Songs That Paul Shaffer Knows

It Ain’t Me. Babe. (Photo courtesy of Doubleday Books)

Musician-band leader Paul Shaffer answered almost all of my questions during a recent hour-long interview to promote his memoir “We’ll Be Here For The Rest of Our Lives (A Swingin’ Showbiz Saga)” [Flying Dolphin/Doubleday, $26] with one exception.

I inquired how many songs he knows.


“I know a lot of standards from my parent’s generation because they had music playing in the house all the time,” said Shaffer, who turns 60 on Nov. 28. “As far as rock n’ roll goes, I have an intimate knowledge of 1962 through 1974. Then it stops. But within that narrow area, I know a lot.”

As a hard core “Late Show with David Letterman” fan I’m always amazed at how quick Shaffer picks up a musical cue……

…The book, written with long time music biographer David Ritz, gives some insight into Shaffer’s snap dragon mind. I loved the passage where Shaffer recalls a fantasy menu he designed with comics Harry Shearer and Tom Leopold before seeing the Righteous Brothers in concert in Orange County:

The Phil Spector Wall of Onion Rings

River Deep Dish Pizza

You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Filet Mignon.

And there’s more in the book.

He also writes about his wife Cathy, who was friends with musical anthropologist Hal Wilner. (Wilner produced Marianne Faithfull, Lucinda Wiliams and William S. Burroughs). They were classmates at NYU and Wilner chose the pre-recorded music for “Saturday Night Live.” Shaffer had also done studio work with worked with Wilner under Wilner’s mentor, the late producer Joel Dorn. Musical mindsprings must come from this source as well.

I first met Shaffer in 1986 when I was dispatched to New York to do a profile on him as his hipster urban personality was emerging on NBC-TV’s “Late Night With David Letterman.” At that time he told me he had a wish list of musical guests that included my favorite Chicagoans Curtis Mayfield and Mavis Staples.

His dreams were fulfilled.

“Curtis wound up doing Letterman,” Shaffer said earlier this month. “We got to play all the classic lines in ‘Freddie’s Dead,’ everything that the bass and guitar plays. The strings. Its so classic. He was as wonderful as I thought he would be. He was quiet. He was spiritual. And soulful. That may be the only time I played with him, but I felt I had a relationship with him.

“After he was paralyzed (in a 1990 accident after lighting scaffold fell on him after a concert in Brooklyn) I saw him at a publishing luncheon in New York. I have a beautiful letter from him that I cherish. He couldn’t sign his name anymore because he was paralyzed (from the neck down). So he would send people a cancelled check because it had his signature. That came with the letter just so I would have his signature.”

Shaffer played with the Staple Singers in 1999 when they were inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Shaffer has been musical director and producer for the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame initiation ceremony since it began in 1996. He also held the same position for the 1996 Olympic Games closing ceremonies in Atlanta, Ga.

“I played on a Staple Singers album that was recorded in Los Angeles,” he said. “I don’t remember the name of it (“Turning Point,” 1984) but it was produced by Gary Goetzman, who is now a producing partner of Tom Hanks in movie projects.” Goetzman also produced Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” and Hanks’ 1996 pop music comedy “That Thing You Do,” in which Goetzman also contributed some songs. “We also did a week of shows at the Chicago Theatre and had the Staple Singers at that time.”

Mavis also sang background on ‘What is Soul’ on Shaffer’s overlooked 1989 “Coast to Coast” debut album (Capitol Records). Shaffer interepreted the musical textures of Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis, Miami, Minneapolis, New Orleans and New York. For example, the funky Memphis tribute “What Is Soul” had Shaffer and his World’s Most Dangerous Band backing soul vocalists Don Covay, Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett and Bobby Womack.

Shaffer said, “Mavis is in a supersoulful background group with Darlene Love and the late great Elllie Greenwich, who besides all the wonderful songs she wrote, sang and arranged the backgrounds on (Aretha Franklin’s smash) ‘Chain of Fools.’ I thought it was only right to include her.”

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