From their beginnings as Late Night on NBC in 1982, to their end as the Late Show in 2015, David Letterman’s network talk show years were reliable guides for those who shared his distinctive musical tastes. His impeccable house band was legendary, and he developed an abiding love for the Foo Fighters in later years, who played him out on his last show over an emotional montage.
Other standout musical guests tended toward the more off-kilter. Frank Zappa and outsider singer-songwriter Warren Zevon were clear favorites, their wry humor rivaling Letterman’s own. Zevon may not have sold out stadiums but made a perfect musical foil for the host, even sitting in once for Paul Shaffer.
“When it comes to music,” said Letterman, introducing Zevon, “there’s just a handful of folks that I really love and adore.” Second only to Zevon was another songwriter with an even more vaudevillian sensibility: Tom Waits, who made his debut on Late Night in 1983 and came back every few years until one of Letterman’s final shows on May 14, 2015.
At the top, you can catch Waits’ debut appearance, promoting Swordfishtrombones and doing his very Bukowski-like spoken word bit “Frank’s Wild Years” and “On the Nickel,” from a little-known 1980 skid-row themed film. In-between performances, Waits proves himself an old hand at banter, his sandpaper-on-asphalt voice making him sound twice as old as his tender 34 years at the time.
Waits returned for a second time in 1986. Further up, see his third appearance the following year, promoting the Frank’s Wild Years, the album, a collection of songs written by Waits, his wife Kathleen Brennan, and bassist Greg Cohen for a play of the same name. (He was also coming off the production of Ironweed, in which he starred with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.) Just above, see Waits on the Late Show in 1999 performing “Chocolate Jesus,” a “song for those of you in the audience,” he says, “who have trouble getting up on Sunday mornings and going to church.”
Waits came back again in 2002 and 2004. In 2006, he released his massive, three-disc Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, which covered all of the musical territory he had explored over his long career, and then some. Just above, see him do “Lie to Me,” a classic jazz-blues stomper and high contrast to his final appearance on Letterman, below.
Waits released his last album, Bad as Me in 2011, and appeared on the show the next year. Though he’s been active since then, with acting roles and a collaboration with Keith Richards in 2013, he hasn’t released any new original music yet save a moving new song, “One Last Look,” performed exclusively on that 2015 appearance after his last interview with Letterman (and an interloping George Clooney).
Despite Letterman’s retirement announcement after the end of his Late Show run, we’ve seen him return to the small screen to do what he does best on his Netflix show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Let’s hope we haven’t also heard the last of Tom Waits. Maybe Letterman will have him on again soon to promote yet another brilliant record of the music only Tom Waits can make.