The Popdose Interview: Paul Shaffer

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

More than just the guy who plays keyboards for David Letterman, Paul Shaffer is really one of the more underrated musical icons of the last 35 years — something illustrated in Shaffer’s new autobiography, We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives, as well as his Popdose Interview with Will Harris.

Although he’s known to many simply as the eccentric bespectacled guy who serves as the band leader for the CBS Orchestra on The Late Show with David Letterman, Paul Shaffer’s career has been a wide and varied one, taking him from the position of musical director for the Toronto production of “Godspell” in 1972 all the way to being the musical director and producer for the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony…and, trust me, you don’t get a gig like that without some serious music street cred. Shaffer has detailed many of his experiences – with the help of David Ritz – in his newly-released autobiography, We’ll Be Here For The Rest Of Our Lives, a light and breezy trip through his life and times in which he chats about Saturday Night Live, This is Spinal Tap, and many, many more topics which would appeal to the average Popdose reader. And what luck: although his press schedule was decidedly rigorous, your pals here at Popdose managed to score ten minutes to chat with Mr. Shaffer about his book and some of the topics contained therein.

It’s great to talk to you, Paul. I’m a big fan.

Hi! Thank you. How are you?

I’m great. I just finished your book yesterday, and it’s fantastic.

Thank you!

Now, how long was the idea of doing an autobiography gestating?

Oh, you know, I’ve wanted to do one for years. Some ten years ago, I got a book deal and tried to do it. I wrote three stories up, and I just never had time to go back to it. So this time, when I was re-introduced to David Ritz, who is the A-list celebrity biographer, just a couple of years ago, he said, “If you ever want to do a book”… I thought, “Well, that’s the way to do it: do it with somebody, and that way, he has the responsibility of turning it in on time.” And we did! But we had fun together, the two of us, and he…besides doing all of the music biographies, like Ray Charles and Smokey Robinson, he also did Don Rickles. So I knew he had me covered. And he was able to get my voice down and, of course, we worked well together as well. It really was co-writing.

It’s a very enjoyable format. It’s predominantly chronological, but obviously you bounce back and forth for various anecdotes here and there.

Well, you don’t want to start at the beginning, because then the reader has got to learn about your childhood before he’s even interested in who you are. So, y’know, you’ve got to hit with something a little more up to date, and I think that’s really the reason for jumping around.

The opening episode of this season’s “Saturday Night Live” had Jenny Slate letting slip with an F-bomb accidentally. I’m sure you were sympathetic.

Oh, yes! Because I talk about in the book about how I was really the first person to make that slip (on the show). In my case, we were doing bad British accents in the sketch that we were in. It was a transcription of the famous Troggs tape, where the Troggs — the band who did “Wild Thing” — were in the studio, trying to record, and they have no musical terminology except for that F-word, so they say it all the time. We changed it, just like in the more current example. We changed the F-word into our own word (“flogging”), and then it was just that I slipped and went back to the real word. Same thing as she did. But you can tell…it’s almost a set-up in a thing like that that you’re gonna slip. You can tell that neither of us did it on purpose.

Did you feel your heart stop when you realized what you’d said?

Absolutely. And when I saw the tape of her, I saw that she did the same thing. Your face kind of goes white, and then you look off to the side and go, “Oh, boy…” (Laughs)

What’s your favorite song that you’ve used as a play-in for a guest which still makes you laugh that you got away with it?

You know, I don’t know if I “got away with it.” We don’t try to get away with things, except maybe when Ellen DeGeneres came out and we played “I’m A Girl Watcher.” Little humorous things like that keep us going. (Laughs)

I loved “When the Radio Is On“ from the first time I heard it…

Oh, thank you!

..but how disappointed were you with the reception of the Coast to Coast album?

Well, of course I was disappointed, because I’d spent a lot of time and energy and put my whole life into that for so long, but the record business is a very tough business. I didn’t know that when I got into it; I was lucky to get out alive. (Laughs)

Is there a particular session that you’ve played on that you’re most proud of?

Well, it’s something that might not be so well-known, but there was a gospel group that went to rock — it was called the New York Community Choir — with a rhythm section of Steve Gadd on drums and Will Lee on bass. We all still remember that session. Otherwise, I think that, of course, playing and recording with Miles Davis for the soundtrack of Scrooged, the Bill Murray movie. That’s gotta be it. And then, of course, there was the time I was in the studio with Phil Spector and got to be a part of his Wall of Sound. Although nothing ever came out from that session, that was incredibly significant to me.

How’s your relationship with Eric Clapton these days? From the book, it sounds like it’s been a bit tense at times over the years.

Ah, well, you know, he is a lovely British gentleman who has been really great with me over the years. I just sort of focus on the places that we sort of butted heads in a good-natured way just because it shows that I’m not used to having as much time to rehearse as he is. It’s really over that ideology that we’ve clashed.

How regularly do you have people coming up to you and asking you if they can kick your ass?

Oh, all the time. (Laughs) And it is amazing how long that movie has lasted. You’re referring, of course, to This is Spinal Tap. People still talk about it. I had only a very small cameo in that movie (as Artie Fufkin), but I’m very proud to be associated with it.

Do you think your short-lived series, A Year at the Top, will ever see its way to DVD?

Mmm. That would be, uh…talk about blackmail! (Laughs) That was a crazy summer series that played in the summer of ’77, but it brought me to Hollywood, where I lived for about a year, and what a bizarre…well, it was full of bizarre experiences that are all laid out in the book. I was working for Norman Lear and Don Kirschner, two unlikely producers who got together to try and do a Monkees-styled rock sitcom. It didn’t work out, but I got down an impression of Don Kirshner that serves me well to this day. And I can do Lear, too.

(Laughs) Oh, really?

Yeah. It’s just not as extreme. (Laughs)

And, of course, your Cher impression remains masterful from holiday season to holiday season.

Thank you. Yes, Cher doing “O Holy Night.” It’s something that’s short but sweet.

Do you find that people are still shocked that you were one of the co-writers of “It’s Raining Men“?

Yes. But I’m very proud of that. I wrote one song, and…well, you know, Charles Chaplin wrote “Smile” and I wrote “It’s Raining Men.”

They’re very, very similar in the grand scheme of things.

Oh, yes. (Laughs)

Do you find it odd that people don’t get your schtick on Letterman sometimes? Because I have friends who are, like, “Paul Shaffer? You mean the weird guy at the keyboard…?”

Well, I hope that, if they read the book, it’ll bring them to understand why I am so weird. (Laughs) Maybe they’ll give me the benefit of the doubt. Because the book really does talk about everything.

A friend of mine on Facebook said that you used to shop at a record store where he worked in Manhattan, and that you used to buy old singles and, the next week, you’d be playing them on TV.

Yeah, in those days, before downloading…boy, what does that say about what happened to the music business, even at a retail level? Did he work at House of Oldies in the Village?

Well, the Facebook friend I’m speaking of is Peter Holsapple.

Oh! (Laughs) Well, sure, of course I know him! I didn’t realize that’s who you were talking about. I do remember that he spent some time working in a record store. Yeah, he’s a nice guy.

(Per Mr. Holsapple, “I worked for years at the Musical Maze, at 294 Third Avenue at 23rd Street. Most of my customers were from School of Visual Arts and guests of the Gramercy Park Hotel, but Paul came in from time to time. He definitely bought “Wild Weekend” by the Rockin’ Rebels from me, I know that to be a fact!”)

I know we’re coming up against the wall here, but I wanted to ask you if you had any participation in the upcoming Rock and Roll Hall of Fame DVD set?

Well, of course, it shows all of the great numbers, so many of which I was involved with with my band, since the beginning, in the days when the stuff was totally unrehearsed and it was just a totally spontaneous jam session, but with superstars. And it goes through to the days with the more polished numbers. But, oh, man, all of these great numbers that are on there”…I just got my set recently, and I’ve been having fun watching it.

Is there a particular favorite performance from those ceremonies?

I think the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming.” And, of course, some of those early jams.

Okay, Paul, I know my time’s up, but, again, it’s been great to talk with you.

Thank you. My pleasure!