NEW YORK — With the curtain soon to fall on David Letterman's late-night television career, the end comes Friday for an odd and emotional holiday tradition that involves comic Jay Thomas, the Lone Ranger, a giant meatball and, most indelibly, singer Darlene Love.
Love will sing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" for the 21st and final time on Letterman's annual holiday show. He's retiring from the "Late Show" next May.
"I'm looking forward to it this year more than any other year, with mixed feelings, of course," said Letterman's longtime bandleader, Paul Shaffer. "It's been incredibly meaningful for me."
Letterman's holiday show has traditions, just not the ones you see in most households. Thomas comes by to repeat the story of giving a ride to Clayton Moore, television's Lone Ranger. Then, as he's done since 1998, Thomas tries to knock the meatball off the top of a Christmas tree with a football.
The centerpiece is Love's performance of the song that identifies her as the "Christmas queen," primarily because of the annual exposure on Letterman.
"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" was the single off "A Christmas Gift For You," an album by producer Phil Spector and the artists in his orbit. Now considered a classic, it was a flop upon its release on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Shaffer never forgot it, though.
"The Phil Spector album has always been the one that has gotten me through the Christmas season, which can be depressing for people in show business, who are often working instead of being with their families," he said.
Love hadn't even performed the song onstage until the mid-1980s, when she was part of "Leader of the Pack," a tribute show for Ellie Greenwich, writer of "Christmas" (with Jeff Barry and Spector) and other 1960s hits like "Be My Baby." Shaffer was part of the show. Letterman came to see it one night and was blown away by Love's version.
Letterman invited Love to sing it on his show in 1986, then on NBC. She hasn't returned every year, but was there more often than not.
"David is nothing if not a traditionalist," Shaffer said, "and he kept asking for her year after year. It's as simple as that."
Shaffer had his own, private ritual. Every year, the day of the holiday show, he called his good friend Greenwich for spiritual support. That ended with her death in 2009.
The song has been covered multiple times — by the likes of U2, Mariah Carey, Michael Buble and Joey Ramone — since Love began making her Letterman appearances. She moved from California to New York for "Leader of the Pack," and does a holiday show in theaters each year.
Shaffer and "Late Show" director Jerry Foley, meanwhile, begin preparing for the song's annual performance weeks in advance. Shaffer always tries to bring different elements — a military choir one year, children in another. In true Spector "Wall of Sound" tradition, Shaffer's "CBS Orchestra" has greatly expanded to a stage filled with musicians.
Each year's surprise is the choreographed entrance of the saxophone player for his solo. He's emerged from a gift-wrapped box delivered by a sleigh-full of showgirls, come down a chimney and flown across the stage hoisted by cables.
Love intentionally keeps herself in the dark about unique elements of each year's version until arriving at the theater.
"I just show up and sing the song," she said.
She has a sweet spot in her heart for the first year, when she performed with Shaffer and a small band.
"The first one really sticks out to me as special," she said, "and there was no glitz or glamour to it."