Doc’s Prescription: To Keep Playing Music / By Paul Freeman / For The Daily News
Leading NBC’s “The Tonight Show” orchestra for 25 years, trumpeter Doc Severinsen became a pop culture icon.
“I thank my lucky stars every single day for the years I was there,” Severinsen tells The Daily News. “It enabled me to go out and have recognition and do a lot of things, as a solo performer, that I wanted to do. People would trust me, because they’d think, ‘Well, if he’s on Johnny’s show, he must be OK.'”
In 1992, after 30 years of hosting, Johnny Carson stepped down as host. “I thought, ‘Ah, in six months, no person will ever know I was there.’ And it didn’t turn out that way at all.”
Twenty years later, “Tonight Show” fans still fondly remember Severinsen and now have a chance to share in his latest musical endeavor, The San Miguel 5. In this group — teamed with virtuoso classical guitarist Gil Gutierrez, Grammy-winning violinist Charlie Bisharat, percussionist Jimmy Branly and bassist Kevin Thomas — Severinsen explores diverse musical styles, including Latin, Spanish and Gypsy jazz forms, as well as American classics.
Severinsen was actually retiring to Mexico, when he first heard Gutierrez playing with bandmates.
“I was on a plane down there and I reassured my wife, ‘Yeah, I’m retiring, but I still have to play the trumpet every day. And the one thing I’d like to find is guys I can play with, just some jazz type of thing. I don’t even know what, but just something a little different.’
“Lo and behold, I got to Mexico, went out to dinner a couple of nights later and went into this Italian restaurant and I heard the guys playing and I thought, ‘This might be just what I was looking for.’ And I’ve been with them ever since.”
Severinsen enjoys musical variety. “I’ve always said I’m a structured schizophrenic. The band plays a mixture of things. But it doesn’t come out sounding like a hodgepodge. The instrumentation is unusual. Each voice is very individual and somehow, it all comes together.”
With The San Miguel 5, Severinsen has returned to the road. Their swing through California comes to Montalvo Arts Center on Oct. 17, and to Yoshi’s Oakland, Oct.19-21.
“When I go out with these guys, on a tour like we’re going to be on, when it’s over, everybody says, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go home!'”
In his early days, Severinsen toured with Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet and Benny Goodman. “Being a child of the big band era, it couldn’t have been better for me. It was thrilling to play with those bands.”
Eventually, Severinsen would rank among the most famous big band leaders. But first he played trumpet for bandleader Skitch Henderson on “The Tonight Show.” Severinsen began in 1952, when Steve Allen was hosting.
Severinsen recalls, “I started with the forerunner of ‘The Tonight Show,’ when it was a local program in New York City. It was fun to work with Steve. The whole thing was like an experiment.
“If anything went wrong, we just laughed about it. There were nights on the Steve Allen show where we’d run out of programming material. They’d just open the stage door to 46th Street and walk out there with a camera and interview passersby.”
Carson took over the show in 1962, and Severinsen took over the orchestra’s reins five years later.
“When I was a little kid, I thought, ‘I want to be a bandleader, when I grow up.’ It’s funny. I had the idea early on, but then, as I got into the business, I was just satisfied to be making a living. And then, one thing led to another. Skitch decided he needed to take off from ‘The Tonight Show.’ He was playing with a symphony orchestra. And he said, ‘You’re taking over the band.’ I said, ‘What?!!’ He was already out the door. So I said, ‘Well, I guess I better figure out what I’m doing here.’
“I was ready and willing. But I didn’t know if I had everything that I needed. But I’d been on the show a long time. All I needed to do was just do what had been done before and don’t make too many mistakes. That band, it was quite a collection of great players. … and unusual individuals,” Severinsen says, laughing. “As it turned out, it was the last big band in the history of American television.”
In addition to his duties as music director, Severinsen also participated in many of Carson’s comedy bits. He and Ed McMahon were featured in the “Stump The Band” segments. When McMahon had a night off, the trumpeter took the announcer’s seat on the couch.
Severinsen became renowned for his flamboyant outfits. “Well, I had to find something different to wear, because traditionally, the orchestra leader would wear something different than guys in the band. About this time, you had The Beatles, the clothing revolution and the unrest of campuses, the long hair came in, the whole nine yards … and I was just right there with it. It suited me politically and personally and every other way.”
And the wildly colorful clothing provided Carson with plenty of comic fodder. Severinsen has enduring respect for his former boss.
“He had tons of class. He also majored in logic in college. He could take any side of a conversation and turn it all around his way. But he just knew how to ask the questions and then listen to what they said back. And go on from there. And he’s the only guy I’ve ever met in my life who could write script, in his head, while he was talking. He was composing as he was performing. Pretty amazing.”
When ‘The Tonight Show’ finally came to an end after all those years, Severinsen had to adjust. “I welcomed the opportunity to go back to doing just concerts. But, for about six months, my body was all tuned in to, ‘Well, this is about time to go on the air.’ And all of a sudden, no, you’re not on the air anymore.”
Now based in Maryville, Tenn., Severinsen is working on a new album with The San Miguel 5. At 84, he still hits the high notes.
“You cannot perform on a trumpet, at an older age, if you aren’t in that gym constantly. With the trumpet, each day is like starting your career over again. If you take it too much for granted, you wind up in trouble.”