David Letterman’s reign as host of The Late Show ends in May 2015—and Friday marks his last holiday broadcast. Which means the episode will also be the last one to feature Darlene Love singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Love first performed the song on Letterman’s show in 1986, when he was still hosting Late Night on NBC. 28 years later, the tradition is still going strong…until the end of the week, at least.
In advance of the performance, EW talks to the vocalist about the origins of the tradition, the end of an era, and why the song won’t be leaving TV for good.
Leading up to the performance, how do you feel?
It has been like a love fest between the David Letterman show, Paul Shaffer, and myself. I made a pact with me that I was not going to sing this song for anybody but David, because after about 14-15 years everyone else started wanting me. One year, the White House called, and I said, “Oh gosh, I really want to sing this at the White House.” So I called David and I said, “David, the White House wants me to sing ‘Christmas (Baby),’ do you mind?” He said, “I would never stop you from singing it there.” As fate would have it, something happened that year. I don’t even know what happened, but I didn’t get a chance to go and sing that song at the White House. I sing that song just on the David Letterman show, and let’s see how many people want me to sing it after I stop singing it for David.
I do it in my Christmas show every year anyway. But I just won’t sing that song on another national television show. In fact, I won’t even do it on a local show. It has become really, really special. People stop me on the street and even in my show and say, “We’ll be waiting to hear you sing ‘Christmas (Baby)’ on David” because, you know, Christmas doesn’t start until he hears me sing this song. [David] kind of started this thing around the country. I wouldn’t dare take that away from him.
You first started singing the song in 1986. The performance was a lot more low-key than it is now.
Oh yeah. It was so funny. When we did the 25th year, Paul Shaffer showed us the very first one we did. I went, my God, have times changed—because it was just me, Paul Shaffer and his little band. But who knew it was going to grow to this?
How did it start?
I was doing a show at the Bottom Line in New York City called Leader of the Pack with Paul Shaffer. So one night he asked David to come down and see the show. On the show the next night, David tells Paul, “Are you still doing that show down at the Bottom Line?” And Paul said yes. And he said, “Well, you know that song that that girl sings? That Christmas song? That’s the greatest Christmas song I’ve ever heard. We need to get her on the show.” I thought it was going to be a one-time-only thing. It happened year after year after year. That it was amazing that it kept going and kept growing.
And the tradition grew. That’s the reason I became so loyal. You don’t want to know the people who came to me and asked me to sing that song after I started doing it on his show. It was unfair to David to sing it somewhere else, especially when the tradition got growing so big.
Was there a specific year you realized what a big deal it’d become?
They would call me too late a lot of times. They would like, call me a week before, and I would say, “Well, I’m sorry, I’m busy. You guys have to give me more notice.” But I would still go and do it even when it was at the last minute. But then they started calling me a year in advance. Because they have a program, and they know when that show is going to air. It’s always the last show of the season. So they got to where they call me six months in advance, a year in advance.
I think about the fifth or sixth year it became a tradition. When they started calling me so early. I actually told them, “You’re going to make this a tradition, right?” And they said, “Yes. David loves you. He says if we’re not having you on the show we’re not doing a Christmas show.” I went, well, all right. From that time until this time, we have made sure the week of Christmas that we are available for the David Letterman show.
Do you have memories from particular performances that stand out as your favorite?
I remember the first one because it was so unique. It was just the band, Paul Shaffer, and me. Paul Shaffer is such a great musician that he can make that piano and that organ sound like a whole orchestra. After a while Paul just says, “Well, we have to do something different.”
The first one sticks out because I remember how my hair was fixed. I thought I was fine with this ponytail. After that they just got bigger and bigger. They never got smaller. One year there were so many of us onstage, even David said, “Well, hell, who’s paying for all of this?” I said, “You are, buddy.” I have no idea what they’re going to do [this year], but from what I understand they’re even moving the set where David Letterman sits. It’s going to be big. Maybe they are going to have dancing girls! What do I know?
Does Paul come up with concepts for the number and talk with you about them? Do you talk back and forth?
Not at all. All he does with me is get the key. He finds out what kind of voice I’m in, how I’m feeling. Because when I’m working, my voice normally isn’t as high as it is if I’m not doing anything. He calls me “doll,” and he got that from me working with Phil Spector. Phil Spector always called me “doll,” so Paul started calling me “doll.”
I think he only changed that key maybe three or four times in the 28 years we’ve been doing the show. That’s kind of an unbelievable record. The first couple of times I did it, I did it in the original key. I told Paul, “One day, you’ve got to lower this thing.” Over the years he’s lowered it and put [it] back together and lowered it and put it back together. His whole thing is you don’t really see how hard he works at putting this song together. He has the choir come in early in the morning and rehearse this song like they’ve never sung it before. Makes them sing their parts. Then he gets with the band, and he rehearses them and makes sure they’ve got their parts and they are doing it right. It’s really amazing. He really, really does work hard at getting this right. It’s like it’s the first time he’s ever done it, every time we do it. And we have calls from all over the world, not just the country—”how do you do this better every time?” We don’t really have an answer for them except that we strive to make it better every time we do it.
Your original version came out in 1963, for A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. What has doing it on Letterman meant for you, and meant for the song?
It was the one original song on the Christmas album, and I had no idea it was going to really do anything. I knew at the time when we recorded it it was a great song, but a Christmas song then a hit? That doesn’t happen. Bing Crosby had “White Christmas” a million years ago. That was a big Christmas hit. I’m not saying it’s as big as “White Christmas,” but people put it up there. It’s like everybody has now started to do it in their Christmas shows, and everybody has started to do it on their television shows and in their live shows. It’s becoming the song to do. And that makes me proud, that I was the original person that recorded it.
What do you think it will be like for you when you perform it on Letterman this year, given that it’s his last holiday special?
I’m really trying not to think about it. When I think about it, I really do get a little emotional. And David always comes over and gives me the biggest hug. People can’t see what I see when he’s hugging me, and looking at me in the eye, and whispering in my ear telling me thanks for coming. That means more than anything, because I don’t have to be there and he does not have to have me there. It’s kind of a bond that we have that’s really unspoken, and I think those are the best kinds. I’m hoping that really doesn’t happen—[that I don’t] break down like I did at the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. But it’s going to be a joyful time. It’s tears of joy. It doesn’t have to do with being sad because it’s over because everything comes to an end.
Stephen Colbert is going to come in and take over The Late Show. Can anyone persuade you to bring the song back to TV?
Everybody asks me that question, but it won’t be the same without Paul Shaffer. That’s who actually makes it that good. I don’t think anyone would care to do it as good as Paul Shaffer does, make it better every year. Paul Shaffer, [it] is almost like he was one of the original musicians on that record. That’s how he takes care of that song. I don’t think nobody is going to want to pay that kind of money. We have sometimes 30 or 40 people on stage. They just give Paul carte blanche for that night. That’s the only time he gets away with that. If it’s going to be a repeat of it, I don’t think so.
I think I’m going to start doing that on other shows, and I guarantee you they’ll say, “This is the song she did for 28 years on the David Letterman show.” I don’t really want to start another show like that. Once I get with a show that wants to keep me on it, then I’m stuck. I won’t be able to do it on other shows. I don’t want to happen that again.
But you would do “Christmas (Baby)” on other TV shows that might ask you?
Oh, yeah. Sure, of course. I will not allow them to say, “Well, you can only do it for us.” That day will be over with the David Letterman show. First come, first serve. If I do it on four or five shows, I do it on four five shows.
So it won’t belong to any show?
No. It will be mine.