After SNL and David Letterman, Paul Shaffer is not slowing down

Brad Barker is JAZZ.FM91’s music director and host of Afternoon Drive.


Paul Shaffer is an icon. He’s been part of the popular culture since 1975, the year that Saturday Night Live began.

He was as comfortable performing with the Not Ready for Prime-Time Players as he was leading the band. In 1982, he began a 33-year relationship with David Letterman, leading the World’s Most Dangerous Band and becoming the perfect foil for Letterman.

Not to be lost in any of this is the fact that Paul Shaffer is also a monster musician, at ease in every possible musical setting. The list of musicians he has played with is too long to mention, but let’s say… everyone you’ve ever heard of. He’s also a member of the Order of Canada, and he has his star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.

Shaffer will be in town on Saturday, June 22, to hook up with his old Blues Brothers pal Dan Aykroyd and others to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Downchild Blues Band at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

He joined us this week to chat about his career working with SNL and Letterman, what it meant for him when Late Show finally came to an end, and what it was like seeing Nat “King” Cole when he was 12 years old. Read on or scroll to the bottom to listen to the full interview.


Brad Barker: Good afternoon, Paul.

Paul Shaffer: A lot of fun to be with you … So nice to hear your voice and be with everybody today. I do have one thing about the intro you gave me — which was beautiful, thank you — but I was not the bandleader on Saturday Night Live.

It was Howard Shore.

Exactly, Howard Shore of Lighthouse fame, and now of course Academy Award winner. So I was in his band, actually.

When you’d watch Saturday Night Live, though, it appeared to everyone who was watching that you were conducting things there.

The absolute truth, and I’m almost embarrassed to say it: I have been such a huge fan of Elton John that one time way back in the ’70s I happened to be in L.A. and I visited the store where he used to get his frames. They opened the drawer and said, “Do you want to see these? We just made these up for Elton.” They were those white ones … and I said, “Well, order me a pair of those.” Even though they were his trademark, I used to wear them too. I didn’t care. I just loved him so much, I didn’t even think about it. Nonetheless, it made me a bit visible on the shots on SNL. And Howard was, by nature, a guy who would prefer… well, to illustrate, there was one point in the fifth season where he thought he’d have an antique desk on the stage and sit at it during the show, rather than conduct in the old-fashioned way; that would maybe be too square. I, on the other hand, was the opposite — bouncing around on the piano.

It’s been about four years since Late Show wrapped up. You seem like you’re busier than ever. Was there an adjustment period when the show came to an end?

Oh, absolutely. It was quite a schedule — relentless, you know. Week in and week out for almost 33 years. It was quite an adjustment, kind of physical. Bang! We were always going 100 miles an hour, tightly wound, if I may say. Tempers could flare. You’re still trying to do a good show, and then all of a sudden you’re at zero. There was a period of time where I was saying, “Well, now I’m going to slow down and smell the roses.” But there’s no money in that… that’s tongue-in-cheek, of course, but there’s no fun in it, either. The main thing is to just keep playing the piano. If I can do that, I’ll be happy.

For super fans, it was great to see Dave come back with My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, but it was also great for all of us to see that you had an involvement in the show, bringing the gang back together. It must have been nice to continue to be part of that show.

(It was) very sweet of him to ask me to write the theme of the show, which continues to be his theme in the second season. He really nicely was interested in keeping our friendship going, and we do see each other and talk all the time. It’s really terrific. A lasting friendship came out of it.

It’s kind of what we hope relationships between people we care about are like, and they aren’t always like that. 

That’s absolutely true. But I’ve got to also say, look at how generous he was with the airtime. He allowed me to create a little character for myself and talk to him. It was quite a thing, and it was all because he really wanted to include me. I don’t know why.

Well, it’s because you were so great at it. Music seems to have come very easily to you. But you also became an on-camera person, whether it was This Is Spinal Tap or being Don Kirshner or, I’ll give it a shout-out, A Year at the Top.

Oh my god. Excuse my language, but why does everybody remember what I try so hard to forget? Only kidding. It was a great experience. A Year at the Top was my failed sitcom in 1977. But out of that came my Don Kirshner impression. And I was somewhat dying to get in on the action of SNL. Being in the band there was kind of far-removed. Sketches are going on, and that’s where the excitement is, in the comedy. My job was to do music with the cast and develop musical stuff with the writers, so it was kind of a natural step.

One of the very first shows you saw, you were in Vegas with your folks, it was Nat “King” Cole. Do you have any memories of seeing him in Vegas as a young person?

I wrote about this in my book that I wrote some years ago. That was hugely influential. My parents took me to Las Vegas when I was a kid of about 12. He was a great artist. His show was very musical. I remember he sang the beautiful ballad Miss Otis Regrets with a lighting change, and he was under a street lamp doing it. This was the ’60s, and he had a rock hit out at the time, Ramblin’ Rose. But the way he said it, “Now, at this part in the show, ladies and gentlemen, a performer of my stature would normally perform for his audience his latest, as they say, ‘hit.’ But in some circles, that would be referred to as ‘milking’ the audience, and you people have already been milked enough at the tables.” I said wow, that’s the business I want to be in. So hip.