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Doc Severinsen's musical medicine.


Johnny Carson is just ending his opening monologue when he does a double take and gawks at the bright red-and-green sport coat worn by his bandleader.

"There's the only man who would make a peacock jealous," Carson quips.

The audience roars, even though the joke is similar to others they've heard before. They're used to the good-natured banter between Carson and the one affectionately known as "Doc." Most Americans have come to know Doc Severinsen for his flashy dress and his ready wit, but fellow musicians see much more in the veteran leader of the "Tonight Show" band. Some praise him as one of the best trumpeters ever to set lips to a mouthpiece.

Severinsen is still boyish looking at 62. A small-towner like Carson, he has worked his way to the top. He grew up in Arlington, Oregon--population 453. "It was a genuine cow town," he says. "They actually had cattle drives down the main street. You had to close your doors, or else the animals ran right into your living room.

"But I'm glad I'm from a small town," he adds with a tone of seriousness. "It's part of American life that you just don't find anymore. The value system was different from today. It was a time when an older person would call your parents and say, 'I just whipped your son for you,' and the parents said. 'Thank you.'

"My dad was the town's only dentist. He was 'Big Doc,' and I was called 'Little Doc.'" The nickname has stuck.

Severinsen inherited a deep devotion to music from his father. The elder Severinsen played the violin for relaxation. He especially loved the classics. In an attempt to pass along this interest to his son, he got the seven-year-old a junior-size violin. But Doc refused to have anything to do with it. Instead, he wanted to play trombone. Unfortunately, the youngster's arms were too short to extend the slide. Besides, there weren't any music stores in Arlington where he could purchase a trombone. One of his neighbors--Herb Clark, who worked as a mechanic at the Shell service station--had an old army trumpet. He sold it to the Severinsens for $30 and drew pictures of the fingering on a brown paper sack. That trumpet became Little Doc's instrument.

"I got the trumpet on one condition: I had to practice each day. Yet I hated to practice," Severinsen admits. "My mother threatened to spank me if I didn't play. That changed my mind in a hurry, and I started working at it. As I got better, the practice sessions changed from agony to fun.

"My dad used an unorthodox way of showing me how to attack the notes. He had me place tiny pieces of chewing tobacco on the tip of my tongue. 'Spit those out,' he'd say. And that's what I did." The strange exercise must have worked. In just two years, Doc became the state champion junior trumpeter. At 12, he won the Music Educator's National Contest.

Soon the young Severinsen Formed his own band--called the Blue Notes--in Arlington. "We played mostly for Grange dances," he says, "where the people wanted to hear 'Turkey in the Straw' and other country-type numbers."

When Tommy dorsey's famous band was in Portland in 1940, Dorsey needed a trumpet player in a hurry. Someone told him of this hot young musician in Arlington. "They didn't know it was a 14-year-old kid," Severinsen says. "I tried out for the band but didn't make it."

Before Doc finished high school, he was hired by another band leader--Ted Fio Rito. Now he was a fulltime professional musician. After completing high school through correspondence, in 1946 he joined the army, where he played for the Special Services band.

Following one year in the service, Severinsen was invited to play with the famed saxophonist Charlie Barnet. "We had a hot band," he remembers. "But it was racially mixed, with several blacks, including Clark Terry, who was like a brother to me. The fact that I was a member of a band that was mixed made me the object of prejudice. We identified with each other and respected each other. When we saw prejudice exercised against any of us, it hit us all. Once we were chased out of a diner in New Jersey, not 50 miles out of New York City, by a chef with a meat cleaver, because we wanted to sit down and eat together. I got an early insight into what it's like to be treated badly because of religion or race."

Terry never forgot Severinsen's loyalty. He was able to get his friend the opportunity to join the Duke Ellington band--an experience Doc vividly recalls: "It was only a one-night stand in New Rochelle, New York. The Duke happened to be short a horn that night and asked me to fill in. It was one of the greatest musical moments of my life."

In 1949 he tried out again for the Tommy Dorsey band. This time he made it. "The first night, when we broke into the theme song ["I'm Gettin' Sentimental over You"], I felt like my feet had left the ground. I really wasn't there for a while. I was floating."

Tommy Dorsey was a legend; so was his music. Audiences throughout the nation demanded to hear the same tunes over and over again. As fascinating as it was for him to play in that band, Doc Severinsen felt confined. His first love was jazz, and there certainly was no room for that in the Dorsey tradition.

Severinsen's stay with Dorsey was short. After about a year he answered the call to play for the NBC staff orchestra in Manhattan. That meant he could stay in one place instead of hopping around the country for concerts. Doc renained with NBC and earned a national reputation as one of the most respected jazz trumpeters. In 1961 he recorded his first of many albums.

When Johnny Carson began hosting "The Tonight Show" in 1962, Doc was hired for the orchestra, which was led then by the pianist Skitch Henderson. Five years later, Severinsen took the baton and became the permanent conductor of the orchestra.

Working as long as Doc worked on "Tonight" has its rewards, although it's not always easy. "Even after 25 years you can't take the day for granted," Severinsen says. "Johnny attends to every detail. His memory is unbelievable. He arrives to work early each day and inspires you to stay on your toes."

Severinsen, who earns a hefty salary as leader of the "Tonight" orchestra, spends about four hours each night rehearsing for and taping the show. "Even though we're not featured all the time," he says, "we have to be ready to come up with something in a minute if the show is a little short and we need a band piece to fill in."

Severinsen's popularity on television and stage used to invite some negative criticism from more serious classical musicians he has admired. But over the years he has won their respect. "I think the positive reaction from the players comes after they hear me play," he says. "As soon as they know I'm serious about music, and I'm giving it my best shot, there's usually a good feeling between us."

Severinsen's discipline for music carries over into other areas as well. Many people don't know that he is a reformed alcoholic. "And I don't mind letting that be told, either," Severinsen insists. "I feel I have been able to help others by acknowledging my problem." He is also a proponent of physical fitness. He and his wife, Emily Marshall, a TV producer-writer, start their days early--at 6 a.m.--running or bike riding, then lifting weights. He's an accomplished chef; Italian cooking is his specialty. In addition to these credentials, he was three times voted one of America's ten best-dressed men. Emily claims, "His side of the closet has more sequins than mine."

"I still breed some horses on my daughter's farm in Oklahoma," he says. "I intend to run a horse in the Kentucky Derby one day."

This is not to imply that Severinsen's life is without frustration. Because he injured his back about a year ago, he no longer runs three miles each day, although he has his sights set on next spring, when he and Emily plan to run in the Jimmy Stewart Relay Marathon.

Meanwhile, one of Severinsen's modern-day crusades is to make it possible for this generation to hear the swinging sounds of the '40s. Some of these bands still tour the country, but the famous bandleaders are no longer around. "Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Woody Herman--we've lost them all," he says. "It's up to people such as myself to keep the bands alive. I think a lot of people out there still want to hear Big Band music."

The success of the two albums of the "Tonight Show" band for Amherst Records that feature the big band sound underscores his feeling. Both releases won Grammy awards in 1987 and 1988.

Today, Doc Severinsen spends about 12 weeks each year on the road in solo appearances and as a guest conductor. He has recently directed the Chicago and St. Louis symphonies. He's the resident conductor for the Phoenix Pops, and he appears often with Facets, his own small jazz band formed in 1981.

Severinsen certainly doesn't need the extra money, and his TV appearances and albums bring him all the acclaim anyone would ever need. So why does he spend so many weekends on the road when he could be relaxing at his beautiful Spanish-style home in Hollywood Hills with his wife and his family?

"I'm a musician," Doc says. "That's what I'm supposed to do."
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Author:McCollister, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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