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The least likely hipster since Sammy Davis, Jr. was drafted into the Rat Pack, Paul Shaffer made not only a lifetime but an industry of spinning his shortcomings into bold career moves. The only son of a Thunder Bay attorney with a passion for jazz, Shaffer was trucked by his parents on vacations to Las Vegas, where he developed an early taste for dazzle and ring-a-ding-ding. A rock-n-roll worshipping teenager, Shaffer joined a boy band called the Fugitives, playing keyboards at sock hops and hockey games. Long distance radio broadcasts from the United States and chance encounters with kindred souls led Shaffer to try his hand as a freelance musician. Despite never being able to read music well, Shaffer lucked into a job as a musical director for the Toronto production of "Godspell," whose success and connections brought him to New York City in 1974. Hired for the "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) band its first season, Shaffer forged a solid reputation for himself as an innovative musician with an incomparable personal style - traits that he parlayed into a long-term gig as the band leader for talk show host David Letterman on both of the late night comedian's programs. The recipient of multiple...
The least likely hipster since Sammy Davis, Jr. was drafted into the Rat Pack, Paul Shaffer made not only a lifetime but an industry of spinning his shortcomings into bold career moves. The only son of a Thunder Bay attorney with a passion for jazz, Shaffer was trucked by his parents on vacations to Las Vegas, where he developed an early taste for dazzle and ring-a-ding-ding. A rock-n-roll worshipping teenager, Shaffer joined a boy band called the Fugitives, playing keyboards at sock hops and hockey games. Long distance radio broadcasts from the United States and chance encounters with kindred souls led Shaffer to try his hand as a freelance musician. Despite never being able to read music well, Shaffer lucked into a job as a musical director for the Toronto production of "Godspell," whose success and connections brought him to New York City in 1974. Hired for the "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) band its first season, Shaffer forged a solid reputation for himself as an innovative musician with an incomparable personal style - traits that he parlayed into a long-term gig as the band leader for talk show host David Letterman on both of the late night comedian's programs. The recipient of multiple awards and international honors, and a celebrated composer and comic actor, Paul Shaffer carved a niche for himself in American pop culture by realizing the impossible dream of getting paid to love music.
Paul Allen Wood Shaffer was born on Nov. 28, 1949, in the northwestern Ontario city of Fort William, Canada (renamed Thunder Bay in 1971). The only child of Bernard Shaffer, a lawyer, litigator and pillar of Fort William's Jewish community, and his wife Shirley, Shaffer was raised from infancy with an appreciation for music. Childhood piano and organ lessons led to participation in a teenage band known as the Fugitives, and gigs at school dances and Saturday night hockey games at home and in the neighboring town of Terrace Bay. The spark of Shaffer's trademark passion for jazz, lounge music and nightclub cool was fueled by his father on family trips to Las Vegas, where Bernard Shaffer finagled a table at headliner Juliet Prowse's by-invitation-only floor show (hosted by then-boyfriend Frank Sinatra), and to Miami Beach's Eden Roc Hotel, where Yiddish comedian Myron Cohen opened for Billy Daniels, an African-American nightclub star who closed his act with "My Yiddishe Momme."
After his 1967 high school graduation, Shaffer was eager to slip the shackles of provincial life and enrolled in the University of Toronto, following his father's career plan to study for the bar at Osgood Law School. During late night study sessions, Shaffer would tune in to the Chicago radio station WLS to hear the latest hits by the Beach Boys, the Supremes and the Young Rascals and to dream of a career as a rock musician. While still an undergraduate, Shaffer met a young Latin jazz guitarist from Brooklyn named Tisziji Munoz, who included the budding keyboardist in his avant garde combo within Toronto's bohemian night scene and at campus coffeehouses. Despite his doubts about the life of an entertainer, Bernard Shaffer backed his son's dream to make it as a musician, giving him a year to make it happen. Following his 1971 graduation, Shaffer set out for an exciting but uncertain life as a freelance musician in Toronto.
While paying his rent as a cover band keyboard player in a string of Toronto strip joints, Shaffer accompanied his then-girlfriend to her audition for the Canadian revival of the Broadway musical "Godspell." Though his sweetheart did not make the cut, Shaffer was retained by the show's co-creator, Stephen Schwartz, as musical director despite the fact that Shaffer was far from adept at reading music. Intended only as a short-term attraction for subscribers of Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theater, the production ran for 488 performances and provided early exposure for such performers as Victor Garber; future "Second City Television" troupers Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas and Martin Short; and Gilda Radner, with whom Shaffer would forge an enduring friendship that ended only with Radner's death in 1989.
In 1974, Shaffer was brought to New York City by Stephen Schwartz to play keyboards for his musical "The Magic Show," which ran for four years at Broadway's Cort Theatre. In 1975, Shaffer joined the house band for Lorne Michaels' late night sketch comedy revue "NBC's Saturday Night," whose title was changed in 1977 to "Saturday Night Live" (1975- ). Although the "SNL" band was led by fellow Canadian Howard Shore, Shaffer was given prominent placement on the studio floor, creating the illusion for many viewers that he was calling the shots. Throughout his tenure on the show, Shaffer appeared in numerous sketches and forged lasting relationships with Not Ready for Prime Time Players John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner. Shaffer would serve as the musical director for Belushi and Aykroyd's Blues Brothers touring act and for Radner's 1979 one woman Broadway show "Gilda Radner - Live from New York." His participation in the latter would cause a falling out with Belushi, who expected Shaffer to be a part of the upcoming "Blues Brothers" (1980) film, instead of helping Radner in her pursuits.
Shaffer took a leave of absence from "SNL" in 1977 to star in the ill-fated CBS sitcom "A Year at the Top" (1977). Centered on the Faustian misadventures of two Idaho-based rock star wannabes who sell their souls for 12 months of chart-topping success, "A Year at the Top" was executive produced by rock impresario Don Kirshner, whom Shaffer had often impersonated on "SNL." The self-limited nature of the concept notwithstanding, the series lasted for just six weeks before its September 1977 cancellation. Shaffer returned to "SNL," where he would stay until 1980. In 1979 - the same year he co-wrote the unlikely disco hit "It's Raining Men" by the Weather Girls that would become a gay anthem - he appeared in "Mr. Mike's Mondo Video," a feature spoof of 1960s-era "mondo" films conceived by "SNL" writer Michael O'Donoghue and featuring several Not Ready for Prime Time Players, as well as musicians Deborah Harry, Sid Vicious and Klaus Nomi. In 1982, Shaffer was hired to head the house band for "Late Night with David Letterman" (NBC, 1982-1993) and was included in its reconceptualization at CBS as "Late Show with David Letterman" (1993- ).
Shaffer's long-term collaboration with David Letterman gave the musician a showcase for his particular variety of musical megachurch and merciless self-parody. Drawn to flashy Doc Severinsen outfits and spouting Rat Pack style rebop, Shaffer made no attempt to camouflage his Judeo-Canadian inclinations, resulting in a unique and lovable pop culture icon. He was also the perfect foil to the sometimes caustic Letterman, laughing in an over-the-top, Ed McMahon fashion at everything Letterman said or did. Their particular chemistry stood the test of time for decades; most intensely in 1993 when Shaffer followed his friend from NBC to CBS during Letterman's acrimonious split with the Peacock Network over losing his chance to host "The Tonight Show" to Jay Leno. When not leading his late night band, he took on other pursuits. In 1984, he played Artie Fufkin, ineffectual promotions rep for Polymer Records, in Rob Reiner's mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap." In 1986, he hosted his own TV special, "Viva Shaf Vegas," which premiered on the cable TV network Cinemax. Since its inception in 1986, he became the de facto musical director-producer for every Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony to honor music legends, living or dead. Shafer would also turn up in a variety of feature films, among them "Heartbeat" (1987) with Don Johnson, "Scrooged" (1988) with Bill Murray and "Blues Brothers 2000" (1998) with Dan Aykroyd. Additionally, he provided the voice of Hermes, comic relief messenger of the Greek gods, for Disney's "Hercules" (1997) feature film and subsequent animated TV series.
In 1998, Shaffer appeared as a panelist on five episodes of the revived "Hollywood Squares" (1998-2003) and was a contestant on "Jeopardy" (2002- ) in 2006. He contributed guest appearances on several episodes of Comedy Central's faux talk show "Primetime Glick" (2001-03) starring Martin Short, as well as on the ABC sitcom "Hope & Faith" (2003-06) and the short-lived music industry comedy series "Love Monkey" (CBS, 2006). Shaffer served as an occasional "Late Show" guest host, was a presenter at the 60th Annual Tony Awards telecast, was the musical director for the closing ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics and performed in the "Concert for New York," broadcast by VH-1 a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. In 2009, he published his autobiography, Paul Shaffer: We'll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives, detailing his fascinating "SNL" history and his close to 30 years as Letterman's sidekick.
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Received and honorary doctorate of fine arts from Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada in 1988
About the song selection the CBS Orchestra played to introduce Al Gore: "It was hilarious, actually. During rehearsals, one of the Secret Service agents pulled me aside and said in a low voice, 'Um, what are you going to play to welcome the vice president?' Before I could answer, he said, 'How about Arrested Development's "Tennessee"?' It was perfect since Al Gore is from there . . . And the lesson to be learned here, of course, is that one should never underestimate the Secret Service. Because one day they could have your job." --Paul Shaffer quoted in US, April 1995
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