“OK, I just did 33 years of Letterman. Now it’s time to relax. Well that didn’t work,” Shaffer admitted to me in a phone interview last week.
Feeling lost and unwanted at a time when everyone around him was telling him to relax and enjoy his life, Shaffer realized that he needed a commission.
“I’ve got to play. My life is better when I’m playing,” he said.
Like the scene from 1980’s “The Blues Brothers” when Jake and Elwood concoct a scheme to perform a benefit concert to save a Chicago orphanage (Shaffer assisted in putting that band together), a phone call gave Shaffer that commission.
“Out of the blue, Seymour Stein called,” Shaffer continued. Stein – a famed record exec - founded Sire Records with partner Richard Gotterher. The pair’s signings include Madonna, The Pretenders, The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Cure and The Smiths.
“When Seymour said ‘Do you want make a record?’ it cheered me right up,” Shaffer said.
That record, out March 17, is the self-titled “The World’s Most Dangerous Band” and features Shaffer and his late-night cohorts from Letterman’s show performing updated versions of mostly 60s-era rock and R&B classics.
“It’s pretty exuberant,” he said. “I think maybe you can hear that.”
He’s right. Shaffer and the band have delivered a record full of tight, fun grooves and special guests; it’s not dissimilar to the material we heard them play for years on Letterman.
An exception to the classics-only rule is a new song that serves as the album’s anchor. “Happy Street” is a gleefully uplifting celebration of living; the song feature Bill Murray and Shaffer trading reasons not to be gloomy.
The duo has a history preceding their union on Saturday Night Live’s early years, when Murray was Nick the Lounge Singer and Shaffer his accompanist.
“I was in college in Ontario in the early 70s,” Shaffer recalled. “I was doing the Toronto version of “Godspell” when two Chicagoans arrived, looking to start a Second City nightclub revue in Canada. One of the guys was Brian Doyle Murray – Billy’s brother. We really hit it off and hung out incessantly. He was always saying ‘You’ve got to meet my brother. He’s into the same kind of stuff as you.’”
When Shaffer moved to New York City in 1974, he worked with Bill Murray on “The National Lampoon Radio Hour,” a syndicated weekly radio comedy program.
“We did a thing together called ‘Kung Fu Christmas,’” Shaffer remembered with a laugh. “If you remember, everything was Kung Fu-related in music at that time. Soon we were part of SNL and have worked naturally together ever since.”
The video accompanying “Happy Street,” animated by Jay Marks, includes a couple of dozen Easter egg references to both Shaffer’s and Murray’s careers.
Joining Shaffer and The World’s Most Dangerous Band on the new album are Valerie Simpson (of Ashford & Simpson) on “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” Dion DiMucci on “Win Your Love For Me,” Darius Rucker on “Why Can’t We Live Together,” indie-rocker Jenny Lewis on “Sorrow” and reggae-fusion singer Shaggy, who adds vocals to Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”
To compile potential titles for the new record, Shaffer reached out to his friends.
“I got a lot of great ideas and just listened to their advice,” he told me. “‘Yeh Yeh’ was suggested by my producer Richard Gotteher (composer of ‘My Boyfriend’s Back,’ ‘Hang on Sloopy,’ ‘I Want Candy’ and the album’s ‘Sorrow’ – a hit for The Merseys that was also recorded for David Bowie’s 1973 covers album ‘Pinups’).
“I also got ideas from an old friend back in Canada,” Shaffer continued. “We used to listen to records together when we were kids so I went back to him and said ‘What do you think I should record?’ He had some great ideas.”
On April 1, Shaffer and his band will embark on a tour, initially comprised of 15 dates spread over three months. It will be a considerably different operation from the last time Shaffer was part of a touring band.
“It was 1980, for goodness sake. I was on The Blues Brothers’ tour,” he said. “We had this old, rickety twin-engine prop plane and we thought for sure it was going to crash. It was almost like a Buddy Holly thing. These legendary southern rockers, including a couple of Booker T’s MGs, were in the group. We had this little song that we made up called ‘Rock Tragedy.’ We would sing it when the plane would take off, to ward off any evil spirits that might try to take us down. For this tour, we’re just taking a regular plane.”
“I’m a lucky man,” Shaffer told me at the end of the interview. “For me now, it’s really coming down to the brass tacks of ‘Can you really entertain?’ What I’m looking forward to the most is entertaining an audience.”
(Note: Here's a link to the video for "Happy Street": https://youtu.be/bSuB4Su6wCM)