Paul Shaffer is best known for his 33-year role as bandleader, musical director, and comedic counterpart to David Letterman on Late Night with David Letterman (1982-1993) and Late Show with David Letterman (1993-2015). But while this is the gig that made him a household name, Shaffer’s legendary career didn’t begin or end with Letterman.
As a child in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, Shaffer’s parents encouraged his musicality. At age six, he began playing the piano. In seventh grade, he remembers performing surf music at a school function. “The kids reacted to it. I said, well this is interesting,” he recalls in a 2019 interview with Steve Adubato. “I had the bug.”
Though he enjoyed music, he wasn’t confident about his ability to pursue a career in performance. During his first years of college, he stopped practicing and performing.
“With no musical outlet, I became very depressed. Then in the second year, having joined a jazz group on the side, I immediately cheered up. It was clear I had to try music,” Shaffer told New York Lifestyle Magazine in 2017.
In 1972, Shaffer achieved his first big success, landing a position as the musical conductor of a Toronto production of the musical Godspell. The cast was filled with celebrities-to-be: Gilda Gadner, Martin Short, Victor Garber, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, and Dave Thomas. Shaffer, “an introverted kid, ” was impressed by the lively comedic actors. “They influenced me,” he told Adubato. “They seemed to be having such a good time being so outgoing and I said that I wanna be more like that, [ . . .] I changed my whole personality ‘cause of that.”
In 1974, Shaffer became a member of the house band for a new show called Saturday Night Live. He continued working on the show for five years, featuring as a cast member in 1979.
Making a name for himself through SNL, Shaffer began collaborating with big-name musicians and comedians. He served as a musician, backup vocalist, and musical director on the Blues Brothers’ successful 1978 album Briefcase Full of Blues and worked with Gilda Radner on her Broadway show Gilda Live in 1980.
In 1982, Shaffer joined Late Night with David Letterman as the leader of The World’s Most Dangerous Band. Shaffer soon developed a back-and-forth comedic banter with the host, David Letterman, that would come to be integral to the show.
Letterman provided Shaffer the opportunity to work with a host of famous musical talents, including some of his own personal idols, such as James Brown. He has contributed to the albums of a range of big-name artists including Diana Ross and Yoko Ono. He has also performed with the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Cher, and Brian Wilson.
Throughout his career, Shaffer has become the recipient of two Grammy awards and a four-time Emmy nominee. He was also inducted into the Canadian Songrwiters Hall of Fame for co-writing the disco hit “It’s Raining Men.”
In 1993, Letterman moved to NBC to CBS. Shaffer and his band followed, renamed “CBS Orchestra.” Shaffer continued his role on the Letterman show until 2015, when host David Letterman announced his retirement.
Shaffer recalls being depressed by the ending of a show that had dominated his life for three decades. Around this time, he got a call from record executive Seymour Stein, who asked Shaffer if he wanted to get back into the music business.
“Talk about an impetus,” Shaffer said in a 2017 Vanity Fair interview, “It was more like a lifesaver! It was really kind of a lesson: ‘My son, you’ve got to continue to play the piano. You can’t just stop.’ I’ve been happy ever since.”
Shaffer and his band — now reclaiming the name “The World’s Most Dangerous Band” — recorded and album featuring vocalists including Shaggy, Darius Rucker, Jenny Lewis, and Shaffer’s long-time friend Bill Murray. The band performed the album on tour in 2017.
As of 2022, Shaffer continues to embark on new musical projects. In February, he performed with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at an online gala featuring Motown vocalist and composer Valerie Simpson.
In April, Shaffer performed with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. In a 2022 interview with Broadway World, Shaffer describes working with symphony orchestras as a “new stretch of his career,” which he hopes to continue. “I’ve done it only twice now, but it is a big thrill [ . . .] To experience all of those souls playing together, it’s just fantastic what comes out,” he said.
Five decades into his career, Shaffer is firmly cemented as a showbiz legend and he doesn’t seem to be approaching retirement any time soon. At 72 years old, he approaches his career with the same youthful combination of uncertainty and excitement for what’s to come.