in such projects as Saturday Night Live (composer/band member as well as occasional onscreen presence), played on the original Blues Brothers album, and has served as musical director and producer of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies since its inception in 1986.
One gets the sense that Shaffer’s drive, belied by his slightly dazed hepcat image on Letterman, would have led him to musical success one way or another – an idea he shares. “I grew up watching the Guess Who when they’d play [Shaffer’s Canadian hometown] Thunder Bay nearly every Christmas. They’d play a lot of covers, and I thought that was all you needed to do in life.”
Relocating to New York in the 1970s, he found that “Everyone was writing, and I was getting asked by people like Christopher Guest to co-write song parodies for the National Lampoon albums.” Through Lampoon he met such future SNL stars as Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and Martin Short; being a part of that group, it was natural for SNL bandleader Howard Shore to invite Shaffer along to play piano and occasionally compose.
It was his combination of composing and comedic talent that led to the Letterman gig, for which he still happily performs his theme song and other “special material” as needed. In fact, he says, his career has been all about being up to the challenge and being available: “The great songwriter Sammy Cahn was asked what comes first, the words or the music, and he said: ‘The phone call.’ I work all the time for Letterman, either writing by myself or collaborating with other members of the band on an ongoing basis.”
Shaffer’s famously encyclopedic knowledge of pop and rock – as evidenced by the sly intro music he usually employs to greet Letterman guests – can be a double-edged sword when composing, he says. “So often I think I’m writing something that’s really great, only to realize that it was already done by, like, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders in 1965.”
The 62-year-old also has warm words for SESAC. “Being a part of that has been terrific,” he says. “I’m not only in the company of some of the greatest writers out there today, as well as some classic writers, but I’m always struck by the new young writers I meet. To see how passionate they are about not only their own genre but each other’s genre is really inspiring. I feel like I’m in great company.”