If it’s hard to imagine David Letterman without Paul Shaffer off to the side, bantering with the host and leading the orchestra, consider this: If it hadn’t been for a chance encounter three decades ago, the high-energy, multi-talented entertainer might have pursued a career in academia.
“I played in a rock band throughout high school and was passionate about rock ‘n’ roll,” says Shaffer, who served as emcee of BMCC’s Steinway Soiree Benefit on September 25. “But a career in show business was unrealistic for someone from my neck of the woods.” That was Thunder Bay, Ontario, where Shaffer grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s. “You’d look down from an airplane and there was nothing but tundra—and then you’d see four streets crossing, and realize that’s the town.”
When the music stopped
As a University of Toronto freshman, he decided to give up playing and settle down. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life—maybe become an academic or a lawyer, or go on to grad school,” he says. Not surprisingly, life without music turned out to be unbearable for him.
His spirits lifted, though, when he started playing piano with a local jazz combo in his sophomore year. That told him something: “I had to give music a try. So I made a deal with my dad: I’d take a year off and see if I could make it in show business. If I was starving after a year, I’d go back to school.”
He played as much music as he could—with pickup bands, in cocktail lounges, at weddings and bar mitzvahs. One day, he was accompanying a friend who was auditioning for a singing role in the Toronto production of Godspell. The play’s composer, Stephen Schwartz, hired Shaffer on the spot.
“My life changed—just like that,” Shaffer says. Before he knew it, he was conducting the orchestra at Godspell and two years later he was on Broadway. Then came a stint on Saturday Night Live, where he played piano behind Bill Murray’s lounge singer routine. That’s when David Letterman first noticed him.
An era begins
“Dave liked the fact that I’d had something to do with putting the Murray sketch together, and we started working together,” he recalls. That was in 1982, when Late Night with David Letterman premiered on NBC. “Over the years, I’ve gotten a better idea of what David needs from me,” Shaffer says. For one thing, every song the orchestra plays must be up-tempo. “My job isn’t to play a ballad,” he says. “I have to keep the excitement up and the energy high.”
But music is only part of his job description, he adds. “When David’s on stage and talks so me, I have to respond—even if it’s simply, ‘Oh, really, Dave? I have to say something, because he needs sound reinforcement. If I don’t, he’ll get frustrated and say, ‘Can you hear me?’”
At the Steinway Soiree, Shaffer’s trademark charisma and quick humor were in ample evidence. But in chatting about his life and career before the show, he preferred to shine the spotlight on others.
“I’m thrilled to be part of this evening,” he said. “I want to get on and off at the top of the program, so I can get out of the way of the huge talents who’ll be entertaining tonight.”