‘SNL,’ ‘Letterman’ alum Paul Shaffer joins Annapolis Chamber Orchestra at Maryland Hall

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Paul Shaffer in Annapolis (Part 1)
Paul Shaffer speaks at Love Rocks NYC!, a Benefit Concert for God's Love We Deliver at the Beacon Theatre on Thursday, March 12, 2020 in New York. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)(Amy Harris/Invision/AP/Amy Harris)

His prolific run as the bandleader on “The Late Show with David Letterman” paved the way for Kevin Eubanks with Jay Leno, Max Weinberg with Conan O’Brien, Jon Batiste with Stephen Colbert and The Roots with Jimmy Fallon.

This Saturday, LiveArts Maryland presents Paul Shaffer live at Maryland Hall in Annapolis at 7:30 p.m.

“I have an orchestral show now,” Shaffer told WTOP. “It’s all pop music and R&B, my favorite stuff, anything that I loved throughout my life that was orchestrated to any degree and stuff that influenced me since I was a kid. … I start off with Barry White’s ‘Love’s Theme,’ how can you go wrong with that? And I end up with ‘A Day in the Life’ by The Beatles. … When I do a Righteous Brothers tune with that Wall of Sound, forget about it!”

He’ll perform with the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra, which just recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

“I have been honored and thrilled to work with Paul for years, when I approached him to do this fundraiser for us, he said, ‘Absolutely,'” conductor J. Ernest Green told WTOP. “This is one of the most fun concerts I do anywhere all year. … The charts that Paul had done for this symphony show are beautifully done. They’re symphonic, but they never lose that energy, drive and raw power of the tunes. The whole thing really kicks.”

This weekend, both will perform on stage with their own talented family members as Shaffer’s 12-year-old nephew Julien Vasapoli will be on cello playing “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve, while Green’s grown son Alec Green will be on guitar and daughter Ella Green will sing “It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls.

“My wife is from that neighborhood, she’s from Arlington, Virginia, and we were married in Alexandria actually at a lovely reform synagogue,” Shaffer said. “We had our wedding dinner at The Willard Hotel in D.C.”

Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1949, Shaffer broke into show business as the 22-year-old music director of a Toronto theater production of Stephen Schwartz’s groundbreaking musical “Godspell,” starring future comedy titans in Victor Garber, Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas and Andrea Martin.

“[That] show got me started up in Canada when Stephen Schwartz, now the composer of ‘Wicked,’ back then that was his first show, and he hired me up there in Canada and I did it for a year,” Shaffer said. “We all still remain friends, except for Gilda, no longer with us. … He hired Martin Short, Eugene Levy, the funniest people, he spotted them. Andrea may be the funniest of all of them. I think she taught all of them how to be funnier.”

After moving to New York City in the early ’70s, Shaffer performed in the original “Saturday Night Live” band during the show’s first five years from 1975 to 1980. He even showed up in sketches like Bill Murray’s “Nick the Lounge Singer,” while touring with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd when they performed as The Blues Brothers and even making funny movie cameos in “This is Spinal Tap!” (1984) and “Scrooged” (1988).

“I was just trying to sneak on camera,” Shaffer said. “I had known so many of the writers and performers from before: Gilda Radner from ‘Godspell’ in Toronto, Aykroyd from Toronto, various writers like Michael O’Donoghue, the evil Mr. Mike from National Lampoon. … I was just sort of around, none of us had any personal lives at the time, no girlfriends, nothing to do but be at the office all night just thinking of things.”

His one regret is turning down a part on NBC’s smash sitcom “Seinfeld,” billed as a show about nothing.

“I got offered a part, it wasn’t necessarily going to be George Costanza, or maybe it was, I don’t know,” Shaffer said. “I don’t know if they had four cast members yet, but I did get a call, a message at the office, it didn’t even seem like I had to read for the part, I wasn’t sure, but it seemed like an offer. I said, ‘Jerry Seinfeld? Come on. What kind of show could he possibly have?’ Maybe the biggest mistake anyone ever made in show business.”

Instead, Shaffer found his own iconic gig in The World’s Most Dangerous Band on “Late Night with David Letterman” on NBC (1982-1993) before moving to CBS for “The Late Show with David Letterman” (1993- 2015). He even does music for Letterman’s Netflix series “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.”

“He said he hired me because he saw me do one of those Bill Murray ‘Lounge Singer’ things,” Shaffer said. “People talk about carte blanche, but he really did give it to me. He said, ‘If you have anything to say, even if I have a guest, just go ahead, jump in.’ What boss would say that? I don’t know, but he sure was encouraging to me and I found that I could be funny with him and improvise with him the way I couldn’t anywhere else.”

Not only did he admire Letterman’s comedic timing, he also admired his unseen work ethic.

“Dave never threw away or walked through a single show, every one was important to him,” Shaffer said. “I also have a recollection of him getting criticism when he first started that his interview skills weren’t so great. He used to go right back up to the office and watch those interviews, saying, ‘What the hell did I do wrong?’ Just pouring over them and beating himself up almost until he got great at them, which he did.”

Down here in Maryland, Green made sure to watch “Letterman” every night.

“I would come home from Annapolis when I first took over this group … and I’d drive back to where I lived north of Baltimore and as soon as I got in the house, I would turn on ‘Letterman’ and watch Paul and Dave,” Green said. “It was so funny. I loved the interactions between Paul and the band and Dave. It was infectious and I would sit there every single night watching it. It was the kind of thing you couldn’t pass up.”

While the scripted stuff was funny, Letterman was even better off the cuff.

“I liked him when he was just improvising, being himself … that’s when I found him the funniest, more so than the written bits,” Shaffer said. “There was nobody faster, so it was just great to watch him work under those conditions. Nobody can top it. I gotta think when we see things the guys do today, they are Letterman-esque.”

Of course, their most famous bit was the nightly “Top 10” list.

“Sometimes there were musical Top 10s,” Shaffer said. “We had The Beach Boys singing the numbers, No. 10, No. 9, but in their style. [We had] Mick Jagger and one of the items was, ‘I’ve learned that when you hear the song ‘Moves Like Jagger’ you don’t make any money.’ Then the wonderful soprano Renée Fleming, that was my favorite. She sang various funny Top 10 items to operatic arias and, boy, that was challenging for me.”

If he made a Top 10 list for this weekend, what’s the No. 1 reason to come to Annapolis?

“It’s going to be a total gas,” Shaffer said.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Paul Shaffer in Annapolis (Part 2)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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