By EW Staff
Updated March 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

David Letterman keeps his studio so cold that balding straight man Paul Shaffer wears a blue ski jacket to rehearsal. But Pete Droge, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter who’s making his Late Show debut tonight, is accustomed to severe conditions. ”All the places I’ve ever rehearsed have been freezing,” Droge says good-naturedly, lounging in a sixth-floor dressing room. At that, the boyish figure fetal-balled into the chair opposite Droge looks over. ”Yeah,” Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard drawls sarcastically. ”Everything I’ve ever done has prepared me for this moment.” Gossard’s gibe hides a grain of truth. A spot on any of the late-night talk shows-and Letterman’s, with its 6 million viewers, in particular-can move more units than weeks of radio play; Hootie & the Blowfish jumped from No. 11 to No. 7 on the pop chart after their Late Show appearance (a 29 percent sales jump). So, if not rock’s holy grail, one of Letterman’s roughly 325 guest spots per year is certainly a coveted goal for baby bands. Of course, Droge didn’t design his brief career with Dave in mind. Raised just outside Seattle, he found that his Jet City connections played more of an economic than a stylistic role: Longtime friend and Pearl Jam guitarist Mike ^ McCready produced his demo and recommended it to producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots); O’Brien signed him to American and produced his critically acclaimed debut, Necktie Second, in 1993. The album made some inroads on Triple A and college radio, but it wasn’t until Droge’s second single, ”If You Don’t Love Me (I’ll Kill Myself),” appeared on the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack that VH1 and MTV programmed him. (VH1, in fact, would up that video from Specialty to Medium rotation after the Letterman show.) Considering that Necktie Second hasn’t even cracked the Billboard 200 yet, Droge probably wouldn’t have qualified for the Late Show without D and D’s success. But he’s here, and he’s cool, if not entirely calm and collected. Fortunately, Droge has little time to reflect on his butterflies: He and his seven-person entourage get half an hour to sample the dressing room stockpiles (pretzels, chips, Coke, beer, coffee) before their goose-bumpy rehearsal. Synchronizing the a cappella refrain ”If you don’t love-a me” with Shaffer takes nearly an hour (Paul: ”So, that sound you’re making is ‘anh anh’?” Pete: ”It’s all up here (pinching his nose). ‘Unh!”’). A conference with the soundman, another full-dress run-through, and Droge rejoins his posse upstairs. ”It’s beer o’clock!” Droge announces, hooking a Sam Adams and settling in to watch the taping. After popping downstairs for a touch-up (”Would you like me to fill that in?” the makeup artist kindly asks of Droge’s struggling mustache), the singer and his two backup musicians-guitarist Jeff Trott and singer Elaine Summers- get their five-minute warning. The trio finally descend to the green room (which is actually beige), and Droge leans against the door, humming ”me may my mo meeee” over and over to clear his throat. Three-and-a-half minutes and a handshake from Dave later, and Droge’s debut is over. ”God, it went by like that!” exclaims the singer, reaching for another Sam Adams after returning to the sixth floor. ”But I guess it’s like all shows: You spend 23 hours basically preparing for 40 minutes. This is just on a different scale.”