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Severinsen in a 1974 publicity photo for The Tonight Show
Carl Hilding Severinsen
(1927-07-07) July 7, 1927 (age 92) Arlington, Oregon, U.S.
Severinsen was born in Arlington, Oregon, to Minnie Mae (1897-1998) and Carl Severinsen (1898-1972). He was nicknamed Doc after his father, the only dentist in Arlington. His father played violin and wanted him to play, too, but Severinsen wanted to play trombone. Because his arms weren't long enough for trombone and the small Arlington music store had none available, he settled for cornet. A neighbor gave him some help on how to play, while his father, tobacco in mouth, instructed him to spit out the notes like spitting tobacco. His mother threatened to spank him if he didn't practice.
Severinsen proved to have a knack for the instrument. He was in a high school band when he was seven, and two years later he won a state trumpet contest. At thirteen, he joined a multi-state all-star band, and at fourteen he auditioned for Tommy Dorsey but wasn't hired. He started a quartet called the Blue Notes that performed at local dances.
Before graduating from high school, he was hired to go on the road with the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra. After he graduated, he went on tour with Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman. He was drafted by the Army during World War II. In 1946, he played trumpet on radio station KODL.
Under Severinsen's direction, The Tonight Show Band became a well-known big band in America. Severinsen became one of the most popular bandleaders, appearing almost every night on television. He led the band during commercials and while guests were introduced. He joked with Johnny Carson, the show's host, and developed an amusing habit of wearing gaudy clothing.
The show introduced a comic "Stump the Band" segment in which audience members called out the titles of obscure songs to see if the band could play them. Severinsen often cried "key of E", his signal for the band to strike up a western theme, and then he would enthusiastically sing a country music-flavored nonsense song.
Severinsen substituted for Ed McMahon on occasions when Ed was absent as Carson's announcer and sidekick. He typically assumed this role when the show featured a guest host, which became increasingly frequent during the program's later years. Tommy Newsom was usually the band's substitute director when Severinsen was away from the show or filling in for McMahon. The sidekick role was omitted from the show when Leno guest hosted (it was discontinued altogether after Leno replaced Carson on a full-time basis). While Leno guest hosted for Carson, Severinsen typically introduced the guest host and led the band while interacting with Leno in a similar manner to his interactions with Carson and McMahon.
Severinsen continued as bandleader until Carson's retirement in 1992. He 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 his nationwide tour.
He retired from conducting in 2007 and was named Pops Conductor Emeritus in Milwaukee and Pops Conductor Laureate in Minnesota. Severinsen was also named Distinguished Visiting Professor of Music and Katherine K. Herberger Heritage Chair for Visiting Artists at Arizona State University School of Music in 2001 and 2002.
Severinsen with daughter Nancy, in 1974. Nancy was part of a vocal group called "Today's Children" which often performed with him.
Severinsen's children are Nancy, Cindy, Allen, Robin Merrill, and Judy Cascio. He has eight grandchildren, including Blaire and Gray Reinhard, who write and perform roots rock music together in various incarnations as Curtis & Reinhard and the Blaire Reinhard Band. Severinsen has been married four times. Television writer and producer Emily Marshall was his third wife. They met when she was working as a secretary for The Tonight Show producer Fred de Cordova
A String of Trumpets (Everest, 1960) with Billy Mure