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Interview: Paul Shaffer

by Dean Budnick on March 22, 2017

Paul Shaffer is getting the band back together. The longtime David Letterman musical director— who also put in stints at Saturday Night Live and with The Blues Brothers, among his many other projects over the years—has reassembled his longtime musical collaborators for a new album and tour. The eponymous Paul Shaffer & the World’s Most Dangerous Band resurrects the group’s original name from back in 1982 when they debuted on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman. Eleven years later, the group followed the talk show host to CBS for the Late Show with David Letterman and were rechristened the CBS Orchestra until the program’s final taping in May 2015.

New York’s Electric Lady Studios served as the hub where Shaffer and his outfit worked with renowned producer Richard Gottehrer, who began his own career at New York’s iconic Brill Building, writing such songs as “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Hang on Sloopy” and “I Want Candy.” The World’s Most Dangerous Band still features Felicia Collins (guitar), Anton Fig (drums), Will Lee (bass) and Sid McGinnis (guitar), along with a horn section comprising Tom Malone, Frank Greene and Aaron Heick. Throughout Paul Shaffer & he World’s Most Dangerous Band, the ensemble explores a range of soulful funk grooves with the help of guest vocalists such as Jenny Lewis, Dion, Bill Murray, Darius Rucker, Shaggy and Valerie Simpson. They’ll also take to the road over the coming months in support of the new record.

Before we talk about your latest album, I’d like to hear your memories of the Jammy Awards. [Shaffer appeared in 2001, when the show took place at Roseland Ballroom.]

I love the Jammys. You were just across the street from us that year at Roseland. Les Claypool was there that year, and I got to play with him. I remember it as a freewheeling festival, the schedule of which didn’t seem that nailed down, so there was a lot of hanging out involved. But that was only right in keeping with the style of music and such. So it was a learning experience for me. Speaking of which, there’s a musician that I have played with since I was in college. He is a guitarist in the spiritual mode of Mahavishnu, but really John Coltrane. His name is Tisziji Muñoz. When I met him, he was in Canada. He lives in Upstate New York now, but I continue to play with him. He also plays a lot with John Medeski. But he is a very farout avant-garde spiritualist. I always think, “Boy, he should be happening in the jamband scene.” Medeski is, of course. But I don’t know why it hasn’t gelled for him. It’s free music, Coltrane-esque. I’ve been trained by him since my college days to play in this mode of musical expression that some people don’t expect from me. But I was always fascinated by him, and we’ve kept our friendship all these years.

Jumping to the new record, you’re billed as The World’s Most Dangerous Band, the name you used back when you were on NBC. Did you have any intellectual property issues with using that name again?

We weren’t able to call ourselves that anymore when we moved to CBS. It was great being the CBS Orchestra for 22 years, but we’re not the CBS Orchestra anymore, so we had to find another name.

I remember saying, “The best name we ever had was The World’s Most Dangerous Band,” which Dave Letterman made up, of course. And my manager, Eric Gardner, said, “I don’t think there’s an executive over at NBC that was even alive when that stuff as going on.” He may have been right because whomever he called over there said, “Oh, I didn’t even know about this! Go ahead. Use the name!” So they were very gracious, but it’s such ancient history that they didn’t care; they gave me permission to use it again. So we got back to where we once belonged.

With a nod to The Blues Brothers, was it a challenge to get the band back together?

It was a scheduling challenge because people are busy. For instance, Anton is traveling with Joe Bonamassa on a yearly basis. So he’s constantly out on the road—in North America, Australia, New Zealand. Will Lee keeps incredibly busy, too, doing studio sessions as well as his touring with The Fab Faux, his Beatles band, in which they replicate everything note for note.

But everyone was able to carve out enough time, and we were able to cut the basic tracks together as a band at Electric Lady Studios. Then, once we started working on it, people could come in on their own schedule and do a vocal or an overdub of something. But other than the scheduling challenge, it was very natural to be back together.

What led you to regroup?

Over the years of doing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinners, I met Seymour Stein, the legendary record man. He is very knowledgeable about the stuff that I love, like early R&B—he worked for Syd Nathan at King Records, for God’s sake. Anyway, on a social evening, he said to me: “Now that your TV thing with Letterman is coming to an end, maybe you want to get back into the record thing?” I was thrilled to, so he signed me.

I said to him, “What kind of music do you see me doing?” I am, after all, a studio cat, who prides himself on being able to do anything when called on, but I didn’t have anything at that time that I could consider my own music. He just said, “People want to see you. They want to hear you.” Then he suggested two songs that we ended up doing on the record: “Just Because,” the Lloyd Price number, which I sing, and the obscure Sam Cooke song “Win Your Love for Me,” which the great Dion of The Belmonts sings. Dion just killed it—his performance is fantastic.

Other than the songs that Seymour suggested, how did you select the material?

I relied very heavily on my producer, Richard Gottehrer. I had worked for him in the ‘70s when I was doing studio work, and we made a number of records together, including a beautiful one by Joan Armatrading called Me Myself I that he produced and I played on. Besides that, I did some Robert Gordon things that he was producing at the time. I got along well with him, and he used to use me on these interesting sessions. He was originally involved with Seymour at Sire Records. I think they were partners in it. So I thought, “What a cool guy to produce me,” especially with Seymour being the mentor of this whole thing. So Seymour asked him, and he said yes. I had a gas working with him.

As I said, I had nothing when I came to Richie. I was still asking, “What am I supposed to be doing?” But going by what Seymour said, “People want to hear you,” Richie had a lot to do with suggesting tunes. For instance, he thought, “piano instrumental,” and came up with “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” which we open the album with. It’s a classic piano instrumental written by Vince Guaraldi, the jazz pianist, but cut as a pop hit by an act called Sounds Orchestral. We opened it up to put a little section for a rap of some kind, and Shaggy came aboard. I asked him on a whim. It turns out he remembered who I was. He had done Letterman things and actually even hung out at the show a little in the NBC days, ironically enough. He put this Jamaican toasting thing over the top of it. We weren’t even prepared for that, besides the rap section, and he transformed the whole thing. It was a knockout—what he did to it.

You have a number of other guests on the record. How did Jenny Lewis come to perform?

What happened was, Richie said to me: “Boy, I love Jenny Lewis,” and I said, “Well, I do, too! I just worked with her!” She was in Bill Murray’s Christmas special [A Very Murray Christmas on Netflix]. She played a waitress who did a beautiful duet with him, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and she also sang on The Pogues Christmas tune that we did [“Fairytale of New York”]. She was brilliant! I said, “I think I might be able to ask her,” which I did, and she very sweetly accepted. She sings a tune that Richie and his partners had written for The McCoys back in the day called “Sorrow.” David Bowie heard a British cover that had been done by The Merseys—some call them The Merseybeats— and Bowie did a famous cover of it, too.

Did Bill Murray’s appearance also come out of that same time—when you were working with him on the Netflix special?

Well, I go back with him to the ‘70s, before he was even on Saturday Night Live. His older brother Brian Doyle-Murray, who was also a well-known actor/writer in the SNL and Second City crew, introduced him to me. Billy and I did a few things together for the National Lampoon Radio Hour in ‘74. I’d just arrived in town and he was one of my earliest friends. So I’ve done a lot of things with him and he loves to do music.

Some people working on the record were wondering if we should ask him. Then, we wrote an original funk thing— Richie and me—and Richie’s wife put words on it, called “Happy Street.” We played it for Jenny Lewis when she was in doing her vocal and she said, “Boy, Billy should sing that.” So, via text, I asked him and he immediately said, “Happy to.” We ended up going down to Charleston, S.C., to record him because he was in that area. We went to a studio, and he took it very seriously. He worked with us all afternoon, singing the vocals.

When people come to your shows and see you live, what can they expect beyond the material on the new record?

For almost all the dates, the great Valerie Simpson is going to be joining us as a special guest. What an honor. She’ll be featured in the middle of our show and, at that point, it’s really gonna become soul heaven.

We’re also going to draw on our personal experiences. We have been a band for so long and worked with so many other great artists. For instance, James Brown is a big influence on all of us. Getting to work with him as many times as I did was not only a dream come true, but it was also like a music lesson each time. So we certainly will pay due tribute to James Brown within the show, and I can tell personal stories about him, too. A number of us had some experiences with him. He was such an interesting cat and he invented so much. So I can talk about him a bit—some of it’s kind of funny, too—and then we can play it on with an examination of his actual music. That’s the kind of thing we’re going to be doing.

As I said, this is a band that has spent so much time working together. We did it every day for years. We are so comfortable with each other, we finish each other’s licks.

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