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Paul Shaffer, from Thunder Bay to Letterman

Paul Shaffer as a boy in Thunder Bay.

Ten minutes to roll tape on the set of The Late Show with David Letterman , and Eddie Brill, a comedian who has eaten way too many cheeseburgers, is warming up the audience.

"Anyone here from outta town?" Pavlovian cheer. "Anyone here from New York?" Ditto. Then the standard injunction: Applaud lustily, but please resist the temptation to wolf whistle.

Suddenly, from nowhere, Letterman himself appears. He literally runs across the set and half slides to a stop, as if skating on thin ice. Which, lately, he pretty much has been. Then, he disappears again.

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Brill makes no mention of him, nor of the subject on everyone's lips: the recent revelation that Dependable Dave, husband and father, master of late-night quip and query, for years maintained a cozy nookie nook somewhere in this fabled 7th Avenue building. There, we now know, he conducted serial adultery with various obliging staffers, only to confront a $2-million (U.S.) extortion attempt from the fiancé of one former sexual minion.

That case is now before the courts. Dave has apologized ad nauseam, and a strenuous gag order has been issued to everyone associated with the show. Maybe that accounts for the largely sullen demeanour of the Letterman staff. Morale seems to be missing in action. If they did a TV series about the place, they could call it 30 Rock Bottom .



Writing never had the immediate gratification I was looking for. Writers get off on that process. I wasn't meant to write.


Now, with the minutes to air counting down on the second of two shows they're taping tonight (they do a double-header on Mondays, to enjoy a three-day weekend), Brill introduces the house band, members of the CBS Orchestra. They emerge from the wings one by one, like football players at the Super Bowl, complete with celebratory high fives. The decibel cheer volume rises, reaching its crescendo with the appearance of quarterback, captain and band leader Paul Shaffer, a short, bald man in dark, high-fashion specs wearing a black suit with patent leather lapels, a black shirt and a black tie. The sheen is so bright, you could use it to comb your hair.

A few weeks shy of 60, Shaffer has parlayed his sidekick status into a cultural art form. He's the coolest cat in Gotham, the genius of jive, king of the keyboards, the Yid kid with no lid, the loungeyest lizard of them all. He fairly runs to his familiar perch, one he's occupied for 16 years and immediately starts pounding the keys. He plays standing up, bent over, his face a rictus, a Buddha mask of utter bliss, lifted by the music ( Gimme Some Lovin' ) to some transcendent nirvana. The glitz-and-schmaltz persona is all an extended charade, but he can't fake the joy. The boychick from Thunder Bay is exactly where he longs to be. And where he belongs.

The band plays on, and will easily be the best thing about this otherwise deflated show, which features a lifeless Uma Thurman and a laconic Tim McGraw. No amount of applause can cover the dead zones. Is there an air pump in the house? Anyone?

From Thunder Bay to Westchester County

Ninety minutes later, Shaffer hustles over to his favourite neighbourhood eatery, Café Cielo, on Eighth Avenue, a block away. His black limo waits outside. He's a regular here, usually for lunch, the menu for which actually features Insalata Paul Shaffer: crushed endive and hearts of palm in lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil ("None of that boring lettuce," he says). A reserved table is in the corner window, safely away from the hoi polloi.

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"How ya doin', darlin'?" he croons to one of the waitresses, an aspiring dancer. Owner Joe Gambuto comes over to greet him.

The two shows may be safely in the can, but Shaffer's adrenals are still pumping epinephrine. As we sit down to dinner, his right leg nervously keeps time to some undeclared riff. It feels like he needs a mini-keyboard at the table, just to keep his fingers happy.

The wizard of kitsch has had a busy day, of course - two Letterman shows, and a morning spent doing 15 radio interviews from his home in Westchester, the leafy, suburban Eden in which Shaffer once thought he could never find happiness.

As he explains in his new autobiography, We'll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives, A Swingin' Show-biz Saga , published by Random House and written with David Ritz - hence, the radio promos - "nature is highly overrated." (He said that only minutes before a traffic accident in Hawaii that nearly killed him.) A city hipster at heart, Shaffer pulses to the beat of the neon jungle, the late-night jam sessions and comedy slugfests. For years, he lived in its midst, occupying a modest two-room suite at the Gramercy Park Hotel before its recent five-star Ian Schragerization.

Now, with his wife of 19 years, former Letterman show booker Cathy Vasapoli, and their two kids (Victoria, 16; Will, 10), he's forged a kind of peace with suburbia. He even rides horses in the summer at Letterman's 2,700-acre Montana ranch.

But as Shaffer explains while we wait for his baby lamb chops, broccoli and carrots to arrive, much of what has happened to him professionally since he moved to New York from Toronto in 1973 has occurred in a narrow 10-block radius of where he now sits. Not far away are the recording studios where he played the piano for the movie soundtrack of Godspell . Closer still is Rockefeller Center, where for a decade he bruised the ivories in the World's Most Dangerous Band, when Letterman was parked at NBC.

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Even his current Broadway aerie - for years, the Sunday-night home of The Ed Sullivan Show - had something to do with shaping the young Shaffer. One night in 1961, back home in Thunder Bay, 11-year-old Paul watched piano duo Ferrante and Teicher play the theme song from Exodus on Sullivan . Inspired, he quickly mastered the music, and proceeded to out-duel his Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue concert rival, Marvin Slobotsky. "I killed at my bar mitzvah."

Shaffer, of course, already knew his way around the keyboard. He'd been studying since age 6, at the insistence of his mother, Shirley, and ultimately passed his Grade 8 Conservatory exams.

For those who maintain that we are the blended product of our parents, Shaffer's childhood might be prime evidence. In a lonely town that was on absolutely no one's concert tour, they introduced their only child not only to the classics, but to authentic jazz - Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, of course, but also Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson - as well as pop greats Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Tony Bennett. His father, Bernard, a lawyer who had once performed with Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, gave his son regular instruction on their relative merits.

When the parents partied, heartily it seems, Paul even then was the house piano player, banging the keys until his fingers ached, while his father did Al Jolson impressions on bended knee. When they travelled, his parents took Paul with them. His book vividly recounts one memorable trip to Vegas to see Sarah Vaughan. "Take note, son," says Bernard. "This is the music that matters." Paul is 12.

And then, at precisely the moment of maximum impressionability, his teens, rock 'n' roll arrives on the scene - his own private particle accelerator. You can see him, locked on the frozen shores of Lake Superior, the virtual dead end of Bob Dylan's Highway 61 , teenage ears pressed hard against the transistor radio, absorbing the indelible sounds of an exploding musical universe - Motown, Phil Spector's wailing wall of sound, the Ronettes, the Crystals and his favourite, the Four Seasons. (He's seen Jersey Boys three times.) Rushing home from school each day to learn and practise what he'd heard. Covering the songs in his high-school band, the Fugitives. "I couldn't get enough of it," he says.

Only in Thunder Bay, he adds sadly, was playing in a rock band insufficient grounds for getting laid.

But passion for music, his father tells him, "doesn't equal income." Hence, the subsequent sociology degree from the University of Toronto. "I don't know what I was doing there," he says. "I was sleeping all the time. I think I was depressed. " No doubt the rough-hewn blueprint to follow Bernard into law did not help.

Then, a decisive lunch at the Royal York Hotel with Dad, who owns something of a temper. Somehow, Shaffer fils summons the courage. "I want to give this music thing a try." To his credit, Dad, perhaps still remembering his own career compromise, gives his blessing to a one-year trial.

The year is largely inconclusive, Shaffer scraping by. Then one day, he plays piano accompaniment at a Godspell audition for his girlfriend. At the end, the show's composer, Stephen Schwartz, approaches and, impressed by Shaffer's rock 'n' roll chops, hires him on the spot to play at every remaining audition. Among those he accompanies: the incandescent Gilda Radner, later his close friend and, alas, unrequited love.

Godspell and Schwartz are godsends. He becomes the show's musical director, and 11 months later, Schwartz calls again, inviting him to New York to play piano for the movie soundtrack. It's his first trip ever to the Big Apple and he's instantly in love. A year after that, Schwartz needs him for another gig, Doug Henning's magic show.

"It'll be hard on you, Paul, but now you'll have to move to New York."

"That's a helluva sacrifice," he says. "I'll be there tomorrow."

Over lunch with Gilda, she confesses to a one-night tryst with Henning. Shaffer is stung to the quick, and so angry that Henning never called her back that he discloses all the secrets of his magic tricks.

The rest is more anecdote, rich and well-told. A parade of great names appears - Dylan, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Spector, Lorne Michaels (Shaffer played piano for the first five years of Saturday Night Live ), John Belushi, Cher, Richard Belzer, and the brilliant Martin Short - for Shaffer, not just his best friend, but a kind of life coach, a manifestation of what it was not just to be funny, but to "live funny."

Not widely know is that Shaffer was offered the role of George Costanza Seinfeld , before Jason Alexander. The message on his answering machine said he wouldn't even have to audition. Too busy with other work and convinced the sitcom was unlikely to succeed, he never returned the call. "I only missed out on the most beloved show in the history of television."

His on-camera persona, successfully cloaking the inner nerd, satirizes the smarmy Vegas archetype while simultaneously inhabiting it. It emerged, he says, during his early years in Toronto, hanging out with Short, Radner, Eugene Levy and others. "Kindred spirits who had more nerve to be themselves - I use them as justification: 'Oh, you can be like that.'" Now, he's adapted to the role so well that it's hard to tell where the glibness stops and the irony begins.

Although Shaffer has composed occasionally, including (with Paul Jabara) the disco hit It's Raining Men , his desk is not stuffed with unpublished songs. "Writing never had the immediate gratification I was looking for," he explains. "Writers get off on that process. I wasn't meant to write."

He finds no shortage of contentment, however, as a cover artist. "That's what I grew up on. I always thought that's all you need to do."

Telling his stories, Shaffer is always discrete in his new book - he's still Canadian, for God's sake. Thus, Belushi's out-of-control drug use is not mentioned. "I just figure that's all been told," he says. Spector's recent murder conviction is alluded to only obliquely. "I regret all the tragedy that has surrounded Phil in recent years," he writes.

Nor, he insists, ordering a Diet Coke (about as stiff as his drinking gets) will he pass judgment on the Letterman scandal. "I've been told I can't comment. It's an ongoing legal proceeding."

The new biography is probably not Shaffer's last word. He says he may emulate Sammy Davis Jr., who wrote two autobiographies, Yes I Can and Why Me?. "There's definitely enough material for a second book," says Shaffer. "I think I'll call it Why Not Me? "

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About the Author

Based in Toronto, Michael Posner has been with the Globe and Mail since 1997, writing for arts, news and features.Before that, he worked for Maclean's Magazine and the Financial Times of Canada, and has freelanced for Toronto Llfe, Chatelaine, Walrus, and Queen's Quarterly magazines. More

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