Music, comedy keep Shaffer near the action

January 03, 1992|By Jim Abbott | Jim Abbott,Orlando Sentinel

Paul Shaffer's infatuation with his rock 'n' roll roots hasn't wavered since his earliest performances as a teen-ager in his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

The working conditions have improved considerably, though.

"We had a regular gig in a hockey arena," Shaffer said of his first band. "They would put plywood on the ice, and we would play there each Saturday night.

"It would be freezing cold. You would see your breath as you were singing 'Louie, Louie.'"

Although the climate was less than hospitable, those early shows gave Shaffer -- now bandleader for "Late Night With David Letterman" -- valuable experience for his future role as a celebrity sideman. Often, the group would perform with such touring bands as the Guess Who, the Troggs and the Animals.

To hear Shaffer describe it, the Thunder Bay scene was a nutty, cuckoo, wacky kind of musical environment.

"I look back on it like it's the Liverpool scene, this Thunder Bay, Canada, scene," he said with a trace of good-natured sarcasm. "It was cool because you could try to make it up there. We used to read Hit Parader magazine -- that was our bible. Then we would rap about stuff we had read in Hit Parader as if we really knew something about it."

After high school, Shaffer pursued a sociology degree at the University of Toronto before deciding on show business. A job as musical director for the Toronto company of "Godspell" led to a brief stint in the orchestra pit for "The Magic Show" on Broadway.

He got the big break two years later, in 1975, when he was chosen as the piano player for a new NBC comedy show, "Saturday Night Live."

"It was very exciting. . . . I had a great perspective on it from the piano bench. Not to sound too maudlin, but it was an interesting place to watch the action go down. I saw my friends become stars. I saw some of them pass away."

Shaffer's knack for comedy -- most notably his impersonation of rock manager Don Kirshner and his supporting role in Bill Murray's nightclub-singer skits -- earned him featured-player status during the show's fifth season. But Shaffer's greatest coup was forming the Blues Brothers Band, an all-star ensemble that backed Jake and Elwood Blues (played by John Belushi and NTC Dan Aykroyd). Under Shaffer's direction, the band would release three albums.

"John and Danny's relationship was symbiotic -- if I only knew the definition of that word," Shaffer said, slipping into his show-business shtick. "But I don't. I shouldn't use it. Whatever it was, they had a great relationship.

"John and I put the band together, and it was incredible who we could get. We put together really the greatest R&B, blues revue, show band that we could have imagined -- with some authentic guys who sounded great."

The lineup included guitarists Matt Murphy and Steve Cropper, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, drummer Steve Jordan (now with Keith Richards' X-Pensive Winos) and a horn section made up of New York City session players Lou Marini, Alan Rubin and Tom Malone. When the group traveled to Los Angeles, sax man Tom Scott joined the ranks. Shaffer said that the enthusiasm was infectious as the band prepared to record its first album, "Briefcase Full of Blues."

"Things just kind of fell together naturally. The band was very competitive. It was really hot. Rehearsals were everybody trying to outplay each other all at the sametime. It was really kind of a magical thing."

Shaffer decided to leave "Saturday Night Live" in 1980, and within a year, he was tapped as bandleader for "Late Night With David Letterman." Shaffer jumped at the chance.

"I'm closer to the action on 'Letterman,'" he said. "It's more fun for me for that reason."

After almost a decade, Shaffer said that the on-screen patter with his boss is strictly unrehearsed.

"We don't plan out any of the stuff that we do. My job really is to give him what he needs and to support him; that's all I'm really trying to do. But on the other hand, he has been really supportive of me -- encouraging me to develop these conversations that we have and to just leave them spontaneous. He doesn't like to plan anything -- and he's very supportive of the work that I do musically on the show."

Musically, Shaffer and the World's Most Dangerous Band (bassist Will Lee, guitarist Sid McGinnis and drummer Anton Fig) get to stretch out behind a steady stream of talented musical guests, ranging from James Taylor and Huey Lewis to the hot new British band the La's. But Shaffer, 42, has no input into the selection of the performers.

"It's out of my hands and I stay out of it," he said.

In addition, the band also takes the show into commercial breaks with souped-up versions of such rock chestnuts as "Good Lovin'," "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "Expressway to Your Heart," many of which Shaffer launches into with but a moment's notice to his cohorts. But he downplays the group's sense of innovation when it comes to arrangements.

"We just try to do them accurately -- that's all we're trying to do -- because they were done so great the first time."

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