When David Letterman permanently signs off the airwaves later this month, it won’t just be the end of one of the greatest comedy institutions in TV history — it’ll also close out an amazing showcase for musical talent. Nearly every episode of NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman and CBS’s Late Show With David Letterman had a musical guest, and it was the place where many Americans first saw everyone from R.E.M. and Weezer to Future Islands. We’ve put together 10 of the greatest musical moments from the shows’ history, and though the list is by no means complete — we could easily have gone to 100 — these are the performances we keep returning to over and over again.
To most people outside of Athens, Georgia and the college rock scene in the early Eighties, R.E.M. were a largely unknown band. But they did have enough buzz to earn a Letterman slot on October 6th, 1983, playing an early version of "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" off their sophomore album Reckoning — which wouldn't actually hit shelves for another seven months. It was the band's first time playing on network television, and it played a huge role in helping them reach a wider audience.
In some alternate universe, Bob Dylan hit the road with New Wave band The Plugz during the Reagan era and completely reinvigorated his career; in our universe, however, they simply backed him for three songs on Letterman in 1984. It's a real tragedy, as this is, far and away, Dylan's best TV performance to date, as well as one of his single best musical moments of the 1980s. When he went on tour later that year, he let Bill Graham pick the band and he wound up with Mick Taylor, Ian McLagan and other vets. Those guys are obviously great, but they lacked the Plugz's raw power. Still, we'll always have this one-off.
In November of 1987, Sonny Bono was running for mayor of Palm Springs and Cher was promoting her upcoming movie Moonstruck. The divorced couple went on Letterman together and were coaxed into playing "I Got You, Babe" with Paul Shaffer and his band; they weren't exactly the best of friends at this point, but both of them knew it would make for unforgettable television. Had YouTube existed back then, this would have gone insanely viral the next morning. It wound up being the final time they ever sang together, as Bono passed away in January 1998.
David Letterman hosted his NBC show for over 11 years, and Bruce Springsteen never made a single appearance — but that finally changed on Letterman's final night on the peacock network. It was the night before Springsteen played a show at Madison Square Garden and he'd spent the last year on the road with his new band. For this performance of "Glory Days," however, he stuck to Paul Shaffer and the World's Most Dangerous Band; before the taping, he asked Shaffer if his keyboard could support his weight. Sure enough, the singer jumped onto the instrument near the end of the song. It was a fitting way for Dave to wrap up his Late Night years.
Oasis were exploding all over Europe in the mid-Nineties, but America hadn't quite caught on yet. Many bands in their same position wait until a single takes off before crossing the Atlantic, but Noel Gallgher and co. opted to travel all across the country, playing bars in the U.S. when they could have been in arenas back in England. It was a smart strategy that helped them build a huge fan base from the ground up. On March 8th, 1995 they made their American TV debut by playing "Live Forever" on Letterman. "Good to meet you," the host said to the band. "Great song!" He was speaking for a lot of people.
David Letterman has been a huge fan of the Foo Fighters since they first played on the show back in 1995, and he's said many times that he's obsessed with their song "Everlong" — Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra have played it roughly a thousand times coming in and out of commercials. So when the host came back from heart surgery in 2000, it made perfect sense to bring in Dave Grohl and the boys to play it. "My favorite band playing my favorite song," he said. "Ladies and gentleman, Foo Fighters!" This was one of the most emotional episodes in Letterman history, and the Foos rose to the occasion, even letting Paul play a little organ.
Warren Zevon's appearance in October of 2002 was a gut-wrenching experience, as the longtime friend of the show had recently been diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer. Dave devoted the entire hour to the singer/songwriter, who famously said that the experience taught him to "enjoy every sandwich" during the interview segment. At the host's urging (Dave later claimed that he "begged" the musician to play it), Zevon closed out the night with his 1978 classic "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner"; though the artist surprised doctors by living another 11 months, this was the final song he ever sang in public.
No matter how many legendary performances took place on the Ed Sullivan Theater stage during during the Late Show's run, nothing will ever top what took place there on February 9th, 1964 when the Beatles made their American television debut. That moment changed the world forever — so when Paul McCartney came back in 2009, he decided he didn't want to return to the same stage. Instead, he set up on the famous marquee of the theater and, in a recreation of the Beatles' last public performance in 1969 on the rooftop of Apple Records, hr put on a free show for the lucky crowd gathered on the street. (Here's Macca's rendition of "Get Back.")
These days, bands don’t have huge breakthrough on moments on television like they did in the pre-Internet era; there’s just so many ways for people to experience new music now. But occasionally a TV performance is so electrifying that it creates a viral sensation, and that’s exactly what happened when the synthpop band Future Islands went on Letterman. Frontman Samuel T. Herring poured so much passion and energy into his vocal delivery (and unique dance moves) that nobody could possibly ignore it. “How about that!” Letterman said. “I’ll take all of that you got. That was wonderful!” The world agreed — nearly four million views on YouTube, the appearance turned out to be a career-defining moment for the band.
Darlene Love is known for many different things. Some remember her as one of the main voices in Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, singing “He’s a Rebel,” “Today I Met The Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” “Wait Til’ My Bobby Gets Home” and many, many others. Others will recall that she’s Danny Glover’s wife in the four Lethal Weapon movies. But to Letterman fans, she’ll always be that amazing singer that came on every December and belted out “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” It was an annual tradition from 1986 to last year, when she graced us with one last rendition. Here’s a compilation of her singing the song numerous times throughout the years; the holiday season will seem quite lonely without it.