With recent changes announced in the late night talk show landscape, we figured this is a good time to look back at what was, and forever will be, the greatest late night program of its kind in this or any other world: NBC's Late Night with David Letterman.
From 1982 to 1993, every rule about television was spun on its head by the Indiana-bred New Yorker and his young staff of comedy writers. In addition to the groundbreaking routines and counter-cultural spirit, there was an added benefit—outstanding musical guests.
The house band, known as The World's Most Dangerous Band, was led, as Letterman's CBS Orchestra still is today, by Paul Shaffer. Shaffer, a vet from SNL and musical director of the Blues Brothers, was a versatile keyboard player who insisted that his band accompany the musical guest whenever possible.
The original band featured Steve Jordan on drums, who was recruited away by none other than Keith Richards. Replacement drummer Anton Fig has stayed with the group ever since. Sid McGuinnes replaced noted jazz/funk guitarist Hiram Bullock after a year and has also stayed on, and bassist Will Lee has been on board as long as Shaffer.
Since most of these programs are not yet commercially available, we have to rely on those who not only had the foresight to tape these shows when they were broadcast, but have the generosity of spirit to upload them to YouTube.
After much careful research, we found the 11 best musical performances of the old Letterman show on YouTube.
1. June 24, 1982: Ted Nugent, “Improvised Blues Jam”
Before he was a talk radio pest taking the “madman” part of Motor City Madman seriously, Ted Nugent was a great guitarist. If you skip ahead to the 5:20 mark of the couch interview (which unfortunately isn't embeddable) you'll see what made the original Letterman show so great. While still seated (and with his legs crossed) Nugent tears into a blazing blues, communing telepathically with Shaffer as he directs the band. Keep in mind these guys had maybe ten minutes to rehearse. They all make it look easy.
Bonus: Here's Ted and Dave singing Christmas carols on December 25, 1987:
2. July 12, 1982: James Brown, “There Was A Time/Sex Machine/Cold Sweat”
This may very well be the greatest musical guest performance in the history of television. Check out the shots of the audience just going nuts. Paul Shaffer very much takes a back seat and lets the Hardest Working Man in Show Business call the shots. James Brown does the camel walk, gets up and does his thing, and heads backstage while the beat is still going. If you are able to watch this entire recording without getting up to dance you may in fact be dead. (In which case you can stop reading.)
3. July 8, 1983: Talking Heads, “I Zimbra”
Not the clearest recording, but we'll take what we can get. This was the same iteration of Talking Heads that was filmed by Jonathan Demme for “Stop Making Sense.” In the back is keyboardist Bernie Worrell (formerly of Parliament-Funkadelic) who would join Shaffer's band for a stretch during the early CBS years. David Byrne's dance moves are still about 25 years from the future.
Also on the show this night, Grace Jones and Brother Theodore. If you don't know who Brother Theodore is, please, look him up.
4. October 6, 1983: R.E.M., “So. Central Rain”
During R.E.M.'s first television performance, Michael Stipe was so nervous he opted out of all host banter, leaving that to Peter Buck and Mike Mills. “So. Central Rain” was such a new song it didn't even yet have a name.
5. March 22, 1984: Bob Dylan, “Jokerman”
In the 80s, Bob Dylan was weird. His 1983 album Infidels was a bit of a return to form and his catchy tune “Jokerman” was something of a minor hit. When it came time to promote it, he couldn't do anything the easy way. For this one performance on Letterman (where he refused to be interviewed) he was accompanied by the unknown LA new wave group The Plugz. This arrangement of “Jokerman,” while interesting, is quite far removed from the agreeable tune on the Infidels album.
Dylan played two other tunes that night—“License to Kill” and a Sonny Boy Williamson tune called “Don't Start Me Talking.” The punchline? The other guest that night was Liberace.
6. November 13, 1987: Sonny & Cher, “I Got You Babe”
Dave had a great relationship with Cher (back in the day when there wasn't too much bleeping going on on television, she called him an a**hole), so it was on Late Night where the final reunion with Sonny Bono occurred. This performance of “I Got You Babe” doesn't sound too well rehearsed, but that's part of the charm.
7. October 1, 1987: Les Paul, “The Sheik of Araby”
Les Paul, more or less the inventor of the electric guitar, was a New York staple for decades. He played a weekly gig in nightclubs pretty much up until he died in 2009 at the age of 94. During the post-performance interview in this clip he tells Dave that he did another broadcast on that very stage in 1936.
8. November 25, 1986: Robert Cray, “Smoking Gun”
If you are under the age of 30, you've probably never heard of Robert Cray. Do what you can to correct that. He was great, he still is great. This was the first time he ever appeared on television. He was probably a little nervous because he screws up the opening line.
9. June 26, 1987: Suzanne Vega, “Luka”
I can't tell you why Dave is humming along so loudly in a mocking tone at the beginning, but Shaffer and Vega just play through the opening again and pretend it doesn't happen. This is a great performance of a very sad song, and, in ways that I find hard to express, accurately captures absolutely everything about June of 1987.
10. December 11, 1987: Miles Davis, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”
Okay, this isn't exactly the most energetic video on this list, but it surely wins a lot of points for doing its own thing. Where do you see something like this on network television anymore?
11. June 25, 1993: Bruce Springsteen, “Glory Days”
When Letterman left NBC, it's a surprise he didn't take a match to the place. The much publicized acrimony with top brass was the juiciest bit of Hollywood business gossip in years. His final show featured a hilarious Tom Hanks as couch guest and Springsteen with the band to play him off. Frequent World's Most Dangerous Band guest David Sanborn accompanied on sax. The show ran late, delaying the evening news, as a final middle finger. The song just doesn't want to end.