When one thinks about David Letterman and music, the first person to come to mind is Paul Shaffer. The musical director and bandleader, himself a Hollywood veteran, plays the affable yet acerbic foil to Dave's dry sarcasm, playing guests in and out of every commercial break and through the credits five nights a week. In between the music, Shaffer has stood behind his keyboards, hugging himself while wearing sunglasses and quipping back and forth with Dave.
But beyond the lengthy tenure of Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band (later dubbed the CBS Orchestra), Letterman’s musical legacy is more broadly defined by the artists and bands he’s had perform as guests over the last 33 years.
When it debuted in 1982, Late Night with David Letterman was a forum for great new artists and established ones going through some weird streaks in their careers—you weren’t going to see Captain Beefheart on the couch with Johnny Carson. This didn’t change with Letterman’s earlier time slot, larger audience, and advancing age when he went to CBS to host Late Show with David Letterman in 1993.
Letterman, for his part, genuinely seems to enjoy it all; even as, from his vantage point, the past three decades must feel like a parade of music that came and went. So here, in chronological order (Dave’s Top Ten Lists have never really been ranked anyway), from the home office in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, is tonight’s Top Ten List.