For 33 years as David Letterman’s music director, bandleader and keyboardist, and before that as a musician and occasional featured player during Saturday Night Live’s first years, Paul Shaffer cultivated the image of a cheerfully old-school hipster, caustically mocking the Pop and Rock music he played. He may have even been condescending about showbiz itself, it seemed.
But now that it’s been two years since Letterman retired, Shaffer is touring with The World’s Most Dangerous Band (featuring the musicians who played with him on the late-night talk show) to support their new album of mostly older Pop, Rock and R&B songs. And as the album shows — and Shaffer reinforces in a telephone interview — there’s no mockery intended (although maybe, sometimes, some good-natured spoofing). He loves showbiz subjects, musical and otherwise, and always has.
“It’s funny how people don’t always get that, but it’s absolutely true,” Shaffer says. And that reminds him of a story — he has many, many stories — related to the late Gilda Radner’s impersonation of Barbara Walters on Saturday Night Live.
“I was sitting at a piano with Barbara Walters — don’t ask why — once and saying, ‘When Gilda used to do you, I would always play ‘Wah-Watusi’ by The Orlons in support, because she called her character ‘Baba Wawa,’ ” Shaffer says. “She said, ‘I hated that so much, because my career was not at the top of my game and I felt they were picking on me.’ I said, ‘Oh my God, not at all! Gilda revered you!’ ”
Another misunderstanding is that Letterman — with his ironic, sometimes-sarcastic put-on humor — disliked Shaffer.
“People say, ‘Why was David Letterman so mean to you?’ What? It was so obvious this guy loved me and it was touching for me,” Shaffer says. “We could have fun with each other; we were going a little bit edgy because we can. But we did like each other so much.”
Shaffer, 67, also likes the selections on his new album very much. Most of them are oldies from Rock’s and Soul’s ’60s-’70s golden era, like Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together,” Georgie Fame’s “Yeh Yeh,” The McCoys’ “Sorrow,” Soul Brothers Six’s “Some Kind of Wonderful,” Ray Charles’ “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and more. The album (titled Paul Shaffer & The World’s Most Dangerous Band) has guest vocals by Dion, Jenny Lewis, Darius Rucker, Bill Murray, Shaggy and others; Shaffer himself takes a few turns singing, as does bassist Will Lee and guitarist Felicia Collins.
Raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Shaffer loved the music he heard on the radio and developed a quick-recall memory for Pop music’s details that he never lost. He started taking piano lessons and stayed with it, gaining proficiency while playing in bands as a student at the University of Toronto. And he had his eye on the prize — being part of the music business as a performer. He arrived in the Big Apple in 1974.
“I came from such a remote location,” he says. “I wanted to get to New York and live that kind of life, to some extent. That to me was so romantic.”
Accompanying Shaffer and his band on this tour is Valerie Simpson, who will join Collins on “I Don’t Need No Doctor” as she does on the album. Along with Motown classics for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Your Precious Love,” Simpson co-wrote “Doctor” with her late husband, Nickolas Ashford.
“I’ve been a fan since I saw her name listed as a composer on so many great Motown hits,” Shaffer says. “When I got to New York and started doing studio work, I found she was doing it, too. I met her when I was arranging commercials. She came in to sing and was emoting so much that I had to say, ‘Valerie, please! It’s just a jingle.’ ”
On the album, Shaffer sings the swinging mid-tempo R&B song “Just Because,” a 1960 hit for Lloyd Price. Shaffer’s vocal has a slightly echoing depth to it, reminiscent of John Lennon’s 1975 cover version.
“The original was the model, but I can see where you might say that,” the affable Shaffer says. “Certainly (Lennon) was known as a guy who was insecure about his own lead vocals, wasn’t he? And he’d often put an effect on, an Elvis-style slap echo or something.
“I’ll confess doing same thing,” he adds. “But I thought of the idea independently of him, putting a period-sounding effect on the voice that maybe will hide a few of my vocal inconsistencies.”
It almost seems perverse that Shaffer should close his album with the Bob Dylan song “Wigwam.” As a songwriter, Dylan is considered such a great wordsmith that last year he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his lyrics. But “Wigwam” — from 1970’s Self Portrait album, which was heavily derided upon release but has more recently been reappraised — has no lyrics, just Dylan wordlessly singing along to a lovely little melody. Shaffer’s version has a more orchestral-sounding arrangement, with horns, and keeps the same vocal approach.
“It’s a beautiful melody,” he says. “And we were recording it right around when Dylan was so controversially getting the Nobel Prize. I just said, ‘This guy can (also) do that kind of work.’ It’s really a hell of a melody.”
Over the course of his decades on TV with Letterman, Shaffer has had opportunity to meet and musically accompany virtually every performer active during that time. One, however, stands out to Shaffer — James Brown, who appeared on Late Night With David Letterman in 1982, during the first year of the NBC show.
“That was the most significant for me, and I talk about it in (the live) show,” Shaffer says. “He hadn’t sung in a little while, but hadn’t lost anything. He did three numbers and it was just magical. He did (Letterman’s show) many times after that, but for this first time he just brought two horns and played with my four-piece rhythm section. It just takes off.”
PAUL SHAFFER & THE WORLD’S MOST DANGEROUS BAND play Kettering, Ohio’s Fraze Pavilion on Friday. Tickets/more info: fraze.com.