Late Show's Paul Shaffer Orchestrates a Legendary Gig
Most people know Paul Shaffer
as the bespectacled bandleader on Late Show with David Letterman
. What they may not
know is that Letterman's sounding board is also the music director for the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
induction ceremony. In 1986, Shaffer's HoF gig got him noticed by HBO, and he was brought on board as music director for an episode of the Cinemax series Sessions
. This, however, would be no ordinary concert. Piano legends Fats Domino
, Ray Charles
and Jerry Lee Lewis
would be sharing the stage at New Orleans' vaunted Storyville Nightclub. The resulting special, Fats & Friends
, arrives in stores today on DVD. TVGuide.com spoke with Shaffer about that unforgettable night.
TVGuide.com: Was it daunting to take the reins as music director for Fats & Friends?
Paul Shaffer: It sure was, but I had done the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so I said, "Why not?" I was young and inexperienced, but it just all happened. To be down in New Orleans, and to have the opportunity to work with three of the greatest piano players in rock 'n' roll history — one of whom was Ray Charles, the genius — was just great.
TVGuide.com: The crowd looked pretty raucous that night.
Shaffer: It was jammed, and it was hot. The crowd was there for a good time, and don't forget that they were serving alcohol. Doors opened at 6:30 or 7 pm and people were ready to party.
TVGuide.com: Were there any incidents that made you question whether things would go smoothly?
Shaffer: Well, you can see one incident in the rehearsal footage on the DVD. I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was about 106 degrees in the nightclub, and there was a lot of tension between these piano greats. It was healthy ego, but ego nonetheless. It was all about who was going to triumph, and everybody pulled out all the stops in their sets. When they all came together to do "Jambalaya" at the end, it seemed like a good idea, because they had all recorded it. But we didn't know they all played it in different keys, and some of them didn't want to change. I find it so interesting now, but when I watch it I see how inexperienced I was. I think I would handle it better now.
TVGuide.com: What would you do differently now?
Shaffer: I didn't have the confidence to solve the problems on my own, but I would have it now. But I think [the music legends] could see that I respected them, and put my heart and soul into it, so they all helped me out in their own ways.
TVGuide.com: Did your background with Saturday Night Live help you deal with the organizing and production of a special that you had to shoot all in one night?
Shaffer: Everything helps. One thing in particular is that I had worked with Ray Charles when he was on Saturday Night Live during the first season, and I was in the house band. At one point I was playing organ and I was so intimidated and stressed out that I could barely play. He stopped the band and said, "Organ! Play it with some soul!" I was frozen. My friend Howard Johnson, who was playing tuba, said, "Ray, count it off again. He's got it." So Ray gave me another chance. I broke the ice with that story when we met back up in New Orleans.
TVGuide.com: And did he remember?
Shaffer: I don't know for sure, but he was very nice about it. He was on his guard, though, and didn't know what I was going to ask of him. You've got to remember that these guys were legends and I had to be careful what I asked of them. You can't step on the toes of your elders, because they know how to do it better than you do.
TVGuide.com: Does the Letterman schedule make it difficult to do side projects like Fats?
Shaffer: I'm doing less than I used to because I'm a family man now, and I have two kids. But if there were an opportunity to do something like this again, of course I would want to do it.
TVGuide.com: You've been Dave's musical director since 1982. Do you ever get tired of him?
Shaffer: You know why I don't? Because it's different every single day. Dave is so spontaneous. The show is very free-form, more so than you would think. People always say, "The stuff you talk about, that's always written, isn't it?" No, it's all improvised.
TVGuide.com: The back-and-forth with Dave is all on the fly?
Shaffer: Sometimes there's a sketch, but you can tell the difference. Otherwise, it's absolutely on the fly. I'm just reacting to what he says.
TVGuide.com: So "spontaneity" is the secret to how you've kept the relationship going over the last 25 years?
Shaffer: Yes. It's the secret behind the longevity of the relationship.
TVGuide.com: I'll have to mention that to my girlfriend.
Shaffer: You should. Maybe I'll tell my wife the same....
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