A chat with Paul Shaffer

The man who played the introductions needs none himself. It’s Paul Shaffer, who simply doesn’t get enough credit for how he reshaped the role of music on late-night television. Thirty-three years as Letterman’s bandleader, and five before that on Saturday Night Live, Shaffer was as consistent a presence in many viewers’ lives as few others were on TV. The proud Canuck, who vowed he wasn’t going to retire once the Late Show With David Letterman finished in May 2015, is back in the public eye with a new album and tour, reuniting members of the Letterman band with a name devoted fans will be happy to hear again: Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band. We chatted with Shaffer by phone about music, saying goodbye to the Late Show and why he and Dave both still need an audience.

Letterman fans are thrilled to see you and the World’s Most Dangerous Band back at it. It must have been a thrill for you to work with them again, too.

Well, it was very natural. We set up and went to work just like old times without saying too much. We didn’t have to. We fell back into the old sign language and extra-sensory communication that we have. We were in the trenches together with Dave Letterman for all those 22 years, this larger version of the band. And before that some of the guys — Will Lee, Anton [Fig], Sid [McGinnis] — were with me almost the entire 11-year run at NBC which preceded it. So that’s a lot of time. Rock bands don’t normally last that long. Then we had gone our separate ways and hadn’t seen each other for maybe a year. But it was a very sweet reunion, yes.

I read recently that there was talk of doing a reunion Late Show Christmas show at New York City, and that Letterman ultimately kiboshed it. Were you involved in that?

Yes, I might have been involved in that. Yes, had it happened. But it was something that Dave himself changed his mind on. He just didn’t think that recreating a show that we used to do each year — we used to do the same Christmas show every year, as you remember — but it didn’t cost any money at that time. You could keep doing the same thing year after year knowing that people weren’t paying for it. He didn’t think it was fair to ask people to come to a theatre and pay for something that they used to get for free. I think that was the bottom line: Dave changed his mind on it. And I think that’s heroic.

It’s a shame from a paying-customer standpoint. But it’s good to see those old shows live on via YouTube at least.

And one might surmise that Dave likes to be in front of an audience, and considered the idea, before he changed his mind. He certainly does still enjoy an audience. And that’s part of what I love about him.

You’ve said that you still meet with him regularly. Do you think there are plans ever to work with him again or for him to do something substantial, like you’re doing with the new album?

Well, I don’t think he needs to go on TV again, but as long as he gets an opportunity, which he still does, to show up somewhere and give somebody an award — me, he’s done several times — but in doing so, the opportunity to address an audience kind of keeps him going and he doesn’t need too much of it. Just enough to remind him that he was once in show business, as was I.

It seems there’s somewhat of a difference between Dave and yourself in terms of needing that show business or creative connection. I remember the Rolling Stone interview after Letterman announced he was leaving the Late Show, where you said you were definitely not retiring. And this record, the tour, that’s a product of that: you are still active.

Yes, yes. Because even though I said that, I was tired and when we finished up those 33 years and I thought, “Well, I should take a rest first. Let me lie down.” But I wasn’t prone very long before I started just getting antsy and depressed. I have a need to play the piano. I realized that, you know, it’s kind of equivalent to Dave’s need [to be in front of an audience]. Mine is I’ve got to make music. I love to play the piano and I love to play for people. And when I got the opportunity to make this record, I cheered up right away. I had something to do. And it was a musical something. Getting the old band back together was really the icing on the cake. It showed me plain as day, I’ve got to keep making music. That’s how I thrive.

You use the phrase “getting the old band back together” and that immediately takes one back to the Blues Brothers — a project you worked on in the 1970s — where they use very much that same language in the movie.

As I have been doing interviews regarding this project and the fact that I did reunite the World’s Most Dangerous Band, I don’t think I was the first person to bring up that phrase. People do remember that phrase in that movie. It was pretty strong. They have been saying that and it wasn’t me. But now I’m saying it, too.

As for the new album, it’s great. It’s fun. And I was surprised it was as contemporary as it sounds — it feels of the moment even though it’s primarily covers. I think my favourite song is the Darius Rucker cover of Timmy Thomas’s “Why Can’t We Live Together.”

Yeah, I can see why. I love that one.

It’s a terrific vocal. Your organ is fantastic. And one thing I picked up on, which frankly I hadn’t before, was the political relevance of the song. Was that in the back of yours or his mind in picking that?

Sure. You know who suggested it was an old friend of mine from Canada named David Smyth. He and I were childhood friends and we used to listen to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band together and play in local bands in Thunder Bay. I called him and said, “David, what should I record?” I just felt like going back to one’s roots. David came up with that idea. And he came up with it, I believe, because musically it reminded him of me. It featured an organ, even on the original record — not a solo, but certainly organ was prominent. And when I listened to it, of course, I heard the lyric, too. And then said, “Well, this is what we need today.” It was obvious. And Darius agreeing to sing it was just perfect.

You mentioned your love for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in your autobiography, which I’m currently reading. If there’s one thing I really take away from it is your love of music. Not that it shouldn’t have been obvious before, but it’s so clear on the page. I’m Spotifying music left and right while reading it. I know you’ve said James Brown is one of your favourite artists, but do you have a favourite record that jumps out for you?

My favourite record is “My Girl” by The Temptations. Hands down. Favourite of all of them, of all rock-and-roll records. Because I love everything about it: the song, the composition of the song by Smokey Robinson. The arrangement, the instrumental arrangement: the strings, horns, alto sax at the very end. The vocals, lead vocal, David Ruffin, one of the greats of all time. Background vocals and arrangement, just phenomenal. And rhythm section, bass, piano… that’s hard to hear, you don’t hear it initially, but now it just fascinates me. And this record is such that when it comes on the radio, I never take it off. I always tune in and listen to it and always learn something new about what’s in the background on the record. And gain new appreciation for that lead vocal of David Ruffin.

I had a chance to read Jason Zinoman’s new book on David Letterman, and it says in there you weren’t able to read music or still can’t. I find that so hard to believe, especially as in your book you say you had music lessons. Is that wrong?

Yes, of course, I took music lessons and I can read and I can write and arrange. But I can’t sight-read. That’s what I mean by that. I can’t sit down with a two-stave piano part and play it like many of my friends in the studio business can. I never could. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, that had been my real ambition at that time, to become a studio piano player, and I was able to do it because I learned how to read enough to get by. And then sometimes I would just say, “Can I have five minutes with this chart?” I could certainly get through sessions, but I’m just not the kind of sight-reader that somebody like Bette Sussman or Robbie Kondor, Cliff Carter – guys that I would sometimes call when I needed a second keyboard player on the Letterman show, knowing that if it was a written singing part, Robbie Kondor could play this without even having to think twice about it. I’m not that kind of sight-reader. But I can read music.

Was there any difficulty in getting the name, the World’s Most Dangerous Band, back? Because there was obviously some “intellectual property” nonsense with it back in the ’90s.

Well, exactly. The name, which was David’s name of course — he named us the World’s Most Dangerous Band and said that he got the sort of nomenclature from the world of wrestling. And we always had the most fun. But yeah, it got slipped up into that crazy late-show wars thing and became intellectual property and had to be left behind [when Letterman moved his show from NBC to CBS]. But my manager, Eric Gardner, when we were trying to figure out what we were going to call the band, said, “You know, I don’t think there’s an NBC executive over there that was even alive when all that stuff went down.” He made a call and sure enough they said, “Well, we don’t even remember that. Of course, use the name. We don’t care.” So hats off to them, and yes, we’re back to being the World’s Most Dangerous Band.

I also wanted to ask you about that last Late Show in May 2015. It was a momentous show, following such a tremendous run of final episodes. Can you talk about what that experience was like?

I think truthfully, I haven’t thought about it since then and I don’t think that I really realized the significance of it at the time. It’s hard to realize that after 33 years of doing five of them a week you are now going to do none. So we did the last show, my family was there sitting in the audience and David did an elegant job, I thought. He elegantly thanked his family, which was so important to him of course. And said goodnight in a very understated way. Then, you know, it’s sort of hitting me right now: “Oh yeah, we did a last show.” Yeah, it was something. I didn’t think so much about it, you know. The very next day my daughter Victoria graduated from the New School, so I went to her graduation and saw her in that cap and gown and that kept me going for a while. Ultimately though, the big change that it was became evident and it was quite physical the change in schedule and what it did to my sleeping patterns and stuff. My body relaxed and I realized, “Boy we were all pretty tightly wound during that show.” But it certainly was a privilege to be that tightly wound. It was a lot of fun.

I’m looking at a photo of you and me taken after one of the last Late Shows. I had the privilege of going to the one with Martin Short, a fellow Hamiltonian. So thank you for that and all your time on the show — it was incredible. It’s terrific seeing you guys back and hopefully we’ll get a chance to speak again about future projects.

Fun talking to you. Thank you. I’m very flattered you heard the record and that you enjoyed it. Thank you very much.

Thank you, Paul.

Paul Shaffer and author, May 2015.