Darlene Love‘s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” performance has been an annual yuletide tradition on David Letterman’s late night shows for nearly 30 years. But with Letterman set to retire in May 2015, Love visited the Late Show one final time to sing her classic from A Christmas Gift for You, Rolling Stone’s Greatest Christmas Album of All Time.
The tradition began in 1986 when Love first performed “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on Letterman’s Late Night program on NBC, and while a small four-piece band backed the “He’s a Rebel” singer for that rendition, the size of the performances have increased throughout the years, with 2014’s version of the 1963 Christmas favorite one of the largest ensembles yet: Nearly a dozen backup singers, strings, a horn section and Love – still sounding as vibrant as she did in 1986 – all recreating the track’s Wall of Sound production.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer delivers her penultimate verse atop band leader Paul Shaffer’s piano and stays up for the remainder of the segment. The move was triumphant, poignant and strategic: Love would later reveal to the New York Times that she hopped up there to avoid embracing Letterman during the performance, because she was concerned she’d break down in tears; the two just shake hands instead.
Don’t expect the new Late Show host Stephen Colbert to keep this holiday tradition alive: Love also told the newspaper that she’d never perform “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on television again after Letterman’s retirement. “People say, ‘[Letterman] can’t demand that,'” Love said. “I say, ‘He’s not demanding.’ I made a point myself, and I want to do it just for David.”
Earlier in the week, the Late Show posted a montage of Love’s Christmas performances for Letterman over the years. “One thing about Mr. Letterman – he hates Christmas and holiday novelty songs,” Shaffer told the New York Times. “I could never play ‘Monster Mash’ on Halloween.” However, Letterman approved of Love’s song “because of Darlene’s soul.”