Doc Severinsen: 85 and still dangerous

Originally published in the Journal Inquirer Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012
by Kristen J. Tsetsi

(c) Doc Severinsen

Carl H. “Doc” Severinsen’s girlfriend asked him at eight o’clock on a recent morning how much longer he plans to play his trumpet on tour.

Or, a trumpet. The legendary trumpeter, probably best known for the thirty years he spent bantering back and forth with Johnny Carson and leading the Tonight Show band, doesn’t really own a single trumpet. Instead, he says, he experiments with a variety of models manufactured by the S.E. Shires Company in Boston, Mass., picking up whichever he decides will be the “flavor of the day.”

He’s lost track of how many are in his house.

“There’s a lot of them. Some of them are on the bed, some are in the bathroom, some are in the attic, and there’s two on the dining room table right in front of me,” he says in a telephone interview from his home in Knoxville, Tenn.

The current flavor of choice is the Destino 3, designed by Shire to Severinsen’s specifications. It’s the one he’ll bring to Manchester High School, where on Monday, Sept. 17, he and the San Miguel 5 band will play their trademark world music, which Severinsen says includes Latin, Gypsy jazz, American jazz, and “standard tunes.”

For all most high school students know, Severinson, at 85, is some guy as old as their great-grandpa who can play a horn. But the students under the instruction of Manchester band director and trumpeter Keith Berry know better.

“We listen to a lot of his music,” Berry says. “As a kid, I wished I could play like Doc Severinsen. For him to be here inspiring my own students, it’s like sharing him with them. Rather than reading about some great musician in a history book, I can say, ‘Guess what? He’s going to come to your school and play.'”

Severinsen jokes that band directors prod their students, prior to one of his visits, to “get on YouTube and see what this old geezer is all about.”

Available on YouTube are not only the expected Tonight Show clips, but footage of Severinsen playing with the San Miguel 5 in Mexico in 2009, taking the stage on the Jack Jones show in 1977, and performing at a telethon to raise money for children in 1966 when he was 39 years old.

Severinsen was impressing the public with his talent long before he became an accomplished adult. In 1934, Severinsen, at 7 years old, showed so much skill on the trumpet that he was invited to join the school band. Just five years later he won the Music Educator’s National Contest, and the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra, a famous band at the time with a national audience, hired Severinsen to go on the road with them when he was still in high school.

You could say he’s been on tour ever since.

“Originally, I was on the road with big bands, like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. That was the rock and roll of its period,” Severinsen says.

Later, he moved to New York.

“I decided I would settle down there, and did a lot of studying and worked as a musician. I did radio, TV, and probably made 50 albums on my own, but I would also be a side man for Frank Sinatra, or whoever the popular performers were at the time.”

He began playing for NBC in 1949, and in 1962 he joined the Tonight Show band, where it wasn’t just his playing that attracted attention, but his clothing.

(c) S.E. Shires Co., Inc.

“I’m known for wearing wild outfits. That was part of my persona on the television show. Very colorful,” he says. “Kind of like thumbing your nose at society.”

Severinsen was 65 years old, retirement age, himself, when Carson retired in ’92. And while he did leave the show along with Carson, Severinsen was on the road within a week of the final taping. Now he tours “as much as possible,” he says. Sometimes he’s away from home for weeks, and other times he’s gone for a few days, his dachshund mix — “Who owns me totally and completely,” he says — waiting at home.

He’ll be in Connecticut for just a few days surrounding the performance at the high school, a show Berry believes will surprise the audience.

“As a musician, you sit down to listen to someone, and you say, ‘This is fun, this is great,’” Berry says of watching a typical musical performance. But Severinsen, he indicates, is anything but typical: after one of Severinsen’s performances two years ago, he says, an excited colleague told him it was “the most musical concert he’s ever heard in his life.”

Severinsen calls the musicianship of his band mates “overwhelming,” the members themselves— Gil Gutierrez (guitar), Charlie Bisharat (violin), Jimmy Branly (percussion), and Kevin Thomas (bass) — “world-class” and “good-looking.”

The goal, he says, is to have the audience thinking, “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.” But there’s an added element to the performance, besides just entertainment, when playing to students of music, Severinsen says.

“You aren’t just performing, you’re teaching. And you have a responsibility to make yourself available to the audience. Sometimes they’ll come back stage and want to know this or that. The most asked question is, ‘Should I continue trying to be a musician? Should I do this for a living?’ The answer: Not if you have to ask.”

One of the questions Severinsen hasn’t yet had to ask himself is whether performing is something he should still be doing. In answer to his girlfriend’s question about how much longer he intended to go on tour, he said, “As long as it feels good.”

“You never know when you’re going to quit,” he says. “I’m 85, but I’m still dangerous.”

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2 thoughts on “Doc Severinsen: 85 and still dangerous

  1. Congratulations on this awesome interview with Doc Severinsen. Sounds like he was fun to interview. My favorite line: “You aren’t just performing, you’re teaching.” I think that’s so cool he visits high schools. I’m sharing this today. :)

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