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Because he has a funny streak that matches his prowess as a musician – and he can trace his comedy genes to the beginning of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” in 1975 — it’s hard to tell whether Paul Shaffer is being very serious or just slightly sarcastic when he talks about performing in Atlantic City for the first time.
But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Shaffer, who fronted the band on David Letterman’s late-night television program on two networks for 33 consecutive years, and also served as the host’s sidekick and occasional comedy foil, really does sound psyched about his off-Boardwalk debut along with his old/new group, The World’s Most Dangerous Band.
“I’m excited about this upcoming date at the Borgata,” he says. “I’m playing Atlantic City, baby. This is like sort of a dream come true for me.”
This from a guy who’s been called “the Zelig of rock ‘n' roll” because of all the entertainment icons he’s played with during his professional career that began in 1972. That’s when Shaffer, a native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, was picked to be music director of the Toronto production of “Godspell,” where he met and worked with a gang of young and untested actors with names like Gilda Radner, Martin Short and Eugene Levy.
“I’ve had so many amazing experiences, but I sure got to be in some amazing places at some amazing times,” Shaffer, 67, says. “I have a number of stories about getting to work with my idols.”
And he promises to share some of them between songs during his live show, which is just the second stop of a tour – his first in 37 years – in support of a new album simply titled “Paul Shaffer & The World’s Most Dangerous Band.”
“I haven’t done this for a long time. The last time I was on the road was with the Blues Brothers tour in 1980,” he remembers, “Otherwise, I’ve been in the studio, be it television or recording, for all these years, but never traveling.”
Shaffer was music director of the Blues Brothers band when comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd – with whom he’d worked on “Saturday Night Live” – decided to turn their hit “Blues Brothers” movie into a concert experience.
What Shaffer remembers most was the battered old twin-propeller plane that carried them between dates. That, and the fact that the band contained a few old southern rockers like Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn.
They were contemporaries of early rock stars Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper, who died in a 1959 plane crash that was memorialized by singer-songwriter Don McLean as “the day the music died” in his 1971 hit “American Pie.”
“I remember on (one flight) thinking that the plane was shaking a little bit,” Shaffer reminisces with a laugh during a phone call from his New York office. “So I said to the guys that we needed to write a song to leave behind…a legacy, in case something happened. And we actually did it. We wrote a song called ‘Rough Tragedy, All They Had To Do Was Spend a Few (Thousand Dollars) More On The Plane.’ We would sing it every time we took off hoping to ward off evil spirits.”
Although most remember Shaffer as the leader of the CBS Orchestra on Letterman’s late-night show for 22 years, that wasn’t the original name of the band. You’ve got to go back to 1982, when Letterman’s show first began following Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show,” to remember the group was originally known as The World’s Most Dangerous Band.
“When we got involved in that whole ‘late show’ wars thing, a new word surfaced: ‘intellectual property,’” Shaffer says. “And (the band name) became the property of NBC along with everything else on the show. We had to leave it alone and (we became) the CBS Orchestra.”
It was Letterman who came up with the band name, adapting it from the former professional football player-turned-wrestler named William Afflis, better known by his nom-de-ring Dick the Bruiser.
But promoters often billed him as The World’s Most Dangerous Wrestler.
After the Letterman show ended nearly two years ago and Shaffer decided to make an album, getting the rights to the old name proved easier than he imagined.
“My manager said (he didn’t) think anyone at NBC is even alive (today) who remembers that stuff, nobody cares any more,” Shaffer says of the 1993 power struggle over Letterman between NBC and CBS. “So we made a call and sure enough, they had forgotten all about (the band name) and they said we could use it.”
The core of the band are musicians who can trace their histories with Shaffer back to Letterman’s original NBC show. There’s bassist and singer Will Lee, who’s also the founder of The Beatles tribute band the Fab Faux. Laying down the beat since 1982 is Anton Fig, a much sought-after session and touring drummer now working with bluesman Joe Bonamassa.
The new kid is guitarist and singer Felicia Collins, who joined when the TV show moved to CBS and has toured or recorded with everyone from Madonna to George Clinton and Vonda Shepard.
Shaffer’s live show will also feature Valerie Simpson, the R & B singer, songwriter and producer best known as part of the husband-wife musical team Ashford and Simpson.
Simpson also is featured on the album, along with other guest stars like Darius Rucker, Dion DiMucci and Shaffer’s old friend and “Saturday Night Live” teammate Bill Murray.
Murray and Shaffer, who played keyboards in SNL’s house band, are best remembered for creating the “bad lounge singer” character that made frequent appearances on the show.
Two years after they brought down the curtain on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” Shaffer says the two are still in touch regularly. Shaffer lives in New York, while Letterman’s primary home is in Connecticut.
“He has very sweetly shown that he has the desire to keep our friendship alive. And he makes sure that we get together at least once a month or so to have dinner and have a few laughs,” Shaffer says of the now bushy-bearded Letterman.
“He’s doing great too, maybe even better than I, in the transitional part (from television),” he adds. “He’s been enjoying his family very much and still does, as he says, just enough to feel useful.”
Paul Shaffer & The World’s Most Dangerous Band, with special guest Valerie Simpson, perform in Borgata’s Music Box Saturday at 9 p.m. Tickets are $65 and $69, available through theborgata.com or ComcastTIX at (877) 544-8499.
Comedian Gary Gulman performs in Borgata’s Music Box Friday at 9 p.m. Tickets are $25, available through theborgata.com or ComcastTIX at
Draw the Line, an Aerosmith tribute band, performs a free show in the Golden Nugget Showroom Friday at 9 p.m. as part of the Flashback Friday series.
Comedian Katt Williams performs at Boardwalk Hall Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $57, $77, $87, $127 and $177, available through ticketmaster.com or (800) 736-1420.
Crooner and romantic balladeer (and even country singer) Engelbert Humperdinck brings a touch of old-school charm to the Golden Nugget Saturday at 9 p.m. Tickets are $45 and $75, available through ticketmaster.com or (800) 736-1420.