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This article is about the musician. For the German cult leader, see Paul Schäfer. For the politician, see Paul W. Shafer.

Paul Allen Wood Shaffer, CM[1] (born November 28, 1949) is a Canadian musician, actor, voice actor, author, comedian, and composer, best known for his work alongside comedian David Letterman. He is the bandleader and sidekick on the Late Show with David Letterman, and has appeared on Letterman's shows since 1982.

Early years

As a child, Shaffer had lessons on the piano, and moved on to playing the organ by his teenage years, in a band with his schoolmates in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Educated at the University of Toronto, he began playing with jazz guitarist Tisziji Muñoz, performing in bands around the bars there, where he found an interest in musicals, and completed his studies, with a B.A. degree in Sociology in 1971.[2]

Musical career

Shaffer began his music career in 1972 as the musical director for the Toronto production of Godspell,[1] starring Victor Garber, Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas and Andrea Martin. He went on to play piano for a Broadway show called The Magic Show in 1974, then became a member of the house band on NBC's popular Saturday Night Live television program from 1975 to 1980 (except for a brief departure in 1977). Though Shaffer was at the piano and appeared to be directing the band's actions, Howard Shore was credited as SNL's musical director, eventually turning the actual conducting of the band to sax player Howard Johnson. Shaffer also regularly appeared in the show's sketches, notably as the pianist for Bill Murray's Nick the Lounge Singer character.

Shaffer occasionally teamed up with the Not Ready for Prime-Time Players off the show as well, including work on Gilda Radner's highly successful Broadway show and as the musical director for John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd whenever they recorded or performed as The Blues Brothers. Shaffer was to appear in the duo's 1980 film, but, as he revealed in October 2009 on CBS Sunday Morning, Belushi dropped him from the project. In a nasty memo to fellow SNL colleagues, Belushi said that he was unhappy that Shaffer was spending so much time on a studio record for Radner. Belushi said that he had tried to talk Shaffer out of working on the album in the first place in order to avoid sharing Shaffer's talents with another SNL-related project.[3] Shaffer later reported that he was in (unrequited) love with Gilda Radner.[4] He would go on to appear in 1998's Blues Brothers 2000.

Since 1982, Shaffer has served as musical director for David Letterman's late night talk shows: as leader of "The World's Most Dangerous Band" for Late Night with David Letterman (1982–1993) on NBC, for which he also composed the theme song, and as leader of the CBS Orchestra for the Late Show with David Letterman (1993–present) on CBS. Letterman consistently maintains that the show's switch to CBS was because NBC "fired Paul for stealing pens" or some other facetious reason. Shaffer has also guest-hosted the show a few times when Letterman was unavailable, including during Letterman's January 2000 medical leave for quintuple heart bypass surgery, and during the birth of Letterman's son Harry in November 2003.

Shaffer has served as musical director and producer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony since its inception in 1986 and filled the same role for the 1996 Olympic Games closing ceremonies from Atlanta, Georgia. Shaffer also served as musical director for Fats Domino and Friends, a Cinemax special that included Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ron Wood.

Shaffer has released two solo albums, 1989's Grammy-nominated Coast to Coast, and 1993's The World's Most Dangerous Party, produced by rock icon Todd Rundgren. Shaffer has also recorded with a wide range of artists, including Donald Fagen, Ronnie Wood, Grand Funk Railroad, Diana Ross, B.B. King, Cyndi Lauper, Carl Perkins, Yoko Ono, Blues Traveler, Cher, Chicago, Robert Burns, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Nina Hagen, Robert Plant, Peter Criss, Scandal, Late Show regular Warren Zevon, jazz trumpeter Lew Soloff, jazz saxophonist Lou Marini and bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs. With Paul Jabara, he wrote and produced the song "It's Raining Men," which was a #2 hit in the UK for The Weather Girls in 1984 and a UK #1 remake for Geri Halliwell in 2001. Shaffer and The World's Most Dangerous Band perform the Chuck Berry song "Roll over Beethoven" for the 1992 film Beethoven.

Other activities

Shaffer has appeared in a number of motion pictures over the years, including a small role in Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap, Blues Brothers 2000, a scene with Miles Davis in the Bill Murray film Scrooged and as a passenger in John Travolta's taxicab in Look Who's Talking Too. In addition, Shaffer lent his voice to Disney's animated feature and television series Hercules, as the character Hermes.

In 1977, Shaffer left SNL for a few months to co-star with Greg Evigan in A Year at the Top, a short-lived CBS sitcom in which Shaffer and Evigan play two musicians from Idaho who relocate to Hollywood where they are regularly tempted by a famous promoter (who is actually the devil's son), played by Gabriel Dell, to sell their souls in exchange for a year of stardom. Though the series only lasted a few episodes, a soundtrack album was released.

Following the series' cancellation, Shaffer returned to SNL. In the fall of 1979, Shaffer became the first person to say "fuck" on SNL.[citation needed] That year, SNL parodied the Troggs Tapes with a medieval musical sketch featuring Shaffer, Bill Murray, Harry Shearer, and a "special guest appearance" by John Belushi (who had left the show the previous spring). In the middle of a long tirade which featured repeated use of the word "flogging," Shaffer inadvertently uttered the forbidden word. It not only escaped the censors in the live broadcast and the West Coast taped airing, but also reappeared in the summer rerun, and even in the syndicated versions of the show for several years. Shaffer, at Letterman's urging, related the story on the very first episode of Late Night.[citation needed]

In 1977, Shaffer played on the Mark & Clark Band's hit record Worn Down Piano. In 1995, he appeared in Blues Traveler's video for the song "Hook".

Shaffer recorded the famous synthesizer solo in the 1982 hit "Goodbye to You" by the band Scandal. He used his trusty Oberheim OB-Xa to emulate a '60s organ sound.[5]

Around 1998 he was a square on Hollywood Squares.

In 2001, Shaffer hosted the VH1 game show Cover Wars with DJ/model Sky Nellor. The show featured cover bands competing for the ultimate series win. Each week, Shaffer would sign off with, "Just because you're in a cover band, it doesn't mean you're not a star." The show lasted 13 episodes and featured celebrity judges including Kevin Bacon, Nile Rodgers, Cyndi Lauper and Ace Frehley.

Shaffer served as musical director for 2001's The Concert For New York City, and accompanied Adam Sandler's Opera Man sketch and the Backstreet Boys' Quit Playing Games (With My Heart).

In 2002, a street which surrounds the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium in his hometown was renamed "Paul Shaffer Drive." Shaffer has also received two honorary doctorates.

Since 2002, he has been the national spokesperson for Epilepsy Canada. On September 29, 2005, Shaffer made a major contribution to Lakehead University to dedicate the fifth floor ATAC boardroom to his father Bernard Shaffer, inaugural member of the Board of Governors. In June 2006, he received a star on Canada's Walk of Fame.

Shaffer's memoir, We'll be Here for the Rest of Our Lives: A Swingin' Show-biz Saga (co-authored by David Ritz) was published by Flying Dolphin Press (an imprint of Random House Inc.'s Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group) on October 6, 2009. The same day, he made an appearance as a guest on The Late Show.

Shaffer made a cameo appearance at the beginning of the Law & Order: Criminal Intent season 7 episode "Vanishing Act".

Personal life

Shaffer was born in Fort William, now Thunder Bay, Ontario, the son of Shirley and Bernard Shaffer, a lawyer.[6] Shaffer was raised Jewish. Since 1990, Shaffer has been married to Cathy Vasapoli, with whom he has two children: Victoria (born 1993) and Will (born 1999).


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Paul Shaffer to receive Order of Canada". Lake Superior News. 2007-12-28. Retrieved 2008-04-23. 
  2. King, Betty Nygaard. "Shaffer, Paul". Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2009-01-02. ; Michael Posner, "Paul Talk", Toronto Globe and Mail, October 17, 2009
  3. Paul Shaffer's Showbiz Journey
  4. Posner, Michael (October 17, 2009). "Paul Talk". Toronto Globe and Mail. 
  5. Sigman, Mitchell (March 2010). "Scandal's "Goodbye to You" Solo". Keyboard Magazine. p. 44. 

External links

Media offices
Preceded by
Late Night bandleader
Feb. 1, 1982 –June 25, 1993
Succeeded by
Max Weinberg


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