Every weeknight for 30 straight years now, a Thunder Bay-raised musician named Paul Shaffer has performed for, bantered with, and provided a foil to legendary talk-show host David Letterman. That's Shaffer's job, and it's a good one -- but he's a Canadian treasure for more than his presence on American TV.
From his early years in Toronto as musical director of the legendary production of Godspell (with its infamous cast of future SCTV and SNLers) and subsequent stint with the original cast Saturday Night Live, to writing "It's Raining Men," recording with Yoko Ono, working on the '96 Olympics and that unprecedented partnership with Letterman, Shaffer has certainly had, as he tells Huffington Post, "the best seat in the house all these years."
Before hosting this Sunday's Canada's Walk of Fame Awards, October 14 on Global at 8 p.m. -- he got his own star back in 2006, two years before receiving the Order of Canada -- Shaffer sat down in the bowels of the Ed Mirvish Theatre to discuss kicking off his career in nearby strip clubs, meeting Deadmau5 at the Grammys, what he'll do when Letterman retires and making late-night cool enough for Questlove.
How is it being back in Toronto?
You know, I graduated from U of T. Worked here, at this intersection of Yonge and Dundas. It was always very important to me as a college student and afterwards as the center of that Yonge Street funky music scene that was going on here.
And you worked up the road at [infamous strip joint] The Brass Rail for a while, right?
Yes, a little farther north. Of course, they had live combos in the topless clubs at that time. I remember working at the Brass Rail and I also remember the Zanzibar and how they had a house organ installed on top of the bar, and all day long different, cool organ players would slip in behind the organ and play. So besides the dancers, which were very important to me, it was like a cool, sit-in jam scene.
Both those strip clubs are still around, but they're a little scuzzier than I imagine they were back then.
They were scuzzy then...
That was part of the musical scene, too. There is always a little scuzz involved.
How much do you think playing all night at the Brass Rail helped you get into proper show business?
Those sets were very rigid at the Brass Rail. I think it was six hours -- 50 minutes on and a 10 minute break. Then you are back on and you bring out the lovely and talented dancers for one number and then they leave and you gotta kinda entertain and then they come back at the end of your set: "Please, again ladies and gentleman, the elegant ladies of the..." That's what I used to do. It was good training.
It must have been good practice also for your eventual gig with Letterman in that you are behind the piano, but you have a banter role, too.
How to MC, yeah. A little experience, as you say, behind the microphone, faking it behind the microphone.
In Louis CK's show Louie, they recently had a plot about Letterman retiring.
But at some point Dave is going to retire for real. Have you thought about what you're going to do with yourself after that?
No. I've never really thought of, in my whole career, about what to do next. Next things have just happened. I don't see any reason to change now. I've had such a long career, most of it with him. That anything that happens now is just a bonus. I've always wanted to learn how to play the bass pedals on the organ, learn how to sight-read on the piano -- so if I don't even work anymore, I've got my work cut out for me.
You created the now-trademark talk show bandleader-slash-sidekick. The Roots, who have your old Late Night gig, are coming from a totally different angle. How have they changed what being a talk show band is?
They had a track record, they had their own albums out, they were recording artists. When they took that job with Jimmy Fallon I took it as sort of validation of what I was doing. I wouldn't want to sound -- well, we're all egotistical, we can admit it -- but it made me feel like I made the job cool enough for them to consider doing it. That's why I loved when they took that job. They added an aura that you couldn't get unless you were a touring band all on your own. They are legit.
But I mean Questlove kind of does your shtick, too, right? He plays the Paul.
He's been very gracious to me. One of the early times they did Letterman he said to me, "You see my keyboard player? wW call him our Paul Shaffer." So we've always had a nice friendship.
Have you talked a lot since they've taken over the show?
No, not a lot. But I see him on things and a number of times we've played together. We played together at the Apollo a couple of times.
So...Canada's Walk of Fame, you've got a star yourself. Obviously, it's going to be compared to the Hollywood one. What do you think it means for Canadians here?
It's got a little extra punch because it is validation of Canadians by Canadians. We are rewarding Canadians who have achieved excellence. It's important to them. It's sentimental to me. I had a wonderful experience when I got this honour and I know they are going to have the same experience.
You had to leave Canada to become a success, but it seems like over the last 10 years, in particular, Canadian musicians like Arcade Fire and Deadmau5 have taken over the world without moving away.
I left in '74 to go to New York and I may not have had to leave if it were now. But yet it's even beyond that, you've got the leaders in all of these fields. It's wonderful.
I actually met Deadmau5 for the first time on the red carpet in Hollywood for the Grammys. I was there with my daughter and he introduced himself to me. He said, "Hey, I'm from Toronto." I had a little conversation with him and then I realized I'm talking to a guy with a giant mouse head.
He was wearing the mask?
He was wearing it, never takes it off and, you know, I'm talking to him like this is normal. He's a huge star now. He knew I was Canadian and we had a little moment.
Sarah McLachlan and Randy Bachman are getting stars at the ceremony. Do you have any personal experiences with them?
Sarah was doing Letterman very early in her career for her first album and played with my band a number of times. I wish I could remember her first song we played with her. I can't remember the title. [Sings] "I would be the one who'll hold you down, kisses so hard." We still play it as an instrumental tribute to her and I just call it "Sarah McLachlan" when I call it for the band. "Let's do 'Sarah McLachlan'" and we do it. That's why I don't know the title.
It's "Possession" from Fumbling Towards Ecstasy.
And as far as Randy, he got me involved in this whole thing because I appeared on his most recent concert DVD with Turner they did at Roseland in 3D. I did a little guest shot for him. He asked me because when I met him for the first time I explained that back in the '60s, I used to see the Guess Who all the time because Winnipeg was the next town over from Thunder Bay.
They used to play Thunder Bay every Christmas to make some money so they could go home and buy Christmas presents. So I saw them all the time as a kid and they were very influential to my development as a rock musician. I learned how to do it from watching the Guess Who. They were, even before they had their own hits, this incredible cover band that showed me that you can provide an evening of very over-the-top, satisfying rock 'n' roll just by playing covers. Maybe that has something to do with why I became a cover musician myself. Also, I didn't go on to write "American Woman."
You always seemed to be at the right place at the right time, even Godspell, when you look at the star-studded cast...
And we are all still best friends. I don't know how such a talented cast came together at that time. But it sure was fun. At that time, we talked about nothing but the show and hung out incessantly for a whole year. And we still do, really. When Marty Short and I get together, I sit down at the piano and play the score of Godspell.
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