SEATTLE, WA (KPLU) – Grammy Award winning trumpeter Doc Severinsen comes to the Pacific Northwest for a concert next weekend. Probably best known as the flashy dressed bandleader for Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” Orchestra, Severinsen had a career that spanned sixty-five years, and is back on the road after a very brief retirement. KPLU’s Kevin Kniestedt caught up with the eighty-three year old musician while on tour.
Kevin: For 25 years, Doc Severinsen was the best known trumpet player in America, as his band played the theme song that brought Johnny Carson out on stage to begin The Tonight Show. But Doc’s career began long before he was on television. In fact he still remembers his first paid music job.
Doc: It was during the depression the Great Depression. I played at the Blaylock Grange Hall out in the middle of a bunch of wheat fields. They had what they called then a Hard Times Dance. I got fifty cents for it, and I thought to myself, “wow”.
Kevin: Severinsen never looked back, touring with some of the best bandleaders ever, including Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Charlie Barnet.
Doc: It was sort of like being in a rock band sort of is today. You know, you go to a ballroom or a concert hall, and they were always jam packed. They knew everybody in the band, they knew every song we were going to play. It was like riding a huge wave. It was wonderful.
Kevin: In the early fifties, Doc decided it was time to settle down.
Doc: I had a wife and a daughter. It was time to get off the road, and I had a life long love affair with New York. So I settled there, and pretty soon through some things that occurred, I got some notice, and was hired to work at NBC as a staff musician.
Kevin: That staff musician job led to being hired as a trumpet player for the Tonight Show band when Steve Allen was hosting the show. Jack Parr became the host after Steve Allen left, and the NBC decided to hire a new host by the name of Johnny Carson.
Doc: After about a year, the producer of the show came to me (he also produced Johnny’s road shows) and he said “You know, Johnny wants you to come in and take over the band on the show. He’s not happy with the way things are going, and he’d like you to come in and try it and just see how it goes”. I said “Absolutely.” And it was the single biggest break of my life.
Kevin: Doc offered more than leading the band. He would fill in as an announcer when Ed McMahon was off, and he and Johnny Carson would often take part in some quick-witted banter:
Johnny: Get that Mickey Mouse outfit together and have them sit down. What are you going to do tonight, doctor?
Doc: Well we are going to stand around and wait for you to decide whether we are a band or an orchestra.
Johnny: What would you prefer to be called?
Kevin: Severinsen was also known for his loud wardrobe.
Doc: My first night on the show, I thought “Wow. What am I going to wear?” So I was walking down a street in New York, and passed a place that sold ties. And they had some really wild ties. And (I) wore one on the show that night. And I come out, and it was like throwing raw meat to a lion. He just went right for it. And I would come out every night in something that was pretty far out. And after I had been on the show for a lot of years, one night I just said “Aw, the heck with it. I am just going to wear a blue suit tonight.” Well, I gave a cutoff to the band, and went up to my dressing room, and there was an immediate message from Johnny: “What in the hell was wrong with your outfit tonight?” And it never happened again.
Kevin: When Johnny Carson retired from the Tonight Show, Severinsen left NBC as well. He took a good portion of the Tonight Show Band on the road, recorded a few albums, was a guest conductor for a few symphony orchestras, and then headed to Mexico to retire or so he thought.
Doc: I had been told by a next door neighbor “You’ve got to go hear these guys play at the so-and-so restaurant.
Kevin: “These guys” were guitarist Gil Gutierrez and violinist Pedro Cartas, who make up the band El Ritmo de la Vida, or “the rhythm of life”.
Doc: I think I dropped my cutlery and looked up and thought “Holy Cow! These guys are great. They’re not just good, these are world class musicians.”
Doc: So I made some calls to the states to see if we could get some dates up here for them. And they said “Yeah, but you’ve got to play with them too.” That hadn’t really occurred to me. So after a couple of months of trying to integrate the trumpet in with the guitar and violin, it worked.
Doc: Somebody asked us what kind of music we called it. I said “I don’t know.” They said “Well it sounds like world music.” I said “Good, then it’s world music”.