Gary James' Interview With
Paul Shaffer




He was the band leader / musical director for David Letterman. He's recorded with a Who's Who list of popular music, including everybody from Robert Plant to Cher to Diana Ross to Grand Funk Railroad. He co-wrote The Weather Girls' big hit "Its Raining Men". That's him playing synthesizer on Scandal's "Goodbye To You". His hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada named a street after him that surrounds the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium. In June of 2006 he received a star on Canada's Walk Of Fame. He holds two honorary doctorate degrees. The man we are talking about is Paul Shaffer.

Q - Paul, I feel that I should be addressing you as Dr. Shaffer! It must be quite an honor to be given an honorary degree.

A - I'd like to say something flip or funny, but I don't have anything. Of course I'm very proud of those honorary doctorates. One was from my hometown university, Lakehead University located in Thunder Bay, Ontario. That was fabulous. The ceremony was great. My parents were alive at that time and there. It's a wonderful memory. And the other one was from Five Towns College. I received it with Jimmy Webb, one of my idols, and Ron Delsener who invented Rock promotion in New York, concert promotion. So, that was great to be with those guys and receive it with them.

Q - After being part of the David Letterman show for so long, and on such a tight schedule, it had to have been hard for you to re-adjust to another schedule.

A - It certainly was tough to adjust. It's two and a half years past the date when we all went off the air. I've managed to make the adjustment, although initially it was physical and everything. But, over time things changed. When I was doing that Letterman show I barely slept. I was always wound up and ready for the next show because there was always another show. At 5AM I'm up. I couldn't sleep in. What's happening? All of that has sort of smoothed out. And of course I miss it. It was a awful lot of fun, but I can look back at that accomplishment of completing thirty-three years with David Letterman, who was the greatest boss you could possibly imagine, and he's so encouraging. He heard every single note I played over all those thirty-three years. It turns out he was listening all that time. He was very encouraging.

Q - Would you go out on weekends and play concerts when you were through with a five day run on Letterman?

A - I did it a little bit way back in our days with NBC, but I gave it up pretty quickly with that band. We were together for five shows. I thought enough is enough. Let everybody do their own thing on the weekend. So I only did a few things at that time with the band. I look back on it and I made a record with them just last Spring. I got the old Letterman band back together and we made a record. It came out on Sire Records and we did a little tour together in the Spring time to promote the record. It was like a reunion. It was an awful lot of fun. We did do some traveling and playing together.

Q - Since you were the Musical Director, did you personally choose every musician in the band?

A - Yes.

Q - How would you do that? How would someone find out you're looking for someone for the band? Was that done by referral? You couldn't have put an ad in the paper, or did you?

A - Well, you know, back in '82 I think was when we first went on the air with Letterman. I was a studio musician at that time. That was when there was such a thing. And so I knew my favorite guys in town 'cause we would be doing dates all the time, whether they be commercials or records or television or whatever it was. I just kind of picked my favorite guys. Will Lee on bass was one of them. He lasted with me until the very last show. The other two original guys, Steve Jordan, of course now such a well known, prolific writer, and the late, great Hiram Bullock on guitar. It was a four piece band at the time. So, when that first guy left with Hiram, at that point the show was running. I had a number of guys that I knew come and do the show for a week at a time. I'd just see how they did under those unusual circumstances that we had. It was a very loose, impromptu show. Dave didn't want to prepare anything. If he made mention of a song, I would jump in and play it right away. A lot of it was, "Do you know all the songs that I know?" I want to be able to say "Wipe Out", The Surfaris, and just have everybody play it. I didn't want anybody to look at me and say, "What's that?" That was the point where I hired Sid McGinnis. He filled out all the prerequisites for the job. Same was true when Steve Jordan left and I had a number of guys sit in. Guys that I knew. I wasn't putting an ad in. Just people that I knew. When Anton (Fig) did it, he became the drummer and blew everybody away. That's the kind of thing. Then when we moved to CBS Dave just wanted a bigger aggregation, a bigger band. It was a bigger show. So, I did the same kind of thing. I hired people that I knew were great. That's how I did it all these years.

Q - You recorded on albums for so many different artists. How did that work? Did they say this is the part we want you to play or did they allow you a certain amount of creative freedom when you'd go into the studio?

A - Well, it was different every time. Sometimes when you were doing that kind of work, studio work, there was a service, an answering service at that time called Radio Registry in town. We musicians were all on that service and so the service would call me. "Are you available ten to two? Somebody is doing a session." It was always different. Sometimes everything would be written out. Sight reading wasn't my forte but I would do the best I could. You'd just have to try and give the arranger exactly what he wanted 'cause he had written out every note. Other sessions were overdub sessions and I'd be called in to add keyboard to a track that was already made. Mostly in those cases you would work with the producer and artist. The producer would ask for your own suggestions and he would have suggestions and together you would figure out a part and put it down. So you never really knew. It was done all different ways.

Q - You were the co-writer of "It's Raining Men".

A - Yeah.

Q - Had you not been performing so much, would you have just concentrated on being a songwriter?

A - At that time everybody was trying to be a writer. Everybody that I knew. Get together and write together. I found that I needed the immediate gratification. When you play the piano there's immediate gratification, just the feeling that it gives you. You're performing in front of an audience and people are enjoying it and there's even more gratification. I seem to need it right away. The process of songwriting is something that, although I tried it, just didn't agree with me. I was more of a piano player. That's what I realized, so I didn't really pursue it for that reason. I pursued playing. That's what I liked the best.

Q - How long did it take you and Paul Jabara to write "It's Raining Men"?

A - Well, in this case it was the late, great Paul Jabara who was my co-writer on it. I met him because in my days of studio work there was a producer named Ron Dante. He was Barry Manilow's first producer and the early Barry Manilow stuff including "I Write The Songs". I used to work for him quite a bit in the studio and I played on some of the Manilow albums for that reason. The he produced this guy, Paul Jabara, and I arranged some early Disco tracks for him. Nothing was successful, but I remember one of the songs was called "One Man Ain't Enough". Paul Jabara was already exploring those comedic directions. So, then he left New York and went to Los Angeles and he wrote "Last Dance" for Donna Summer and won an Oscar for that. Then he came back to New York and he called me up and said, "I've got a title for a song that's going to bring Donna Summer right back." Her career had cooled off just a little bit at that time. He said, "The title is 'It's Raining Men'. You did such a great job arranging for me I'd like you to write this one with me. What do you say?" I said, "I'll be right over." So, when I got over to his apartment he had a lot of the lyrics all ready to go. He had phrases that had been up in the song. "Rip off the roof and stay in bed." I remember. He knew he was going to say that. "God bless Mother Nature. She's a single woman too." He had all his stuff in his head ready to go. I just sat down at the piano. He said, "Play me something." I played and he said, "Yeah, yeah. Let's try that. Rip off the roof." He tried his lyrics out. So, between the two of us we just got into sort of a creative space and by the end of the afternoon the song was done.

Q - You said the song was written for Donna Summer?

A - Yeah, but she didn't like it. She heard it. She didn't like it. She didn't like "Hallelujah it's raining men." She thought that was blasphemous. So, she passed on the song. Paul took the song to a number of other people who he knew, including Patti LaBelle. I think Barbra Streisand, all the divas, the great divas at the time. None of them wanted to do it. But he believed in the song so much he made a music track for it in Los Angeles. He didn't even know who he was going to put on it. Then eventually he knew of the two girls who used to back up Sylvester, the early Disco artist. They were two big gals who worked under the name Two Tons Of Fun when they backed up Sylvester. So, he brought them into the studio, put them on it and called the act The Weather Girls. It was really Two Tons Of Fun, but when the record took off the girls were only too happy to change their name to The Weather Girls and go out on the road. Now they had a hit record to promote.

Q - You must have been a big fan of some of the artists you recorded with.

A - Oh, absolutely.

Q - I'm talking Robert Plant.

A - That was an amazing session. Again, I just got a call through Radio Registry; Robert Plant, ten to one, two to five. It was like a Saturday and a Sunday. Of course I was there. Sure enough, so was he. The guitar players were Jeff Beck and Nile Rodgers. I'll never forget what it felt like to hear Robert Plant's voice singing live. To hear his voice in your headphones was incredible.

Q - Did you ever get to meet Frank Sinatra and John Lennon?

A - No. You named two people that I never got to meet. I was just a little too late on the scene. I didn't get to New York until 1974. I certainly worked with Yoko. It was after John's death. I played for her on a number of her things, one album called "Walking On Thin Ice" I think. I was present in Toronto, Canada at a press conference when John and Yoko announced a big peace festival that they were going to do just outside of Toronto. I don't think it ever came to pass. I was there 'cause I was a member of the press, working at a college radio station at the time. I was in college in Toronto. That's the closest I ever got to John Lennon.

Q - Did you get to ask him questions?

A - I was too shy really. I had my tape recorder going. I was just listening. I didn't ask a question.

Q - When David Letterman would go to commercial break, the band would be playing. When he'd return from commercial break the band would stop. Were you playing to the studio audience the entire time the show was on commercial break?

A - We played right through to the studio audience. I didn't realize how unusual that was. I was just taking my cue from what I had done on Saturday Night Live. I had been in the band the first five years of Saturday Night Live. Yes, we played for the audiences during the commercial and kept them hot and up and excited. I did the same thing when I got to the Letterman show.

Q - The studio audience was fortunate. I always wanted to hear more from the band, not less.

A - That's good, isn't it? Leave 'em wanting more. I used to say over all those thirty-three years, a couple of bars here, a couple of bars there, it added up to almost a whole song. I didn't have a problem with it.


© Gary James. All rights reserved.


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