Doc Severinsen Plays Final Concert… at 95

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Doc Severinsen, who has been celebrated as America’s favorite trumpet player for more than half a century, has played what was billed as his final concert. The performance took place on August 27, 2022, at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The leader for nearly three decades of The Tonight Show Orchestra (for host Johnny Carson) was 95.

The Grammy Award-winner was joined by the San Miguel Five (guitarist Gil Gutierrez, violinist Charlie Bisharat, percussionist Jimmy Branly and bassist Kevin Thomas) for an evening of big band, pop, jazz, world and classical standards. Watch several of the performances below.

Severinsen was the subject of a 2021 American Masters documentary for PBS, Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story.

From 1962 to 1992, Severinsen played a major role in TV viewers’ bedrooms as they watched The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Ed McMahon’s lead-in, “Heeeeere’s Johnny!,” was followed by a big band trumpet blast for the landmark late-night television program. The NBC TV show debuted in October 1962, and ruled the air until Carson retired on May 22, 1992.

Within a week of the final telecast, Doc Severinsen and His Big Band were on the road. Their repertoire included Duke Ellington and Count Basie standards, pop, jazz, ballads, big band classics and, of course, The Tonight Show theme.

Severinsen recorded more than 30 albums–from big band to jazz-fusion to classical. He received a Grammy Award for “Best Jazz instrumental Performance – Big Band” for his recording of Doc Severinsen and The Tonight Show Band-Volume I.

In 2006, he moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, ostensibly to retire from performance. Within weeks, he was jamming with Gutierrez. They toured regularly with the San Miguel Five, performing a mix of Latin and Gypsy jazz and standards.

Severinsen was born on July 7, 1927, in Arlington, Ore. (population: 600). His first name is Carl but he was nicknamed “Little Doc” after his father, Dr. Carl Severinsen, a dentist. Young Doc had originally wanted to play the trombone, but his father, a gifted amateur violinist, urged him to follow in his footsteps. They settled on the trumpet. A week later, with the help of his father and a manual of instructions, the seven-year-old was so good that he was invited to join the high school band. At age 12, “Little Doc” won the Music Educators’ National Contest and, while still in high school, was hired to go on the road with the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra. His stay with the group was cut short by the draft. He served in the Army during World War II and following his discharge, landed a spot with the Charlie Barnett Band. When this band broke up, Severinsen toured with the Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman bands in the late ’40s.

Severinsen arrived in New York City in 1949 to become a staff musician for NBC. After years of playing with NBC’s many studio bands, he was invited to play a gig in the highly respected Tonight Show Band. The bandleader at the time, Skitch Henderson, asked him to join that band in 1962 in the first trumpet chair. Five years later, Severinsen became the Music Director for The Tonight Show.  The warm camaraderie between Carson, announcer and sidekick McMahon and Severinsen was an enormous part of the show’s popularity.

Watch Severinsen and the San Miguel Five, at the final concert

Over the years, Severinsen also performed with symphony orchestras all over the U.S. including with the Phoenix Symphony, the Milwaukee Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Colorado Symphony, the Pacific Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic.

Watch some more highlights from the last concert (beginning at the 1:42 mark)

Severinsen’s recordings are available here.

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13 Comments so far

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  1. Baybluesman
    #1 Baybluesman 31 August, 2022, 12:22

    What an excellent article and musical history lesson!

    I was six years old when Doc Severinsen started playing on the Tonight Show.

    As my early years morphed into the early double-digits, Doc Severinsen became the band leader/musical director of the Tonight Show, and it was his presence, night after night, that motivated me to select the trumpet as my first instrument.

    This kind of consistency and civility is missing in late night talk shows, absent starting about twenty years ago.

    I just want to thank Doc Severinsen (if he or family reads this post) for the positive influence he had on my musical journey, as well as contributing his sense of humor, brought to our television for a glorious 30 years.

    Hope the Doc enjoys his “retirement”.

    Reply this comment
  2. Jas
    #2 Jas 1 September, 2022, 02:52

    Thank you so much for sharing this story and a couple of snippets from his last concert. I would have loved to attend this had I known about it. Such a treasure and talented man who played with the best of the best, and he’s still got it ❤ wow wow wow!

    Reply this comment
  3. Booger
    #3 Booger 1 September, 2022, 09:11

    I’ve seen the San Miguel Five a few times and got to have lunch with Doc and Gil. Doc was gracious open. I told him that I still had my Getzen Severinsen model trumpet that I played in high school. All of the guys in that band are absolute monsters. Gil is an amazing player and nice as he can be.

    Reply this comment
  4. Bob Abooey
    #4 Bob Abooey 1 September, 2022, 21:01

    The man is a living legend.

    Reply this comment
  5. Ditt
    #5 Ditt 1 September, 2022, 22:42

    I went to school in Argos Indiana. Sometime in the fifties Doc came to play for us. He asked one of the students who was in the band to bring him his horn. The horn was an old beat up cornet. Doc worked on the horn and after about five minutes he played it and it sounded great. Doc then said it was not about the instrument but the person who was playing it. It takes work and lot of it. Just keep working.

    Reply this comment
    • Eddie
      Eddie 21 November, 2022, 06:58

      Hi Ditt, will you please post anything additional you can recall about Doc playing in Argos, IN. I don’t believe it was during the 1950s. His playing in schools began sometime around 1960-1961. I would love to hear anything more about his appearance in Argos. Thanks. Eddie

      Reply this comment
  6. Traveler54
    #6 Traveler54 2 September, 2022, 10:35

    It was a privilege to back Doc at the Sand’s in Las Vegas in the late 1970s. All the best to you

    Reply this comment
    • Clay
      Clay 2 September, 2022, 12:47

      Best wishes to you Doc!
      I always enjoyed your band on the Carson show. I especially enjoyed the times that Buddy Rich sat in with you. I wish you the best of health.

      Reply this comment
  7. HonestyandRealityGuy
    #7 HonestyandRealityGuy 2 September, 2022, 19:31

    God bless you Doc. So many fond memories.

    Reply this comment
  8. Rich
    #8 Rich 3 September, 2022, 09:38

    Skitch Henderson, Doc Severinsen, and Tommie Newsome, are the musicians I remember from the Tonight Show.
    I always wished the band would be featured every night for at least 5 continuous minutes. Occasionally I got my wish and that sound was magic. I really enjoy the big band jazz sound with improvisational solos.
    I have a cassette of the Tonight Show Band and it is glorious to here the Show theme uninterrupted.

    Reply this comment
  9. Sam
    #9 Sam 3 October, 2022, 04:45

    Dear Doc,
    This is coming from Buffalo, NY. I met you with my wife Jane back stage after a concert. You asked her name. You responded, “I had a wife Jane… I liked her.” Priceless.
    Many, many thanks for giving the world the sweetest sounds.
    God bless

    Reply this comment

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