A Christmas tradition

In his 33 years hosting a late night talk program – first at NBC as Late Night with David Letterman and then at CBS with Late Show with David Letterman – Letterman became quite well-known for certain recurring bits on his show. There were stunts like stupid pet tricks, the monkey cam, his velcro suit, and just hurling assorted stuff off a building. As well there were long-time reappearing characters such as Chris Elliott, Biff Henderson, Larry “Bud” Melman, and even his mom. Not one of them lasted as long as this one: Darlene Love.

In 1986, just four years into his original run, Love came to Letterman’s attention when he saw her in the Broadway musical Leader of the Pack. Shortly thereafter he asked her to appear on his show near Christmas-time to perform her song ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),’ a tune originally recorded in 1963 as part of the seasonal compilation album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Apparently Dave liked how it went. Love was invited back, and would go on to appear annually on the final episode before Christmas for 29 straight years (she actually performed the song 28 times in all, the exception being in 2007 when Love was unable to take part due to a writer’s strike, and a repeat of her 2006 rendition was shown instead).

Good things don’t only come in small packages

At first it was just a basic performance with Paul Shaffer and his 4-piece house band. But over time the presentations got bigger and the staging became grander; certain years saw her being augmented by a string section or choir, and the featured saxophone soloist made entrances on a sleigh “flying” from the rafters or inside a giant snow globe. Still, her rendering on December 19th, 2014 had to be the most spectacular of them all. It was known that this would be Love’s last appearance as Letterman had already announced his retirement from hosting the show. Anticipation and publicity for this final occasion actually led to Love’s original version of the half-century-old song reappearing on the Billboard charts. The enormity of the moment was not lost on Love and Shaffer, who attempted the seemingly-impossible: reproducing the renowned Phil Spector-like “wall of sound” – historically accomplished in the studio with endless multi-tracking and massive overdubs – in a live performance setting.

The more the merrier

An elaborate army of musicians – string section, horn section, percussionists and more – were amassed, all appropriately decked out for the occasion in formal wear. I tried, but I really can’t count them all. I mean, the back-up singers literally had back-up singers. 20? 30? I don’t know. But it’s got to be right up there for the most musicians ever crammed onto Letterman’s tiny stage. And in a regal-looking red gown, Love majestically delivered her seasonal classic, belting it out as she had so many times before, and as only she can. How special should her colossal voice be considered? Steven Van Zandt, producer of an album released one year later for the then 73-year-old legend (ironically titled Introducing Darlene Love) called her simply “the greatest female singer of all time.”

An ascendant figure

Midway through the tune, as attention was momentarily focused on the baritone sax break, Love strolled briefly out of view and reappeared atop Shaffer’s piano – he did not seem to expect it, as he broke into a wide grin, removing his hands from the keys to point excitedly at her – where she stayed throughout the remainder of the number (as well as its usual reprise). Beyond simply emphasizing her statuesque presence, there was apparently a particular reason for her choice of re-staging: in an effort to avoid breaking down in tears, as she knew she would if Letterman hugged her at the song’s conclusion, she had ascended the piano expecting (correctly) that he would not follow her up there.

Merry Christmas with Love from David

David Letterman was famously innovative throughout his storied career, often finding unexpected edginess by inverting the talk show format itself. But amidst his genre-mocking deconstructions always remained a dogmatic adherence to what Time magazine called his “rigorous formalism,” repetitive ceremonies and conventions like might also be said of the best holiday traditions. By creating the almost comically large Spector-worthy conglomeration that culminated a decades-long musical and television ritual, David Letterman and Darlene Love were able to wondrously marry the two. For 29 Christmases they’d given us the same gift every year, a modern-day tradition that lit spirits and etched a spot atop two important indexes: Santa’s “nice” list and everyone else’s “Top Ten.”

And an amazing supercut of Love’s Letterman Show performances over the years