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A look back - Bob Dylan's appearances on David Letterman’s talk shows

David Michael Letterman has been a fixture on American late night television since 1982, and recently announced he would retire in 2015. Below we take a look back at Bob Dylan’s appearances on Letterman's talk shows, collecting, updating, and expanding articles I wrote a few years back.

Dylan on Letterman, 1984
NBC/Late Night with David Letterman

Dylan performed on Letterman's show three times -NBC's Late Night with David Letterman on March 22, 1984, a 10th anniversary special on January 18, 1992 , and CBS's Late Show with David Letterman on November 18, 1993 . Dylan also made a cameo appearance on October 20, 1994 while rehearsing for a gig at Roseland.

For his Letterman debut, Dylan was backed by J.J. Holliday (a.k.a. Justin Poskin and Justin Jesting) on guitar, Tony Marsico on bass, and Charlie Quintana (a.k.a. Chalo Quintana) on drums. Marsico and Quintana were in the band The Plugz, which later morphed into the Cruzados. In late 1983 and early 1984, Dylan reportedly rehearsed with Marsico, future Cruzado Steve Hufsteter, and, at later sessions, Holliday, among others. Quintana was recruited by Dylan about a week before the Letterman appearance. Future Dylan guitarist Charlie Sexton also briefly participated around this time.

According to Olof Bjorner, the quartet practiced at Dylan's Malibu home on March 21, 1984, although Clinton Heylin stated that the rehearsals occurred in New York, which would make more sense. Maybe Dylan reheased in Malibu on an earlier date? Quintana was quoted as saying that the quartet loosely rehearsed dozens of songs the band didn't know, and did not work out any endings. Attempted songs included Hank Williams' "Lost On The River," "We Three (My Echo, My Shadow And Me)," a hit for Frank Sinatra and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, "Jokerman," "Don't Start Me Talkin'" by Sonny Boy Williamson II, "Saved," and a couple of unidentified songs. Other possible titles rehearsed include "My Guy," "Just One Look," "Who Loves You More," "Lonely Dreamer," "Back in My Arms Again," "Johnny Too Bad," "A Woman Will Give You The Blues," "Shake," "Baby I Do," and "Mary Lou." Backup vocal duties were probably handled by Clydie King.

The following day, Dylan and his backing band arrived at NBC Studios, in Rockefeller Center, New York City. The afternoon rehearsal was videotaped. The songs performed were:

  • 1. I Once Knew A Man
  • 2. Jokerman
  • 3. License To Kill
  • 4. Treat Her Right (by Roy Head)
  • 5. My Guy (by Smokey Robinson)

Late Night with David Letterman had only been on the air a couple of years when Dylan was booked as a musical guest in 1984, so it was quite a coup to get him to appear. The show aired following The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, in the early hours of March 23, but the actual show was taped around dinner time on March 22. The other guest that evening was the flamboyant pianist Liberace, there for a cooking demonstration.

Letterman and his sidekick and bandleader Paul Shaffer were almost giddy with excitement. Shaffer in particular was hysterical in his faux showbiz mode, exclaiming, “What a night! Liberace cooking? In my book, that cat always cooks. And Dylan—I’m shocked. I was listening to him in rehearsal . . .(pause) . . . Did you know he went electric?” Shaffer also mentioned he had secretly been playing along with the band during rehearsals. Letterman chided him not to screw things up. Soon after this appearance, Shaffer and members of his band would accompany just about every act that appeared.

Shaffer wrote about Dylan's appearance in his memoir, We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives (Doubleday). After the show, Shaffer went to see Dylan, who was unresponsive at first. From the book:

“When you sang Roy Head’s ‘Treat Her Right’ in rehearsal today, Bob, it sounded just great. I wish you’d record it.”

Finally Bob looked me in the eyes. I’d obviously made a connection.

“Paul, do you think you could introduce me to Larry ‘Bud’ Melman?” he asked, referring to the lovable nerd who was a running character on our show.

I thought Dylan was kidding.

But he wasn’t.

This television appearance is often cited as one of Dylan's best. It certainly was one of his most exciting. The report before the show was that Dylan would perform two, or possibly three, songs, depending on how things went. He started with a blistering, animated version of "Don't Start Me Talkin'." Afterward, Letterman gingerly said, "Bob Dylan .... Very impressive ... Mr. Dylan and the band ... you will be back ... perhaps two more songs?" Dylan paused a moment, nodded, and said, "Okay." Letterman joked, "I'm almost sure it's gonna happen." Dylan returned to sing "Licence to Kill," and then "Jokerman." You can tell Letterman was apprehensive, but by the end it was obvious Dylan was pleased, even if he picked the wrong harmonica for “Jokerman." Letterman asked if Dylan could appear every Thursday, to which Dylan kiddingly agreed.

Soon after the appearance, I bumped into Eddie Gorodetsky in a Greenwich Village record store called It's Only Rock and Roll. I knew of him from his days as a DJ in Boston. He had been a writer for Saturday Night Live, and was working for Letterman at the time. I asked him what Dylan was like. "He's a very private man," was his reply.

Gorodetsky was soon in Dylan's inner circle. He wrote the liner notes for the 1991 Rhino compilation, I Shall Be Unreleased: The Songs Of Bob Dylan. Dylan was responsible for releasing one of Gorodetsky's legendary Christmas CDs in the early 1990s. Dylan made a cameo appearance on the sitcom, Dharma & Greg, in 1999, when Gorodetsky was a writer for the show. Gorodetsky then appeared with Dylan in the "Love & Theft" TV commercial and the movie Masked & Anonymous. Gorodetsky was also thanked in the credits for No Direction Home. Gorodetsky not only produced Theme Time Radio Hour with Your Host Bob Dylan, appearing (allegedly) on-air as "Pierre Mancini", but is often cited to have at least as much input into the series as Dylan, if not more.

The next time Bob Dylan appeared on television with David Letterman, it was in prime time. The occasion was a 10th anniversary special edition of Late Night, broadcast February 6, 1992, on NBC.

The show was taped a few weeks earlier on Saturday, January 18, at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Dylan appeared with an eclectic, all-star ensemble. Here's the line-up: Chrissie Hynde (guitar), Steve Vai (guitar), Carole King (keyboards), Jim Keltner (drums), Edgar Winter (saxophone), Jim Horn (baritone saxophone), Roseanne Cash, Nancy Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Michelle Shocked, Mavis Staples (backup vocals), Doc Severinson from The Tonight Show (trumpet) and Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis from James Brown's horn section, plus "The World's Most Dangerous Band" from Letterman's show - Shaffer (keyboards), Sid McGinnis (guitar), Will Lee (bass), and Anton Fig (drums). Many of these artists were associated with Dylan in some way, while others had no previous association whatsoever.

Shaffer also wrote about this Dylan appearance in his memoir. According to the book, Letterman first suggested Dylan sing "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again.” Shaffer wanted "One Of Us Must Know". However, it was obvious they needed a more famous song. They wanted Dylan to perform "Like A Rolling Stone."

It was Shaffer's job to speak with Bob. "Dylan loves me,” Shaffer wrote. After tracking him down, Dylan acted lukewarm to Shaffer's request for "Rolling Stone.” “That’s a little obvious,” he said. “There’s gotta be something else … It’s a big catalogue, Paul.” After some convincing, Dylan invited Shaffer to a rehearsal in New York, and tried a version of Dylan's greatest hit, with Shaffer's piano playing augmenting Dylan’s regular band. “It was on,” Shaffer wrote.

When Dylan arrived for the rehearsal on the Friday before the taping, he was not happy. He would not sing with the all-star band, and barely strummed his guitar: “I don’t need this band to play my music. Me, I got four pieces. That’s all I need. All this other stuff don’t make no sense.” Jeff Kramer, Dylan's manager at the time, assured Shaffer that all was OK, and to just continue. The band went through the song a third time, but Dylan still wouldn't sing. Then Dylan left early to observe the Sabbath.

Shaffer then stood where Dylan was, to hear what Dylan was hearing. It turns out that Dylan's monitor had no sound. Shaffer did his best to improve it.

When he arrived for the dress rehearsal, Shaffer said Dylan gave about 30 per cent. By show time, he estimated that Dylan gave about 70 per cent. After the taping, Shaffer asked Dylan how it went:

“Lemme be honest with you, Paul. When I’m in the hotel room at night, I flip on the show only to catch a glimpse of Larry ‘Bud’ (Melman). I’ve never really keyed in on you. But tonight, man, I saw that you know what you’re doing. If I had realized this could have been something, I would have given more.”

Noel Redding, bassist for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, was in the audience. On January 29, eleven days after the taping, he appeared on Howard Stern’s radio show, and talked about Dylan’s appearance:

HOWARD STERN: Have you rapped with David Letterman yet?
NOEL REDDING: I saw him last week. I went to their tenth anniversary thing last week.
HS: A party? I never get invited to anything.
NR: It was nice. You should have come along, mate, because Bob Dylan came and sat at me table, and asked me to play on a tune on his new album or something.
HS: You're gonna play with Bob Dylan on his new album?
NR: Well, he asked.
HS: Let me translate, Noel . . .

The interview was interrupted by a call from Al Hendrix, Jimi’s father. Afterward, Redding continued:

HS: So what happened, you went to the tenth anniversary taping?
NR: Yeah, that was good, actually, it was a good show, it was at Radio City or something ... I went to a party afterwards ... I was sitting with Anton (Fig) the drummer (who played on “Empire Burlesque” and “Knocked Out Loaded”) and his wife, right, and Dylan comes in and sits at our table, and we start talking . . .
HS: Dylan was at the party? . . . .
NR:... and he's like a hero to me . . .
HS: And why is Dylan there? Was he on the show?
NR: Yeah, he sang one song.
HS: No wonder. Was it bad?
NR: No, it was good ... ... and he's like a hero to me . . . so I got an autograph for me mum, and he asked me to play on a track on his new album or something.
HS: So when are you gonna do that?
Co-host Robin Quivers: Did he give you a (phone) number?
NR: I got a couple of numbers. I'll find him at some point.
HS: Let's call him up. Why are we speaking to Al Hendrix?

Side Note: Dylan recorded "Hey Joe,” a song the Jimi Hendrix Experience covered as their debut single, and "Dignity" in a New York studio around this time, according to Bjorner. Could one of the "unidentified musicians" Dylan used be Noel Redding? Maybe Dylan warmed up with "Hey Joe," then tried "Dignity," a unreleased song at the time, a leftover from his 1989 album, “Oh Mercy.” Since these recordings are not in circulation, one can only speculate. Noel Redding died on May 11, 2003.

Dylan performed on CBS's Late Show with David Letterman on November 18, 1993. Dylan had just played his legendary Supper Club shows on November 16 and 17. It may have been Dylan's first time in the venue, now known as the Ed Sullivan Theater, since May 12, 1963, when Bob got word that he would not be allowed to perform his song, "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," on Sullivan's Sunday night variety show. For this Letterman episode, Dylan performed an acoustic, full-band version of "Forever Young."

For his most recent Late Show appearance, Dylan was featured as part of a comedy skit. On October 20, 1994, after a commercial break, Letterman noticed Shaffer was not in the television studio. Dave rushed out the door, only to find Shaffer jamming with Dylan and his band across the street at Roseland, during a soundcheck. At first, it was unclear who the musicians were, until Letterman stopped by to apologize to Dylan on the way out.

At the Roseland concert that night, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young joined Dylan for the encore.

Will Dylan make one more appearance before Letterman retires? Well, we can always hope.

Keep up with Bob Dylan Examiner news. Just click on Subscribe above, or follow @DylanExaminer on Twitter. Harold Lepidus also writes the Performing Arts column for Thanks for your support.

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