The Other Side of the Bell – A Trumpet Podcast; Episode #28: Doc Severinsen

Episode #28 — Doc Severinsen

Doc Severinsen Trumpet Podcast Logo
Welcome to the show notes for Episode #28 of The Other Side of the Bell – A Trumpet Podcast. This episode features Doc Severinsen, grammy award winning band leader of The Tonight Show Big Band, solo recording artist of over 30 albums, and designer of the Severinsen Destino Trumpet by the S.E. Shires Company.

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About Doc Severinsen

Doc Severinsen Photo

Doc Severinsen was born in Arlington, Oregon, the son of Minnie Mae (1897–1998) and Carl Severinsen (1898–1972), a dentist. Nicknamed “Little Doc” after his father, he originally wanted to play the trombone, which he discovered at neighbor Art Fletcher’s home, but the senior Severinsen, a gifted amateur violinist, urged him to study that instrument instead. The younger Severinsen insisted on the trombone, but had to settle for the only horn available in Arlington’s small music store, a trumpet. A week later, with the help of his father and a manual of instructions, the seven-year-old was good enough to be invited to join the high school band.

At the age of twelve, Severinsen won the Music Educator’s National Contest. While still in high school, he was hired to go on the road with the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra. However, his stay with the group was cut short by the World War II draft. After serving in the U.S. Army, Severinsen made his broadcasting debut playing live popular music on KODL radio in The Dalles, Oregon.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

Starting in 1952 during Steve Allen’s tenure as host of NBC-TV’s Tonight, Doc Severinsen played first trumpet in the band directed by Skitch Henderson. He actually joined “The Tonight Show Band” several months before Johnny Carson became host in October 1962. Severinsen took over as bandleader in 1967 and soon became noted for his flashy fashions.

Under Severinsen’s direction, The Tonight Show NBC Orchestra became the most visible big band in America. The band played incidental music for sketch comedy, guest introductions, and intermission music during station breaks. Severinsen took the opportunity to update many well known swing music and jazz standards, including classics by Cole Porter, Dizzy Gillespie, and others.

Adept at comic interplay, Severinsen occasionally substituted for Ed McMahon as Johnny Carson’s announcer and sidekick. Severinsen campaigned for the band to get featured slots during the show. The show introduced a “Stump the Band” segment in which audience members challenged the band to play obscure song titles, with the band responding with a comic piece.

Severinsen often cried “key of E,” his signal for the band to strike up a western theme, whereupon he would enthusiastically sing a country music-flavoured nonsense song.

Tommy Newsom was frequently the band’s substitute director, whenever Severinsen was away from the show or filling in for announcer Ed McMahon. Severinsen continued as bandleader until Carson’s retirement in 1992.

Severinsen appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show in February 2015 when the show traveled to Los Angeles for a week. He played for the evening with the Roots. The appearance helped to promote the 87-year-old’s 2015 nationwide tour with his band.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Severinsen put out a number of albums of jazz standards, over which he performed very melodic solos. He served as lead trumpet on many of Enoch Light’s Command Records LP’s of that era, and his soloing was featured in Tito Puente’s “Night Ritual (Afro Cuban Jazz Mini Suite)” from Puente’s classic 1957 album Top Percussion.

Doc Severinsen with Steve Shires working on a Destino III Bb Trumpet. Photo courtesy of S.E. Shires.
Doc Severinsen with Steve Shires working on a Destino III Bb Trumpet. Photo courtesy of S.E. Shires.

Severinsen certainly had a well-developed high-note range with an incredible amount of control and melodic sense. In the 1960s, Severinsen also recorded with the Clarke/Boland Big Band and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band. Severinsen was also the second trumpeter whose recording of the fanfare “Abblasen”, composed by Gottfried Reiche, has been used as the theme for the CBS News program Sunday Morning.

During the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, Severinsen released several albums under the band name The Tonight Show Band with Doc Severinsen, and later receiving first billing, Doc Severinsen & The Tonight Show Band. He has also recorded with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.

Doc Severinsen was the principal pops conductor for several American orchestras during and after his tenure on The Tonight Show. His first was with the Phoenix Symphony in 1983. He held similar positions with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra.

Biography courtesy of Wikipedia.

Doc Severinsen Trumpet Links

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  • Steve Likens

    I love the advice about breathing where Doc tells us to take a breath as though we intend to swim the length of an Olympic size pool underwater. I find that to be a great visual and a great reminder before each breath. I love the podcast and was not aware of them until a few weeks ago when a fellow trumpet player shared them with me. I have now completed all twenty-eight and have told many more people about them. These are so therapeutic and exhibit a great labor of love for you John, you do a great job of interviewing.