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Who is Doc Severinsen?

A brief biography of the famous ‘Tonight Show’ band leader


If there is a icon among late night talk show band leaders, far and away that honor goes to Carl Hilding Severinsen, better known by all as Doc Severinsen. Severinsen was Johnny Carson's band leader and is the inspiration for nearly every late night musical director today.

Severinsen was born on July 7 in 1927. His mother, Minnie Mae, was a home maker and his father, Carl Sr., was a dentist. In fact, his famous nickname, Doc, came from his father. Friends and family called him "Little Doc," his father, of course, being the elder medical professional in the house.

His interest in music began at a very young age - and it wouldn't be long before it was obvious Severinsen was something of a prodigy. Before he turned seven years old, he was studying the violin (although, as history suggests, Severinsen's first love was the trombone). After insisting on the trombone, Severinsen settled for the trumpet - only because it was the only horn in town. He started practicing and, within the week, was invited to join the high school's band.

When he turned 12 years old, Severinsen won the Music Educator's National Contest. And before he graduated high school, he was touring with the well-known Ted Fio Rito Orchestra. After serving in the Army during World War II, Severinsen would return to the States to play popular music live on KODL radio in The Dalles, Oregon.

Putting it all on vinyl
Severinsen's popularity grew enough to make the young musician consider cutting an album or two. By the 1950s and through the 1960s, Severinsen was serving as lead trumpet on a number of Enoch Light's Command Records LPs. The albums featured a host of jazz standards and popular tunes of the day.

By the 1960s, Severinsen was recording with the Clarke/Boland Big Band and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band. But then, by 1967, Severinsen found a permanent position that would continue for at least the next three decades.

On to Tonight
Most folks equate Severinsen with Carson's Tonight Show, but Severinsen had early stints with the band as early as 1952. He was playing with Skitch Henderson's "Tonight Show Band". He joined the band permanently in 1962, right before Carson came aboard as host. Severinsen became band leader in 1967.

Severinsen turned the band into something special. Renamed the NBC Orchestra, Severinsen's band was the best known big band in America at the time. And rather than just play great versions of old standards whenever the show would go to commercial, Severinsen updated those standards for the modern day, giving them a flavor more apropos for the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Severinsen also became adept at comedy, often playing the foil to Johnny Carson's jokes or playing a comic twist on a song or a moment, especially during the band's famous "Stump the Band" segments.

During his time on Tonight, Severinsen continued cutting albums with The Tonight Show Band, capitalizing on the popular talk show's name.

Severinsen has five children and eight grandchildren. He's been married three times.

Fast facts

  • He's also the original owner of Severinsen Custom Trumpets. He continues in the business, but today works with the S.E. Shires Company, helping test the Destino line of trumpets.
  • Severinsen as recorded more than 40 albums since his career began in the 1950s. His latest was Stardust in 2010.
  • Was host of the late night NBC program The Midnight Special
  • Hosted the NBC special The Big Band and All That Jazz in the 1970s
  • Arranged the score for the cult film Nude on the Moon.
  • Co-wrote the Top 10 hit single "Stop and Smell the Roses" with Mac Davis
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