His own career benefits, too, since the often colorfully attired trumpeter and ex-bandleader of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” continues to tour and also do engagements with various symphony orchestras. “It’s a respect for the past, but a love for right now,” Severinsen tells Zap2it of his current appearances that always include the unmistakable “Johnny’s Theme,” composed by Paul Anka.
“I’m glad to be in the moment, and I’m thankful to be alive and to still be able to play the horn … and to want to go out and do it,” adds Severinsen, who recently completed a tour with his current band. “And as long as that’s how I feel about it, that’s what I’ll be doing. I have about three sets of alimony checks that go out every week, so I really mean it!”
Severinsen is among the participants in a new “American Masters” portrait of talk-show legend Carson airing Monday, May 14, on PBS. “I couldn’t say I took it for granted,” the musician recalls of the “Tonight” era he spent with Carson and perennial sidekick Ed McMahon, “but I never fully realized how great it was. Now I look back and realize that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Reminders are all around Severinsen, who started “The Tonight Show” under conductor Skitch Henderson, then became the literal leader of the band from 1967 through the end of Carson’s “Tonight” tenure in 1992 (when Jay Leno assumed the host job).
“Trust me,” Severinsen says, “when I tell you there are many people who come up to me whenever I do concerts or appear anywhere there’s a large group and say, ‘We miss Johnny and you guys. We miss that show. There has never been anything like it since.’ And they’re right.”
For his iconic status in television, though, Carson — who died in 2005 — might not have grasped his full impact, Severinsen believes. “I wish Johnny were alive now. I think maybe he would finally realize what he really was, and what he created.
“I hope that enough young people today avail themselves of the chances they have to see Johnny. He showed that a thought can last longer than 10 seconds, that being grammatically correct is not a bad thing, and that you can use your brain to make things better. He is a beacon in the night.”