The story goes that when the great composer Billy Strayhorn was summoned uptown by Duke Ellington, Strayhorn heard that the A train was the quickest way to Harlem. He took that subway line and, on the way up to Duke’s place, wrote a song about the trip that will live forever. I have no comparable tale to tell about being summoned to a Midtown office by Dave Letterman. I didn’t write a great tune on the way over. I barely had a couple of bars of something in mind that might be a cool theme for Dave. I’d recently survived that near-fatal car accident. On that particular day, my aches and pains were screaming from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes. I knew, though, that Letterman was a talented guy. I loved his morning show on NBC. It hadn’t been big in the ratings, but it won two Emmys and critical raves. I saw Dave as the most brilliant comedy conceptualist around, and I knew that NBC was now giving him a show after Carson. After Carson! Naturally my lifelong tenet came to mind: the later, the hipper. Late-night TV was my milieu. My years on SNL had reconfirmed that what I do best is play for a sort of edgy comedy.
When I walked in, Dave gave me a big smile. He couldn’t have been more relaxed—dressed in a gray T-shirt, jeans, and Adidas wrestling shoes. “Glad to see you, Paul,” he said. “Thanks for coming in.”
He made me feel welcome. That, of course, is his great gift. He said simply, “What are your ideas about a band?”
“R&B,” I said.
“Would you feel restricted if it were just a four-piece band?” he asked.
“I’d love it. Four pieces is what I do best. We could turn on a dime. With four pieces, I could still do all the Motown and soul music covers I’ve been learning my whole life.”
That’s when Dave came back to me with, “I’ve always seen myself as Wayne Cochran anyway.” And that’s when I knew how much I wanted to work with this guy.
Later I learned that the director had wanted Leon Redbone to head the band. Dave also told me later that he remembered how I was not totally on my game during the interview. “I knew something was off, Paul,” Dave told me, “and I also knew you were the guy for the job.” Thanks to a benevolent God, Dave gave me the job of jobs.
My first job was to hire the other cats. Dave started calling us “The World’s Most Dangerous Band.” The name sounded like it came from the world of wrestling. I liked it. I thought it fit just fine. I also liked a group that played around town called the 24th Street Band. I had coproduced an album of theirs that hit in Japan. Their bassist, Will Lee, was fabulous. He’s among the greatest bass players in the world. Will had played with everyone from Horace Silver to the Brecker Brothers to Bette Midler.
I had met him eight years earlier on my first New York session as an arranger. We now happened to belong to the same health club. In keeping with the Rat Pack tradition, we had our meeting in the steam room. I hired him on the spot.
The next day, in the same steam room, I met with my old friend, drummer Steve Jordan. What Will is to the bass, Steve is to drums. Outta sight. Steve and I sat in the steam, speaking of our undying love for the great mid-'60s Temptations Live! album, especially the band conducted by their musical director/guitarist Cornelius Grant. Steve was my first choice on drums.
Hiram Bullock was my first choice on guitar. He killed in all styles, from Wes Montgomery to Albert King to Jimi Hendrix. He also knew white rock 'n' roll better than the white rockers themselves. Mention Crosby, Stills and Nash, he’d play their whole catalogue. When I popped the question, Hiram’s eyes lit up. “You kidding?” he said. “I’m in.”
What I didn’t know was that, due to mitigating circumstances, Hiram had hocked his guitar and had to steal it back to make the gig. But make it he did, and in NBC Studio 6A at 12:30 a.m. on February 1, 1982, in New York City, Late Night went on the air. It was, from the outset, a beautiful thing, a cool combination of casual and off-the-wall, Dave in his chinos and Adidas footwear, me in my jeans, open-neck sports shirts, and Elton John frames, the band smokin’ from the get-go.
The debut show was one of the best—also the scariest. Bill Murray was the guest. His idea was to sing “Let’s Get Physical,” the Olivia Newton-John hit, while actually doing an exercise routine. Bill showed up to discuss the bit, but the discussion was cut off when he said he had to go home to feed his dog. He never came back for rehearsal. Things got even more tense when, just a few minutes before air time, he still wasn’t there. There was no substitute waiting in the wings. No Bill, no show. Finally he came running through the door and we kicked off the routine, totally unrehearsed. We hadn’t even worked out the key. I figured it out as Bill, crooning lounge-lizard style, went from jumping jacks to pushups. At one point he grabbed our female stage manager and did the Shing-a-ling. Somehow, the thing came off—rough, but funny as hell.
Late Night was designed to be different. Unlike Johnny, there would be no second banana, no Ed sitting up there with the host. Later I read that it was Johnny’s explicit intention that Dave not engage a big band. Johnny didn’t want Letterman’s show to echo his in any way. Thus we were free—and even obliged—to travel down new paths.
I admired Johnny’s man, Doc Severinsen, who had played trumpet in the band led by Skitch Henderson, Steve Allen’s conductor on the original Tonight Show. World-class musicians, including stars like Urbie Green, Clark Terry, Ernie Royal, Ed Shaughnessy, Shelly Manne, Pete Christlieb, Tommy Newsom, Grady Tate, Eddie Safranksi, Bucky Pizzarelli, and Lew Tabakin had passed through the ranks.
Now we were carving new wood; we were breaking from tradition with a quartet whose music, unlike Doc’s swinging band, didn’t harken back to the '40s or '50s; at the start of the '80s, we looked back to the '60s and '70s for our inspiration.
After our first show, by the way, we got a compliment that still gives me shivers, a message from Tony Williams, Miles Davis’ drummer and one of the swingingest jazz cats on the planet. “It’s a fresh kick,” he wrote in a telegram that we hung in the dressing room. “Keep it up.”
Night after night, Dave kept it up with his wacky antics. Wearing an all-Velcro suit, he plastered himself against a wall; he leaped into a tank of water dressed as an Alka-Seltzer tablet, and into a gooey cheese dip dressed as a chip. Dave opened up the studio by going outside with remote cameras peering into all sorts of unlikely places. He liked to have slow-mo instant replays of the ripe watermelon falling from the roof and splattering on the pavement.
When I was hired, I was told Dave wanted someone to play off. Could I be his foil? Sure. But as those early weeks passed, the opportunity to kibitz never presented itself. I was frustrated.
My friend Harry Shearer, a supporter since SNL, urged me on. “You’re a witty guy, Paul. Let your witticisms fly. Grab the mic.” But when I grabbed the mic, it was dead.
“What gives?” I asked the engineer in the audio booth. “I tried to speak, but my mic was off.”
“Sorry, Paul,” she said, “but I think they want it off.”
I sought out the producer. “Is my mic supposed to be off ?”
“Then tell the engineer.”
The engineer was told and I was on.
The next night when Dave said, “Say hello to my good friend Paul Shaffer,” I was now positioned to take Harry’s advice. “Well, thank you so much, David, and if I may say, it’s such a nutty, mah- velous thrill to be with you this evening. In all of broadcasting, there’s no finer a cat than Your Groovinence, my good sir.” Dave broke up. After the show, he said, “That was great, Paul. Give me more.” In time, I did.
In time, I developed a kind of strange persona. I had spent my life studying the show-biz vets of past eras. Now was my chance to honor them by parodying them. I sincerely adored their insincerity. Their talent was inarguable. Their need to sound educated was my education in jive talk. I loved their language. I took it as my own, even as I illuminated its ludicrousness. I had fun. For example, I’d tell Dave, “Forgive my hoarseness. I’ve developed a bad case of Vegas throat.”
“What’s that, Paul?”
“Well, man, when an entertainer performs two shows a night in an air-conditioned showroom and then goes out into the dry desert atmosphere, the reed can lose its resonance. Hence, Vegas throat. Can you dig it?”
“Paul, have you been anywhere near Las Vegas in the past year?”
“Not at all, man, but spiritually, like my mentor, Mr. Sammy Davis Jr., I suffer from a chronic case of Vegas throat.”
Once I conspired with our director to set up a split screen—Dave on one side, me on the other.
“David,” I said. “What time is it out there? Here in New York it’s 12:45.”
“Paul, I’m six feet away from you. What are you doing?”
“You know, Dave, I just love that split-screen telethon look with Frank in L.A. talking to Joey in Atlantic City.”
“Talk to me after the show, Paul.”
It would take years to run out of show-biz clichés. But when I did, I had no choice but to give Dave what he really wanted—natural conversation.
Undoubtedly influenced by Steve Allen’s off-the-wall bits, Dave took it further out and gave it stranger twists. One of my favorite early bits involved Bob Dylan’s favorite character, Larry “Bud” Melman, whose real name was Calvert DeForest. Calvert was a pudgy older guy who wore thick horn-rimmed glasses and personified the lovable nebbish. On one Christmas show, he was set to read The Night Before Christmas with kids sitting around him. The prop book was in French because the prop people presumed Calvert would be reading off cue cards. But the cue card people presumed that he’d be reading out of the actual book, and that the book would be in English. So—no cards. The upshot was that Calvert was stuck reading a book to the kids in a language he didn’t know. For several long minutes, he just died out there, fumbling and stalling and, in essence, saying nothing. He was confused, the kids were confused, and the audience most confused of all. When the camera came back to Dave, Dave’s only comment was “It was magic, wasn’t it?”
I also participated in one of the most bizarre of the early routines. This one was suggested by producer and head writer Merrill Markoe. One day she asked me for the most esoteric information I could think of concerning pop music. I mentioned various guitarists who had played for Parliament-Funkadelic. That was the genesis of this skit:
Dave, Calvert, and I are taking a walk down the hallways of NBC into a deserted stairwell.
Dave says to Calvert, “Who played the guitar solo on ‘Not Just Knee Deep?’ ”
“You mean the song that ran over 15 minutes on side A of Funkadelic’s Uncle Jam Wants You album from 1979?” asks Calvert while the audience thinks, How the hell would he know?
“That’s the album,” says Dave, “and the guitarist had to be Eddie Hazel.”
“You’re wrong,” I break in. “It was Garry ‘Starchild’ Shider.”
“You’re both wrong,” Calvert insists. “The guitarist was the great Michael ‘Kidd Funkadelic’ Hampton.”
And so the conversation continues, each of us arguing over whose esoteric knowledge of Parliament- Funkadelic is more accurate, until Calvert pulls out a gun and points it at both of us.
“This is a stickup,” he says. “Just shut up and give me your money.”
At that point, the erudite discussion ends while Dave and I hand over our wallets to Calvert DeForest.
Paul Shaffer is one of America’s enduring musical icons. He is the musical director of Late Show with David Letterman as well as the co-composer of “It’s Raining Men.”