Paul Shaffer, the late night keyboardist able to leap both complex chord changes and hearty Hammond fills with equal ease, is back on the scene.
After more than three decades of work leading his band on David Letterman's NBC and CBS shows, the esteemed song stylist has returned with a brand new album, appropriately titled Paul Shaffer & The World's Most Dangerous Band. Featuring longtime bandmates like Will Lee on bass and Anton Fig on drums, and a playlist that somehow convincingly marries Vince Guaraldi, Shaggy and Hootie & The Blowfish's Darius Rucker, the album is a testament to Shaffer's lifelong pursuit of unabashed, foot-stomping, sonic fun.
As he prepared to hit the road in support of the new album, Shaffer sat down with me in New York City to talk about his much-anticipated musical return.
When we last spoke back in 2010, you told me “I have two ambitions these days. I want to learn how to play the pedals on the Hammond organ, and I also want to learn how to sight-read. I can arrange, and I can read, but I can’t sight-read and play on the spot.” So my first question is, how are those goals coming along?
Well, I’ve made some progress on the pedals. As the great [organist] Jimmy McGriff – who was a sweetheart and who showed me a few things said, “You’ve just got to put in the time. There’s no other way to get good on the pedals!” So, I’ve had a little time, and I’ve gotten a little better. But I’m still not ready to go out in public and play a gig without a bass player. And I may never be ready – that’s a spiritual height that I may never attain. I always used to say, “When I retire, I’ll have that kind of time.” It turned out, I didn’t retire! And as far as the sight-reading goes, no. I was able to negotiate my way through being a studio player in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. A lot of it had to do with being in shape - seeing parts come towards you and breaking them down. It was about getting used to not looking at them note by note, but more bar by bar, and then as four and eight bar phrases.
How did you learn to navigate the daily influx of new music on shows like Saturday Night Live and The Late Show with David Letterman?
The training that I had, which was limited to classical piano lessons in Canada – supplemented with lessons in theory and harmony from a classical point of view, plus one summer course in arranging, was enough for me to learn how to negotiate a chart. And then I somehow got dropped in to the middle of the New York scene, where you’re getting charts thrown at you and sometimes they would stymie me, but sometimes I could just say, “Hey, can you just give me five minutes so I can work on this?” I wasn’t above saying that. The baby had to learn how to swim, and I figured it out.
You were able to play in every key?
Yeah. I can play in all the keys. I don’t have a problem there. I did, once, certainly feel less comfortable in the key of B major or F sharp major. And I guess that there was a period of time where I was living at the Gramercy Park Hotel in the late 1970’s into the 1980’s, and my only keyboard was this electronic piano of some kind, sitting on the coffee table. It started breaking down, and some of the keys started not to function. So I had to play in other keys. And that’s really what forced me get into keys like F sharp. And then just for the hell of it, I started playing everything in F sharp. Ultimately I ended-up getting that key down, and the key of B down, and that’s how I learned.
Was it a trait of yours to look at not only what the chords in a song were, but how they related to one another?
I guess, in that while I was taking classical piano lessons, I simultaneously taught myself how to play by ear. I taught myself chords and the degrees of the scale, and I saw that they did relate to the same theory that governs classical music. That was an important realization. When you try and figure out a song, then by definition I guess, you’re seeing how chords relate. [Late Show bassist] Will Lee always comments that when I’m remembering a song and playing it, I’m literally hearing the changes from one chord to the next – from one to three to four. I’m not really hearing it in a key, but more like “Nashville style” where it could be any key.
I was moved by the recent New York Times profile on you that mentioned how depressed you had gotten after The Late Show ended. I think that’s a universal feeling among musicians, in that - we can handle difficulty and we can handle disappointment. We just can’t handle the absence of making music!
Yeah, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do when the show ended. First of all, it was a metabolic change. My sleep patterns changed, because one was always “up” for the show. And instead of “coming down” when one show ended, you’d just be “up” for the next show. This was daily. I went from that, to no schedule at all. So it was a huge change, and initially I was tired and thought, “You know what? I deserve a little break. Let’s just sit back and maybe spend a little more time with my people in Miami, Florida. [He laughs]. But I got seriously saddened. And the reason was very simple why – not enough playing. And when I started working on this new album, it became clear as day. It reminded me of a story I probably told you the last time we spoke, about deciding that I had to try music as a profession way back when I was a kid, right out of college. When I was in college, I was thinking about settling down, being an academic and not playing in a rock band anymore. And I got depressed. Then I played a little bit with my jazz mentor [guitarist] Tisziji Munoz, and I cheered-up immediately. It was so clear, almost like God said “This is your path.”
During this difficult time after Letterman ended, were you going-out to see live music?
I certainly was. I had slowed way down on going out while the show was running because I was tired all of the time, and I was also a family man. Plus, the music was coming to us. All of the time, everyone was coming to play on our show. But after it ended, I started going out to hear music, and I started having more energy right away. My ears weren’t ringing all of the time, like they were during Letterman
Why were your ears ringing? Because of the volume?
Yes. Even though we had in-ear monitors and we were trying to protect our hearing, we were secretly cranking it up a little bit to get that rush. You want the drums loud, you know? And before you know it, you can’t hear a thing. So I was going out more after the show ended, and playing here and there on some recording sessions and guesting on some shows. It was different than playing a daily gig, where your stuff is set up. It was a lot to get used to.
When [famed record executive] Seymour Stein came to you and asked you to make an album, what was on your mind to record?
I wasn’t sure. I just put together some songs. I totally didn’t know how it would go – I was flying blindly. I got Richard Gottehrer to produce, partly because he and Seymour were so close and had Sire Records together. And Richard was a guy that I had worked for during my days as a studio player. I made a number of different albums with him that he produced and I played piano on. I liked working with him, and he was not only a guy who was actually from the era that I grew-up listening to, but he remained relevant. He just said, “Let’s just pick a couple of songs and start working on them!” That’s what he had to do - sort of like pulling teeth, to tell you the truth. I called my old friend Dave Smyth in Canada who I used to listen to records with back in the day. I asked him, “Dave, what should I record?” He gave me some ideas, and it kind of got me going. He suggested “Why Can’t We Live Together.” And that was a great suggestion because besides it being such a soulful song and one with a meaning that so right-on right now, it was a big organ song, but the original didn’t have an organ solo in it. So I got to solo, which was great.
“Why Can’t We Live Together” seems like a treatise on the world we now live in. You probably couldn’t have imagined how timely its message would be.
Yes, certainly in this country. And I’ve known [guest vocalist] Darius Rucker since he started coming on Letterman with Hootie & The Blowfish. That sincere baritone of his is just magical. And his country songs are so terrific.
How did the idea to have Shaggy guest on your cover Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” come about?
Richard suggested “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” another one of my favorites, as well as the Georgie Fame tune “Yeh Yeh.” But the Vince Guaraldi tune just sort of developed and became more Caribbean as we went along. The riff changed subtly, and I left a section in it for something to happen. But I didn’t realize that Shaggy would, in such a wonderful way, take the whole song over. My manager knew his manager, and he gracefully said “Yes.” He was perfect, and he related to the island feeling of it.
It seems to me that you’ve always had an excitement about covering other people’s material – about getting inside of a song that moves you and making it move the listener.
I think you are exactly right. It’s no more complicated than that. When I wrote my book [We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives] with Davit Ritz some years ago, I blamed it on The Guess Who a little bit – the band from the 1960’s that were from Winnipeg, Manitoba – just the next town over from mine. They were always playing Thunder Bay and I grew-up going to see them. They blew me away as a rock band who before they had their own hits like “American Woman,” were the most incredible band that actually assumed the identities of the bands they were covering, whether it was the Kinks or the Beatles, or whoever else. I was blown away from their shows night after night, and maybe it was that idea of, “They don’t seem to have to write their own songs.” Who cares? Nobody even thought of it when I was a kid. So I just played the songs that I loved and that’s what I always “got off” on doing, whether it was in my living room or with my own little rock band.
Jenny Lewis is also a terrific guest vocalist on the song “Sorrow," which David Bowie recorded years ago.
The first thing Richard Gottehrer said to me was, “Boy, if we’re going to have any guests, it would be great to get Jenny Lewis.” And I said, “I just worked with her!” She and I were both in Bill Murray’s Netflix Christmas special A Very Murray Christmas. She sang a “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with him, along with the Pogues’ song “Fairytale of New York.” Jenny and I hit it off and I asked her, and she said “Yes.” Then we had to figure out what she should sing. Gottehrer came up with “Sorrow,” which he and his partners had written for The McCoys.
One of the things that seems to unite the album, however stylistically different the songs may seem, is a sense of groove. You’ve always played with a strong pocket, no matter the material.
Well, I think that’s the whole thing. When we think of [Soul Train’s] Don Cornelius, who said “It’s got a groove that sure enough makes you want to move…” That was his way of saying what the kids on [American Bandstand’s] Dick Clark’s show said, which was “I give it an eight and a half because you can dance to it.” That’s what we want to do with Rock and Roll. And we want to make people dance. And that’s what [singer/songwriter] Don McClean said in that beautiful song about Rock and Roll “American Pie” when he said, “If I could make those people dance.” You’ve got to have a good drummer to do that, or a crazy happening drum programmer. And we did work with a drum machine this time because we wanted to.
Who did your drum programming on the album?
A great kid named Lamont “Logic” Coleman. He was quite brilliant, coming up with grooves for us to then play along with as a band.
You’ve always had the uncanny ability to mix music and entertainment together. Is it because some of your earliest heroes were also entertainers?
Certainly that, and the fact that the earliest records that really moved me were not necessarily “serious” records. Things like “South Street” by the Orlons that went, “Where do all the hippies meet? South Street.” Something about that groove made it an influential record for me. When it came on the radio, it made me want to dance. So it’s always been like that for me. An artist didn’t have to be [famed jazz pianist] McCoy Tyner, although I loved him dearly too. Somehow, when I started Letterman in 1982, I hired three guys [Hiram Bullock on guitar, Will Lee on bass and Steve Jordan on drums] that were way more accomplished in their reputations than one might think you’d need to play a tune like “South Street.” But it turned out that they liked that song too. And when I got them playing all of these groovy little tunes that I liked, they knew them and loved them too. Everybody had fun doing that, and realized we could have fun playing music by the Beatles, the Stones and just about anybody else.
What does it mean to you to be able to reunite with your band, who you played with nightly for the better part of a quarter century?
It was certainly the best thing for me to do for making this CD, my first in so many years, because I had recently come-off a 22-year period of playing with the same aggregate of musicians every single night, and developing a kind of shorthand. I told someone the other day, “We finish each other’s licks.” And it’s not far from the truth. We really got used to playing with each other, and we were in the trenches, where I would call a song and hope that everybody knew it. We were quite a well-functioning unit, and we coalesced again in the studio. I’m hoping the record plays like an old-fashioned, big band radio show, where different singers come up to the mic and sing their songs. Then I might sing one, and then introduce Jenny Lewis. We made this record in a very fun, easy way. And it sounds like that. It’s not worried – it’s just fun.
Catch Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band On-Tour!
3 Centrepoint Theatre Ottawa, ONT
4 Wilbur Theater Boston, MA
6 Ridgefield Playhouse Ridgefield, CT
9 Ryman Theater Nashville, TN
10 Seminole Casino Immokalle, FL
11 Cobb Energy PAC Atlanta, GA
29 Kresge Auditorium Interlochen, MI
30 Arcada Theater St. Charles, IL
1 Ames Center Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN