Paul Shaffer on Don Kirshner: ‘He loved the impression’
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As must have been the case for a lot of people, when news broke about the death Monday of music mogul and TV impresario Don Kirshner, one of the first names that went through my mind was that of Paul Shaffer, for the spot-on Kirshner impersonation the comedian and musician did numerous times on “Saturday Night Live” during his tenure on the show.
Shaffer spoke with Pop & Hiss shortly after he finished taping Tuesday’s episode of “Late Show With David Letterman,” on which he’s led the house band for years, talking about his relationship with Kirshner over the years and the development of his comedy bit.
“Back in 1977, I did a show for Don Kirshner and Norman Lear that was a partnership between the two of them: ‘The Year at the Top.’ In it, Greg Evigan and I played rock performers who had sold their souls to the devil. It played on CBS for just five episodes in the summer of ’77. Nonethless, I became friendly with Don during that time. I was a fan, and I knew about his association with what we know now as Brill Building rock, which was my favorite kind of music anyway, so we struck up a friendship.
“One day he called me, and ‘Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert’ was on the air at the time, and he told me, ‘I’m going on-camera to do the introductions on the show.’ Up until this point, it had been completely sober [voiceover] introductons of the acts, but he had decided to do them on-camera.
He said, ‘A lot of people think maybe I’m stiff, but [Ed] Sullivan was stiff, and he had the gig.’ He asked if I wanted to come down and watch him tape his first introduction. It was at some studio near Hollywood and Vine. Of course I jumped at the chance and saw him tape those first introductions.
‘He was a great character, a lovable character, certainly the most colorful character I’ve ever met. He was very fast talking, always very emotional about the music he loved and the music he was making. He was the ultimate when it came to promoting the songs he loved. He’d go on these runs and talk so fast that sometimes he’d break himself up.
“But when he went on-camera, he slowed right down. I guess he was nervous. He froze a little bit, but he still spoke from the heart. I found it very humorous, and I never forgot it. When the show ‘Year at the Top’ didn’t get picked up, I got my gig at ‘SNL’ back. I’d left ‘SNL’ and moved to California to do the show, but when I came back, I brought that impression back with me and started doing it.
“On one show we needed a way to set up a certain musical number, a rock number -- Garrett Morris did Tina Turner -- and I said I could do it as Don Kirshner. So that’s how it came about.
“He was asked all through the years, ‘Didn’t that impression that Paul Shaffer did [tick] you off?’ He always said, ‘No, I loved it.’ l loved him, he loved me, and he loved the impression because he knew it came out of love for him.”
“I gave Don a call and spoke to him over the weekend, but I didn’t think he was going to slip away so soon. He sounded weak, but he rallied when he heard I was on the phone. He said ‘Paul, babe!’ He went right into his Don Kirshner for me. I certainly consider him a friend, and I’m very saddened by his passing.”
-- Randy Lewis