STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The bandleader Paul Shaffer is used to being overshadowed by the man who introduces him on TV.
Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Host, "The Late Show with David Letterman"): Let's see. There he is: Paul Shaffer, everybody.
(Soundbite of music and applause)
INSKEEP: Shaffer works with David Letterman, who's been in the news a bit lately. He's the sidekick, the musical director, the guy who imitates Cher.
Mr. PAUL SHAFFER (Bandleader, "The Late Show with David Letterman"): Finally, it was time for Cher to take center stage, and it was a very beautiful scene and she sang something like this:
(Soundbite of song, "Oh, Holy Night")
(Singing) Oh, holy night…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHAFFER: (Singing) …the lights so brightly shining…
And this was something that I always remembered. Thank you very much.
INSKEEP: We spoke with Paul Shaffer before revelations about Letterman's relationships with staffers, which means we were able to focus on Shaffer's own rich musical life.
Does it annoy you that most of the music you play comes during the commercial break and I never get to hear it?
Mr. SHAFFER: It would be nice to, you know, when I start a song, to actually keep going instead of fading out into a Downy fabric softener thing.
INSKEEP: In past years, Shaffer was on "Saturday Night Live" and part of the Blues Brothers. In a memoir called "We'll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives," he recounts how he started his career playing piano in a Canadian topless bar.
Mr. SHAFFER: I was right out of school. I went to University of Toronto, really, you know, 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. And man, that was a bizarre job - sort of exciting, of course, you know - girls get up on the stage and take off their tops. And all my friends showed up, you know.
INSKEEP: They were just coming for the piano playing.
Mr. SHAFFER: I had no idea that they were so interested in my music, but there they were, ringside, you know. And then at the end of the night, you know, the friends are still there, they're all a little drunk. I'm embarrassed, you know, and 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's - my co-writer David Ritz said that's - there's your title for the book.
INSKEEP: Well, now, how did you get from the topless bar to - well, somewhat more high class work? Let's talk about the musical "Godspell."
Mr. SHAFFER: Well, I was playing in the topless bar. I also used to be an audition pianist and kind of a vocal coach, and for 20 bucks you could come over to my house and I would rehearse a song with you and then accompany you to your audition. I'd play piano for you. But I had a girlfriend who was going to audition for "Godspell" and another gal, a friend name Abrel(ph), who I'd met on this bizarre tour of Canadian missile bases - and you've got to read the book to hear about that.
But we went and auditioned. And Steven Schwartz, very well-known now. He has "Wicked" running on Broadway. He composed that music. He's won a number of Oscars for animated movies. Anyway, he was in town for the final auditions. And he said, hey, I want to talk to the piano player. And he kept - he ended up hiring me out of that audition, and hired me to be the conductor for the show. And I'd never done that before, but it was very heavy stuff and I was thrilled.
Next thing I know, I was at the Royal Alex - Alexandra Theater, Alexandria - Royal Alex - whatever it was called - Theater - beautiful theater in Toronto, conduction "Godspell," and here I am.
INSKEEP: You know, I would think that there are plenty of talented piano players who can't necessarily conduct anything, lead other musicians, lead a band. What did he see in your piano playing that made him think that you could be a leader?
Mr. SHAFFER: The main thing he liked about my piano playing was that I was a rock and roll pianist. His score was rock and roll, and I could bang it out. So he liked that. I was not a theatrical pianist. In other words, you know, I hit the keys hard. And he just kind of got a kick out of me. He said, can you conduct? I said, yes. I don't know. You know, when a person asks you a question like that, you say yes.
INSKEEP: I want to go back to one of the earliest stories that you tell on yourself: your competition with a young man named Marvin Slobotski(ph). Am I pronouncing that correctly?
Mr. SHAFFER: Yeah.
INSKEEP: Who was he, and where are you competing with him?
Mr. SHAFFER: Well, he was another kid in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and he was also a member of our synagogue. In the synagogue, there would be community events and sometimes sort of talent shows. And I was, you know, a little pianist and he was a pianist, too. And he was actually terrific, you know. And he would play the song "Jealousy." And he'd get up and he would just (singing) dah, da, dah, dum, dun, dun, dun, da, da…
…like Liberachi or something, you know? And then - and now, you know, little Paul Shaffer.
And I was like 11 years old. And I got up (singing) dah, dee, dee, dee, da-da, de.
(Soundbite of snoring)
Mr. SHAFFER: And that's the way the reaction was. And I would say to myself, you know, I've got to do something. You know, this kid Marvin Slobotski is walking all over me. And then saw on the "Ed Sullivan Show" the grand twins of the Twin Grands, Ferrante and Teicher, doing the theme from "Exodus." (singing) Bum, bum, bum, bum.
And I said, wow. And I went to the piano and learned the song and I started to realize this song is perfect for the synagogue crowd. And so when I played "Exodus," you know, Marvin Slobotski would pull out "Jealousy." (singing) Ram, da, don.
You know, but I got up at 11, and now Paul Shaffer - and all of the sudden instead of a little Mozart, you know, I hit with "Exodus," and I started to realize the power of covering an auspicious song. And, actually, you know, I clobbered him that day.
And I guess maybe that was the start of my career as a cover band artist, because I said, you know, gee, you don't have to write your own songs. You know, you can learn "Exodus" and get a huge reaction from the audience, and basically I'm still playing "Exodus" today.
INSKEEP: Are you still as competitive as you were with Marvin Slobotski so many years ago?
Mr. SHAFFER: I certainly have been throughout my career, in my own little quiet way. Out of competition, I guess, does come a certain amount of prowess. It forces you to sit down at that piano and practice.
INSKEEP: Who exactly is your competition when you're a musical director of "Late Night with David Letterman"?
Mr. SHAFFER: Wherever Marvin Slobotski is up in Canada, somewhere.
INSKEEP: You're still just piling it on?
Mr. SHAFFER: He's saying I could do that. I could do that. No, I guess I want to be known as a confident bank leader. I don't want my band to be tight, you know, (singing) pla, pla, pla, pla.
I want, you know, when they hit those things I want them to be as tight as the great James Brown's band. So perhaps the competition is there, you know. I think I know how to - after all these years, I didn't really know how to conduct a band and Steve Schwartz hired me for "Godspell," but I've learned how to do it, and I just wanted to be good.
INSKEEP: I've got one other question for you.
Mr. SHAFFER: Yeah?
INSKEEP: Have you got an ambition to do something else?
Mr. SHAFFER: You know, my ambitions are - I play the organ. I love the Hammond organ and I never really learned how to play the base pedals on it, and I want to have time to sit down and figure out how to play the pedals so that I can refer to myself as a real organ player, which you're not unless you can play those pedals. And I'd love to learn how to sight read.
Mr. SHAFFER: I can't sight read. I can read, I can arrange, I can…
INSKEEP: We should explain for non-musicians: Sight read means seatbelt drops a piece of music in front of you and you just play it off the page. You can't do that.
Mr. SHAFFER: Right. I learned how to play by ear, and I guess I learned how to fake it instead, and still kind of make my living faking it and playing by ear.
INSKEEP: Paul Shaffer, thanks very much. It's been fun talking with you.
Mr. SHAFFER: It has been my pleasure to be with you, and I hope you enjoy the book.
(Soundbite of music, "Theme from Exodus")
INSKEEP: An excerpt from "Well Be Here for the Rest of our Lives" is at npr.org
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.