There’s lots of life after Late Show for Canadian musician After 33 years as second banana, Paul Shaffer is leading the way
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/04/2022 (416 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Canadian musical icon Paul Shaffer’s career has spanned five decades but the man shows no signs of slowing down. It’s the opposite in fact; he is excited and raring to go.
Paul Shaffer & the WSO
Centennial Concert Hall
Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets $25 to $119 at my.wso.ca/2211
The Ontario native, who currently lives in New York, is best known for his 33-year tenure as the musical director of Late Night with David Letterman and Late Show with David Letterman and still speaks regularly to his old friend.
“I was on Letterman for a long time. I started in 1982 when I was 32. David has become a lovely friend. It was his desire to keep the friendship going. In fact we spoke just the other day,” he says.
“Letterman was a blessing and a life-changing job for me, but I now have the freedom to do various things.”
One of the “various things” he’s excited about are his orchestra performances, the latest being with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) on Friday and Saturday.
“I’m just really only starting to do these shows with symphonies. It’s some of the most exciting things I’ve ever done,” he says.
During his time at Letterman, Shaffer encountered many famous faces, but the memory that delights him the most is of meeting Charles and Diana in the 1980s.
“Prince Charles and Lady Di were in Canada to open the Expo 86, the World’s Fair in Vancouver. A couple of guys in the prime minister’s office — it was Mulroney at the time — were fans of the Letterman show and were organizing the trip for the royals.”
“They got in touch and the next thing I knew I was in the receiving line with my tux pressed and bells on. Mulroney, he was taking the royals to meet the various premiers of the provinces and I was standing there with all these guys and when they got to me, well no one knew who I was,” he recounts.
“All I knew was you don’t speak unless you’re spoken to, but no one said anything, so I broke with royal protocol and I said, ‘Hello Your Highness, I am Paul Shaffer, the musical director of Late Night with David Letterman’ and he said ‘Oh really, how late?’ I said ’12.30 at night’ and he said ‘Count me out!”
Shaffer laughs as he tells this story, his evident joy crackling down the phone from his Big Apple residence, where he’s taking a break from touring, although he loathes to call it that.
“I wouldn’t say I am touring. This is my third orchestra in the last couple of months. I can’t say I am on a tour; I have done Vancouver, then Long Beach, California, and now Winnipeg, but always coming back to New York in between.”
The show sees Shaffer celebrating the soul music of his youth interspersed with stories of the people he’s encountered throughout his career. Joining him in the second half is Motown legend Valerie Simpson of the duo Ashford & Simpson.
“You’ll see a guy having the time of his life,” he says. “I got to pick exactly what I wanted to play with an orchestra. It’s rock ’n’ roll and R&B that I have expanded for this symphony orchestra.
“You might hear a little bit of Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra, there will be some Beatles, of course, and my special guest star is the great Valerie Simpson, who, with her late husband Nick Ashford, wrote many of the R&B anthems, including Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and I’m Every Woman. Then we do It’s Raining Men, which is a hit song that I wrote back in the day.”
He’s set to regale the audience with stories of his youth, from his upbringing in Thunder Bay, where he started piano lessons at age six, to his journey into show business.
“I was eating up all the music that was coming out at that time, especially the new rock ’n’ roll. I come from a conservative background — my dad was a lawyer who would’ve loved me to go into practice — and it wasn’t realistic for a kid coming from northern Ontario going into this. But both my parents loved show business so they were kind of thrilled when I got into it. “
Shaffer credits the WSO for “galvanizing” him after watching them perform in his teens.
“In fact, WSO was the very first symphony orchestra I got to see in Thunder Bay. I saw them when I was 14 or 15. It was very moving for me. I remember a Hungarian dance melody they played that evening. I learned it by ear after that.”
During his career, Shaffer performed with a long list of luminaries, including James Brown, Cher and Bill Murray, but when asked who he regrets not playing with, the musicians he mentions are Winnipeg’s very own the Guess Who.
“I did awfully well in that department, but I missed Elvis, who died in 1977, and I missed Sinatra. I got awfully close though: I worked with Sammy Davis, I worked with Carl Perkins.
“The Guess Who, their first song was These Eyes. And I loved the heavy guitar riff of American Woman. I used to see them play all the time and I am still fans of theirs. I would love to collaborate with them.”
Shaffer says he’s just getting started doing what he loves and his excitement is evident when he speaks about his symphony shows.
“To work with a large orchestra, and you get to play on top of it, I love it… I want to do more, though. For the first time for a long time, I am getting to do a little of this and a little of that.”
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AV Kitching is an arts and life writer at the Free Press.