Tomorrow, David Letterman will sign off on his final episode of The Late Show and end a television career that has lasted nearly 40 years.
Since his role as the first host of NBC’s Late Night, Letterman has been a vital comedy institution and one of the most ardent champions of popular music on American television. He would just as frequently feature a young artists making their first television appearance as he would an established legend. Letterman loved music, and you could tell when he was especially enthusiastic about a performance (or a band’s drum kit). Sometimes he’d make it known then and there, and other times, his response would be a little more muted, but then you’d start noticing that the band would be back every time they put out an album and Letterman’s introductions would become increasingly gushing.
This isn’t a definitive list of the greatest Letterman performances, but my personal favorites. Some of these are the obvious classics and some are from lesser known acts that I thought put on a hell of a show.
James Brown – “Sex Machine” medley (July 1982)
David Letterman started hosting Late Night in February of 1982 and by the summer, stuff like this was starting to happen. To this day, most late night performances are maybe 3 or 4 minutes long. Yet, most performers aren’t the Godfather of Soul. In this performance, James Brown leads his band, with Paul Shaffer sitting in, through a 10 minute medley featuring “Sex Machine,” followed by a shorter version of “I Got the Feelin'” to end the show.
R.E.M. – “Radio Free Europe” and “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” (October 1983)
R.E.M.’s first television performance has been mythologized as one of the touchstones in the history of alternative music. What’s less remembered is the band’s interview with Letterman between the two songs in which Peter Buck and Mike Mills talk for a very camera shy Michael Stipe. Also note that “So. Central Rain” is so new that the band didn’t even have a title for it when they performed it.
XTC – “King for a Day” (July 1989)
Dave mentions in the clip that this is XTC’s first public performance in seven years. The band infamously retreated to the studio following the release of English Settlement, and aside from a few other television appearances to promote Oranges & Lemons, did not perform live again before their split in 2005. Backed by Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous band, XTC’s performance of bassist Colin Moulding’s “King for a Day” is a real treat for die-hard fans of the band.
Jellyfish – “All I Want Is Everything” (1990)
Oh yeah, this is definitely my list, huh? Jellyfish never quite got the attention they rightfully deserved (unless you hang around music critics or power pop nerds, that is), and they show why they should have been huge with this excellent performance of “All I Want Is Everything.” A side-note, as good of a band Paul Shaffer’s CBS Orchestra is, many music fans have expressed dislike that they often performed with the musical guests on the NBC show, sometimes at the expense of members of the group actually performing on the show. Such was the case of Jellyfish here performing without bassist Chris Manning, who at least gets a shout-out from singer/drummer Andy Sturmer.