For a quarter of a century, Doc Severinsen, a talented trumpet player who played in some of the nation's greatest big bands, was best known as the leader of the house band on Johnny Carson's Tonight show. Carson retired in 1992 and the show's announcer, Ed McMahon, lost much of his celebrity but Severinsen, the only surviving member of the Tonight show trinity, kept right on playing.
He made his entrance Friday night at CSUN's Valley Performing Arts Center to the sound of the Tonight show theme and an offstage announcer's "Heeeere's Doc." But he spent the rest of the evening embracing the big band music that bookended his late night show fame.
Severinsen, 86, still sporting ensembles garish enough to be the envy of Liberace, cut a remarkable figure. He and his trumpet have ceded not even a quarter note to Father Time. Though he could easily have satisfied the enthusiastic audience by merely conducting the 15 members of his Big Band and inserting an occasional solo, he was instead front and center for nearly every number, adding his masterful interpretations throughout the entire performance.
He was joined for about a half dozen numbers by former Supremes singer Mary Wilson. Mostly, she sang former Supremes hits, including The Happening and Back in My Arms Again. Tellingly, she paid homage to the late Flo Ballard but made no mention of lead singer Diana Ross. Wilson's finale, I Am Changing, was from Dreamgirls, the Broadway musical based loosely on the Supremes' career arc.
On paper, the mix of Motown and Big Band might have seemed incongruous but on stage it worked smoothly. Severinsen's band provided the wall of sound and Wilson's sure, smoky voice did the rest. Wilson boasted that she was 70, though she appeared at least a couple of decades younger as she strutted on stage, resplendent in a high cut sequined gown.
For Severinsen, the concert was a return engagement. His performance with the San Miguel 5 was among the very first performances at the facility.
This time, his repertoire included such favorites as I Want to Be Happy, St. Louis Blues, The September Song, Georgia on My Mind and two numbers by Bob Haggart, What's New and South Rampart Street Parade. Severinsen gave each familiar song a unique twist. In so doing he turned the "decidedly morose and sullen" September Song into what he described as a "soft shoe to heaven."
Over the course of the two-hour concert, he shared the spotlight with most of the members of his band. Ernie Watts, a former member of the Tonight show band, wowed the crowd with tenor sax solos and duets. His performance of Count Basie's Jumpin' at the Woodside was strong evidence for Severinsen's claim that Watts is the greatest living player of that instrument.
Even so, the most impressive solo was drummer Stockton Helbing's performance in Sing, Sing, Sing, which was so elaborate and powerful that scattered members of the audience gave him a standing ovation to go with the exuberant applause.
"Have you had a good time?" Severinsen asked as the evening ended with a medley of Count Basie's One O'Clock Jump, Harry James' Two O'Clock Jump and Benny Carter's Twelve O'Clock Jump. "Yes," roared the audience, though the answer was never in doubt.