Many Notes, Chords To Musical Sidekick Shaffer's Life

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Paul Shaffer sings on Late Show with David Letterman. i

Paul Shaffer has been David Letterman's musical director and sidekick for more than 27 years. Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday
Paul Shaffer sings on Late Show with David Letterman.

Paul Shaffer has been David Letterman's musical director and sidekick for more than 27 years.

Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday

Bandleader Paul Shaffer is used to being overshadowed by the man who introduces him on TV. Shaffer plays comic foil for late-night talk show host David Letterman. He's the sidekick, the musical director — the guy who imitates Cher.

Shaffer's new memoir, We'll Be Here For the Rest of Our Lives: A Swingin' Showbiz Saga, follows his colorful transition from topless bar pianist to bandleader of a late-night staple show.

In past years Shaffer appeared on Saturday Night Live and was a member of the Blues Brothers. But in the book, he recounts how he started his career playing piano in a Canadian topless bar.

"I was right out of school," Shaffer tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "I went to University of Toronto. Really wanted to go into music, barely had the nerve to do it so I said to my parents, 'I'll take a year and see what happens.'

"Well, first thing that happened in the year was I got that job at the Brass Rail Tavern on Young Street in Toronto. Man, that was a bizarre job," he says. "Sort of exciting, of course — girls get up on the stage and take off their top. And all my friends showed up."

At the end of the night, Shaffer says, his friends were still there, albeit a little drunk, and he's embarrassed.

"I'm saying, 'Please come back and see us, we're happy to have entertained you this evening, and we will be here' — and it really felt like it — 'for the rest of our lives.' "

And that last line became the title of his book.

Excerpt: 'We'll Be Here For The Rest Of Our Lives'

Cover of Paul Shaffer's 'We'll Be Here For The Rest Of Our Lives.' i
Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday
Cover of Paul Shaffer's 'We'll Be Here For The Rest Of Our Lives.'
Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday

Paul At The Gramercy

"I am Eloise. I am a city child. I live in the Plaza."

Those words, written by Kay Thompson, were read to me by Mom when I was eight. Mom had the good taste to expose me to books about Eloise as well as Babar and Christopher Robin.

As my fashionable and loving mother, who herself dreamed of Manhattan penthouses and Parisian boulevards, slowly turned the pages, the fantasy drew me in: Imagine, living in a sophisticated hotel in the most sophisticated city in the world; having the run of the place; room service; maid service; fascinating people continually checking in and checking out; banquets; weddings; parties on every floor. What could be better?

Nothing, I decided, when, at age 28, I moved back to New York from Los Angeles. I couldn't afford the Plaza, of course, but, at $1500 a month, I could afford the Gramercy Park Hotel on Gramercy Park at 2 Lexington Avenue. These days the Gramercy has been reinvented as a five-star hipper-than-thou Ian Schrager production. But when I moved in — and stayed for 11 glorious years — the place was the essence of shabby gentility. The carpets were musty; the furniture was in disrepair; and a distinct funk hung in the air when you walked down the hallways. I loved it.

The Gramercy's clientele consisted of a devoted cadre of Europeans who had been coming for years, comforted to be served by the same receptionists and bellmen, many of whom were in the their seventies. In addition, there was a noticeable constituency of elderly residents who had moved into the hotel back in the forties and clung to their rent-controlled rates. At about the time of my arrival, the Gramercy had been discovered by New Wave and Punk bands looking for a suitably disreputable alternative to the Chelsea. On any given day, you might see the Clash at the front desk or the English Beat in the bar.

We'll Be Here For the Rest of Our Lives
By Paul Shaffer
Hardcover, 336 pages
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
List price: $26

I lived in two small rooms in the back with a nice view of the park. One room had two double beds, the other a sofa and two chairs covered in tattered velvet upholstery. There was a tiny kitchenette and a gas stove. I had the gas turned off because I had no intention of cooking. My television sat on a rickety metal stand and my electric piano sat on the coffee table. I would practice while watching "American Bandstand."

When I first moved in, I was told that the doorman had a key to Gramercy Park itself, a charming enclosure of manicured greenery that consisted of one square city block and was closed to the general public. Only residents of the immediate area had keys.

"I can open the gate," said the doorman, "but I can't leave you the key. I'll be back in a half-hour to let you out. Enjoy yourself."

I took a quick walk around the park and then felt a wave of panic passing over me. I couldn't get out. I looked through the wrought-iron gate and saw people walking up and down the street. They were free. I wasn't. I was trapped inside like a hyena at the zoo. Twenty-five minutes were far too many to be alone with nature. You see one flower, you see them all. Somehow, though, I managed to survive my imprisonment, but in my many years at the Gramercy, I never ventured into the park again.

Who needed to, when there was Ravi Shankar passing through the lobby. At breakfast I might see Taj Mahal eating an omelette. One evening in the dining room I looked up and there was Jaco Pastorius, the genius musician who had begun with Wayne Cochran and moved on to the avant-garde Weather Report. He was strolling around, playing his unplugged electric Fender bass for the pleasure of the patrons. You couldn't hear what he was playing because the solid-body guitar, without amplification, had no resonance. But when he came to my table, I leaned in and could make out the brilliance of his improvisation. To this day I have no idea why Jaco had decided to serenade the diners with a free and inaudible concert, but that was the charm of life at the Gramercy.

Room service was superb. The hamburger was excellent, the fries crispy and salted to my exact taste. When I caught cold, the house doctor was there in a flash, happy to dispense whatever antibiotics were needed. The doorman would fetch my medicine from the drug store. I looked forward to getting sick.

Riding the elevator was always an adventure. One evening the door opened and there was Debbie Harry. She told me that she'd decided to live in the hotel. Passing through the lobby, I saw Paul Butterfield at the bar. I stopped to say hello. We struck up a friendship that resulted in my playing on his last album.

"Paul," he said to me, "I finally understand the blues. The blues puts a hurtin' on your heart. Man, I have an ulcer, so I eat nothing but sausage and peppers. I need eight hours of sleep a night, so I never get more than two. I should avoid stimulants of all kinds, so I seek out every stimulant I can find. Paul, I've got the blues."

No doubt, the Gramercy had a strong dose of the blues. But those blues could be chased away by the merriest and most unexpected circumstances. There was, for instance, the time that my queen Ronnie Spector and her husband came to visit me in my room. We got happy on more than a few drinks and, on a mere whim, rushed down to the bar where I sat at the out-of-tune upright piano and accompanied Ronnie as she sang every last one of her Spector-styled hits. It was magic. People rushed into the bar, gathered around us and, singing "Be My Baby" and "Walking in the Rain" with Ronnie, had the time of their lives.

My New York life would take strange turns. There would be ups and downs, changes I could have never anticipated, hits and flops, anxieties and ecstasies, but no matter the emotional weather, I could always find a modicum of peace in my little two-room suite in the back of the seedy Gramercy Park Hotel at the foot of Lexington Avenue in New York City.

Meanwhile, back at SNL, Belushi was complaining about his bee costume. Belushi hated putting on the bee costume. It weighed a ton and made him sweat like a hornet in heat.

"I hate these bee sketches," said Belushi.

"Lorne loves them," said Aykroyd.

"F—- Lorne," John exclaimed. "This is my last one."

"Wait a minute," Danny interjected. "I've got an idea. What if we get the band to put on bee costumes and we all play Slim Harpo's `I'm a King Bee.' I'll play harp and you'll sing the shit out of it."

"How's it go?" asked John.

Danny started singing, "'I'm a king bee, baby, buzzin' round your hive.. we can make honey now, baby if you let me come inside.'"

"Let's do it," said John.

Next thing I know I'm running around the SNL set in a bee costume. I understand why Belushi rails against this thing. It stings. It disorients me to the point that during rehearsal I wander into a Gilda/Garrett Morris sketch in my bee get-up.

"What are you doing in here?" asks Gilda.

"I don't know," I say.

When we do "I'm A King Bee" on the air, everyone loves it. Belushi is sensational as a buzzed-up blues singer. In the middle of the song, he does a full flip and lands flat on his back. The audience licks it up like honey.

Now Danny and John are warming up the SNL audience as two blues singers, not bees but two guys dressed in dark hats, dark ties, dark suits and dark glasses.

"Why the dark suits and dark glasses?" I ask.

"I was hipped to the look by Fred Kaz," says John, "the beatnik musical director at Second City in Chicago. He's the cat who told me that junkies always wore straight-looking outfits so they could pass. Check out William Burroughs."

Shortly thereafter, Lorne is featuring the singing duo, not as a warmup act, but as on-air performers. Not only that, I get to introduce them on camera in the guise of Don Kirshner. I give it the slowed-down, frozen-stiff, tanned, gold-chained, full-nasal Brooklyn brogue treatment of my show biz friend and say ...

"Today, thanks to the brilliant management of Myron S. Katz and the Katz Talent Agency, these two talented performers are no longer just a legitimate blues act. But with careful shaping and the brilliant production of Lee Solomon, who's a gentleman, and his wonderful organization, they have managed to become a viable commercial product. So now, let's hear it for these two brothers from Joliet, Illinois. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ..."


Excerpted from We'll Be Here For the Rest of Our Lives by Paul Shaffer. Copyright 2009 by Paul Shaffer. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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We'll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives

A Swingin' Show-Biz Saga

by Paul Shaffer and David Ritz

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