Late Night with David Letterman veteran recalls his storybook rise from strip-club pianist to musical director of the “World’s Most Dangerous Band.”
Shaffer and co-author Ritz (Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography, 2009, etc.) deliver a passionate, racy account of how the Ontario-born musician’s love for raunchy R&B piano set him on a much different path than his well-to-do lawyer father envisioned. Although Shaffer’s parents were hip partygoers, they were nevertheless products of the patriarchal Eisenhower Age. After reluctantly studying sociology in college while gigging in local bands, Shaffer came to an agreement with his father: If he wasn’t able to make a living from music within a year, then he would attend law school. Armed with a gift for improvisation and a love for cover tunes, Shaffer worked his way through Toronto dive bars and strip clubs and soon landed a gig as keyboardist for the musical Godspell in the early 1970s. His seemingly effortless rise to industry royalty follows a familiar right-place-at-the-right-time narrative. After toiling on a series of minor Broadway projects, Shaffer got a call from an old Toronto buddy, Howard Shore, the musical director for the Saturday Night Live band. Suddenly he became the hit show’s keyboardist and a resident at New York’s romantically gritty rock-star haunt, the Gramercy Hotel. Though the name-dropping comes thick and fast throughout, to his credit Shaffer never completely settles into the easy rhythms of shallow celebrity-driven anecdote. His reminisces of playing alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, James Brown and other personal heroes are usually witty and reverent—although the out-of-the-blue chapter on his fascination with Jerry Lewis’s telethons is simply bizarre. As with most celebrity memoirs, the most entertaining bits of the author’s personal history are found on the road to success, not at the destination—in fact, his longtime stint at Letterman is barely mentioned.
Shaffer’s ingratiating hepcat charm saves what could have been just another celebrity’s autobiographical ego trip.