Tag Archives: Paul Shaffer

On Letterman: “MacArthur Park”

Why did the CBS Orchestra pack the Ed Sullivan Theater stage with 33 musicians and play a five and a half minute version of “MacArthur Park“? Because recently, Letterman was driving around with his son and the satellite radio played this song so many times in a row that the kid screamed “No more caaaaaake!!!”

So, to simultaneously please and annoy his son, Dave asked Paul if the band could do the song on the show. This video encapsulates so much of what I love about the Letterman show. That they could do something so silly and so complicated (and expensive) just because Dave thought it was a funny idea. And: that they have a band that can do damned near anything.

Here’s a coincidence for you: earlier on Monday, a friend of mine and I were talking about late-night talk shows and he praised The Roots as being every bit as good as The CBS Orchestra.

I didn’t disagree with him per se. But I had to raise the point that Late Show With David Letterman presents The CBS Orchestra with many, many more opportunities to show their range and talent than The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon creates for its band, and they’ve had 30 years in which to show off. The band doesn’t just play the show out to commercial and back again. They’re also the house band. Over the past thirty years, they’ve backed up every style and genre and generation of musical guest. I hope The Roots are given the same opportunities (because they’re a terrific band) but I doubt it. It’s a shame, because in their Late Night and Late Show incarnations, Paul Shaffer’s band has proven an immense range and depth of skills.

Here they are, backing up Sammy Davis Jr. as a jazz quartet:

And here they are backing up Mandy Patinkin, playing a Depression-era classic. Stick with it as it builds, all the way to the end:

Backing up Warren Zevon in his final public performance, a goddamn heartbreaking version of “Mutineer”:

Sorry, yes, that’s a huge downer. Hey! Here they are, rocking all the hell the way out with Bruce Springsteen:

Yes, good point…Paul Shaffer assembled his band around the needs of 60s and 70s rock, pop and funk, so that’s well within their wheelhouse. Fine. How about opera? How about a special Top Ten list in which they have to play ten opera pieces?

I wondered if the show might have decided to keep it simple and just hire in a small group of recital musicians with experience in this repertoire, and stuck them behind the scrim. The show often does that when there’s a Broadway performance…the show’s regular musicians are just a few blocks away, so it just makes sense. Well, not only does Renee Fleming seem to be getting her cues from the usual bandstand, but this non-official version includes a cutaway to the band, which shows that the CBS Orchestra is playing appropriate instruments. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Will Lee playing an upright bass on the show before.

Backing up Will Smith for an unexpected extended performance of the smooth hip-hop “Summertime”:

Could the band play classic Broadway if they had to? Sure thing:

Speaking of Kristen Chenoweth, I don’t think Paul Shaffer knew that she was going to sing during her interview, what she was going to sing, or that she was going to sing it in such an unusual key. Nonetheless:

And speaking of spontaneity. Dave was so pleased by The Orwells that he asked them to encore the song as they rolled credits. Well, their guitarist had ripped out his strings during the finale, and the rest of the band didn’t really do anything with the request…so the CBS Orchestra (on hearing the song once, likely) jumped in and performed the encore themselves:

But let’s finish off with something we rarely get to see: the band just playing. Here’s a clip of the music they play during the commercials. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the show in person four or five times over the years and I can attest that the band interstitials are easily as entertaining as the rest of the show. I hope that before Letterman ends his run, he does a whole show of just the band playing:

“Good heavens, Andy!” you would comment, if this blog allowed you to shame me in public comments. “You wasted a lot of time this morning building this list of clips, didn’t you?”

Nope! The Letterman show has had so many fantastic musical moments that I could pluck almost all of these out of an existing YouTube playlist. The others were easy to find because my favorite musical segments of the show stand out just as sharply for me as my favorite interview and comedy moments.

So add this to the list of things I’m dearly going to miss when Letterman retires: getting to hear this phenomenal band on a nightly basis. I’ve read that each of them are busy musicians outside the show, so I don’t suppose there’s much chance of them putting together a tour in 2015. But if they do…wow, that’s gotta be the easiest $77.50 I ever spent!

“Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) by Darlene Love (Amazon Advent Calendar Day 21)

Album Art

Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)

Darlene Love

The Concert Of Love

Genre: Rock

Yesterday, I thrilled you all with an English paper I wrote during the second semester of my third Sophomore year in high school. I got a solid “B” on it and I’m real pleased with how it turned out. I think this essay heralded to my teachers and parents that I’d finally turned an intellectual corner and that I’d probably graduate sometime before I hit my 30’s, despite the premonitions of my guidance counselor and the unofficial motto of the school.

Listening to yesterday’s selection (Patrick Stewart’s one-man adaptation of “A Christmas Carol”) is indeed one of my Most Cherished Holiday Traditions. Tonight’s edition of the Letterman show is another. They’ve never titled the last show before Christmas as “The Dave Letterman Christmas Special” but yeah, that’s clearly what it is.

You could even say that the Dave Letterman Christmas Special is more organic than any overtly-declared Christmas Special starring Andy Williams or He-Man And She-Ra. Every Dave Letterman Christmas Special consists of several reliable highlights:

  • Darlene Love sings “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home) accompanied by a chorus and enough additions to the CBS Orchestra to make the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater look like the final party scene from “It’s A Wonderful Life”;
  • Jay Thomas tells his Lone Ranger story;
  • The Holiday Quarterback Challenge, in which Dave and Jay (Thomas) take turns hurling footballs at the Late Show Christmas Tree until one of them knocks the giant calcified meatball off the top off the Empire State Building that serves as the tree’s angel for the week of the holiday;
  • Paul Shaffer does his impression of Cher singing “O Holy Night” during one of her Seventies TV specials.

Dave might also tell the story about the time a stagehand cursed out Tom Brokaw during a staff holiday party, though this seems to have become more of a “Christmas week” tradition. Like the appearance of a fresh-cut tree in the living room, Dave saying “Why don’t you go **** yourself?” in a gruff voice is a giddiness-inducing sign that Christmas is near.

The cursing is just another data point supporting the argument that the Dave Letterman Undeclared Christmas Special is more like a family holiday party than a network holiday show. A good family Holiday party where the rundown of elements grew over time through an eager unspoken mutual consent, as opposed to someone reading some damned article in some damned magazine fronted by some damned lady with her own talk show and then forcing the whole family to bend to this madwoman’s insane will.

Why, exactly, is it important to celebrate the season by knocking a softball-sized meatball from the top of a Christmas tree? Well, why was it important in our house that my Dad hang up an old “Happy Halloween” decoration with the word “Halloween” covered up with a bit of paper with “Christmas” scrawled on it? He did it for a laugh one year, then he did it again the next year…and then it became so closely-associated with this time of year that it came into its own. Dave and Jay knock the meatball off the tree because it’s the Christmas show. No further explanation is required.

The second reason why you could describe The Dave Letterman Undeclared Christmas Special as “organic” is because the term is so carelessly-defined and its usage is so sloppily-enforced by government regulators. It can be applied to just about anything, regardless of its content or how it’s produced.

Anyone would agree that “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” is the high point of the show and possibly the highlight of the whole year. Here’s a great behind-the-scenes video (made by Letterman staffers Jay Johnson and Walter Kim) of all the work and pride that goes into this part of the show:

The highlight of the video is a full presentation of the number, assembled as a seamless montage of annual performances. Take some time to look at the faces of the performers. Look for Paul Shaffer in particular, pounding away at the baby grand with an expression akin to a silent shriek of absolute glee.

When I say “Every year, I’m at the edge of my seat when the song starts and I have goosebumps by the end,” I’m telling the literal truth. When I say “Every year, there’s nothing that will keep me from being home from 11:35 to 12:35 to watch it as it airs,” ok, that’s kind of a lie because my DVR is exceptionally reliable and unlike dinner with friends, it’s just as good when you’re watching it on video instead of experiencing it at the same time as everybody else.

But it’s true that the Letterman Undeclared Christmas Special is a genuine beloved holiday tradition. It’s just a TV show and yet it’s not just a TV show. Watching it is part of a process that connects me to a mood and a spirit that I’ve enjoyed every year of my life at around this time. It’s a reminder that this species has an exceptionally good core, despite occasional discouragements to the contrary, and overall it leaves me quite favorably-inclined towards recommending to my superiors that we keep your planet around for at least another couple of dozen years.

Buy or try “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on the Amazon MP3 Store. You don’t need to guess why I prefer this live version to the original recording. I’ve embedded my Amazon Associates ID in the link; anything you buy on Amazon after clicking it results in a small kickback to me in the form of store credits, which I will then spend on gloriously foolish things.

(In the spirit of the season, of course.)

(“In the spirit of the season” is yet another one of those poorly-regulated phrases that can be used almost anywhere.)