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Paul Shaffer—born and bred music junkie and longtime leader of David Letterman’s Late Show band—opens up in this candid, endearing, hilarious, and star-studded memoir. From playing seedy strip joints in Toronto, to being the first musical director of Saturday Night Live and helping to form the Blues Brothers, to being onstage every night with David Letterman and playing with the greatest musicians of our time, Shaffer has lived the ultimate showbiz life. Now—dishing on everyone from John Belushi and Jerry Lewis to Mel Gibson and Britney Spears—Paul gives us the full behind-the-scenes story of his life, from banging out pop tunes on the piano at the age of twelve to leading the band every night at the Sullivan Theater.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
PAUL SHAFFER has been David Letterman's musical director for the past twenty-seven years. He also co-composed “It's Raining Men.”
DAVID RITZ has cowritten memoirs with, among others, Ray Charles and Don Rickles. He also co-wrote Sexual Healing.
Read an Excerpt
Dylan and Me
Bob Dylan was standing two feet away from me. It was the late seventies, and I was the piano player on Saturday Night Live. I was talking with his current producer, the legendary Jerry Wexler, as we watched Dylan rehearse his band. I was right where I belonged. Surely God had blessed me by putting me in this favored position. Only one problem: Dylan was wearing a huge cross.
So what was the problem?
A little background information: I grew up in an Orthodox synagogue. I also grew up at the end of Highway 61. My hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, is at the northern extreme of that storied road. Thunder Bay is where my close friend Wayne Tanner, one of the original Dylanologists, turned me on to the great singer/songwriter. His album Highway 61 Revisited was the Talmud to the Torah of my life. I learned Al Kooper's high organ line and Paul Griffin's piano part on "Like a Rolling Stone" note for note, sound for sound. The keyboard combination helped define Dylan's new sound. And the sound made me absolutely crazy. Then there was the certain knowledge that Dylan, the most important poet of our generation, was also a landsman. Bobby Zimmerman was a fellow Jew.
In the seventies, I had heard that Bob had returned to his Orthodox roots. Supposedly he was studying with a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn. Then came the rumors that our man Zimmy had ventured beyond the Old Testament into the New. I didn't want to believe it. I clung to the notion that once they cut the tip, you're always hip.
Yet there he was, onstage in Studio 8H at 30 Rock in themiddle of New York City, singing "You Got to Serve Somebody." And I knew damn well that "somebody" sure wasn't Moses. I was bothered and bewildered. Dylan was bewitched.
"Can we lose the cross, Jerry?" I whispered in Wexler's hairy ear.
"Oh, I wouldn't say anything," he said in a panic. "Bob takes this shit seriously."
"I'm kidding," I said.
But I wasn't.
The rolling stone rolled on. The planet took several spins, and several worlds later I was amazed to find myself on nightly television as musical director of Late Night with David Letterman. Word came down that on this particular night there were to be two guests. The first was the flamboyant pianist beloved by audiences in Las Vegas, none other than Liberace. The second was Dylan. Liberace was there to cook, Dylan to play.
"Hey, Dave," I said at the top of the show, "what a night! Liberace cooking? In my book, that cat always cooks. And Dylan—I'm shocked. Did you know he went electric?"
"Calm down, Paul," Dave said.
After Dave and Liberace worked up a soulful soufflé, Dylan came on with a borrowed band. Nonetheless, his three-song set was powerful. His "License to Kill" killed. Afterwards, I couldn't keep from knocking on heaven's door. I had to bond with Dylan.
When I stuck my head in his dressing room, I saw that he was with his lovely and talented girlfriend, singer Clydie King.
"Hi, Bob," I said and, offering Clydie a smile, quoted Dylan himself: "What's a sweetheart like her doing in a place like this?"
Bob nodded in my direction. He didn't say a word.
"You know, Bob, you grew up just 130 miles to the south of my hometown in Canada. We're linked by Highway 61. And I gotta tell you something else, man. Just like you, I spent my growing-up years with my ear pressed against the transistor listening to those faraway southern radio stations. Just like you, I learned to love rhythm and blues. And hey, Bob, how about that Bobby Vee? You played piano with him, I could sing both parts to 'Take Good Care of My Baby.' We're soul brothers."
I waited for his response, but none came. He just seemed to be staring into space. But I kept going.
"When you sang Roy Head's 'Treat Her Right' in rehearsal today, Bob, it sounded just great. I wish you'd record it."
Finally Bob looked me in the eyes. I'd obviously made a connection.
"Paul, do you think you could introduce me to Larry 'Bud' Melman?" he asked, referring to the lovable nerd who was a running character on our show.
I thought Dylan was kidding.
But he wasn't.
Years later, I encountered a different Bob at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner. This Bob enthusiastically grabbed his guitar and joined the post-dinner jam. His fellow jammers that night were,among others, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Jeff Beck. Bill Graham and I were running the thing together. In those years there were no rehearsals. The jams were completely spontaneous.
As a finale, I called "Like a Rolling Stone." Dylan graciously took the mic and began to sing, backed up by Mick and Tina. After the second chorus, Bill came out and whispered in my ear, "Guitar cutting session." He wanted the guitarists to play against each other. I set them up-first Beck, then Harrison, then all the others. The guitar riffs were stupendous, but now it was time to get back to the song. I looked at Bob and gestured toward the mic. He stared back blankly. He clearly didn't know what to do.
I moved in next to Dylan, realizing I had to lay it out for him. He needed to sing. So instead of gesturing, I just whispered in his ear. . .
"How does it feel?"
Wow! I thought, I'm directing Dylan to sing his own song with his own lyric.
Then he got it. He went to the mic and sang with Zimmerman zest, "How does it feel. . .to be on your own. . ."
And with that, if you'll forgive the pun, our poet laureate got us out of a jam.
Then came the Good Friday when Dylan crucified me, only to resurrect me on the Sunday. This passion played out on the stage of Radio City Music Hall. In those years we would sometimes broadcast a Letterman anniversary special. And for the tenth anniversary Dave wanted Dylan.
"Hey, Paul, Bob's agreed to come on," Dave said. "He'll play with the all-star band you've put together. Who do you have this year?"
"Carole King, Steve Vai, Chrissie Hynde, Doc Severinsen, Emmylou Harris, the James Brown horns—and that's just for starters."
"I'd love for Dylan to sing 'Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.' "
"Not sure it's enough of an anthem, Dave. This is going to be monstrous. Do you know 'One of Us Must Know' from Blonde on Blonde?"
"Not sure. Play it for me, Paul."
I slipped in the disc and within two bars Dave stopped me. "No," he said.
We went back and forth until we landed on the inevitable. It had to be "Like a Rolling Stone."
"You call Bob," said Dave. "You're the one who has the rapport with him."
"Right. Dylan loves me."
Dylan was hard to find. He lives on the road but is never anywhere for more than a day. Finally, I tracked him down in some motel in Des Moines and placed a call. When I told him that we'd be honored if he'd play"Like a Rolling Stone," he was lukewarm at best.
"That's a little obvious," he said."There's gotta be something else."
"Dave and I really see 'Like a Rolling Stone' as our grand finale."
The songwriter sighed. "It's a big catalog, Paul."
I was surprised to hear Bob Dylan sounding like music publisher Don Kirshner. Oh well, as an industry vet once told me, "It's all show biz. Totie Fields, John Coltrane—they're the same. Well, Totie could improvise."
"Tell you what, Paul. I'll be rehearsing my band in New York next week. Come by and we'll kick some things around."
When I showed up at the studio, Bob and the band were immersed in Paul Simon's "Hazy Shade of Winter." I'd later learn that Dylan dealt with writer's block by playing other people's songs. It loosened him up.
When they were done, he acknowledged me and indicated the piano.
"Let's try 'Rolling Stone,' " he said. I was pleasantly surprised. With the band behind me, I rose to the occasion. Paul Griffin would have been proud. Dylan was happy. It was on.
The next Friday, though, found me in something of a stew. Dylan had come to rehearse with my all-star band but, lo and behold, he needed to be gone before sundown. His long and winding spiritual road had led him back to Orthodox Judaism. He refused to play on the Sabbath. I had no time to waste. I placed him in front of the band and counted off. For reasons that were unclear, he refused to sing.
"Let's go again," I said.
This time he strummed his guitar a little, but nothing came out of his mouth.
I approached him gingerly. "What's going on?" I asked.
"I don't need this band to play my music," he said. "Me, I got four pieces. That's all I need. All this other stuff don't make no sense."
Panicked, I motioned to my assistant. "Get Dylan's manager over here," I ordered.
Jeff Kramer, Dylan's man, was an old friend. I spoke plainly. "Bob hates the band, Jeff. I don't know what to do."
"Just keep going," said Jeff. "He always does this."
But when I ran the tune the third time, Dylan still stayed silent.
So with the sun setting in the west, I called it a day. "Good Shabbos, Bob," I said as he left the stage. "See you tomorrow."
His exit left me in a state of uncertainty. I couldn't understand what was wrong. Carole King was wailing on that piano part. Steve Vai was channeling Hendrix on guitar. I was channeling Kooper on organ. What could be bad?
Saturday night arrived. We were to do a dress rehearsal before a live Radio City audience at 7 p.m., then the real show at 10. Lots of funny stuff in the first two acts. Then the third act: Bob Dylan singing "Like a Rolling Stone" backed by my superstar band.
Before Bob's entrance for the dress, I got an idea. While the band warmed up on "Everybody Must Get Stoned," I stood at his mic.
"Let me hear what Bob will hear," I asked the engineer.
I heard very little. It turned out Bob's monitor had nothing in it. The stage was so big, the hall so cavernous, all Bob had heard yesterday was a dull roar. No wonder he hated it. He couldn't hear it.
Then I went to work. "Give him some drums," I told the engineer. "Give him some bass. He needs to hear piano. Put some of my organ in there. Mix in a little guitar."
I did the best I could with the time that I had. At least now he had a halfway-decent mix.
When it came time for him to sing, I held my breath. His mouth moved, and some of that wonderful reediness came out, but I'd have to say he gave me only 30 percent.
Between the dress and air shows, Chrissie Hynde took me to Dylan's dressing room. If you're going to see Bob, let a woman lead the way.
"Everything okay, Bob?" I asked.
"It's sounding a little better," he said.
"Will you be able to sing?"
"Long as you can play."
Well, I did play. And so did the band. And, I'm happy to report, Mr. Dylan did sing. This time he gave me a more than decent 70 percent.
By the time I arrived at the after-party, Bob was already there. He and Chrissie had their guitars out and seemed to be in sync. I sat down beside him and asked, "How do you think it went?"
"Lemme be honest with you, Paul. When I'm in the hotel room at night, I flip on the show only to catch a glimpse of Larry 'Bud.' I've never really keyed in on you. But tonight, man, I saw that you know what you're doing. If I had realized this could have been something, I would have given more."
I looked at my watch. It was 2 a.m. Bob Dylan may have crucified me on Friday, but here, on Sunday morning, my soul was resurrected.
Over time, I've lost track of Dylan's movements in the spiritual continuum. I myself have remained consistent. I'm Jewish, I'm happy. I love the tradition. Like my favorite ball player, Sandy Koufax, I don't play on Yom Kippur, the holiest time of the Jewish year, the sacred Day of Atonement. Some of my musician friends, though, have had challenges surrounding this issue.
My buddy, the great trumpeter Lew Soloff, was playing with Blood, Sweat and Tears in Europe. He was actually walking on stage when a fellow band member happened to say, "Hey, Lew, I thought you were Jewish. Don't you know today's Yom Kippur?" Lew hadn't consulted his calendar and was caught in a quandary. It was one minute to showtime. He made a snap decision. "I'll play," he said, "but I won't improvise."
Another great trumpeter, Alan Rubin from Saturday Night Live and the Blues Brothers Band, once met me at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue on Yom Kippur eve—Kol Nidre night.
"Good yom tov, Alan," I said, "you're beaming."
"Who wouldn't be?" he said. "I just came from Caesar's Retreat."
"The massage parlor?" I asked.
"The whorehouse," he said. "Man, I was on.I made love to that chick."
With a voice that invoked the ages, the cantor sang,"Kol Nidre. . .v'esorei. . ."
Two years later, I was reading the New York Daily News when I noticed that Caesar's Retreat had been closed down and was the object of a grand jury inquiry. Records had been seized. Alan Rubin called to say that his name had been listed among the patrons and he was due to testify. I wished him luck. After his big day, I called him.
"How'd it go?" I asked.
"Well, Paul, they put me on the stand. The attorney was tough. He grilled me."
"What'd he say?"
" 'Mr. Rubin, do you recall patronizing an establishment by the name of Caesar's Retreat?'"
" 'Yes sir, I do,' I said. 'It was innocent fun.'"
" 'I understand that, Mr. Rubin, but why, sir, were you at this particular place at this particular time?'"
" 'Well, it was Yom Kippur eve, and I wanted to make sure I had something to atone for.' "
In my case, I have much to atone for. In order to understand that process fully, we must go back to the beginning.
A Conversation with Paul Shaffer
Author of WE’LL BE HERE FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES:
A Swingin’ Show-Biz Saga
Q: Who and what inspired you early on toward music?
Paul Shaffer: I had the kind of Jewish parents who insisted that their kid be musical. My mother played Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and of course the Mary Martin and Ethel Merman at Carnegie Hall live album. On Sundays, my dad would put on the best jazz vocalists: his favorite Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstein and Ray Charles, who, he taught me, was a genius. For folks who lived up on the north shore of Lake Superior, their taste in music was pretty damn hip. They started me on piano lessons at six; my mother said, “When he can read English, it’s time for him to read music.” After one lesson, I started to pick out tunes on the piano by ear, fascinated to discover that the notes of the scale could be used to play songs that I liked, not just those I had to play for my lesson. Then I heard rock ‘n’ roll on the radio, and it was all over, I became obsessed. When I figured out the three basic rock chords, I could play all the songs. I would come home from school and bang them out on the piano as loud as I could, so the sound just got all up in my ears. When I got a little older, I didn’t buy 45s, I just learned them off the radio. I would recreate the whole sound, all the parts, with my hands.
Q: How did the conflict between your parents’ love of music and your father’s dictum that “passion (for music) doesn’t equal income” affect you?
Paul: My parents were just as conflicted as I. As much as they impressed on me the need for a real job and profession, when I said, I have to give show business a try, they were secretly thrilled. They loved music and show biz. The popular Canadian comedy team Wayne and Shuster performed a bunch of times on “Ed Sullivan,” and my dad had been the vocalist for Wayne and Shuster when they did college shows. But it was the Depression, so he became a lawyer for the security. My first year at the University of Toronto, I had given up my rock band and didn’t have a musical outlet. I was very depressed, exhausted and sleeping all the time. Then I started playing in an esoteric jazz group and I cheered up right away. That’s when I knew that I had to give music a try. So I made that deal with my dad: Give me a year, then I’ll go to grad school. I kept learning, opening up my ears beyond the strictures of rock and roll, started to love Coltrane, and appreciated the spirituality of it, the sense of searching and communicating through jazz. I was also playing topless bars, weddings, anything I could. Just before my year ran out, I fluked into this job conducting “Godspell,” the ‘70s rock musical of the St. Matthew gospel—Jesus set to a rock score.
Q: Right—doing a favor for a friend catapulted you from playing a seedy strip joint to a new career as musical director for the cutting-edge rock musical “Godspell” and then on to “NBC’s Saturday Night Live.” Tell us about that.
Paul: Steven Schwartz, the Broadway composer of “Wicked” and “Pippin,” changed my life. He hired me in Toronto for his show “Godspell” and said, “When this show’s over, I’m bringing you to New York; you belong in New York.” He got me my visa and I played for him in “The Magic Show” on Broadway. Then Howard Shore, the movie composer and later an Oscar winner for the “Lord of the Rings” score, called and said, “I’m coming into New York to do a new thing called ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I need a piano player, you’re in town, and you already know a lot of the people on the show.” In “Godspell” in Toronto, I had met these superbly talented, funny people who are still my best friends—Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, the late Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, and Victor Garber. I knew John Belushi; he was one of first guys I met when I came to New York and Billy Murray’s older brother Brian Doyle Murray introduced me around to the National Lampoon crowd. I told Howard I didn’t read music that well. He said, “You’re a natural. I want you for what you can bring to it,” and he talked me into taking the gig. The next thing I knew I was on TV.
Q: Tell us how a near-fatal car crash led you to Letterman.
Paul: I did “Saturday Night Live” for its first five years, going from rehearsal pianist to writer of special musical material, to a featured player. I had learned a little bit of how to be funny from all of my friends; I cherished their humor to such a degree that some rubbed off I think. After five years, when everybody left including Lorne Michaels, it didn’t make sense to stay and start over with a new cast. I was freelancing, doing studio work that was also very exciting to me, working with Yoko Ono, Diana Ross, and Burt Bacharach. On the second day of a trip to Hawaii with my lovely girl friend Cathy, who is now my wife, I was seriously injured in a bad car accident and woke up in an oxygen tent in Honolulu. I went right back to work playing gigs and sessions, but it took three years to recover. Then I get this call about Dave Letterman starting a show that would air even later than Johnny Carson, which seemed perfect for me. I dragged myself in. Even to this day, Dave says, “Yeah, you were skinny; I didn’t know what the hell was wrong with you, but I knew I wanted to hire you.” He had seen some of the bits I had done on “Saturday Night Live,” specifically the skits with Bill Murray as the lounge singer. So, Billy was our first guest, and he sang “Let’s Get Physical” doing jumping jacks. He never rehearsed. I didn’t even know what key to play it in; I just guessed. I never thought that professional show business would be so seat-of-your-pants unrehearsed, but it sure was, and I was ready for it from experience with improvisational comedy—starting with a premise and running with it.
Q: As a musical director, what’s your worst nightmare? What is your favorite aspect of preparing for a special musical performance? For your nightly Letterman show appearance?
Paul: I have experienced my worst nightmare several times. The great Anthony Newley had come on Letterman when we had a running bit with celebrities singing their version of a theme song, written by Mancini, for when we answered viewer mail. Newley was always singing about “the clown, he’s crying on the inside, laughing on the outside,” so we started with him singing the mail song, and I’m playing by ear, and somehow I modulated into the “clown” section way above Newley’s range. But he’s such a pro and his ear is so good, he follows me into this new key, goes for this super-high ending note, and hits it. I think he hurt himself it was so high. I was just dying. Once, on “Saturday Night Live,” John Sebastian came up to the mike to sing his “Welcome Back” with the house band. The mike squealed with feedback, and he backed off, and it seemed like an hour went by on live television with those lead-in chords playing before finally we started again. On the musical performances, I just love every second; I love all kinds of music and I’ve gotten to play with everyone from Snoop Dog to Bruce Springsteen to Placido Domingo. On Letterman, I love that it continues to be just as unrehearsed as that first show with Bill Murray. Dave likes it that way. He is the quickest mind in show business, and I get to talk to him on air, and anything could happen, any night. That anticipation, that possibility is what keeps it fun.
Q: Do you ever wonder “what if” you had taken the George Costanza role that Jerry Seinfeld offered you?
Paul: You know, I’m the biggest jerk in the world for not calling back, but I had a little experience as a sitcom actor in the ‘70s on a show called “A Year at the Top,” produced by Norman Lear and Don Kirshner. It was going to be a Monkees-type show about kids in a band, and because I was musician, I got the part. Had it been a success, we might have been like the Jonas Brothers doing shows and records along with the sitcom, but there still wasn’t enough music for me. I was missing music; music really is where my heart is. Of course, it turned out to be the most beloved show and I’m happy to say things turned out OK between Jerry and me.
Q: What was the best piece of unexpected advice you ever received and who shared it with you?
Paul: The advice came from John Belushi. In “A Year at the Top,” my character was constantly walking into a scene being astonished by something, and the only way I knew how to act surprised was with my mouth agape. After the first show aired, Belushi said, “Stop acting with your mouth; use your eyes.” It was especially ironic because John then went on to make the Blues Brothers movie in which his eyes were entirely obscured by sunglasses for the entire film.
Q: Of your many memorable experiences with music and showbiz legends, celebrities, and royalty, which person would you say had the greatest impact on who you are as a musician? As an individual?
Paul: My favorite musician to play with certainly was James Brown. I was such a big fan of his as a kid, and I still am. He invented the sound that we’re still dancing to today, whether you call it house or techno or electronica—it’s all his rhythms. Nothing really has changed except we use computers today, but it’s still James Brown. I never thought I would be in the middle of music that was so funky, when I got to play with him and he started to sing and shake his ass, you just couldn’t help but get funky. Playing with him was my biggest thrill.
As far as an influence on me—Miles Davis comes to mind. His music has always fascinated me, especially when he went electric and combined the funk rhythms of James Brown and Sly Stone with his own jazz—the hippest jazz on the planet. Then I got to play with him in the studio, and see him arrange. He was so encouraging. I was way out of my league playing with him in the first place, but he was straight ahead. He said to me, “If it ain’t funky, you can’t use it, right Paul?” That was one of the greatest compliments I ever got. I saw how he dealt with musicians to bring the best out of them. People used to complain about how Miles Davis would sometimes turn his back on his audience. I realized that he was presenting not just his own playing, but the music of his whole band. He was conducting, facing the band, bringing out the best in them, encouraging them. He had such confidence, he didn’t have to grandstand to steal the show; it was always about the sound for a jazz player like him. But then, he always looked great. He was quoted as saying, “When you come on stage, the audience has got to know you can play before you put the horn up to your mouth.” So appearance was very important to him, too.
Q: Who in the music world today would you like to hear more from?
Paul: There’s a record out there that I love that’s big right now—Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down.” I like Pharrell Williams from the Neptunes. He is a producer, primarily; I like anything that he does. And I think that Britney Spears makes brilliant records. Some people put her down, but you can’t argue with how terrific her records are—“Circus,” “Womanizer,” “Toxic,” I love all of those.
Q: What in the book will most surprise people to learn about you?
Paul: I think the Letterman show is very transparent, in that, you can tell how we’re feeling, what we’re thinking; it’s all right there. We are true reality television. I have a feeling that the Real Housewives are not so real after all; I think all these shows obviously have a story arc, with scene outlines, just like we had in “Spinal Tap.” Our show is absolutely real, so I don’t think anyone will be so surprised by any one thing. I’m living this incredible life, meeting and performing with the most gifted and talented people on the planet. I have been very honest, and I think a person might close the book and say, “Well, that explains everything.”