Darlene Love and other traditions return to 'Letterman' (VIDEO)
Darlene Love, the Lone Ranger, and meatball target practice have all become holiday traditions on David Letterman's 'Late Show.'
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The story, too, is repeated each year. Thomas said he and Letterman have never discussed why it has become a tradition. It just has.Skip to next paragraph
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"It is the craziest thing I have ever been a part of," he said.
Thomas practices before each appearance, taking a football into Central Park and aiming at a particular tree branch.
Two years ago Letterman knocked off the meatball with his own throw before Thomas even came out onstage, leaving the comic — whose acting career has cooled — to moan in fake distress: "This is all I have!"
Last year Thomas needed a cortisone shot to make the show after he had injured his shoulder throwing a golf ball. "They're shooting me up like a racehorse to make $760 and hit a friggin' meatball," he said.
He's heard from plenty of people who look forward to his annual appearance, including a well-known Hollywood movie director. The power player, who Thomas wouldn't name, confessed that he's bipolar and often plays a recording of the holiday show when he's glum. Thomas is glad to cheer up the director. He'd like it even more if he could get an audition for one of the man's movies.
The Darlene Love tradition has deeper roots. Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer learned early on when he tried to play "Monster Mash" on Halloween that his boss isn't much into holiday music. But Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," originally recorded for the landmark 1963 holiday album "A Christmas Gift for You," is "the one place where his and my holiday tastes coincide," Shaffer said. "He loves the song."
Shaffer was performing with Love in Ellie Greenwich's musical "Leader of the Pack" in winter 1984 and Letterman came to see them. Shaffer isn't sure which man had the idea of inviting her on the show — then televised on NBC — but everyone was pleased with the results.
The first time, Shaffer accompanied Love with a quartet. As the years went on musicians were added to approximate original producer Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound," and upward of 20 musicians and singers have been onstage with Love.
Each year's twist involves how red-suited saxophone player Bruce Kapler will appear for his solo: One year he burst through a chimney. The widow of famed sax session player Steve Douglas, who played on the original "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" recording, sold Shaffer the horn used on that session, and Kapler borrows it each year for Love's appearance.
Letterman's staff has a real emotional connection to the song, enhanced with the passage of time, Burnett said.
"Every year there's a moment in the song, where she is hitting it full blast and the confetti comes down, just about every staff member — even the toughest stagehand — you can see just choking it back," he said.
All of it — the football, the meatball, the anecdote and the song — make for an odd mix. But Letterman can be an odd man.
"If Dave didn't enjoy it, it wouldn't be on TV," Burnett said.