David Letterman Uses Last Days to Strike New Chord With Music

Analysis: By enlisting bands to play songs with great personal meaning, Letterman innovates once more before stepping down

David Letterman Special
Courtesy of CBS

 This is the sound of David Letterman retiring.

Over the last few weeks, viewers of the veteran latenight host’s “Late Show” on CBS have been treated to a series of once-in-a-lifetime musical moments: John Mayer crooning Don McLean’s “American Pie”; Tracy Chapman doing a stark rendition of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”; John Fogerty doing a punky mashup of his Creedence Clearwater Revival hits; and an enigmatic Bob Dylan crooning the standard “The Night We Called It a Day,” an appropriate shout-out to a TV figure who will make his last “Late Show” appearance during a late-afternoon taping Wednesday. And, in a nod to Letterman’s stated fondness for acerbic songwriter Warren Zevon, the show has in its final days featured a rendition of “Mutineer” by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires and a digital-only take on “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” by Dawes.

All the big latenight shows host musicians and bands eager to tout their latest single or album. In this case, however, according to music publicists and other representatives of the artists who have appeared, Letterman himself is in many cases calling the tune — with intriguing results.

Brandi Carlile, a roots-music singer with a distinctive voice, turned up on “The Late Show” May 4 to accompany the Avett Brothers on a rendition of “Keep on the Sunny Side,” a slice of Americana made popular by the Carter Family. Letterman requested the tune and had booked the Avetts to sing it, said Amanda Perlstein of Shore Fire Media, a publicity firm that works with Carlile. But he also wanted a female vocalist to accompany the group, she said. Shore Fire had pitched Carlile — whose new album, “The Firewatchers’ Daughter,” recently went on sale — and “Late Show” music producer Sheryl Zelikson made a call to enlist her for the effort, she said.

Letterman was also instrumental in the selection of Isbell and Shires. “Jason and Amanda had started playing ‘Mutineer’ at shows,” explained Traci Thomas, Isbell’s manager, “and Dave must have seen one of the clips on YouTube and asked if they would play it for one of his final shows.” The request was relayed to Isbell’s representatives by Zelikson, she said. Zelikson declined to comment, according to a CBS spokeswoman for “The Late Show.”

Music is an integral element of much of the wee-hours programming offered by the nation’s big broadcast networks. At NBC, Jimmy Fallon has roped guests like Robin Thicke into performing hits using only toy instruments and the finesse of his house band, the Roots. At ABC, Jimmy Kimmel has put on spectacular mini-concerts featuring Van Halen and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Much of this, however, is done in the service of the artist or band promoting a new release. By prevailing upon musical guests to play songs that highlight his personal tastes or nod to the program’s end, Letterman may have hit upon a new twist on an old wee-hours staple — curating music to illustrate a theme or personal feeling — just before he leaves the genre behind.

Letterman has intertwined himself with music for decades. One of the standout elements at “Late Night,” the NBC program he hosted between 1982 and 1993, was the World’s Most Dangerous Band, a rocking four-person combo led by Paul Shaffer that proved adept at handling nearly every kind of sound the show might require. Guitarist Sid McGinnis, bassist Will Lee and drummer Anton Fig formed the nucleus of a band that would be renamed the CBS Orchestra when Letterman moved to CBS in 1993.

The host has taken the unusual step of holding in-depth interviews with some of his favorite artists. Letterman’s support of Zevon over the years has been stirring. The musician, best known for rough-and-tumble songs examining the underbelly of life on the sunny West Coast like “Excitable Boy” or “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” often substituted as bandleader for Letterman’s program when Shaffer was absent. After Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in 2002, Letterman featured him as the sole guest for an entire episode. When Zevon passed away in 2003, Letterman replayed one of his performances from that program — “Mutineer,” to be exact.

Letterman has also used his show’s recent musical selections to face some hard truths about what happens after the curtain falls for the last time. In late April, John Mellencamp appeared and sang “Longest Days,” a mediation on age from his 2008 album “Life, Death, Love and Freedom.” The song’s final stanzas offer a bracing reminder of what the end of an era can mean, and perhaps some insight as to why Letterman has decided to step down:

All I got here is a rear view mirror

Reflections of where I’ve been

So you tell yourself I’ll be back up on top some day

But you know there’s nothing waiting up there for you anyway

Nothing lasts forever

And your best efforts don’t always pay

Sometimes you get sick and you don’t get better

That’s when life is short even in its longest days

Life is short even in its longest days