In Search of Doc Severinsen

It's strange to consider that trumpeter Doc Severinsen, who was so constant a presence for a quarter-century in the lives of late-night television viewers, has been largely absent from the tube for 10 years now.

That's right; count 'em up. When long-time Tonight Show host Johnny Carson surrendered his chair to Jay Leno in 1992, Doc bowed out also, along with the good-natured and highly competent musicians who made up The Tonight Show Orchestra. Leno had other plans to supply his studio audiences with musical entertainment between segments.

Even stranger, though, is the realization that Doc Severinsen is 75 years of age. Hip-talking Doc, the man who delighted in a wardrobe that could be heard from the nearest international frontier and who took with grace Carson's regular and not-very-veiled digs about recreational substance abuse among musicians, is a septuagenarian. The mind reels.

I'd feel less astonished about all this if I had a more solid catalogue in my memory of Severinsen's style, but one of the shortcomings of The Tonight Show was that Doc and his gang were relegated to playing the show's familiar theme under the introductory voiceovers each night and, perhaps, to a five-second flourish when the show returned to the air from a commercial break. The orchestra was used for bumper music and certainly had few opportunities for a showcase.

In short, my impression of the ensemble's playing in general, and Severinsen's in particular, is in bits and pieces, like so many sonic paper dolls. And that's not fair, because Doc has a substantial recorded legacy still in print in the United States.

Yet, familiarity seems to have bred laziness, with the result that I have not a single Severinsen recording in my music library, unless, of course, he's tucked backed in the horn section of some big band arrangement and I haven't discovered him there yet. Night after night for all those years, it was easy to overlook The Tonight Show Orchestra, because I heard the group several times a week.

Severinsen's style is, to my ear, the unquestionable result of a heavy bop influence, an influence he couldn't have missed as he went on the road for his first professional gigs while he was still in high school in the 1940s. Yet, the early influence of his big band days -- tours with Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet and Tommy Dorsey -- never left him and, in fact, served him well during his time at the NBC network, which he joined as a staff musician in 1949.

By the time he took over The Tonight Show Orchestra in 1967, he'd been its assistant leader for five years under the tutelage of the goateed and amiable Skitch Henderson, who departed the post under circumstances that never have been quite clear. A zone of silence has grown around the exit of Henderson, but he was quickly forgotten as Doc's flamboyant personality became a satisfactory complement to Carson's zaniness and the lovable straight-man persona of sidekick Ed McMahon.
A little down-and-dirty research reveals that Severinsen has been touring with a group under the name of Doc Severinsen and his Big Band in recent years, having led The Tonight Show regulars on a farewell tour in 1993. By all accounts, he is still a popular draw in the concert hall.

One occasionally reads of him working with various symphony orchestras, conducting brass clinics and, according to one piece I surfed through the other day, he's been designing and manufacturing trumpets. That last was a good piece of news, because, despite the brief musical air time he and his musicians got on The Tonight Show, the definition of each snippet was grounded in Severinsen's sound, clear, crisp, occasionally in the upper registers, always tantalizing enough to the ear that even a truncated performance drew admiration. He's bound to have some design ideas to benefit other trumpet players.
Strangely, though, I can find no recordings in print more recent than 1999.

But, never fear, because Doc is still on the road occasionally. Though he's not currently touring, the word is that he has some concerts scheduled in the U.S. through the beginning of 2003. Watch your local listings.

If he comes near my coordinates, I think I'll book a seat. I'd like to hear the man blow without a word from our sponsor.