Bruce Springsteen – “Glory Days” (June 1993)
In 1993, Letterman was infamously (and arguably unceremoniously) passed up as the successor of Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show. On his last show on NBC before his move to CBS, Letterman finally booked the one musical guest he was never able to get: Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen gave Letterman a top-notch sendoff, and famously climbed up on Paul Shaffer’s keyboard for a guitar solo.
Pulp – “Common People” (April 1996)
Over the past few years, a great Letterman performance by a semi-unknown band can make them stars on the internet. However, in 1996 the internet was still nascent and thus this amazing performance became another example of America passing Pulp by, despite them being arguably the most musically talented group of the entire Britpop thing. This performance is very similar to the breakthrough performance of Future Islands nearly 18 years later: a singer that dominates the stage like a superstar, a tight band, an incredible pop anthem. And yet, not many of the alternative nation kids watching drove to their record store the next day to demand a copy of Different Class like they should have. A bit of a shame, as this stretch of 1996 was the one time that Pulp aggressively tried to market themselves in America. What could have been, indeed.
Foo Fighters – “Everlong” (February 2000)
A bit of a gimme, right? On his first show back from life-saving heart surgery, Letterman asked Foo Fighters to perform “Everlong,” preferencing the now-iconic performance as “my favorite band performing my favorite song.” Prefacing this 2011 internet performance, Letterman said of “Everlong” that “because of my condition, and coming back to the show after the heart surgery, the song has always meant something incredibly personal and intimate and important to me and to my family.” The band has, in total, performed the song four times on Letterman’s stage (two television performances, two internet exclusives) and he’s had the band appear countless times since and will be his musical guest on his final episode. You can probably guess what song they’re playing.
At the Drive-In – “One Armed Scissor” (2001)
For as much as Letterman has made his program a showcase for incredible music performances, sometimes he doesn’t know what hit him. There are several clips on the internet of El Paso’s At the Drive-In performing this song on various late night programs throughout 2000 and 2001 and all of them are frantic, kinetic and incredible (here’s the famous one, on Later with Jools Holland). The Letterman one is a little less messy than some of the others, but is just as amazing. However, Letterman allegedly told the band after the program to “not quit their day jobs” or something to that effect. To this day, no one exactly knows the truth, nor if the remark was intended to be sincere. The band broke up later in 2001 – at the height of their powers – due to internal friction.