When Doc Severinsen last passed through Central Illinois — a March 2007 show in Decatur — the concert was billed as “likely his last — so don’t miss it!”
Doc was hitting the big 8-0 that summer.
The time to retire from live performance was nigh … unusually nigh.
His old “Tonight Show” boss Johnny Carson had passed two years earlier, sending a nation of Baby Boomers into a head-on collision with intimations of their mortality.
His fellow “Tonight Show” traveler, Ed McMahon, eldest of the hallowed twilight triad, would pass two years later, at 86.
So what happened?
“I have no idea,” chuckles Severinsen, five Marches later.
He’s on the brink of a busy spring/summer touring slate that will bring him to town for a two-hour reflection on his career Tuesday at ISU and a full-blown concert April 6 in Washington with the Heartland Festival Orchestra and the Stiletto Brass Quintet.
“I was headed for retirement,” he admits in that friendly, distinctive voice from a million late nights past, “but … I guess I didn’t.”
He tried, though.
He moved to a home in San Miguel, Mexico, fully intending to become a man of leisure.
But, c’mon: leisure for a trumpet prodigy who was so good at 7, he was asked to join the high school band? And so great in high school, he was asked to go on the road with a pro big band?
Leisure for a man who spent several post-WW II years touring with both Tommy AND Benny (as in Dorsey and Goodman), and, then, at 22, was hired by fledgling TV network NBC to join its staff orchestra in New York?
Leisure for a man whose career spanned the entire “Tonight Show” evolutionary arc, from Steve Allen through Jack Paar to the reign of King Johnny?
“So I started playing at this little restaurant in San Miguel (Mexico),” Severinsen recalls of his alleged retirement.
The inducement to leaving his dining room table: “I heard these guys playing there, and they were world-class.”
The musicians didn’t know the legendary trumpeter in their midst from the lamps on the tables.
Even so, after he introducing himself, they invited him to join in and … pop went Doc’s retirement.
Not long after, Doc Severinsen and The San Miguel 5 had joined forces as a working band, ready to hit the road.
Along the way, Doc returned stateside part of each year, dividing his time between the home in Mexico and another one in Knoxville, Tenn. (which he loves, by the way … “Knoxville is IT”).
Musically, he’s all over the map, not just with the San Miguel 5 and his own Big Band, but also the Stiletto Brass Quintet, with heavy Central Illinois leanings (see accompanying story).
“It’s fun now, I do know that,” he says.
Try to pin Doc down on specific timeframes — 21 years since Johnny retired, seven years since Johnny died, five years since his failed retirement — and he’ll confess, “I don’t keep track of time; I barely know what year this is. That’s not a bad thing, you know.”
He will admit that the final historic night in front of “The Tonight Show” band “in some ways seems like yesterday.”
And he was forced into getting specific a year ago when he participated in the acclaimed PBS “American Masters” profile, “Johnny Carson: The King of Late Night.”
“That was done with a great deal of respect and honesty … the show was right on the money,” he says. “I really liked it.”
The fact that the profile didn’t gloss over some of his boss’ human frailties is fine by Doc.
“We really were like a family,” he says, “and, in some ways, dysfunctional, as families will be.”
Severinsen’s musical acumen was sometimes overshadowed by other factors, from his famously off-the-chart sartorial choices (“a personal trait,” he reasons) to the “Stump the Band” segment to his occasional pinch-hitting for Ed on his nights off — not something he necessarily wanted to do, by the way.
“They didn’t ask me if I wanted to do it; they just said, ‘you’re going to be Ed tonight.’ I tried to tell them they were making a BIG mistake. But they said ‘you have to do it, that’s it.’”
Severinsen has nothing but praise for one of his peers from “Tonight’s” substitute hitter ranks — B-N native McLean Stevenson, one-time heir-apparent to Carson, who ended up preceding everyone in death, passing far too young in 1996.
“All the people around ‘Tonight’ felt that he was one of the very best at taking Johnny’s place,” he says.
When asked how it feels to be the “last man standing,” so to speak (gone, too, is the show’s famed producer-director, Freddie De Kordova, and many of the regular guests who filled the couch), Severinsen confesses, “Sometimes it’s hard to believe … I do find myself looking over my shoulder a lot of the time now.”
“But I was never one to live in the past, though everyone has feelings about the past, as I do. Even this moment that we’ve just talked about is now the past. It’s gone. So I find the best policy is not looking back. I stay in the moment at hand.”
“Because that’s the only moment we have.”
July 7, 1927: Carl H. Severinsen is born to Dr. and Mrs. Carl Severinsen in Arlington, Ore., pop. 600. To distinguish father from son, son becomes “Little Doc.”
1934: Little Doc joins Arlington’s high school band at age 7 … he’s that good.
1939: Little Doc wins the Music Educator’s National Contest at age 12; a few years later he’s asked to go on the road with the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra.
Late 1940s: Now just “Doc,” he tours with both the Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey orchestras.
1949: Doc heads to New York and becomes a staff musician for NBC.
1952: He performs his first “Tonight Show” gig, during the Steve Allen era under leader Skitch Henderson.
1962: He’s promoted to “Tonight Show” band first trumpet at the tail end of the Jack Paar era.
1967: He’s named “Tonight Show” band leader under Johnny Carson’s watch.
1992: He leaves “The Tonight Show” along with Carson, who retires in May of that year.
2006: He retires to his home in Mexico … not.
2013: He collaborates on a new CD with the Stiletto Brass Quintet, featuring ISU’s Amy Gilreath
At a Glance
What: “An Afternoon with Doc Severinsen,” two-hour conversation with ISU faculty trumpeter Amy Gilreath
When: 2 p.m. Tuesday
Where: ISU Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall
Admission: Free but reservations required at box office
Box office: 309-438-2535
At a Glance
What: Doc Severinsen with the Stiletto Brass Quintet & Heartland Festival Orchestra
When: 7:30 p.m. April 6
Where: Caterpillar Center for the Performing Arts at Five Points Washington, Washington
Admission: $20 to $40
Box office: 309-444-8222
More Doc: 7:30 p.m. April 19, Effingham Performance Center, Effingham; 7:30 p.m. April 20, Touhill Performing Arts Center, St. Louis