Doc Severinsen, ‘Murvul’ boy: Former ‘Tonight Show’ bandleader now calls Blount County home
By Steve Wildsmith | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Upon moving to Blount County, Carl H. “Doc” Severinsen received some words of wisdom from a few close friends.
“More than one person said, ‘If you’re moving to Maryville, you’d better learn how to pronounce it,” he told The Daily Times this week with a chuckle. “It’s spelled ‘Murvul.’ If you think of it that way, it just comes out real easy.”
The iconic “Tonight Show” bandleader, a fixture on late-night television for decades alongside Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon, has called East Tennessee home for several years, but it wasn’t until he and his partner, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra first trumpeter Cathy Leach, decided they needed a bigger place that they cast their eyes toward Blount County.
“She and I were living in West Knoxville, and she found this really great ol’ farmhouse out here in the country, so that’s where we’re living now,” said Severinsen, who performs this weekend with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. “I was just looking out on a pasture a few minutes ago and thinking, ‘It doesn’t get much better than this!’”
Along with Carson and McMahon, Severinsen ruled late-night television for 25 years, from 1967 to 1992; as the dapper bandleader famous for his mustachioed mug and brightly colored, starched shirts, Severinsen elevated Carson’s show with a dash of elegance and class, and the famous trio set the stage for everyone who would follow in their wake, from Jay Leno to David Letterman to Jimmy Fallon.
“The interest in Johnny and ‘Tonight Show’ has not gone down, to speak of; in fact, with the recent ruckus they’re having with the late night shows, it’s come up quite a bit lately,” Severinsen said. “The one word that I would be inclined to use to describe Johnny is class. He had lots of class. He graduated college with a degree in logic, and in 30 years, I never heard him manhandle the English language. I can never recall him making a grammatical error, and he didn’t always stoop to the obvious level of comedy. He stayed above the fray.”
Although music is an integral part of late-night talk shows these days, it isn’t the same as it was when Severinsen was on the air, he added.
“It’s used in an entirely different way,” he said. “The idea of a band number is beyond the pale. They’re somewhat hampered by the fact they prefer to have small bands that are very maneuverable, and that has some advantages to it — they do fine with what they have — but they just never built it into the kind of thing where, ‘Well, tonight’s the night for a band number.’ Our band was unique. It was the last large orchestra on television on a regular basis.”
Trumpet by default
As a boy, Severinsen’s father urged him to play the violin, but the youngster insisted on learning how to play the trombone. However, he had to settle for the only horn available in the small-town music store where he grew up — a trumpet. With the help of his father and a manual of instructions, the 7-year-old got so good so quickly that he was asked to join the high school band a week later.
While still in high school, he was hired to go on the road with the Ted Fio Orchestra, and after serving in the military during World War II, he was hired as a staff musician for NBC. His previous experience gave him plenty of preparation for his “Tonight Show” gig, and in 1952, he became a member of “The Tonight Show” band under then-host Steve Allen. In 1967, he rose to the position of bandleader and held it until Carson retired in 1992.
“For the first six months after the show was over, it was a very difficult time,” he said. “But then the sun came out one day, and I said, ‘Wow — I have total freedom to do anything I want to do!’ I don’t have a regular schedule to keep, and it’s been very enjoyable ever since.”
He still performs regularly and conducted various orchestras across the country until 2007. He plays a variety of styles with Doc Severinsen & the San Miguel 5, traveling around the country, and works with various Big Bands around the United States as well.
“There seems to be a kind of renewed interest in it, with all kinds of groups springing up all over the country,” he said. “I go out with my own Big Band — I’m going out next week after I finish up here with the Knoxville Symphony. I’ve really got a lot of stuff on my plate. I’ll put it to you this way: I’m not semiretired anymore.”
This weekend’s program is part of the KSO’s Pops concert series and is titled “Italian Style.” On the program are classic Italian folk songs like “O Sole Mio” and themes by Verdi and Puccini; Severinsen will be accompanied by tenor Joseph Wolverton and accordion player Mark Sillman.
“We’re billing it as a sort of night in Italy with Doc, and it’s obviously a vehicle to play different types of Italian music, which I love,” he said. “I did the program many years ago because of the trips I made to Italy. I’ve spent quite a bit of time there, and I have always been a bit of an Italophile. My basic diet, I would say, is Italian, and once in a while, an Italian or Spanish word pops out of my mouth, and it always surprises me, because that’s not where I am.
“The musical culture and heritage is very rich, and it’s easily transcribed to a program here, because we have a wide variety of things we can do. We’ll be doing a lot of the Neapolitan songs, which are distressingly beautiful, and very easy to listen to, and there will be some jazz in some form or another. It’s a program I’ve always had great success with, and I’m happy to do it.”