A Letterman Christmas: It's the Most Wonderful Night of the Year

12/22/2011 10:12 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2012

After being lowered via harness from 20 ft. above the stage, spun around on a Christmas tree, and wheeled out in a box, Bruce Kapler, saxophonist in the CBS Orchestra on The Late Show with David Letterman, has long since stopped asking what the writers have planned for his eagerly awaited entrance when he plays the iconic solo during Darlene Love's performance of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on the annual holiday broadcast.

On Friday, Dec. 23, Love, now a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, will grace Letterman's holiday show for the 18th time performing the very best Christmas song from the very best rock and roll Christmas album, A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector. As Edmund Gwenn's Kris Kringle proclaims in Miracle on 34th Street, "Christmas is a frame of mind," and nothing gets me more into the spirit of the season than Love belting out her signature song that brings the show to a rapturous, snow-coming-down climax. I wait for it all year round.

As does Kapler, who has done the solo honors for every CBS Late Show holiday broadcast save 1993 (when for some reason Love did not appear) and 2007, when the writer's strike played Grinch."This is just a wonderful holiday tradition to be involved with." He said. "It's different every year, but it's a very faithful rendition of the masterpiece Phil Spector created."

The baritone sax that Kapler plays is the instrument that connects present to past. It is the actual horn played by legendary session player Steve Douglas on the original recording. Orchestra leader Paul Shaffer bought the horn from Douglas' estate after he passed away in 1993. "When Paul first got the horn, I said I would take it to my repair guy to have it checked out," Kapler recalled. "Paul said, 'Just don't take any of the dents out.' Legend has it that one of them was caused by Elvis Presley after he knocked the horn over on the set of Jailhouse Rock."

Shaffer, Kapler and company approach the song with reverence. "We're channeling this wonderful '60s recording session," complete with French horns, strings, and choir, he said. And, of course, plenty of Love. "She has an instrument like no other," Kapler marveled. "That's not amplification. That woman's got a booming voice. She just kicks it out every single time."

Kapler's solo has become something of a production in itself over the years. Last year, he burst through the faux fireplace set wearing what he described as "a red Santa business suit" (the original Santa costume was starting to get a little thread-bare).

The Late Show holiday broadcast, by turns festive, funny and genuinely moving, is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown. There's usually a holiday-themed Top Ten List, season's greetings from soldiers away from home to their families, and Sirius radio host and comedian Jay Thomas' annual recitation of his classic "Lone Ranger" story, the warm-up to the Holiday Quarterback Challenge, in which he tries to knock a meatball off the studio Christmas tree.

But Love's appearance is a priceless gift year after year. It's better than getting a BB gun and it won't shoot your eye out. What it will do to your heart is another matter. Letterman, Kapler, noted, "has this wonderful, amazing affection for the song. It makes him so happy every year. He gets such joy out of it."

The experience, Kapler said, is like no other, which is saying something when you consider that Shaffer's orchestra is the house band for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, among other high-profile gigs. "I'm playing this classic solo amidst this humungous band and choir," he said. "It feels so great to ride along on that stack of pillows. It would not be the holidays for me or my family without it. My son was in a stroller when I joined Late Night on NBC in 1988. Now, he's a drummer in L.A. and he's flying in to be with me when we tape the broadcast. It's such a wonderfully positive thing."