Q’s With Paul Shaffer On The Best Of What Canada Has To Offer

Paul Shaffer
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– Paul Shaffer
Paul Shaffer charms the audience at the 60th GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden in New York City Jan. 28, 2018.

When it comes to Canada’s exports to American music and culture, Paul Shaffer may be among the most iconic Canucks in popular culture.

The composer and television music director, best known as David Letterman’s longtime sardonic sidekick on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, having moved to New York in 1974 after he was offered a gig to direct music on the Stephen Schwartz production “Godspell.” 

Shaffer’s impressive resume includes credits from major TV programs like “Saturday Night Live” and collaborations with artists such as Donald Fagen, Cyndi Lauper, B.B. King, Robert Plant and Brian Wilson, to name a few. He has also made appearances in classic films such as “Blues Brothers 2000,” “This Is Spinal Tap” and “Scrooged.”

Shaffer, who is hosting Canadian Music Week’s Live Music Industry Awards for the second year in a row, spoke to Pollstar about growing up in Ontario, moving to the U.S. and the best music that Canada has to offer. 

Pollstar: What do you have in the works right now? 
Shaffer: I just finished scoring David Letterman’s six-part series on Netflix. I didn’t appear in it, but I did the music. That was a lot of fun because the show is still good. 
I’m also preparing for my first symphony date with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, an 80-piece orchestra in Kalamazoo, Mich. That takes a lot of preparation. The arrangements need to be written and I’m getting very excited. I’ve never worked with 80 people before.
What made you want to do that?
Throughout my career as a studio musician and as an arranger I’ve always loved working with bigger ensembles, a string section or a horn section and all my life I’ve had various favorite influential tunes that are orchestral in nature. So, I’m going to get to hear them full on and I can’t wait. 

What was it like growing up in Ontario?
I grew up in Northern Ontario, Thunder Bay, on the north shore of Lake Superior. You either had to ski or skate as a kid, and I was a skier. 
I have these memories of waiting for the ski lift and hearing music blasting out of it, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” by The Tokens. So I was listening to it and I was thinking about rock ’n’ roll music, even back then, on the slopes.

What were your thoughts on American music at the time?
At least for me, that’s all we wanted to do, was to pick up American radio stations after dark, and you could. I would tune into WLS Chicago, big 50,000-watts AM Top 40 station and hear what the three most requested songs in Chicagoland were. 
I remember seeing The Four Seasons on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and being knocked out. I think this may be true of other Canadians in general. When The Beatles happened, initially I barely even noticed because I had just seen Four Seasons. 
I loved American music, I remember Jackie Wilson on “Sullivan” and I loved Doo Wop music, what little of it we heard up there in Canada. The Beatles admittedly said, “We’re copying American music, we love it the most.”  And I think that we Canadians did too. We weren’t as susceptible to the British invasion as some of the American kids were. 
What were some Canadian musicians that you were inspired by? 
There was a big R&B scene in Toronto and I’m not sure why, but all the local bands were R&B bands. I think it may have been because they had seen all the American R&B revues to base their own acts on. 
I remember a band called Mandala from about ‘65. They had a guy in front who – they were all white guys – but basically doing a James Brown show. They had haircuts like The Beatles and matching suits too so they were a little bit Beatles-esque, but they were playing R&B. There was also a band called John And Lee And The Checkmates, and they were basically white guys doing Sammy Davis’ act and they had two frontmen dancing and singing. 
At about 16 I went on an exploratory trip down to Toronto just to see some of these acts like Luke & The Apostles – they were more blues than R&B – but again, I’m not sure why, but there was a big blues and R&B scene in Toronto but and the importance they placed on that organ. So that meant a lot to me.

How did that environment shape your career?
I was always a fan of music, number one. Maybe because it was so cold out there in Thunder Bay, you couldn’t go out much during the winter. So, you’d stay inside and watch American TV and listen to the radio. I don’t know, I never thought I would go into music at that time, but my fandom got so strong that I almost couldn’t do anything else. 

What was it like moving from Canada to the States?
I would not have [moved] if I did not already have a job. By a fluke I got hired to conduct the show “Godspell,” which was a ‘70s rock musical that had companies all over the world that included one in Toronto. It was Stephen Schwartz’s, the composer of “Wicked” currently on Broadway. This was his first show, and when he came up to cast the Toronto company he heard me playing at the auditions and hired me, and I worked there for a year. Then he said, “You belong in New York,” and brought me into town to do his next show, “The Magic Show,” on Broadway in 1974. 
It would have been too daunting to try to move here without a job, for me anyway. But still, New York was incredibly exciting, and my favorite music – Doo Wop – so much of it came out of New York. Also, there was the Brill Building and the ‘60’s sound of The Drifters and writers like Carole King. Just to be in the town around all the composers and writers and buildings, and to look up at the roofs of the buildings, that still chills me, even today. 

What advantages do Canadian artists have when moving to the U.S.? 
I’m not sure. I think the government funding programs certainly help. But I’m not sure what makes it so easy. 
We Canadians speak the same language and we are fascinated by American culture, and we study it, we have an objective viewpoint on it, we have provided a lot of comedians and satirists to the U.S. I think it’s because we grew up listening to American music and watching American entertainment. 
What do you think really sets Canadian music apart?
Obviously I’m not a part if it anymore, I’ve been in the U.S. since ‘74, but last year I went on tour with my band and happened to be playing gigs in Canada and was able to host the [Canadian Music Week’s Live Music Industry Awards] that I’m doing again this year. And it was an afternoon that was specifically dedicated to the live music scene. There were categories like best live venue and some place in Vancouver won. 
I found it nostalgic, certainly reminded me of the days when I used to play and hear about live acts through the grapevine and things like that. I enjoyed it so much that when they asked me to do it again I jumped at the chance. 
I’m very happy that that there is so much music now. When I was growing up it seemed like one had to leave Canada to get a job in music or have any kind of a worldwide impact. When I was a kid the only Canadian acts were like Gordon Lightfoot and The Guess Who, and that was it. But now, maybe it started with the advent of MTV in the ‘80s, but all of a sudden you started seeing more acts with worldwide reach coming out of Canada while not having to leave Canada. 
Bryan Adams comes to mind,

In what ways has Canada influenced American culture?
I don’t know how much I can say about that. I mean we love Celine Dion in the U.S. There have been many recent hit Canadian Broadway shows. Americans also love Arcade Fire, so we do have an appreciation for Canadian culture, but whether we are influenced by it? I don’t know.