Paul Shaffer knows what to spill -- and not -- in his memoir
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Paul Shaffer has shared the stage with so many big names that it’s probably easier to list the stars he hasn’t worked with. How many television sidekicks can boast to having played with both Andy Kaufman and his alter-ego, Tony Clifton? Such is the musical career of the lovably nebbish keyboardist from Thunder Bay, Ontario, who has tickled the ivories alongside James Brown, most of Led Zeppelin, three-quarters of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and countless others.
In his new book ‘We’ll Be Here For The Rest Of Our Lives,’ the affable Shaffer hopscotches through his storied career, telling tales of working in Toronto with many of the first SCTV comedians before they were stars (Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Martin Short), moving to New York to play for Jim Steinem, the songwriter behind Meatloaf’s hits, as well as with Doug Henning, and throwing in with ‘Saturday Night Live’ (then called simply ‘Saturday Night’) right as it was debuting.
It was at ‘SNL’ that Shaffer collaborated with the likes of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. As musical director, part of Shaffer’s duties was to work with the writers on special musical bits which is where the Blues Brothers first came to be. In the book Shaffer explains that the blues numbers were originally intended to be sung by Belushi wearing a bumble bee costume. But because the outfit was cumbersome and irritating to the star -- and to the other members of the band who were also forced to wear the costume -- Aykroyd and Belushi took it upon themselves one night to change into the iconic black suits as they warmed up the audience. It’s in the middle of the book that Shaffer explains that the duo’s style was influenced indirectly by a famous author.
‘Why the dark suits and dark glasses?’ I ask [Belushi].'I was hipped to the look by Fred Kaz,’ says John, ‘the beatnik musical director at Second City in Chicago. He’s the cat who told me that junkies always wore straight-looking outfits so they could pass. Check out William Burroughs.’
If there’s one glaring omission in the book it’s the relative absence of any truly inside tales about the TV stints that most people relate him to: ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ and ‘Late Show with David Letterman.’ Despite the fact that the book was written well before the latest drama involving Letterman’s affairs, one would think that if you work with a guy for 27 years there’d be more than just a few pages about that relationship. But since the pair still work together, and seeing as how Letterman is Shaffer’s boss, perhaps one reason that the keyboardist is still employed (and universally loved by so many celebs) is because he knows what to talk about -- and more importantly -- what not to spill.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t any insights in the memoir. We learn that Shaffer is such a huge fan of James Brown that he bought one of his Hammond organs; we discover that while on the road with the Blues Brothers the bespectacled musician had a dalliance with ‘sweet, sweet Connie’ from the Grand Funk Railroad classic ‘We’re an American Band’; and we learn that Andy Kaufman may have had an impostor sing as Tony Clifton on ‘Late Night.’
Although the tales may not be gossip-rag juicy, they are interesting and involve many of the top names in music. And if one aside becomes tiresome, simply turn the page, Shaffer seems to always have one more chestnut from his Zelig-ish career in late night tv and music.
-- Tony Pierce
Video: Paul Shaffer interviewed at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Credit: Mark Milian / Los Angeles Times