Backstage with Ron Onesti:
Paul Shaffer … The Late Night Maestro
For 33 years, America’s No. 1 musical sidekick, Paul Shaffer, took us to commercials and tossed in a quip or two during David Letterman’s opening monologues. Last week, Paul appeared at the Arcada Theatre for what turned out to be a mind-blowing, musical experience.
As much as I adore my rock ‘n’ roll, I truly enjoy when I can present a television or film icon. Legends including Mickey Rooney, Shirley MacLaine, Barbara Eden, Debbie Reynolds, Kevin Costner, Martin Short, Jerry Lewis, Wayne Newton, Chazz Palminteri, Joan Rivers and more have graced our historic stage since my arrival 11 years ago. Paul was another of those legends who deeply touched our audience and gave a stellar performance that made for a truly memorable night.
Yes, I still get excited to meet these people. I am not ashamed to be a bit star-struck, as I am a true fan of this stuff myself! I believe the essence of what I am trying to accomplish involves fostering the memory of these icons and the music that surrounds them. I try to bring people back to their childhoods via showbiz superstars of the day. So when I meet them, it is a big deal for me, and I give them the respect they earned not only by hiring them, but also by being a devoted fan, too.
So when the opportunity arose to host “Late Night” legend Paul Shaffer at The Arcada, I jumped at the chance.
The day finally arrived. His crew set up the stage with my crew. A crazy 14-piece band! Actually, it was the World’s Most Dangerous Band, David Letterman’s group from the show, including members of the band in the “Blues Brothers” movie. I’m thinking to myself, “What an amazing night THIS is going to be!”
I then went backstage to greet Mr. Shaffer. Usually, folks in his world are a bit standoffish at first. You know, “Don’t look at the artist directly in the eye,” “Don’t address the artist directly,” etc. Not this guy. He was very approachable. He was wearing jogging pants and a “Paul Revere & The Raiders” T-shirt (kind of ironic since the original Paul Revere from the band was a very close friend of ours and actually performed his last show prior to his passing at The Arcada).
“Mr. Shaffer, I’m Ron. It is an honor to meet you,” I said like a dumbstruck fan. His eyes somewhat bugged out, and he said, “YOU’RE Ron Onesti? You are a legend! Everybody in the biz is talking about you!”
“Are you kiddin’ me?” I asked. “YOU are the legend!”
“You are doing great things, and it’s an honor to meet you,” he said.
I embarrassingly choked up, and had to walk away! I really don’t know what hit me! Here was this guy who is the “Official” musical director of show business, including “Saturday Night Live,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, the Olympics and countless other cool presentations, and he actually recognized me! My 30-plus years in the biz came to a head at that moment, and it was humbling, to say the least.
He was very friendly and was open to answer a few questions for me. He remembered Chicago disc jockey legend Dick Biondi from his days growing up in Ontario, Canada. A few years back, Shaffer mentioned a “Dick Biondi for Mayor of Chicago” campaign on the Letterman show as a joke, but it actually went viral.
I knew Paul played keyboards on “The Honeydrippers'” album, starring Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. It produced a No. 1 hit for Plant called “Sea Of Love.” “Why was there only one album?” I asked Paul.
“That was all Robert wanted. He did that album then moved on to another project,” he said. “It was as simple as that! Robert was ready to move on!”
Then he blurted out: “Did you know I wrote the disco anthem, ‘It’s Raining Men?’ ” I don’t know where that came from, but I was amazed anyway.
We went on to talk about more of his experiences, including when he produced the documentary “Fats Domino & Friends.” It was with Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ron Wood and many other guests. “Ray was an incredible artist. He was like the grandfather to everybody on the set. He set the tone and brought the best out of everybody.”
I bought this incredibly gaudy jacket for some reason the last time I was in Las Vegas. A jeweled white tuxedo-style jacket with black trim. I had not found the right opportunity to wear it until Paul’s show. After all, he was known for out-of-this-world outfits on television.
I put it on and Paul said, “Whoa! What an awesome jacket! You wore that for me, didn’t you? I appreciate that! Here, take these, then you will REALLY look like me!”
He handed me a pair of his custom prescription sunglasses that looked like something straight out of Elton John’s wardrobe case. I put them on and looked in the mirror. He stood next to me with a look of great satisfaction.
Realizing he is 100 percent bald, I gave my best fake-smile I had in me. Did I really look like him?
He and his band performed a fabulous show with spectacular musicians, prefacing the presentation with the instrumental theme song from the “Late Night with David Letterman” show, which he also wrote.
Valerie Simpson, from the songwriting and singing team Ashford & Simpson, joined Paul on stage for a few numbers. What a night!
I would not say Paul Shaffer could be likened to Johnny Carson’s sideman, Ed McMahon. But he was as important to that show as Ed was to Johnny. Paul added color, humor and a warmth that truly underscored the value of the Letterman/Shaffer team.
Maybe I should do my own Top Ten List, the way Dave did each night. If I did, Paul Shaffer would be among those at the top of my Top Ten Nicest People in Show Biz list. Even though he made me give the sunglasses back!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.