Darlene Love gets lots of offers around this time of year to belt out her well-worn Yuletide hit “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” made famous by its appearance on a 1963 album of holiday songs produced by the legendary Phil Spector. She has given serious consideration to just one for the last 28 years: David Letterman’s.
Next year, she will have to make new plans.
When Love (pictured above) sings her song on CBS’ “The Late Show” this Friday, she will be sounding a different kind of note. Letterman’s annual “Holiday Show” will mark the start of the durable latenight program’s farewell. Letterman has announced he will step down after CBS broadcasts its May 20 episode, which means that this Friday’s telecast will stand as “a real iconic moment,” said Bill Scheft, a writer who has been with Letterman since 1991, during a recent appearance on a panel at The Paley Center for Media.
There may be another Top Ten List, maybe even another Stupid Pet Trick, before May arrives. Love, however, will not hold forth like this again. It’s the first of many Letterman traditions, bits and standards that will not be repeated in years to come. “It’s going to be bittersweet,” said Love, in a recent interview. “A lot of families and people sit up at night and watch the David Letterman Christmas show. It really makes them feel good.”
Thanks to a series of shuffles in the time period – Jay Leno’s NBC farewell, Jimmy Fallon’s ascension to “Tonight,” Chelsea Handler’s decision to leave E!, Craig Ferguson’s looming departure from CBS’ “Late Late Show” and the announcement that Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert will succeed Letterman later next year – wee-hours viewers may feel that farewells are the norm for this much-scrutinized part of the television business. In fact, goodbyes have been rare. As a result, the audience more often than not doesn’t truly become aware of them until the days just before the host delivers his or her final monologue and conducts a few last interviews.
That is by design, said Rick Ludwin, the longtime NBC latenight chief who worked with Johnny Carson, Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon during his tenure. The looming end of a host’s tenure in latenight “is not business as usual, but certainly Johnny and I think Jay Leno, they wanted things to be normal. They didn’t want to do primetime specials. They didn’t want to try to make this into something more than it was. They wanted to entertain the audience in a way that audience had been expecting to be entertained for all of those years and they didn’t want any special bells and whistles to be added,” he said. “I expect the same thing will happen with Dave.”
Friday’s show may sound the start of a farewell arc, but viewers interested in the transition are not likely to show up until just a few days before it occurs, Ludwin suggested. Favorite guests will make a final return in coming weeks. Writers may take some well-worn sketches out of mothballs one last time. Ratings are likely to tick up now that the show’s final date has been announced, he said, and some viewers who have fallen out of the habit of watching the program will return to catch it anew, but the biggest crowd won’t show up until just days before Letterman bids adieu.
The host, Ludwin said, may feel freer than he has in some time. “All he has to do is sit back and have fun. He doesn’t have to pry something out of an actor or actress.”
For now, “Late Show” producers seem focused on this Friday’s event, which has a history all its own.
Paul Shaffer, the show’s longtime bandleader and sidekick, was playing Phil Spector in a tribute to the songwriting of Ellie Greenwich in a 1984 show at New York’s now-shuttered Bottom Line nightclub. One of the singers was Darlene Love. “The vocals of the show were on her shoulders. She was so strong,” Shaffer recalled in an interview. “I invited Dave to see the show and he came, and of course he loved the show and saw in her what I did.” Love was invited to do the song on NBC’s “Late Night” and followed Letterman to CBS when he started “The Late Show” in 1993.
Love’s “Late Show” appearances at holiday time have generated such response, she said, that she will not perform the song anywhere else during the season until she has sung it for Letterman. After she missed a performance one year because she got stuck in London, the show has made certain to book her well ahead of time, even when there are complexities involved. One year, “Late Show” producers had to get Love to New York from Chicago. Love said she assumes Letterman said something along the lines of “‘If Darlene can’t do the Christmas song, we’re not happy.’”
Over the years, Shaffer and the “CBS Orchestra” have incorporated a children’s chorus, a military chorale, a French horn, strings and more into Love’s performances, and this year’s turn under the lights has the bandleader feeling “reflective” and “nostalgic.” In an era of bleeps, wah-wahs and skronks produced by computers, Shaffer said, “The music is made here. We are using a live orchestra, and I hope that tradition doesn’t go away. I hope somebody picks it up.”
Love wonders who she will sing for in 2015. “Everyone tries to get me to sing the song on their show. I can’t sing it before I sing for Dave. I can’t do that,” she said. Next year, she will have to consider “first come, first serve.”
What will Letterman do at this time next year? That, said Ludwin, the former NBC executive, may be the biggest question of all. Jay Leno recently agreed to do a show about cars for CNBC, for example. Chelsea Handler has unveiled an agreement with Netflix. Even Johnny Carson, who more or less retreated from the public eye once his celebrated tenure on “Tonight” ended, contributed jokes for Letterman’s monologue on occasion.
“It’s hard to quit cold turkey,” Ludwin said. “You get accustomed to the grind of delivering comedy every night. There’s a lot to like about it. It’s tough for people to leave it and never return.” Until May 20, at least, Letterman’s fans will not have to wonder where the host will be.
Here’s a video of the host taking advantage of his final months in the Ed Sullivan Theater, entertaining the audience with a Q&A before a show.