Welcome to our weekly Sunday music section called
“Notable Canadian Jewish Musicians.”
By David Eisenstadt
TORONTO. Jan 16/22 – Paul Shaffer is best known as David Letterman’s long-time musical director. But he has done so much more, really done it all, and he’s still doing it.
Toronto-born and raised Jewish, he grew up in Fort William (in 1970 amalgamated with Port Arthur to become Thunder Bay) Ontario. His parents Bernard and Shirley Shaffer loved jazz and show tunes music.
When he was 12, the family saw Nat King Cole and others perform in Las Vegas. Paul’s experience was “life-changing” telling Newsweek’s Lisa Birnbach that’s what led him to become a performer.
He took piano lessons and played the organ in a local band called the Fabulous Fugitives.
In the early ‘70s, he studied sociology at the University of Toronto, graduating in 1973. During that time he played with jazz guitarist Tisziji Munoz. His interest in musicals blossomed. In 1972, Shaffer became musical director for the Toronto production of Godspell connecting with Victor Garber, Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, and Andrea Martin. He played piano for the 1974 Broadway production, The Magic Show.
Shaffer joined Saturday Night Live’s house band in New York in 1975. Until 1980 as the pianist, he appeared to direct the band’s actions albeit Howard Shore was credited as SNL’s first music director. (Under The Radar – 30 Notable Canadian Jewish Musicians). Shaffer also regularly appeared in the show’s sketches, playing piano for Bill Murray’s character Nick the Lounge Singer.
But there were potholes in the road. Notably a well-publicized dust-up with John Belushi who dropped him from the 1980 Blues Brothers film, claiming he was displeased that Shaffer was spending excessive time working on a Gilda Radner album. Seems Shaffer and Radner were a number. The roadway was repaired with Shaffer appearing in the 1998 production, Blues Brothers 2000.
Shaffer, from 1982-93, was David Letterman’s musical director, leading what they called “The Worlds Most Dangerous Band”. He composed the theme song as the CBS Orchestra leader for the Late Show with David Letterman which ran from 1993-2015.
Since 1986, he has been the musical director/producer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony and did the same job for the 1996 Olympic Games closing ceremony in Atlanta, GA. A music director stint for a Cinemax special – Fats Domino and Friends – saw him perform with Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ronnie Wood.
Shaffer has collaborated with, among others, B.B. King, Brian Wilson, Carl Perkins, Cher, Chicago, Cyndi Lauper, Diana Ross, Donald Fagan, Earl Scruggs, George Clinton, Grand Funk Railroad, Robert Plant, Warren Zevon, and Yoko Ono. In ’92, his band performed Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” for the film Beethoven.
His TV and radio appearances are many. He was considered for George Costanza’s role in Seinfeld – but he never returned Jerry Seinfeld’s call, according to TV Guide Network’s “25 Biggest Blunders”.
In 2001, he was the musical director for The Concert for New York City, working with Adam Sandler and the Backstreet Boys. In 2008, he had a cameo role at the beginning of Law & Order: Criminal Intent’s season seven episode “Vanishing Act.” He appeared in an episode titled How I Met Your Mother in the sitcom “P.S. I Love You” in 2013. The letters P.S. refer to Paul Shaffer.
He reunited with The World’s Most Dangerous Band in 2017, then recorded a self-titled album, went on tour, and guested on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
“Paul Shaffer and The World’s Most Dangerous Band”
>>>Click HERE to watch this video <<<
He has appeared in various films over the years – This Is Spinal Tap, Scrooged, and Look Who’s Talking Too. You’ll hear Shaffer’s voice as the character Hermes on Disney’s animated feature and TV series Hercules.
Shaffer did a Schitt’s Creek cameo, as the piano player at a December 2018 Christmas Party, reconnecting with his long-time colleague Eugene Levy. In 2019, he hosted Paul Shaffer Plus One, interviewing music industry colleagues on SiriusXM and AXS-TV.
He has championed various charities beginning in 2002, as Epilepsy Canada’s national spokesperson. In 2005, he contributed to and dedicated a Boardroom in memory of his father at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. That year, he co-organized (with Steven Van Zandt) a benefit for Dave Clark Five musician Mike Smith, who was an early influence on Shaffer’s musical career. He accompanied Adam Sandler in 12-12-12, The Concert For Sandy Relief, to raise money for Hurricane Sandy victims.
Paul Shaffer Highlight Reel – Letterman – 2015.04.17
>>> Click HERE to watch this video <<<
Paul Shaffer has received numerous awards – his street name surrounding the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium in 2002; a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2006; an Order of Canada in 2007; two Honorary doctorates including one from Lakehead University. A member of Artists Against Racism, he has written a memoir – “We’ll Be Here For The Rest Of Our Lives” with David Ritz in 2009. Married in 1990 to Cathy Vasapoli, they have two children.
Credits: jazz.fm; Andrew L/YouTube; NYStudioCatsReunion/YouTube
A complete list of David Eisenstadt’s articles can be viewed under Music Online in the Category section.
Do you have comments or questions about this article? Contact David Eisenstadt at email@example.com
David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com the Canadian Partner of IPREX Global Communication and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.
-I was well aware of Paul Shaffer and his musical contribution to the Letterman Show. I was totally unaware of his acting ability and his skill at writing music. Glad to have read your article about this wonderful Canadian-born Jewish musician. – MRB, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
-Loved your article on Paul Shaffer – one of my favorites so far! Keep up the comprehensive research and writing! – CBM, Naples, Florida, USA
-Very informative article about a very talented man. I was at U of T with him. – LR, Boca Raton, Florida, USA
-You got him! Splendid. – DM, Toronto, Canada
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