Paul Shaffer: Dangerously Hip
Former Letterman Sidekick Gets the Band Back Together for a Summer Tour
For 33 years musician/songwriter/comedic actor Paul Shaffer was the erstwhile sidekick on David Letterman's two successful late night shows. The former Saturday Night Live and Blues Brothers alumnus led the band on both the NBC and CBS editions of the popular variety series. Letterman's impressive run ended two years ago this month when his final show was broadcast on May 20, 2015.
After a brief hiatus to refocus and relax, Shaffer is back in business with the long-standing Late Show crew along for the ride. Paul Shaffer and the World's Most Dangerous Band (Rhino/Sire Records ) finds the veteran line-up of the ensemble from the CBS series using their original NBC moniker for a hip new disc packed with predictably swingin' tunes and a diverse guestlist. Bill Murray, Dion, Darius Rucker, Jenny Lewis, Shaggy and Shaffer's current tourmate Valerie Simpson all contribute to the rollicking recording.
Insite recently spoke with the amiable Shaffer - a walking encyclopedia of music history and trivia - by phone from his studio in New York City.
You've always seemed to be the hip conduit between the '60s Brill Building singer-songwriter scene, Stax Records soul and '70s showtunes and pop. All filtered through the prism of a very New York state of mind.
That music just grabbed me. I grew up kind of in the middle of the wave just before the British Invasion. In New York, the Brill Building scene was what was happening. But I was up in northern Canada listening to the radio, tuning in the American stations. When I heard The Drifters sing "Up On The Roof" and The Crystals doing "Uptown," it painted a picture of New York City for me with all the music and the emotions that seemed to come from it. I said, "I've got to get there and make some of that music."
You've stayed true to that sound ever since.
Yeah, I'm still a loyalist. But you know, I think we're all loyal to the music that we loved as we grew up. I've stayed with it and hey, now it's coming around again. People are realizing that those songs are quality and they'll be with us forever.
Great songs are timeless - and you have a new album full of them.
Well thank you, I love that segue and I am proud of the album. We wrote a couple but all the rest of them are just great songs that I've discovered and some that you will already know. Many are from that Brill Building era.
I definitely feel a great kinship and reverence for the Brill Building itself. It's incredible that so much great stuff came from one physical address [1619 Broadway]. Every time I've walked by that place, I have to touch that gold nameplate above the entrance, you know?
Oh I do know! But you've got a great musical tradition down there in Atlanta, too. "Traces," of course, is one of my favorite songs from Atlanta by the Classics IV. And The Atlanta Rhythm Section, Paul Davis, all of that stuff.
It's funny you mention the Atlanta Rhythm Section in particular because I've had people from further away than where you grew up who want to know about "Doraville," for example. It's always kind of a jolt.
Well music paints pictures or creates images in the mind. When I was growing up, I was imagining what New York would be like. From songs like "Knock Three Times," you'd think about those glamorous tenement buildings and the exciting lives of the people who may have lived there. It was all appealing to me because I was up in Canada and I was just waxing my skis and listening to the radio. That's all that was happening up there. But Atlanta, it's a Peachtree of a town, I've gotta say.
You mentioned your early days in Canada. I'm kind of surprised you didn't gravitate toward Second City in Toronto before heading on to New York.
Well I do know a lot of those people from Second City and they continue to be a lot of my best friends. But when the whole Second City-type thing started happening, I had already left town. I came to New York in 1974 to play on Broadway. Just before I left, all my friends were starting the Second City nightclub up there. So I was around for that but then I left the fold and started making my own path. Then I got on Saturday Night Live and while that was happening their nightclub scene turned into the SCTV television program, which is still one of my favorites.
This is a very New York record in many ways, but with Seymour Stein involved, the deal is sealed.
We became friends over the years because we've both participated in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinners. As you know, he's a legendary record exec who started Sire Records in the late '70s with everybody from Madonna to Talking Heads and The Ramones. He called me up after the Letterman show was over and asked if I wanted to get back in the record business. So I made this record for him. It's on Rhino but the label says Sire just for old time's sake.
In keeping with the whole historic vibe, you have Seymour's old partner at Sire as producer.
Yeah, Richard Gottehrer. I used to work for him when I was doing union sessions in the '70s. You know, he was in The Strangeloves and they had that hit "I Want Candy" and he wrote "My Boyfriend's Back." So anyway, with this record I got a lot of that old history and filled in some of the blanks of my own knowledge of that early New York rock history.
You certainly assembled an eclectic all-star line-up for it.
Yeah we have Bill Murray on it and the great Jenny Lewis, this fantastic alt-country-rock chick. She does a beautiful job on the song "Sorrow" that Richard wrote, The McCoys first recorded and David Bowie also covered. We have Darius Rucker, Shaggy, the incredible Dion - my goodness, "The Wanderer" himself - and Valerie Simpson who sings her own hit "I Don't Need No Doctor."
She's on tour with you and was on your first album. You guys must go way back.
We've been friends since we used to run into each other when we were both doing session work in the '70s. She's a background vocalist on anything from the first Blood, Sweat and Tears record to commercials for Dermassage lotion - which is when I met her. We were both selling Dermassage! And now on the tour she comes out and does a half hour in the middle of the set. I think it's really worth seeing.
This tour is your first big-scale project since that final Letterman broadcast a couple of years ago. [Drummer] Anton Figg said that last show was a surreal experience. What's your take on it in retrospect?
Surreal certainly describes it. Then there was that moment when I said, "What am I going to do now?" It had been 33 years when you combine the NBC and CBS shows. 33 years of always knowing where you're going to be and then, all of a sudden, you're free to do anything you want! It was certainly a big change. My whole metabolism changed. We were all kind of tightly-wound because every day was another show. It took me a good year to kind of get over it and regroup and try to figure out what to do. Slow down? No. That didn't work, I tried it. Play the piano? Yes! That turned out to be what I needed to keep on doing. So that's what I'm doing now for the tour and on the record and I couldn't be happier.
Do you ever miss the show?
Of course but I see Dave Letterman all the time and I've got the band back together so life is good.
You've played a lot of music with those guys for a long time. It must be intuitive at this point.
Yeah we do finish each other's licks. That's what made the record so pleasant to make. I didn't even have to say anything; it's like sign language with us. Everybody knows my signals and I know theirs. It really is a "band." You know, The Beatles was only a band for a short time, just a few years. Not that we're The Beatles but we have been going for a long time.
Without the daily pressures of TV has the band dynamic changed it all?
Well certainly when we start a song we can finally play it all the way through. We don't have to fade into commercials anymore.
Paul Shaffer and The World's Most Dangerous Band (with special guest Valerie Simpson) play Center Stage June 11 at 8 p.m. For more information visit centerstage-atlanta.com.