This is the first in a series of Top 10 lists in honor of David Letterman, who is retiring from late night television after 33 years on May 20.
David Letterman has played host to a stunning variety of musical guests — first on Late Night (1982-93) and then on Late Show (1993-present) — from rock to rap, from soul to country and even some blues and jazz.
Legends played Letterman. Ringo played the old show. Paul played the current one. Johnny Cash wore black. Miles Davis was cool.
But none of them made this top 10 list of musical performances.
Dave introduced new artists. Robert Cray and Sinead O’Connor in the 80s. Fiona Apple and the Lemonheads in the 90s. TV on the Radio and At the Drive-In in the 2000s.
They didn’t make the list either.
Dave hosted a week of Beatles covers and a week of drum solos. U2 was the musical guest for an entire week. So were Foo Fighters.
Again, not on the list.
Paul Shaffer should receive most of the credit for this kind of variety, excellence and taste. From the beginning, he has been Dave’s musical director — and bandleader of the World’s Most Dangerous Band (NBC) and the CBS Orchestra.
Finally, these may not be the best or greatest performances in Letterman history, although they are superlative.
More appropriately, they are the most significant.
Dave’s taste was an important factor in the rankings — his relationship to the artist, his reaction to the music. The way he still genuinely gushes over a new band like The Orwells is why the 67-year-old is hipper than Jimmy Fallon.
My personal taste played a part. There is more music from Late Night than Late Show, more soul than alt-rock. Just because.
These are the Top 10 musical performances in Letterman history:
1. WARREN ZEVON | “Mutineer” (2002)
Warren Zevon made his last appearance on Letterman a few months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
The only guest that night, he talked at length about his illness. When Dave asked Zevon if he knew something about “life and death that maybe I don’t know,” he said: “Not unless I know how much you are supposed to enjoy every sandwich.”
Zevon performed three songs: “Mutineer,” “Genius” and “Roland the Headless Thompson.”
“Dave’s the best friend my music has ever had,” he said.
The day after Zevon’s death in 2003, Dave replayed his performance of “Mutineer.”
Appearances | 12 (including 1982, 1987, 1988, 1989 and 2002).
2. DARLENE LOVE | “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” (1986-2014)
Darlene Love on Letterman IS Christmas.
Love first sang “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” for Dave on Dec. 16, 1986, and last month was her 21st performance in 28 years.
In 1993, Dave called it “the only rock and roll Christmas song that I truly enjoy.”
Love is always accompanied by backup singers and an orchestra, a wild entrance by saxophonist Bruce Kapler and falling fake snow.
“It’s become very meaningful,” Dave said in her final appearance.
Love has vowed not to perform the song on another television show.
For almost 30 years, Love singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” has been the purest expression of joy in late night.
Appearances | 21 (including 1986, 1993, 1995, 2000, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014).
3. JAMES BROWN | “Sex Machine,” “There Was a Time” and “I Got the Feelin’ ” (1982)
There is live music. Then there is James Brown.
“This is the honor of a lifetime,” Paul Shaffer told Brown before the show. “Just tell me what you’d like to play.”
“What do you guys want to play, Paul?” Brown said.
Drummer Steve Jordan picked “Sex Machine.” Guitarist Hiram Bullock chose “There Was a Time.”
Brown closed with his own selection: “I Got the Feelin’.”
Appearances | 7 (including 1985, 1993 and 1999)
4. SONNY & CHER | “I Got You Babe” (1987)
Sonny and Cher performed together for the first time since 1979 and just the second since their variety show ended in 1976.
“None of this has been discussed prior to the show,” Dave said. “It’s sort of a last minute thing. It’s entirely up to you.”
“Oh, you are so full of [bleep],” Cher said.
Sonny and Cher sang “I Got You Babe.” Cher flubbed some of the lyrics, but that was half the charm.
It was their last performance together.
Appearances | 1
5. FUTURE ISLANDS | “Seasons (Waiting on You)” (2014)
After the British new wave beats and synth-pop perfection, after the Belinda Carlisle dance moves, after the chest-pounding, guttural vocals, after all the pain had been wrenched from Samuel T. Herring’s white boy soul, Dave said: “How about that! I’ll take all of that you got!”
Then it went viral.
More than 3 million hits YouTube.
Coldplay retweeted it.
Bono called the song “a miracle.”
When Dave said “let’s dance” during his monologue, he was talking about Future Islands.
Appearances | 1
6. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN | “Glory Days” (1993)
On his last Late Night, Dave said that there is only one person “who has not been on this show who I always really, really wanted as a guest.”
Bruce Springsteen played the fitting “Glory Days.”
His interplay with Paul during the song was especially fun.
Bruce: “You’re going to have a bigger bandstand.”
Bruce: “Your own dressing room.”
Bruce: “Big theater.”
Bruce: “A raise.”
Appearances | 4 (including consecutive nights in August 2002)
7. BOB DYLAN | “Jokerman” (1984)
Bob Dylan played three songs — “Jokerman,” “License to Kill” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me to Talking” — with the Los Angeles new wave group The Plugz. He refused to be interviewed.
“Any chance you guys can be here every Thursday night?” Dave said.
Dylan smiled and nodded.
Appearances | 3 (including an almost indecipherable version of “Like a Rolling Stone” on Dave’s 10th anniversary special.)
8. R.E.M | “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” (1983)
R.E.M. played their first college radio hit in their first television appearance. “So. Central Rain” was so new that it was still untitled.
Before the song, Dave talked to Peter Buck and Mike Mills, while the nervous Michael Stipe sat behind them.
Appearances | 7 (including 1995, 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2003)
9. AL GREEN (with Toni Childs) | “Let’s Stay Together” (1989)
When Paul Shaffer assembled his All-Star bands for Dave’s anniversary shows, they usually didn’t work.
This one did. Al Green and Toni Childs teamed on “Let’s Stay Together” — one of Dave’s favorite songs — for the show’s seventh anniversary. They were backed by Carlos Santana, Tito Puente, David Sanborn, Melissa Etheridge and others.
Appearances | 12 (including 1987, 1995, 1998, 2008 and last month, the night after he was celebrated at the Kennedy Center honors).
10. BEASTIE BOYS | “Ch-Check It Out” (2004)
The Beastie Boys emerged from a New York City subway station with their microphones, rapping all the way down 53rd Street, straight into a fish-eye lens, until they reached the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater. By the end the song, they were posing around Dave’s desk.
“Here’s what I like about the Beastie Boys,” Dave said. “First of all, they’re dangerous.”
Appearances | 4 (including 1992, 1994 and 2006).
HONORABLE MENTION. The Foo Fighters, one of Dave’s favorite bands, performed “Everlong” on his first night back from heart surgery and later recreated The Ed Sullivan Show set for a two-hour concert. … Jay-Z and Eminem played the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater. … Le1f was the first openly gay rap artist on television. … Lady Gaga led Dave’s audience across the street for her concert, the last one at Roseland music hall. … Elvis Costello was the guest host and musical guest in 2003. … Dave said Billy Currington’s “People Are Crazy” will change your life. … Sly Stone made his only television appearance between 1976 and the 2006 Grammys. Carly Simon sang “All I Want Is You” from a hotel room because of her fear of live audiences. … Captain Beefheart showed some of his latest video, because MTV wouldn’t air it.