Born Paul Allan Shaffer, November 28, 1949, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; raised in Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Ontario; immigrated to the United States, 1974; only son of a lawyer; married in 1990; children: one daughter. Education: Received degree in psychology from the University of Toronto. Religion: Jewish. Addresses: c/o Panacea Entertainment, 2705 Glendower Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90027.
Although Paul Shaffer is best known as late-night television guru David Letterman's musical director, quirky sidekick, and bandleader, he is also a definitive role model for aspiring keyboard players, rock repertoire cover bands, and rhythm section leaders. In addition to releasing solo albums with his band--known as the Party Boys of Rock 'n' Roll--he has contributed to the albums of a dazzling array of musicians, including the Blues Brothers, Diana Ross, Nina Hagen, Yoko Ono, Barry Manilow, Paul Rodgers, the Honeydrippers, the Jeff Healey Band, and Joan Armatrading. His trademark approach to covering songs has been to combine a faithfulness to the original material with an infusion of his own enthusiastic, rollicking style.
Shaffer's group was called the World's Most Dangerous Band from 1982 through August of 1993, during their time on NBC-TV's long-running show Late Night With David Letterman. When the Late Show With David Letterman debuted on CBS-TV on August 30, 1993 (after much political wrangling and network maneuvering), Shaffer changed the name of his band to Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra. On their own albums, however, the ensemble goes by the name the Party Boys of Rock 'n' Roll. Shaffer's band is comprised of drummer Anton Fig, bassist Will Lee, guitarist Sid McGinnis, synthesizer virtuoso and former Funkadelic/Parliament member Bernie Worrell, and rhythm guitarist Felicia Collins.
Shaffer accompanies the musical guests on the Late Show With David Letterman and, as a result, has played with an extensive roster of jazz, rock, folk, soul, hip-hop, and reggae musicians since he first became musical director and straight man for Letterman in 1982. Much of his job entails being able to accommodate an array of musical styles--often with less than a half hour's rehearsal--and consequently, he has developed into a laudably flexible musician with a working knowledge of scores of musical forms.
An only child, Shaffer was raised in Fort William (later called Thunder Bay), Ontario--then a town of under 100,000 people. He studied classical piano as a child and often performed in piano competitions. However, his interest turned to rock music when he reached his mid-teens. Fellow Canadian Neil Young was an early influence on Shaffer, along with such acts as the Beatles, the Bonnevilles, and the Merseybeats.
Shaffer began his musical career at the age of 16 in a local band called the Fugitives. He played regularly at high school dances on Friday nights and at local bars such as the Flamingo and the 4-D, two places where Neil Young used to entertain as well. Since Shaffer couldn't afford a Vox keyboard--and a Hammond organ was too unwieldy to tote--he originally played a Hohner organ with only four octaves, before moving on to a Yamaha single-keyboard organ. One of the highlights of his teen years in Thunder Bay was opening for the Troggs.
Shaffer had anticipated following in his father's professional footsteps. He originally planned to earn a law degree from the University of Toronto and then join the elder Shaffer's law firm. He ceased playing and studying music for his first two years of college and was miserable as a result. A friend urged him to take up his keyboard again; he did, and he then knew he had to follow his heart rather than his family's expectations. Shortly after graduating with a degree in psychology from the University of Toronto, Shaffer auditioned for the role of musical director for the 1972 Toronto production of Godspell; landing the spot was his first big break. Godspell ran for 15 months.
During the early 1970s, Shaffer immersed himself in Toronto's cultural scene and created bonds of friendship with several artists who would later dominate American comedy. Fellow Godspell cast members included future Saturday Night Live performers Martin Short and Gilda Radner; the three remained friends for decades. Canadian-born producer/director Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live, along with comedians Dan Aykroyd and John Candy, were also influential in Shaffer's early professional life.
Shaffer made his first trip to New York City in 1974 to record the movie album for Godspell. He was then hired to play piano in the Broadway musical The Magic Show, and soon he was also playing for National Lampoon's Radio Hour. Shaffer put in 15-hour days throughout the mid-1970s, jumping from demo taping to commercial jingle gigs to radio show recordings. He never knew with whom he would be playing--everyone from James Brown to Judy Collins would turn up--and he was enthralled with the excitement of his work.
In addition to being a session musician, Shaffer had a flair for theatrical timing and television presentation. He first began flexing his comedy muscle as writer of special musical material for Saturday Night Live in 1975; he also worked on National Lampoon's Good-Bye Pop parody album, which was released the next year. In addition, Shaffer collaborated on the Blues Brothers' 1978 album Briefcase Full of Blues; it sold over 3 million copies and hit the top of the music charts.
After his stint with the Blues Brothers, Shaffer worked with Gilda Radner on her Broadway show Gilda Live. Shortly thereafter, in 1979, he left his post at Saturday Night Live to star in a television comedy called A Year at the Top, which was produced by Norman Lear and Don Kirshner but, due to disappointing ratings, ran for only six weeks. Shaffer then returned to Saturday Night Live and found a comedic niche o the show by impersonating rock emcee Don Kirshner for two seasons in various skits. He also played band manager Artie Fufkin in the comedic mock-documentary This Is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner. By 1982 Shaffer had been offered the position of musical director for late night television personality David Letterman. Due to his witty retorts, hard-driving musical style, and the overall popularity of Letterman's show, Shaffer became a national celebrity.
Even with his late night success, Shaffer shunned the traditional trappings of wealth and fame: the manager, agent, personal trainer, and flashy summer home. He threw all of his energy into his work and music. This commitment took its toll on his personal life: Shaffer was forced to sever a six-year relationship with a woman who was tired of taking the backseat to his musical career. Shaffer did eventually marry in 1990, and had a daughter soon afterward. And his fervor for music, kitsch, and comedy remain as strong as ever.
In 1991 Shaffer produced an album with Dion, Ben E. King, Bobby Womack, and Wilson Pickett titled Coast to Coast, which features standard rock and roll and blues classics such as "Louie Louie," "What Is Soul?," and "Wang Dang Doodle." Shaffer then worked on Blues Traveler's 1993 effort Save His Soul. That same year, he released his own band's album, produced by Todd Rundgren and titled The World's Most Dangerous Party.
Shaffer told New York magazine contributor Michael Stone that the assimilation and appreciation of music is more than just a job or a sound. "I used to listen to rock and roll as a kid," he related. "People were leading such exciting lives. They were going 'under the boardwalk' to make out. Or 'up on the roof' to make love. And I was coming home from school frozen in my long underwear." Music came to represent all that was exciting in life to Shaffer, and over the years he has clearly joined in on the excitement himself.
by B. Kimberly Taylor
Paul Shaffer's Career
Began playing the piano at the age of six; played in piano competitions until his mid-teens; joined the band the Fugitives and played throughout Thunder Bay, Ontario, while in high school. Became musical director of Toronto's production of Godspell, 1972; moved to New York City, 1974; performed as a pianist in Broadway productions, created commercial jingles, made demo tapes, and worked for National Lampoon's Radio Hour. Became writer of special musical material for NBC-TV's Saturday Night Live, 1975; toured with the Blues Brothers as their musical director and recorded Briefcase Full of Blues, both 1978; worked with Gilda Radner in the Broadway show Gilda Live; left Saturday Night Live in 1979 to star in television comedy series A Year at the Top; returned to Saturday Night Live same year. Became David Letterman's musical director, 1982; with band, the Party Boys of Rock 'n' Roll, released The World's Most Dangerous Party, 1993.
- Selective Works
- Godspell, Arista, 1974.
- (With Barry Manilow) This One's for You, Arista, 1976.
- (With National Lampoon) Good-Bye Pop, Epic, 1976.
- (With the Jeff Healey Band) Feel This, Arista, 1977.
- (With the Blues Brothers) Briefcase Full of Blues, Atlantic, 1978.
- (With Joan Armatrading) Me Myself, A&M, 1980.
- (With Nina Hagen) Nunsexmonkrock, Columbia, 1980.
- (With Diana Ross) Silk Electric, RCA, 1981.
- (With the Blues Brothers) Made in America, Atlantic, 1982.
- (With Yoko Ono) It's Alright, Polydor, 1982.
- The Honeydrippers, Volume 1, Es Paranza (distributed by Atlantic), 1984.
- (With Dion, Ben E. King, Bobby Womack, and Wilson Pickett) Coast to Coast, Capitol/EMI Records, 1991.
- (With Blues Traveler) Save His Soul, A&M, 1993.
- (ith the Party Boys of Rock 'n' Roll) The World's Most Dangerous Party (includes special guest appearances by Richard Belzer, James Coburn, and Harry Shearer), SBK Records, 1993.
- Keyboard, September 1983; October 1986; March 1987; November 1989; October 1993.
- New York, June 2, 1986.
- New York Post, August 17, 1993.