Paul Shaffer has been omnipresent in the general pop culture landscape for half a century. A household name thanks to his decades as David Letterman's on-air right-hand-man, Shaffer has won a Grammy and been nominated for three Emmys.
Next month, the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts in New Jersey will honor him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
“It’s just fantastic. (It) sort of legitimizes me,” Shaffer said. “You know, I didn’t go to a music school. I studied sociology in college. Piano lessons and the like (are) really my only training, so to be recognized by a real institution like this is really something for me.”
Located in Berkeley Heights, New Providence and Paterson, the Wharton Institute is an independent, nonprofit community performing arts education center that serves more than 1,500 students through programs including the New Jersey Youth Symphony, the Performing Arts School, and the Paterson Music Project.
Shaffer, 72, will receive the Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award at its "Together We Celebrate" annual gala at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 10, at the Westmount Country Club in Woodland Park.
The Canadian born Shaffer, who now lives in the New York area, has certainly had a career worth celebrating.
He was the musical director, band leader and sidekick for NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman" from 1982 to 1993, and CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" from 1993 to 2015, following his time playing in the house band and serving as a featured player on "Saturday Night Live" from 1975 to 1980. He served as musical director and producer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for 25 years, starting in 1986.
“I became fascinated with how one could play the stuff by ear," Shaffer, said, "... starting, of course, with rock ’n’ roll, my favorite, which was really just developing when I was starting to play the piano by ear (in elementary school)."
Shaffer had a sense of "not wanting there to be a music that I couldn’t understand," even if it took a while for him to come around on some styles.
"My parents exposed me to all their favorite pop music: the standards, Sinatra, Tony Bennett, etc.," Shaffer said. " ... I couldn’t hear those harmonies for a long time until ... I started playing with an avant-garde jazz musician on the side while going to college."
Other styles followed. Shaffer has played on records by Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Cyndi Lauper, Cher and Yoko Ono. His Grammy win came in 2002 in the Best Country Instrumental Performance category for a collaboration on "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" with Earl Scruggs.
Shaffer has even jammed in the land of the Grateful Dead. Before the Dead's singer/guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir played with him and the Letterman band in 1987 and '89, Shaffer was certainly aware of the legendary band's output. He had even shared the stage with them when, as part of the Blues Brothers' band, he opened for the Dead at their storied 1978 closing of the Winterland in San Francisco.
“I must confess that I was not really a Deadhead until I got a chance to play with those two guys,” he said. "I had seen them a number of times ... but never really got it until I got to play with the gentlemen."
Garcia, Weir and company delivered a sterling take on Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" in September of 1987, complete with rich, Booker T.-esque organ fills from Shaffer, and returned in October of 1989 for a rollicking trip through Smokey Robinson's "I Second That Emotion," a Jerry Garcia Band favorite.
"Of course, Jerry especially and the way he ... seemed to open himself up to the band — I’d never seen anything like (it)," Shaffer said. "This is like on a super musical level. He was so welcoming and inclusive that we all played together and he made it happen."
'There was something magical'
This is a fine time for Shaffer to be receiving a lifetime achievement honors, as 2022 is rich with landmark anniversaries in his career. It's been 50 years since the legendary 1972 Toronto production of "Godspell" that featured him, Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Victor Garber and Andrea Martin.
And it's been 40 years since the release of a disco classic he co-wrote: "It's Raining Men," released by The Weather Girls in 1982. Shaffer co-wrote the song with Paul Jabara (who won an Oscar for the Donna Summer gem "Last Dance" from the film "Thank God It's Friday").
“I had done some arranging for (Jabara), and then he said, ‘I’ve got a title that I want you to write with me this time, called “It’s Raining Men." ' And of course I could see it was a great title, and (it was) my first time writing with an Oscar winner," Shaffer said. "And when we wrote it, when it was done and we made a little demo of it, there was something magical about it, I must admit.”
"It's Raining Men" dropped mere months after Shaffer began his televised tenure with Letterman. Whole books could be written about the partnership, but Shaffer said the key to their collaborative nature was in place from the start.
"He said in the beginning ... ‘Say whatever you want,’ " Shaffer recalled. "Basically, he gave me carte blanche and he said at one point, ‘If you have anything, even if I’m in the middle of interviewing a guest, barge in.’
"I don’t know how many bosses would say that. So as a result I had a confidence working with him and improvising with him that I didn’t have anywhere else.”
Alex Biese has been writing about art, entertainment, culture and news on a local and national level for more than 15 years.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Paul Shaffer talks David Letterman, co- writing disco classic