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Doc Severinsen, bandleader and trumpet great, will play with W-S Symphony

Johnny Carson called him “the greatest trumpeter in the world” in 1972.
Robert Moody, music director of the Winston-Salem Symphony, also said that he is one of the finest trumpet players in the world. But Carl H. “Doc” Severinsen, 89 and still playing about 50 dates a year, is hedging his bets.
“The trumpet is a jealous mistress,” Severinsen said by phone from his home in Maryville, Tenn. “Some days you can be the best player in the world, and some days you think, ‘What is this thing?’ Anybody who thinks he’s the greatest in the world is in for a bad day.”
Severinsen will join the symphony for a pops concert on Saturday at Reynolds Auditorium and will bring a few musicians and singers with him.
“I have two operatic singers,” Severinsen said. “Joe Wilson is a tenor …. I asked him, ‘Is there any reason that you couldn’t do some Frank Sinatra numbers?’ and he said, ‘I’m from New Jersey!’ — and he does really well.
“Vanessa Thomas; she is scary. That girl can sing flat-out. I found her by a strange coincidence in a small town in northwest Kansas. I was getting ready to do a Christmas show in Minnesota. I said. ‘Do you know any Christmas songs?’ and she came out with Mozart’s ‘Alleluia.’ She’s been singing with me for six or seven years now — great operatic singing and incredible blues …. They are incredible talents. I’m proud to bring them to Winston-Salem.”
Musical life
Severinsen said the concert will be about his life in music.
He was on “The Tonight Show” with Carson for 30 years, starting as a musician and taking over as bandleader when Skitch Henderson left in 1967. After “The Tonight Show” ended on a Friday night in 1992, Severinsen and his band got on a bus the next day and started touring. They are still at it, with a repertoire that includes Ellington and Basie standards, pop, jazz, ballads and big band classics.
“Everywhere we go, people know us,” he said.
Born in the small town of Arlington, Ore., in 1927, Severinsen began his formal music training when he was 7, but before that he played an Army bugle that some neighbors found in their basement.
“It never occurred to me that it should have a mouthpiece. I just took that thing and blew on it,” he said. “The person that gave me that Army bugle was the governor of Oregon a few years later. To me, he was Uncle Earl. He and ‘Aunt’ Edith adopted me as my also-parents.”
Earl Snell was secretary of state of Oregon 1935-1943 and governor 1943-1947.
Their association gave Severinsen some perspective on the world.
“I lived in a town of 600 people in the desert. I’d get on the bus in the morning and get to Salem (the capital of Oregon) in the evening to visit Uncle Earl,” Severinsen said. “I saw a distinct difference, and I think I liked the governor’s mansion. It put me in a position to see what politics could be like.” Severinsen said he contemplated going into politics — for a minute.
Severinsen was invited to join the high school band when he was still 7. At 12, he won the Music Educator’s National Contest and, while still in high school, was hired to go on the road with the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra. His stay with the group was cut short by the draft. He served in the Army during World War II and following his discharge, landed in the Charlie Barnett Band. When it broke up, Severinsen toured with the Tommy Dorsey and the Benny Goodman bands in the late ’40s.
He moved to New York City in 1949 to become a staff musician for NBC, which led to his longtime gig on “The Tonight Show.”
Long collaboration
Moody and Severinsen performed together many times when both were at the Phoenix (Ariz.) Symphony. Moody served as associate, then resident conductor from 1998 through 2006, overlapping with Severinsen’s tenure there as principal pops conductor. Severinsen is also pops director emeritus of the Minnesota Orchestra. Over the years, he has been principal pops conductor with the Milwaukee Symphony, the Colorado Symphony, the Pacific Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic.
Moody will the be official conductor Saturday, but, he said, “I will have so little to do. I will stand there, and he will make fun of me, and I will laugh.”
“No, I won’t do that,” Severinsen said. “Well, I might poke a little fun at it him, but he can turn it right around and hand it back to me.”
Severinsen said that he has trumpets all over his house — on the bed, the kitchen counter, in the bathroom — and that he plays on and off all day.
“Nobody practices like he does,” Moody said. “He arrives (at the concert hall) four hours early and just plays. He must have lips of iron.”
“I get there early if it has a good stairwell,” Severinsen said. “The first thing I do when I get to town is find a stairwell and soul food — collard greens and fried chicken and black-eyed peas, and rice and gravy. The part of Oregon that I’m from, they came over the Oregon Trail from the South.
“I like Southern food from this country, and I especially like Italian food.”
How, then, does he stay so trim? “I work out in the gym. I was complaining about a little health problem recently, and my girlfriend said, ‘You did a 5-minute plank the other day!’
“I like to work out hard. It’s the best thing in the world, if you want to live a long time and feel good doing it.”
He should know. “I’ve had an interesting life. I’ve been married four times, and my life now is with a person … girlfriend who is a music professor at University of Tennessee.
“I’m into my great-grandchildren now, and their mother, my granddaughter, is a fabulous musician.”
Visited town before
This will not be Severinsen’s first trip to Winston-Salem. He said he visited here many years ago to buy a quarter horse for his daughter, Robin. He has four other children: Nancy, Cindy, Allen and Judy.
“I’m proud of how well they all turned out.”
He thinks it’s great that Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize for literature.
“I think it’s wonderful. He’s an unusual person, and that makes him seem a lot more real to people …. he is a poet and writer first — and a musician second …. He sings about little things — freedom and love,” Severinsen said with a trace of irony in his voice.
Severinsen is also real to people, Moody said.
“I conducted Doc last March for the Dallas Symphony,” Moody said. “He spearheaded a benefit for Ryan Anthony, the lead trumpet player there.”
“I didn’t spearhead it,” Severinsen said. “Ryan had a really bad form of cancer, and we wanted to raise some money. People started getting on board with it. It was a wonderful evening because all the money went into the hands of the people who needed it … and he’s cancer-free now, and we’re going to do it again.
“I just show up and talk to everybody I know. It was an all-star lineup, and it was a great time.”
It does seem that wherever Severinsen goes, people get on board and have a great time.
As Moody said, “The guy’s a monster.”
In a good way.
lfel...@wsjournal.com (336) 727-7298

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