Few musicians have logged more television time than Paul Shaffer. In addition to being David Letterman’s bandleader and sidekick from 1982 to 2015, Paul was part of the band on Saturday Night Live for nearly five years. He also starred in the CBS sitcom A Year At The Top, hosted the VH1 game show Cover Wars, and appeared in the classic comedy This Is Spinal Tap; there is a long-standing rumor that Paul was offered the role of George Costanza on Seinfeld.
Off-screen, Paul’s credits as a musician are also very impressive. He got his start in musical theater, serving as musical director of the Toronto production of Godspell, eventually finding his way to Broadway in New York. While still in the SNL fold, he was a major creative force behind The Blues Brothers. Early into his Late Night With David Letterman tenure, he played keyboards for Robert Plant’s post-Zeppelin band The Honeydrippers and contributed the impressive synth solo to Scandal’s “Goodbye To You.” He co-wrote the song “It’s Raining Men” for The Weather Girls, which went Top 10 around the world and has since been covered by RuPaul and The Spice Girls’ Geri Halliwell. He has also released several solo albums, one of which Grammy-nominated and two of which produced by Todd Rundgren.
Paul has not slowed down his leaving the Late Show With David Letterman. He has been the musical director of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony since its inception. He was the musical director and on-screen accompanist for 2015’s Primetime Emmy-nominated A Very Murray Christmas. Last year he recorded his third solo album alongside his Letterman bandmates, Paul Shaffer & The World’s Most Dangerous Band, as released via Sire Records on Mar. 17; it features vocals from Dion, Jenny Lewis, Bill Murray, Darius Rucker, Shaggy and Valerie Simpson.
In support of The World’s Most Dangerous Band, Paul and band will be appearing at the Theater At Westbury on Apr. 22. One night earlier, the show comes to Montclair’s Wellmont Theater. Paul spoke to Downtown about his new album, the tour, James Brown, New York and plenty more. He can followed on Twitter via @PaulShaffer.
First, I wanted to ask you about the book you wrote a couple of years ago. Was it enjoyable for you to write the book in considering that you are primarily known as a sideman and a host and all that? Or was writing a book a completely different creative experience for you?
Paul Shaffer: Well of course it was. I was very much lucky to have David Ritz writing it with me. He is a pro, does a lot of music biographies, started with the Ray Charles book that he did back in the 70’s and Marvin Gaye and on and on…A lot of process was sitting with David and remembering stories that happened, and then you know putting them together with him and making a book out of it. I loved the process.
Sure. Was there a lot of material that was leftover from the book? A lot of stories that you still feel you hope to tell one day in another book or another form?
PS: Of course…I didn’t get to talk about about seeing Siegfried and Roy in Las Vegas with James Brown and then hanging out with all three of them later on…That is a book in itself really, but yeah, I couldn’t put everything in there…That certainly was one of the things I realized about the book that I did write a little bit inside…
Speaking of things that are inside, a lot of people know of course that you co-wrote the song “It’s Raining Men,” but I was curious if you had been otherwise in the co-writing game, trying to place music with other artists. Or was that just a one-off for you?
PS: I have written a few other things but it was a sort of a one-off. My co-writer was Paul Jabara, who wrote a number of other hits including “Last Dance” by Donna Summer. I had back in the 70s, when I was working in the studio as a session musician, I had done arrangements for this guy. One song we did together was called “One Man Ain’t Enough,” so he was already working towards that concept…
Anyway, Paul called and said, “I’ve got this title I want to write and you were so great as my arranger. I would love it if we co-wrote this thing.” He said, “What do you think about the title ‘It’s Raining Men?’” I said, “I will be right over,” and that is how it came about. I have written a few other things, songs, I mean comedy songs of course. One called “Kung Fu Christmas” for the National Lampoon back in ’74… Really I just love to play. I just love the immediate ratification that you get from playing the piano and playing songs that I love. Writing was just never a priority with me…That is all I can say.
So you do have the upcoming show at Westbury with The World’s Most Dangerous Band and the album coming out on Rhino/Sire. Does that mean that you and the band are still fully intact and you hope to keep it going, even though you are not on TV every night?
PS: Well, we love to play together. Everybody is doing their own thing now…I brought everybody back together to do the album and there was just, I was in love with the reunion, you know. We all loved playing together and felt comfortable playing together. After all those years, now we speak the same language, so we did the record together, we had a great time together and it all, it made sense to do some live appearances, which we are going to be doing springtime. Everybody was interested so you know, simple as that…
For somebody who is a fan of yours and the other musicians for years on television but may not be so sure of what they are going to see live on tour, do you have a way of describing the show?
PS: Well, I am going to be telling a lot of stories…I would be bringing them out as stories about times on the Letterman show, different artists that we’ve worked with and then in many cases, backing it up with some of the music. You know. James Brown is a guy who was just such a great influence, my very favorite, and I got to play for him so many times on Letterman. Every time was a lesson…so you know I wanted to tell the audience about that and then you know demonstrate in songs…We are also going to be playing tunes from the new album.
Well, you’ve mentioned so far James Brown a couple of times. I remember you often coming in and out of commercial on Letterman, doing the James Brown cape routine. Is that something you ever talked about with him?
PS: With James?
PS: No…We got into a routine for, I think years, where every Friday I would do the routine and a different celebrity would come out and put the cape on. The pinnacle of it was when he himself did it, James Brown came out himself to put the cape on me. So you know, that was, I could have retired that after that. It was such a thrill but I did not get to…I never did.
Is it true that James Brown lifted the cape concept from Gorgeous George, the old professional wrestler? Did you ever hear that?
PS: Yeah, I have read it, sure. I have read it in the history books, I did not get a chance to confirm it with him, no, in any of the conversations I had, but I believe it. You know, it makes sense. I remember, well, I am old enough to remember Gorgeous George and I remember his outfits and his capes and stuff. So if James Brown has to be pretty honest if he ever did it admit it personally…It would be an honest thing to say, “I got it from a wrestler.”
So you have the upcoming tour and you have the album coming out on Rhino/Sire. When you have a free moment, what do you like to do in your spare time?
PS: I have two kids, my daughter is 23 living, she is out of the house, but my son is a senior in high school still at home, and I just like to spend as much time with him as he has for me. That is my priority and I have my best times with him and my daughter too, so hanging out with them, that is it.
I must say that you created or at least you portrayed two of the greatest comedy characters ever between Artie Fufkin and your impression of Don Kirshner. Do you have aspirations to act or be on the camera without an instrument again?
PS: Sure, I love it. I found the experience very musical, especially comedy, comedy in front of an audience, because it is something like getting that reaction from the audience and the waiting for it and then going on with your line and timing is just perfectly. I enjoy it so much and getting that kind of response from an audience is just the same as getting a response for one’s music from an audience. I would love to do small acting, yes.
Cool, and back to the hobby thing, do you have a favorite restaurant in New York? I realize that you have been here for over 40 years in New York.
PS: Yeah. I still go to a place called Caffe Cielo, right near the Ed Sullivan Theater, so I used to have lunch there very often. Now they have moved farther down in the Theater District to 49th Street, but I still go there because there is a group of friends who have lunch at the bar. Also, Gallagher’s Steakhouse on 52nd it’s right by the old theater where I used to work. That’s a place I go for the oxtail soup. So those are the two places that come to mind.
Still a Midtown West guy, cool. And so finally, Paul, any last words for the kids?
PS: Well, yes, hey kids…That’s it. (laughs) You know keep your nose to the grindstone. and enjoy being a kid.