As someone who has spent over 15 years living without a TV, you might be surprised to hear that I’m a big David Letterman fan. In my formative years I saw tons of noteworthy (and, for me, impactful) musical guests appear on his show(s), sometimes with their own bands and sometimes accompanied by Paul Shaffer and his wonderful , versatile band. In many cases, since the show was on after my bedtime on school nights, I would set the VCR because a guest I wanted to see was on and then, if it was good, watch it over and over again.
Given that Dave has just had his swan song, it only makes sense for me to reflect back on some of the ones that hit me the hardest. Note that these are not necessarily the “best,” nor have I made any attempt to go back with a curator’s mind to scan the thousands of shows I never saw. These are the ones that made a mark and that I had the dumb luck to encounter, all of them awesome in their own way. This is based entirely on musical performances (thus leaving out some great interviews – look for Frank Zappa’s in particular).
1 ) Warren Zevon – “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” 2002
A year before Zevon’s death from cancer, Dave had him on as a guest and devoted a whole show to his performances and interview. The wrap-up was a characteristically sardonic wrap-up
2 ) Robert Cray (with David Sanborn) – “Acting This Way,” 1988
The recording of this song, one of my all-time favorites by Cray, features no real solo by Robert, but rather a soulful alto sax turn by David Sanborn . . . who just happened to sit in with Paul and the band with some frequency, as he does on this one (notably, playing a completely different though equally effective solo, something that was eye-opening to me, as I’d memorized the one on the record and just assumed that this was what one played there).
3 ) Roy Haynes – “Summer Nights,” 2013
Of more recent vintage is jazz drum master Haynes, here 88 years old, appearing on “drum solo week” with his Fountain of Youth band. What a coup for all involved.
4 ) Joe Jackson – “Nineteen Forever,” 1989
This was during my peak period of Joe Jackson fandom, and he and his band were spot-on in interpreting his then-latest single.
5 ) Bonnie Raitt & Delbert McClinton – “Good Man, Good Woman,” 1991
My first time hearing/seeing Bonnie Raitt on the show was when she performed the title track of Nick of Time with Paul and the boys, and that was just lovely. Here she ramps the energy up a notch on this bluesy, funky collaboration with blues singer and harmonica man Delbert McClinton from the Luck of the Draw record.
6 ) Van Morrison – “Days Like This,” 1995
I’m cheating here in that the most MEMORABLE Van Morrison moment was in 1989 when he appeared on Dave’s show to sing “Whenever God Shines His Light On Me” a gorgeous song he had recently recorded as a duet with Cliff Richard. A quick perusal of the YouTube archive confirms that performance to have been every bit as awkward and out of tune as I remember it being, forgivable as it was the stage-fright-prone Morrison’s first US TV appearance in 12 years. By the time of this performance 6 years later he had more than retrieved his sea legs and was back to singing his butt off.
7 ) Lake Street Dive – “Bad Self Portraits,” 2014
Speaking of singing one’s butt off, the hip young Boston band Lake Street Dive is quite good at that (as well as playing or writing). This, the most recent performance on the list, shows off not only them but also Dave’s track record of giving attention to up-and-coming artists.
8 ) Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir – “Deep Elm Blues,” 1982
The Grateful Dead’s Jerry and Bobby were repeated guests on the show, both together and separately. Here is their first one, with the acoustic “Deep Elm Blues” coming in at about 5:55.
9 ) Gnarls Barkley – “Crazy,” 2006
Moody, creepy, soulful, powerful, check, check, check and check. As I’ve found typical on the show, the arrangement isn’t the carbon-copy of the recording that one gets in certain other contexts, and I’ve always appreciated that.
10 ) Branford Marsalis – “Giant Steps,” 1988
Why, you may ask, did Branford Marsalis think that the notoriously difficult “Giant Steps” was the tune to play with Paul and the band? I will leave you to speculate on that, but the results fascinated me back then and still do – skip to about 28:25 for the performance (which unfortunately begins on the bass solo, but we get to hear plenty of Branford’s blowing). Look out also for his performance of “Tenor Madness” from a different episode around the same time.