Trumpet player, bandleader, songwriter
By virtue of his two-decade association with “The Tonight Show,” Doc Severinsen is probably the best-known trumpeter in the nation. The flamboyantly dressed entertainer has been playing in bands since the mid-1940s, but it is his long association with Johnny Carson that has made his fame. Severinsen earns in excess of a half million dollars a year for 200 “Tonight Show” tapings; on his days off he may appear with his own band, Xebron, the Phoenix Pops, or any one of a number of classical orchestras in the United States.
Zan Stewart observed in down beat that the best accompanists for Severinsen’s work “spotlight the trumpeter’s masterful ability to produce clear, powerful tones throughout the range of his horn and over an assortment of rhythmic and harmonic foundations.” If Seversinsen gets little opportunity to display the full range of his talent on “The Tonight Show,” he is nonetheless respected by his peers in the music business—especially those involved with jazz and big bands. “I have not known a musician who is as talented as Doc and who works as hard as he does to stay there,” fellow “Tonight Show” band member Tommy Newsom told People magazine. “Doc has always been the world’s greatest trumpet player, and his crazy clothes just helped to make people aware of it.”
The nickname “Doc” has been with Severinsen since birth. He was born Carl Hilding Severinsen in tiny Arlington, Oregon, on July 7, 1927. The nickname came from his father, a dentist, who was also known as Doc Severinsen. The elder Doc was the only dentist in town and an avid amateur musician. Severinsen reminisced about his youth in down beat.”I was born in a cow town,” he said. “Really, they had cattle drives down the main street, and you had to close your doors so the animals didn’t come into your house. My dad was the dentist and he played a little violin, so he started me on a junior-sized model. But I wanted to play trombone, so I refused to have anything to do with the violin. There weren’t any music stores in Arlington, and thus no trombones, but a guy down the street had a cornet for sale, so that became my instrument.”
At first the young Severinsen hated to practice his horn as well, but gradually he began to apply himself. At thirteen he was named the youngest member of an all-star band from four western states, and by his junior year of high school he had formed a band, “The Blue Notes,” that performed at local dances and parties. As early as 1940—at age fourteen—Severinsen auditioned for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in Portland. He did not win a spot in the prestigious band at that time, but he did learn a great deal from the experience of associating with Dorsey’s musicians.
Severinsen joined the Ted Fio Rito Band during his
Full name, Carl Hilding Severinsen; born July 7, 1927, in Arlington, Ore.; son of Carl Severin (a dentist) and Minnie Mae Severinsen; married third wife, Emily Marshall, 1980; children (first marriage) Nancy, Judy, Cindy; (second marriage) Robbin, Allen. Education: Finished high school by correspondence course, c. 1944.
Formed band The Blue Notes, c. 1944; member of Ted Fio Rito Band, 1945; member of Charlie Barnet Band, 1947-49; also played with the bands of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Norro Morales, and Vaughn Monroe during late 1940s and early 1950s; member of and soloist in network band for “The Steve Allen Show,” NBC TV, 1954-55; member of NBC Orchestra for “The Tonight Show”, 1962—, musical director, bandleader, and soloist, 1967—. Bandleader, member, and featured soloist in Xebron; resident conductor of Phoenix Pops Orchestra. Vice-president of C. G. Conn Company (musical instrument manufacturer).
Awards: Voted top instrumentalist in Playboy magazine music poll for ten straight years.
Addresses: Office –c/o NBC Press Dept., 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10020.
senior year of high school, finishing his studies by correspondence course. Even during his compulsory stint in the army he won a spot in the Special Services band. When he was discharged at the age of twenty, Severinsen was a polished professional performer, ready to try his luck with the numerous big bands that were so popular at the time. For two years he played in a mixed-race be-bop band led by Charlie Barnet. Then, in 1949, he finally landed a regular job with Tommy Dorsey—a position he has described as “a dream come true.”
Severinsen told down beat: “Tommy was such a great musician that you couldn’t help but play great with him. His sound was one of the finest I’ve ever heard, but he was a little old-fashioned.” From Dorsey’s band Severinsen moved on to Benny Goodman’s, and from there to the NBC staff orchestra in New York City. As television began its ascent in popularity Severinsen found himself a member and soloist of the band on “The Steve Allen Show.” He also did steady moonlighting gigs and studio sessions with a wide variety of jazz, classical, and popular musicians.
In 1962 Severinsen joined “The Tonight Show” at the same time the show got a new host, the affable comic Johnny Carson. Severinsen merely played in the “Tonight Show” band for the first five years, but when the band’s leader Skitch Henderson retired in 1967, Severinsen took over as director. He has had the position ever since, with “his pick of the crop of L.A. studio and jazz players” behind him, to quote Stewart. Nor does Severinsen express any impatience with his job, similar as it is from night to night. “Let’s face it,” he told People. “I owe my career to Johnny.”
Severinsen is more than just a standard backup band trumpet player, however. He is wildly experimental, culling material from rock, jazz, blues, and classical sources—and he even co-wrote the country hit “Stop and Smell the Roses.” In his numerous nightclub appearances, he told down beat, he might even sing “something by Elvis or B.B. King or a new tune, maybe one I’ve heard on MTV that I’ve had arranged for my style. As in all my appearances, I just play music that appeals to me, you know, good music with melody.” In People he put it another way: “What I want people to know is that Doc Severinsen plays many different things.”
Severinsen is a recovered alcoholic who lives with his third wife in California. He enjoys exercising and raising animals, especially dogs and race horses. An interest in arresting clothing dates back to his early days in Arlington, when he dressed for the local rodeos. Now his clothes excite regular comment from Carson and have become an established part of his persona. Severinsen told down beat that as vice-president of the C. G. Conn musical instrument company he helps to design new horns for sale. “It’s important to have a good horn and mouthpiece,” the noted trumpeter said. “But the basic requirement to be a good player is not equipment, but practice, practice, practice.”
Brass Roots, RCA, 1971.
The Best of Doc Severinsen, MCA.
I Feel Good, Juno.
(With Gerry Mulligan)A Concert in Jazz, Verve.
(With Mulligan)Concert Jazz Band ’63, Verve.
(With Henry Mancini)Brass on Ivory, RCA
down beat, November, 1985.
People, July 13, 1981.
—Anne Janette Johnson