Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Late Night Theme

When NBC started airing Late Night with David Letterman, I didn't get it. I thought the whole production, from intro theme to monologue to B-list guests to closing credits was a parody of a late night show rather than an actual show itself. I thought that Musical Director Paul Shaffer was this weird, little person whose weird, little jam music used chord progressions I couldn't understand and an alphabet I couldn't pronounce. The Johnny, Ed, and Doc format had needed an update, a fresh successor, but whatever this show was, it wasn't it.

Man, was I wrong -- especially about the music. What changed my mind? Familiarity over time, for one thing. Youthful sounds of new bands often seem like simplistic, trashy noise in the moment of their creation but later stand as era-specific anthems.

Take Paul Shaffer's composition, "Late Night Theme", which opened every Letterman show in the show's NBC era. Nominated for a Grammy Award, this lead-in fanfare initially struck me as overwrought bombast, a carnival barker's catcall that oversold the host's deadpan visage, comedic gestures, and camera mugging. That was the joke. Everything was amplified as a promise of extraordinary wonderfulness; everything thereafter was a letdown from the promise, and that letdown was played to humorous effect.

So much for pathos; but then...

I attended a Milwaukee Bucks NBA game sometime in the late 1990s. The house band entertaining the crowd during the pregame warm-ups was local jazz saxaphonist Warren Wiegratz and Streetlife, his feel-good party band. What did I hear cranking up slowly but the intro strains of "Late Night Theme". Its funky, slouching, cakewalk rhythms slowly took hold of the arena, and me with it. With its street-shuffling beat and ample set-up for instrumental solos, I heard the music on its own terms for the first time -- and this was the full 4-minute version, not the 90-second, TV-length intro. It astonished me how elated I felt; rarely do I grin when listening to what I previously would have called filler music, but Wiegratz and company absolutely nailed it.

I learned later that Paul Shaffer also served as Musical Director for The Blues Brothers movie, which between comedic passages presented an ecstatically devoted tribute to rhythm and blues music as a uniquely American art form. High-profile, brilliant musicians, from James Brown to Aretha Franklin to Ray Charles to John Lee Hooker, and many more, carried the movie alongside Belushi's and Ackroyd's stylized low-lifes on their "mission from God." The real mission was that they'd brought this wealth of All-Star talent together to play a Hall of Fame performance for a new audience -- and as Musical Director, Shaffer had everything to do with that, from recruitment to song selection to arrangements to control of diva eruptions. He's not just a weird little man, it seems; he only plays one on TV.

Three decades or so later, I look back with admiration on the musical guests Letterman and Shaffer have brought onstage to jam with the stage band, both at NBC and CBS. Some nights they strike out, but other times they have iconic players and acts -- the late Warren Zevon, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters, and David Sanborn are three that come to mind immediately.

I've learned not to judge the musical gifts that are placed before me on the screen; if Letterman, or Conan, or Austin City Limits puts on a strange new performer or band of indeterminate genre, I might well turn it down -- or I might also listen a bit more closely. What sounds like noise today could keep me bopping down the street, at the Motor Vehicle Bureau, or in the doctor's waiting room, in a very few years. Bring it on!

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CORRECTION (May 20, 2015): This blog's fact-checker (me) failed to depict Paul Shaffer's short tenure as Musical Director for The Blues Brothers movie accurately. Shaffer was let go from the film early on due to scheduling conflicts during production, reportedly at the behest of comedic star John Belushi. I've let this essay stand as originally written, but note the factual error for the benefit of this blog's several readers.

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