David Letterman’s Sidekick Embraces His Jewish Upbringing

By Robert Gluck

Published August 29, 2014, issue of August 28, 2014.

A Jewish upbringing taught Paul Shaffer, David Letterman’s musical director and sidekick for 32 years, the value of giving back.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Shaffer served as musical director for “The Concert for New York City,” and in 2012 he accompanied Adam Sandler in “12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief,” a fundraiser for people affected by Hurricane Sandy. He was also the national spokesperson for Epilepsy Canada.

“My mother was a great supporter of local charities and gave her time for the Hadassah (the women’s Zionist organization), as well as the ladies auxiliary at the hospital.

Growing up, I watched this, so it just came naturally to me. Getting involved in charities and fundraisers myself became a great opportunity for me to use my musical talents to do some good,” Shaffer said.

Reflecting on his Jewish upbringing, the 64-year-old Shaffer said, “Judaism is certainly a blueprint to bring up your kids, and if you follow that blueprint, you can be assured that they are going to be great, that they will carry on the tradition of their parents.”

Shaffer’s parents, Shirley and Bernard, introduced him to the piano growing up in Ontario, Canada. He worked as the musical director for the Toronto production of “Godspell” in 1972, played piano for “The Magic Show” on Broadway, and became a member of the house band on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” from 1975-1980.

From his role as musical director for John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd whenever they recorded or performed as “The Blues Brothers,” to his appearances with Adam Sandler, Shaffer has fond memories of the SNL comics.

Shaffer has played and recorded with many famed musicians, including Ray Charles, B.B. King, Donald Fagen, Diana Ross, Carl Perkins, Robert Plant, Billy Joel and Bob Dylan. His own album, “Coast to Coast,” was nominated for a Grammy in 1989. Soon he will broadcast his 2,500th segment of Paul Shaffer’s “Day in Rock,” a radio show where he comments on the history of rock and roll.

“I have a huge compendium of fun facts and comic rock trivia. Everything we talk about is accurate, but we present it with a comic twist, sort of like what John Stewart does with the news [on “The Daily Show”],” he said.

In April, Letterman announced his intent to retire in 2015. Asked to describe Letterman’s legacy, Shaffer called him “the guy that all the other talk show hosts looked to.”

What’s next for Shaffer?

“This really has been the dream job for me,” Shaffer said. “Getting to play every day, have my own band, do comedy, go up against the quickest, smartest guy in the business … it’s not going to be easy, but I’m still going to play the piano. I’ll be looking for more ways to do that.”

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