Paul Shaffer, you and your World’s Most Dangerous Band may have already won. The competition is tough in the late night TV music field — there’s Doc Severinsen on Tonight, Michael Wolff and the Posse on The Arsenio Hall Show, G.E. Smith and the band on Saturday Night Live, and Tom Scott and company on The Pat Sajak Show (yes, it’s still on).
But Shaffer, bandleader on Late Night With David Letterman, is strong in so many categories — fashion statements, buoyant banter, and especially music (his band plays tight arrangements of rock standards and makes them sound fresh every time) — that he’s the early favorite in the late night derby (for complete results, read on).
The fact that there is any competition at all at this hour is fairly amazing. In the not-so-distant past, TV music was, well, restrained.
On NBC’s original late night variety endeavor, 1950’s Broadway Open House, accordionist-composer Milton DeLugg’s Phony Philharmonic provided only the requisite drum rolls and rim shots. Steve Allen, host of The Tonight Show when it made its debut in 1953, meshed music with comedy by sitting at the piano during his monologues — but he didn’t seem to give the band much thought, and he employed a vanilla classical musician named Skitch Henderson as music director.
In 1967, with Johnny Carson in his fifth season as Tonight host, a funky trumpeter from the orchestra’s ranks — Carl Hilding ”Doc” Severinsen — was named director of the show’s band. One night he caught the boss’ eye with a puce Pucci tie. Carson did a double take, then joked, ”I wouldn’t wear that to fondle Randolph Scott’s saddlehorn.” The audience loved it, so wardrobe continued to keep Doc in velvet, rhinestones, anything garish enough to keep the joke going.
So late night music went until Oct. 11, 1975, the date Saturday Night Live made its debut on NBC. The comedians who drew their samurai swords and hacked up the existing blueprints for television comedy weren’t the only revolutionaries on that show. Saturday Night Live’s music director, Howard Shore, and his ”grab bag” band of nine members pulled TV music right up to date. ”We were just doing what we knew how to do,” Shore says, but by pouring his hip, funky sounds into the tube, he pricked up the ears of a generation that had until then nodded off to Severinsen’s big-band sounds on Tonight.
”Each generation’s job,” says SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels, ”is to find music that will offend its parents.” The band’s hard-edged, exposed-brick set also made an impression. ”Up to then, the look of TV variety was shiny floors and Mylar curtains,” Michaels says. ”Our music had to complement the comedy.” More than being complementary, SNL’s band had enough character to be part of the show. The show’s musicians helped build the Blues Brothers and Bill Murray’s lounge lizard into television comedy legends.
But the SNL band’s glory days have waned. The musicians get an occasional Sweeney Sisters sketch and sometimes accompany musical guests, but their main job is filling the pre- and post-commercial lulls. The aggressive mugging of long-haired guitarist G.E. Smith, who codirects with pianist Cheryl Hardwick, has become one of the show’s most dependable and irritating elements.
Shore’s legacy of cool hasn’t played out yet, thanks to Shaffer, one of SNL’s original band members. This cool cat from Ontario grabbed the SNL camera by wearing big white glasses and playing the perfect, kitschy piano player in Murray’s lounge-lizard sketches.
When NBC asked Letterman to put together a neo-talk show following Carson, the host immediately called in Shaffer. Known as a musical wunderkind around the NBC offices, Shaffer had starred on the short-lived CBS sitcom A Year at the Top and had performed onstage with Gilda Radner and the Blues Brothers. The live stage experience prepared him for his role as Late Night’s sidekick — the upstart kid brother to Letterman’s cocky frat boy. Not only is Shaffer funny — he’s also versatile; he plays behind all the show’s musical guests.
Using that camera time to his advantage, Shaffer endears himself with his campy Vegas persona. It seems Severinsen could be replaced by anybody with a funny jacket (and he sometimes is, by assistant conductor and dorky dresser Tommy Newsom), but Late Night without Shaffer wouldn’t be Late Night.
The Pat Sajak and Arsenio Hall shows have bands of their own, too, but they don’t get to show off like Shaffer and his group. Saxophonist Tom Scott’s band does its best to speed up The Pat Sajak Show with jazz-rock fusion but doesn’t look or sound much different from the Tonight band. (Scott, a close friend of Severinsen’s, used to fill in with the Tonight orchestra.)
”If we all worried about things being similar to other shows,” Scott argues, ”none of us would be on the air.” Yet Scott’s resume reflects a very cool cat: He has played on albums by Joni Mitchell, Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison.
Michael Wolff, leader of The Arsenio Hall Show’s Posse, has toured with his own one-man musical comedy show, but Hall doesn’t give him many chances to use his comedic flair. Wolff helps define Arsenio with R&B flavors, and Hall does encourage him to ”get busy” and improvise now and then, but by the time Hall finishes hugging his guests, there’s not much camera time left for the band.
The next wave in late night TV music might well be Night Music, a jazzy, syndicated production from Lorne Michaels with saxman David Sanborn as host. Each Sunday night, Sanborn brings out a new medley of musicians who relish sharing the stage with each other. Sonny Rollins, Leonard Cohen„James Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie, Lou Reed, and Youssou N’Dour all have appeared. It’s set up like a talk show, but instruments do most of the talking.
As Night Music wafts across the airwaves, TV music is taking on another new sound. ”There’s a whole lot of music out there that’s not being presented on TV,” says Sanborn, who leans heavily on the New York music scene. ”We want to focus on that.”
And one night maybe they’ll throw in a few accordions, just for old times’ sake.