Paul Shaffer: 50 Years In the Biz

Dad Gum it, I’m not going to allow the death of Freddie Roman or the 80th anniversary of the Cocoanut Grove Fire divert me from celebrating the birthday of Paul Shaffer (b. 1949), though I’m quite certain that he, more than most, would grok the significance of those two events.

2022 marks 50 years of a career that has been legendary since the very beginning. Fresh out of college, Shaffer had been tickling the ivories in local bar bands when he was hired to be the musical director of the 1972 Toronto production of Godspell which just so happened to star fellow unknowns Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Gilda RadnerMartin Short, Dave Thomas, and Victor Garber. This led to a job playing piano for Doug Henning’s 1974 Broadway production The Magic Show. In 1975 he became the piano man in the original Saturday Night Live band, which led to far more. Fun fact, not widely known: in 1977 he co-starred in his own sit-com, A Year at the Top, with Greg Evigan and former Bowery Boy Gabe Dell.

That year did not proved to be Shaffer’s “year at the top” however, and he soon returned to SNL, where his profile was quickly enhanced. Among other things, he was deeply involved with the Blues Brothers Band, though he was culled from the 1979 movie because he was simultaneously deeply involved with Gilda Radner’s one woman Broadway show and album. He did later appear in Blues Brothers 2000 (1998). On SNL he began appearing before the cameras more frequently, notably in support of Bill Murray’s lounge singer character, and rocking his Don Kirshner impersonation. After the original cast left, Shaffer hung on another year through 1981. That same year he played on Robert Plant’s Honeydrippers LP, including the hit single remake of the old 50s tune “Sea of Love”.

Then he assumed his most profile gig ever: that of David Letterman’s musical director and sidekick (mixing elements of both Ed McMahon and Doc Severinson) for his late night shows from 1982 to 2015. That is a long time in the spotlight! Of course, there were many side projects: he had cameos in films like This is Spinal Tap (1984) and Look Who’s Talking Too (1990). He became musical director of the annual Rock and Hall Hall of Fame annual awards ceremony starting in 1986. He was the voice of Hermes in Walt Disney’s animated feature Hercules (1998) and the ensuing tv show version. he was the musical director for Bill Murray’s A Very Murray Christmas (2015). Look him him up, he’s still working like a crazy, cuckoo maniac after 50 years in the biz!

For more on show business history, including TV variety, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.