Swinging With Doc Severinsen

Apr 18, 2014

Doc Severinsen performing at Rapid City's Civic Center Theater.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

For the millions of viewers who watched The Tonight Show from the 1960s into the 1990s, the name “Doc Severinsen” was synonymous with that of Johnny Carson.

We caught up with the legendary trumpeter during his recent Rapid City concert to talk about the old days and the new – and what keeps the 86-year old musician going.

It’s a packed house as Doc Severinsen takes the stage at Rapid City’s Civic Center Theatre. The man best known for his role as band leader on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show is here to heat things up, keep the room swinging and have a good time with the hundreds of fans who lined up an hour early just to get seats for the show.  

Doc Severinsen (“Live from the show”): “How you folks are feelin’ out there this evening?” (Crowd roars and applauds)  “That’s okay for starters, but you gotta’ heat it up a little bit. We’re gonna’ try to get a little philosophy in what we do. Our first tune was ‘I Wanna’ Be Happy.” Well, who doesn’t?! So, be happy. If that’s what you want…then do it! And that’s why we played that song. Because we wanna’ be happy here and we want you to be happy. Is that all right with you? (Crowd cheers and applauds) “If you feel all right, say ‘Yes.” (Crowd shouts “YES!”) ”I think it’s okay.” (Crowd laughs) 

Vanessa Thomas performing with the Doc Severinsen Big Band.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

And “okay’ it is for the next two hours as Doc leads his 14-piece band – along with guest vocalist Vanessa Thomas through an extensive and upbeat catalog of songs…playing everything from jazz, to blues to swing.

For a “kid” who was born in Arlington, Oregon, population 600 – what he refers to as a “cow town” – Carl H. Severinsen has done quite well for himself. His nickname is an abbreviated version of what he was called as a child….”Little Doc”, after his father who was a dentist.

Doc began playing trumpet when he was 7. At 14 he had the “brass” to audition for Tommy Dorsey – who was short a trumpeter due to the millions of men who were called up for military service during World War Two.  

Doc Severinsen (“Live from the show”): “So, I walk into Tommy Dorsey’s dressing room in Portland, Oregon at the Paramount Theatre and he said ‘Well hi there, young man. Watcha’ got in the case?’ I said, ‘I got my coronet.”  My voice was changing. (audience laughs) And he says, ‘Do you mind if I take a look at it?’ I said, ‘Go to work.’ He took it out and he promptly played two of the most difficult coronet solos ever attempted by any human being. Never missed a note and didn’t work up a bead of sweat. It almost would break your heart if you’re another trumpet player. And he’s not even a trumpet player. He’s a trombone player…the greatest ever.”

As sad as that story was, there is a happy ending. Tommy Dorsey told Doc to go home, finish school and come back to see him when he was a little older – and a lot better. And that’s just what Doc Severinsen did. He ended up playing with Tommy Dorsey and Harry James before landing in New York to work as a staff musician at NBC. That eventually led to an invitation to play with the highly respected Tonight Show band…initially as first trumpet then as musical director for Johnny Carson, The rest we all know, except for the fact that Doc has been touring pretty continuously since Johnny retired in 1992.

Which begs the question.

“How do you do it?” I ask. “What keeps you going?”

“Desire,” Doc replies. “And trying to think as young as I can. You know, when you’re 86…you wake up some mornings and you say…’Ah, I think I’ll just be 86 today.’ …until…for about an hour. And then you get out of the chair and say…’Hey, wait a minute. What am I doing here? And you talk to yourself and all of a sudden you’ve got a smile on your face.”

It’s that positive attitude that keeps Doc on his game – even as the senior statesman of trumpet.

And it’s the energy fueled by his positive attitude that Doc likes to bring to his audience.

“My philosophy about life is you have to feel good every day,” Doc explains.”You have to be happy and joyous if you’re gonna’ reap the benefits. It’s not easy to do. There’s plenty of things that will put a stop to that. But after a while you learn how to just rise above that…and keep your eye…eye on the sparrow.”

Doc also keeps his eye on the young players in his band, just as Tommy Dorsey kept an eye on Doc. He says he never asks them to do anything musically that he can’t do himself, but even at 86 that’s some pretty big shoes to fill.                 

Doc Severinsen says he doesn’t worry about the future or where his music is going. He lives a day at a time. As his concert ends, Doc is happy to say he had a good day today, and hopes his audience did as well.