Canada’s Piano Man

(Photo courtesy of CBS)

Paul Shaffer returns with a star-studded solo album

To say Paul Shaffer gets around is an understatement. Best known for his 33-year association with David Letterman in the role of friend/musical director/first banana, the 67-year-old pianist has enough experience under his belt to serve as the lives of three or four other people. He was house band member for the initial five-year run of Saturday Night Live’s original Not Ready for Prime-Time Players from 1975 to 1980, was part of the inner circle of a number of comedic legends (Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Victor Garber, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas and Andrea Martin), was offered the role of George Costanza on Seinfeld and can be heard pounding out the distinctive synthesizer solo at the heart of the 1982 Scandal hit “Goodbye to You.” The affable Canadian musician’s connection for most people is via Letterman, so when the talk show host walked away from the late night world in 2015, Shaffer suddenly found himself with lots of time on his hands. And while initially embracing this transition, he wasn’t truly happy until record company mogul Seymour Stein offered him the opportunity to record what became Shaffer’s third studio outing, this year’s Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band. His return to the role of recording artist wound up coming at the perfect time.

“As much as one may think they are prepared for [quasi-retirement], you went from going 100 miles an hour every single day down to zero. Still, with this feeling of ‘It’s time to stop and smell the roses,’ I got so depressed. I’m not cut out for that,” he explains. “I got this call from Seymour Stein asking if I’d like to cut a record. He’s a friend that I’ve gotten to know over the years from working with him on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a legendary record man. I started working on this record, cheered up immediately, realized that playing the piano is the way for me to go and that’s what I’ve got to keep doing. I couldn’t be more excited.”

Paul Shaffer and The World’s Most Dangerous Band (Photo by Sandrine Lee).

Helming the recording is storied producer and songwriter Richard Gottehrer, who Shaffer used to work for as a session musician back in the 1970s. Longtime friend Dion pops up on a Caribbean-flavored reading of Sam Cooke’s “Win Your Love For Me,” while fellow session vet and legendary songwriter Valerie Simpson teams up with World’s Most Dangerous Band guitarist Felicia Collins on “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” a 1966 hit Simpson co-wrote for Ray Charles. Elsewhere, Shaffer’s role as musical director for the 2015 Bill Murray Netflix variety special A Very Murray Christmas not only led to Murray popping up for a laconic stroll through the peppy original “Happy Street,” but provided Shaffer the opportunity to ask fellow guest Jenny Lewis to sing lead on his version of the 1965 McCoys nugget “Sorrow.” And while his relationship with Murray goes back to his being an accompanist for the latter’s Nick the Lounge Lizard SNL character, Shaffer was nonetheless impressed by what his friend brought to the table.

“For all that funny stuff [Bill] did on SNL, he loves to sing. His Netflix special is wall-to-wall music—it’s mostly him singing,” Shaffer says. “On this one, he was under the microscope in the studio and he really came through and delivered.”

The cast of A Year At the Top, from bottom left clockwise: Paul Shaffer, Julie Cobb, Greg Evigan, Nedra Volz, Gabriel Dell

Shaffer’s adventures included a brief stint costarring in A Year At the Top, a 1977 CBS sitcom co-produced by Norman Lear and Don Kirshner and costarring television star Greg Evigan. This series based on the Faust legend featured Shaffer and Evigan as two struggling musicians who make a pact with the son of the devil for a year of success lasted only five episodes, but gave the former a valuable impression that gave him his SNL on-camera debut.

“I moved to California and it took a whole year to do the five episodes that ended up airing,” he says. “Nobody was interested in picking it up and I was lucky enough to get my old job back on SNL. But when I came back, I was armed with the impression of Don Kirshner that I had developed while I was out there.”

And while all these show business experiences have made for a very rich life, music has always been a constant in Shaffer’s life. Formal classical music lessons started when Shaffer was 6 (“My mother believed that when a kid is old enough to read English, he’s old enough to take lessons and read music”), but it was rock and roll radio’s siren song that had the young Thunder Bay native learning how to play by ear while developing an affinity for Del Shannon and The Four Seasons (“When the Four Seasons were on The Ed Sullivan Show, I almost didn’t notice when The Beatles appeared on there.”) In high school, Shaffer saw his first concert (Liberace at a local hockey arena), and was a devout fan of The Guess Who (“Before they had their hits, they were the greatest cover band”) and numerous R&B Toronto-area groups including Mandala, Luke & The Apostles and Jon and Lee and the Checkmates. Shaffer also opened for Eric Burdon and the New Animals and The Troggs. But it was a 1972 Toronto production of Godspell that was a seminal moment. Here, show composer Steven Schwartz asked Shaffer, who was accompanying his girlfriend to the audition, to play piano for the tryouts before offering him the show conductor position. This big break was also a glimpse into sketch comedy’s future.

SCTV certainly started there in that little production of Godspell with Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin and Marty in it and yes, front row seat I had,” he recalls. “I was influenced comedically by those people for sure. I started to learn how they were doing what they were doing, always making people laugh and really having more fun with their lives because of it. And I started to try to be a little bit more like them and I will admit it now. It’s true. They were very influential to me.”