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Paul Shaffer: 'I Hit the Keys Hard. They Liked It.'

The bandleader's journey from topless bars, missile bases to "SNL."

With an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music and a magnetic ear, Paul Shaffer broke into late-night television with "Saturday Night Live" in the mid-'70s and has been laying down our cultural soundtrack ever since.

David Letterman’s longtime musical director, and author of the new memoir “We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives,” refused comment, for legal reasons, on his boss' current troubles, but he did talk with Eric Estrin about touring topless bars and missile bases, hanging with the Canadian showbiz mafia, and the secret to playing rock ’n roll piano

I graduated from college at the University of Toronto, and I made a deal with my parents that I would take a year to try to get into the music business. They would rather that I had a real profession, but yet, they loved show business just as much as any other Jewish family, and they were secretly thrilled, I think, when I said I was gonna do this for a year. So I spent the year playing around Toronto -- weddings, topless bars ...

I had taken private piano lessons as a kid, which also involved the theory of music, but when I heard rock 'n' roll, it slayed me, and I started immediately trying to figure out things by ear. So while I was taking lessons I was also developing my ear, figuring out all these tunes by the Four Seasons and you know, the Ronettes … everything that I loved on the radio, and I loved it all.

I did a strange tour of Canadian missile bases once in the middle of winter, going up to northern Quebec. It was freezing, you know, and I'm playing these dance-show kind of things. I met a girl on that tour, a dancer who was going to audition for the Toronto company of "Godspell." I went with her to accompany her at the audition.

Stephen Schwartz, who was the composer, heard me play a tune from his show, and he said, "Hey, let me talk to that piano player," and he asked me to play the rest of the audition for him because he liked the way I played. At the end of the day he said, "Could you get a band together and conduct the show?" And I was in show business!

That was certainly my big break, and it absolutely came just because of my piano playing. It's not like I had much style at that time. I had one pair of jeans and I didn't even wash them, I just wore them. It was just the fact that I was a rock piano player, and the music he wrote was rock, so it was a perfect fit.

I hit the keys hard. That's what he liked.

The company up there, the Toronto "Godspell," was quite phenomenal and a marvelous confluence of talent, all of whom are still my close and dear friends. They included Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Victor Garber, Andrea Martin. They became Second City, but this is before there was a Second City in Toronto. This was their first professional job, as it was mine.

I started to hang heavily with them. I loved funny people, and they were really nice as well. We were young, excited kids. Sometimes Marty would turn on a tape recorder and say, Let's just be funny. This was before VCRs or video cameras or anything like that. We'd make audio tapes of us playing each other, and we had a lot of fun. I started to realize that just to have laughs, there isn't anything better.

Stephen Schwartz, the composer, always said to me, "When 'Godspell' is over, I'm gonna bring you into New York,'" and that's what he did. I played a Broadway show for him called "The Magic Show," starring Doug Henning, the late hippie magician.

While I was doing that, a number of other Canadians came down to start "Saturday Night Live" -- Lorne Michaels and his friend Howard Shore, who's now an Oscar-winning film score guy. He became the musical director and he hired me on piano for the "Saturday Night Live" band. And now it was '75, and I was in TV; I was in a TV band.

One other funny thing happened while I was doing "The Magic Show." I auditioned, sort of on a lark, for a TV pilot. Don Kirshner and Normal Lear did a pilot together that they hoped would be "The Monkees" for the '70s. It eventually was called "A Year at the Top," and it was about rock performers who had sold their souls to the devil.

If it succeeded, they thought it would be a recording group that would do live dates as well, so they thought maybe one guy who was actually a musician would be good to have in the thing, and I could read lines a little bit too. I'd picked up some stuff from my friends in Toronto.

So I went in there and read, and I got this part. And I made the pilot, which was then shelved. But in the second season of "Saturday Night Live," I got a call that they'd sold it. It was three years later!

So I left "Saturday Night Live" in the second season and moved to Hollywood and did "A Year at the Top." It took a whole year to make five episodes that played in that summer of '77. It kind of dwindled down from a group to just a duo -- myself and Greg Evigan, who went on to star in "B.J. and the Bear."

We made these five episodes that didn't fly. It played in the summer; no one picked it up, and I went back to "Saturday Night Live." But I brought back with me an impression of Don Kirshner. I was there the first time he went on the air to do his intros, and he was a real character. So I got him down, and when I returned to "Saturday Night Live," I started doing him. And from there I started doing the odd sketch here and there, and by the fifth season I was a featured player.