The last high note, the last deep bow

 

I grew up watching The Tonight Show. Just as your parents marked your height with marks on the door frame, so you marked your own growing-up by how much of the show you could watch. You watched the monologue, of course, and laughed at the things you got and took note of the things you would surely get later. If you were lucky, the Mighty Carson Art Players (I thought they made up that name; no) would do a skit – it’s Art Fern! With lovely Carol . . . Merrill? No, she was Price is Right. Right? Anyway, Carol something. And was she Carol Something, let me tell you.

HI YO

If you were really lucky, you got Carnac, which was the best. You could repeat the opening lines without knowing what they meant (what was a mayo jar doing on Funk and Wagnalls’ Porch? What?) and enjoy the way Ed milked it, the audience applause when he presented the last question. The audience wasn’t happy it was over, but they knew their job. 

And then there was Doc.

Beaming, every time the camera swung his way. His clothing preposterously garish. His reputation, the hipster. We only got snippets of his band, because they played Johnny in and out of the commercials. Sometimes they’d cut back from a commercial with a card: MORE TO COME, and you’d hear the band wailing. When they returned to the show, Doc was blowing mad notes, and his fine tight band snapped to a stop. 

Eventually I was old enough to watch the whole Tonight Show. Then I was too cool to watch The Tonight Show. Eventually there was Letterman, with his own band, but he didn’t have a Doc. He had a simpering hipster. Guys like Doc, with their 60s flash and big-band backstory, they weren’t hip! It was Dad Stuff. 

Eh. How little you know when you’re in college.

Flash forward a few decades to the mid 2010s. For reasons too complicated to go into here, I ended up a the Master of Ceremonies for the Minnesota Youth Orchestras, a remarkable organization. Four orchestras, from grade school to High School, the latter capable of playing the undiluted classical repertoire. They took on anything. Stravinsky, Mahler, Beethoven – you name it, they played it, and they always took the roof off the hall. We had three concerts a year at Orchestra Hall, the finest venue in town, and for twenty years I introduced the musicians and orchestras and told little stories and moved everything along. 

One year I’m backstage, nervous for the first time since the first show, and I’m, what, 14 years into this gig? Check the tie, shoot the cuffs, tug down the suit, wait for the stage manager to nod and open the door. I head out to the mike, say a few things, and then said something I’d never thought I’d say.

“Ladies and Gentleman . . . Doc Severinsen.”

See, he knew Manny, the conductor of the Symphony Orchestra, who was not only also the guiding light of the whole org, but was principle trumpet for the Minnesota Orchestra – and a late-night talk-show listener, which is how we’d met years ago. 

Doc was amazing. He was in the high 80s, and still had an amazing tone and seemingly limitless wind.  Brought the house down and the audience to their feet. He was just a delight. 

Afterwards, we went out to dinner. Manny, Claudette (another conductor, orchestra head, Manny’s wife), Doc, and me. 

There are times in your life when you want to talk, and times when you know enough to shut up, chew, and listen. He was as charming as you would hope. It was an honor. 

And then I went home and called my dad and said I’d just had dinner with Doc Severinsen, and he didn’t quite get it, “sounded like I said I’d had dinner with Doc Severinsen.” But I did! 

This allll came flooding back when I saw a tweet about Doc’s final concert last Saturday. Reviews were sparkling.

He’s 95. 

One reporter noted that Doc still practices four hours a day.   I believe it. May everyone who hits the high note of 95 believe there’s still a joyful noise that needs to be made, and they’d best get on with making it.

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  1. Chris O Coolidge
    Chris O
    @ChrisO

    I saw the Letterman show from the audience a single time and Doc sat in with the band. Amazing. You never really got a sense of his individual talent from the Tonight Show, but, of course, he was featured that evening and blew everyone away. Dave asked if he wanted to come back every night. Doc flashed that huge smile and said, “Well, sure!”

    Good stuff, James, thank you. What a night you had.

    • #1
  2. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    James Lileks: We had three concerts a year at Orchestra Hall, the finest venue in town, and for twenty years I introduced the musicians and orchestras and told little stories and moved everything along. 

    Well, that brought back memories. I did an image search to see if it’s the same Orchestra Hall, with the same textured drywall job (or whatever you call it) that I remember from the 70s.  It is!

    And thanks for telling us about Doc Severinsen.  I like hearing stories about 90-somethings who are still going strong.  You might not guess it from my more-than-willing ignorance of just about anything that has to do with the American entertainment industry, but I have to admit that I watched the Johnny Carson show quite a bit in the early 70s. 

    • #2
  3. James Hageman Coolidge
    James Hageman
    @JamesHageman

    Looked in a mirror, and yes, I’m green with envy. Thanks for the memories! 

    • #3
  4. Concretevol Thatcher
    Concretevol
    @Concretevol

    As a fledgling trumpet player I LOVED Doc.  Was lucky enough to attend a taping of Carson when I was a kid.   Soooo cool

    Good lord just clicked on the link….had no idea he lives in Knoxville!  hahaha

    • #4
  5. EJHill+ Podcaster
    EJHill+
    @EJHill

    Carol Wayne. She played the dumb blonde to perfection.

    At age 42, the thrice married and divorced Wayne was vacationing in Mexico with her latest boyfriend. They had a fight and she went for a walk on the beach. Fishermen found her body three days later. No drugs or alcohol were found in her system and the authorities labeled her death “accidental.” Carson retired the Fern character for over a year after her death.

    Photo: NBCUniversal

     

    And the lovey Carol Merrill? Let’s Make a Deal!

     

    • #5
  6. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    James Lileks: With lovely Carol . . . Merrill? No, she was Price is Right. Right? Anyway, Carol something. And was she Carol Something, let me tell you.

    Carol Wayne.

    • #6
  7. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Lovely. Thank you.

    • #7
  8. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb
    @EustaceCScrubb

    You may not believe this, but they once allowed Republicans on late night talk shows:

    • #8
  9. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    I loved the sound of the opening music and Here’s Johnny!  I was long in bed by then and probably asleep until I heard my aunt and dad howling and cackling at the jokes and skits – then I was wide awake. Everyone grew up with Johnny Carson at some point in his long career – and I was disappointed to see him retire – even to Jay Leno – who took the baton well.  Sometimes risque, but crudeness never entered the picture.

    How much more enjoyable did people sleep after watching these comedic greats and music performances, except kids with laughing parents watching Johnny!

    • #9
  10. James Hageman Coolidge
    James Hageman
    @JamesHageman

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIrQn3Tjrb4

    They don’t make them like they used to.

    • #10
  11. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    There’s an American Masters PBS documentary on Doc. It’s fantastic.

    • #11
  12. EJHill+ Podcaster
    EJHill+
    @EJHill

    Johnny’s favorite song, “Here’s That Rainy Day,” (Johnny Burke/Jimmy VanHeusen) performed on The Late Show with David Letterman with Doc, Tommy Newsome (sax) and Ed Shaunnessy (drums), other members of the Carson Orchestra.

    The transition from Carson to Leno was one of the most badly handled matter in the history of NBC. To compound things, the band went out on tour after the change and the network hit Doc with a cease and desist order over using The Tonight Show or “The NBC Orchestra” in their advertising.

    • #12
  13. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    Concretevol (View Comment):
    …had no idea he lives in Knoxville! 

    The last I heard he was in Mexico.  I’m glad he’s back in the US.

    My Dad played the trumpet.  I can certainly see how Doc would play four hours a day.  It’s easy to pick it up and belt something out.

    Doc has the world’s best Christmas album with The Tonight Show band.  Tommy Newsom was such a great arranger, that Tonight Show sound is as distinctive as the Boston Pops with Arthur Fiedler. 

    • #13
  14. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Carson was the reason I was at home by 13:30 PM every weeknight he hosted.  In college, I’d watch the opening monologue, the skit, and first guest if the person was interesting.  When Saturday Night Live came on the scene, I was back at my apartment by 11:30 PM on Saturday nights as well.

    In my archives, I have a bootleg copy (2 full LPs) of a Friars’ Roast of Don Rickles.  Unlike the ones on TV, this one contained more expletives than a Richard Nixon White House tape recording.  Needless to say, of all the guests roasting Rickles, Carson’s takedown was by far the funniest.  Fortunately, YouTube has a wealth of old Tonight shows, including the final show and a “making of” behind the scenes look.  Great stuff . . .

    • #14
  15. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    • #15
  16. Django Member
    Django
    @Django

    I had to get up early for work so I missed these if they really happened. Did Carson really ask Arnold Palmer’s wife if she had any special thing she did before Arnie played in a tournament? Did she really answer, “Well, I kiss his balls”? Did Carson really get sued for his response? 

    Did Raquel Welch really bring a cat out to sit in her lap during the interview? Well, let’s just let that one lie. 

    • #16
  17. EB Thatcher
    EB
    @EB

    Django (View Comment):

    Did Raquel Welch really bring a cat out to sit in her lap during the interview? Well, let’s just let that one lie. 

    Well, it was supposedly Zsa Zsa.  However, the story has been retold over the years and the star changes with the decades.  Apparently, someone tried to nail down whether this actually happened, but it’s impossible to do because The Tonight Show didn’t broadcast live while Carson was host.  So anything like that would have been cut.

    • #17
  18. Django Member
    Django
    @Django

    EB (View Comment):

    Django (View Comment):

    Did Raquel Welch really bring a cat out to sit in her lap during the interview? Well, let’s just let that one lie.

    Well, it was supposedly Zsa Zsa. However, the story has been retold over the years and the star changes with the decades. Apparently, someone tried to nail down whether this actually happened, but it’s impossible to do because The Tonight Show didn’t broadcast live while Carson was host. So anything like that would have been cut.

    Then, I guess you know the rest of the story ;-)

    • #18
  19. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Django (View Comment):

    EB (View Comment):

    Django (View Comment):

    Did Raquel Welch really bring a cat out to sit in her lap during the interview? Well, let’s just let that one lie.

    Well, it was supposedly Zsa Zsa. However, the story has been retold over the years and the star changes with the decades. Apparently, someone tried to nail down whether this actually happened, but it’s impossible to do because The Tonight Show didn’t broadcast live while Carson was host. So anything like that would have been cut.

    Then, I guess you know the rest of the story ;-)

    That sounds like the kind of thing that may not have been noticed at first, but might have been cut later for repeats etc.  Or it might have aired on the East Coast but was cut before the West Coast airing.

    So SOME people might have seen it, but unless they recorded it themselves, it’s probably gone now.

    • #19
  20. EJHill+ Podcaster
    EJHill+
    @EJHill

    Carson was asked about the cat joke by Jane Fonda on a show in 1989. She repeated the story and asked if it was true. Johnny said, “No. I think I would recall that.”

    • #20
  21. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    EJHill+ (View Comment):

    Carson was asked about the cat joke by Jane Fonda on a show in 1989. She repeated the story and asked if it was true. Johnny said, “No. I think I would recall that.”

    Eh, I’m not going to assume Johnny always told the truth on his show.

    Which doesn’t prove that it did happen.

    But I can believe that Johnny would lie about it if it had.

    • #21
  22. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    EJHill+ (View Comment):

    Carson was asked about the cat joke by Jane Fonda on a show in 1989. She repeated the story and asked if it was true. Johnny said, “No. I think I would recall that.”

    At the end of every episode of the Burns and Allen show. George said to Gracie “Say goodnight, Gracie!” And she’d say “Goodnight”.  There’s a popular belief that she’d say “Goodnight Gracie”,  but it never happened.  Asked about it in later life, George claims they just never thought of it.  

    • #22
  23. EJHill+ Podcaster
    EJHill+
    @EJHill

    There’s a lot of people who SWEAR that they heard various risqué things on the air but it’s mostly due to a guy named Kermit Schafer who made millions selling his “blooper” albums. The problem was is that Schafer couldn’t always find the tapes and took the legends and re-created them with actors and imitators, selling them without any disclaimer. Broadcast historians hate the man with a passion.

    • #23
  24. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    EJHill+ (View Comment):

    There’s a lot of people who SWEAR that they heard various risqué things on the air but it’s mostly due to a guy named Kermit Schafer who made millions selling his “blooper” albums. The problem was is that Schafer couldn’t always find the tapes and took the legends and re-created them with actors and imitators, selling them without any disclaimer. Broadcast historians hate the man with a passion.

    You mean no one ever said “Mr. Edward Playbody will now pee for you?”

    • #24
  25. Django Member
    Django
    @Django

    Percival (View Comment):

    EJHill+ (View Comment):

    There’s a lot of people who SWEAR that they heard various risqué things on the air but it’s mostly due to a guy named Kermit Schafer who made millions selling his “blooper” albums. The problem was is that Schafer couldn’t always find the tapes and took the legends and re-created them with actors and imitators, selling them without any disclaimer. Broadcast historians hate the man with a passion.

    You mean no one ever said “Mr. Edward Playbody will now pee for you?”

    Or “two pickets to Tittsburg”?

    • #25
  26. EB Thatcher
    EB
    @EB

    EJHill+ (View Comment):
    There’s a lot of people who SWEAR that they heard various risqué things on the air

    Well, there is the story that on the Newlywed Game the question was, “What is the most unusual place you have made whoopee?” Neal Boortz swore for years that the woman answered, “In the b**t, Bob.”

    No one has ever been able to document that.

    • #26
  27. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    EB (View Comment):

    EJHill+ (View Comment):
    There’s a lot of people who SWEAR that they heard various risqué things on the air

    Well, there is the story that on the Newlywed Game the question was, “What is the most unusual place you have made whoopee?” Neal Boortz swore for years that the woman answered, “In the b**t, Bob.”

    No one has ever been able to document that.

    That episode is on Youtube, but it (“a**”) is pretty obviously dubbed in.

    • #27
  28. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    OldPhil (View Comment):

    EB (View Comment):

    EJHill+ (View Comment):
    There’s a lot of people who SWEAR that they heard various risqué things on the air

    Well, there is the story that on the Newlywed Game the question was, “What is the most unusual place you have made whoopee?” Neal Boortz swore for years that the woman answered, “In the b**t, Bob.”

    No one has ever been able to document that.

    That episode is on Youtube, but it (“a**”) is pretty obviously dubbed in.

    I’ve seen a few clearly edited Wheel Of Fortune things too, where supposedly someone couldn’t guess letters that were already filled in, in other parts of the puzzle.

    • #28
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