King of the High Notes
Trumpeter Doc Severinsen will play with MSO Pops Orchestra he used to lead.
“Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” For 30 years that opening phrase introducing late-night comedy legend Johnny Carson was accompanied by the brassy blare of The Tonight Show Band, led by the flashy, energetic, trumpet-playing bandleader, Doc Severinsen.
Now, despite being 86, Severinsen is traveling the country with his band, the San Miguel 5. Trumpet in hand, he is searching ways to share music with people around the country.
Fans of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will have the chance to see Severinsen perform this weekend as he adds his jazz talents to a pops concert featuring such American standards as “Georgia on My Mind,” “New York, New York,” “The Lady is a Tramp” and many others.
“It’s one of the best orchestras in the country,” Severinsen says in a phone interview. “The (MSO) is always good to me. I know I’ll have a lot of good friends there, and I just love being on stage with them.”
Severinsen and the MSO will be joined by guest conductor Steven Reineke, music director of the New York Pops, and soprano Ashley Brown, best known for playing the title character in the Broadway production of Mary Poppins.
Severinsen certainly has had a lot of experience doing just that, with a music career spanning almost 70 years. He started early, as he was hired to tour with the famous Ted Fio Rito Orchestra when he was in high school. His time with the band did not last long, however, as he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II.
After the war, Severinsen picked up where he left off, finding a spot to play with the Charlie Barnett Band. He also toured with the Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman bands in the late ‘40s. He became known for his high-note range on the trumpet, which decorated many melodic solos throughout his recorded career.
Severinsen was asked to play as first trumpet at NBC-TV by Skitch Henderson in 1952. Johnny Carson took over as host of the Tonight Show in 1962, and it was only a few months later that Severinsen stepped into the show’s band. Five years later, he was leading it.
Severinsen played a key role in the show, occasionally stepping in as Carson’s right hand man whenever Ed McMahon was not available. Severinsen and the band also provided one of the most popular segments of the show in which Carson tried to “stump the band,” by asking it to play a huge range of popular music. Not surprisingly, Carson rarely ever got anything past the musicians.
When Carson left the show in 1992, so did Severinsen, which was supposed to be the end of his music career. “I was planning on retiring, but that just didn’t work out,” Severinsen says, laughing. His passion for music kept him playing across the country.
“It’s like seeing a beautiful woman. You say, ‘I want her. I desire her,’” Severinsen explains. “When I hear a beautiful song, I know I’ll have a desire to play it. I will want to get to know it. It has to be a visceral desire.”
Beyond his tenure with the Tonight Show, Severinsen worked with a multitude of orchestras across the countries, serving as a pops conductor with the Phoenix Symphony, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and, of course, the MSO. In 2007 after he retired from his conducting career, the MSO named him its pops conductor emeritus.
Put it all together and you get a musician who is extremely well-versed in American popular music of the last 70 years. Severinsen says he places a huge emphasis on meaningful performances, which he believes makes concerts more powerful.
“We need to have audiences seeking knowledge or searching for understanding. When you walk out on that stage, every note counts. You have to do your best all the time.”
The pop concert will begin at 8 p.m. Jan. 3-4 and at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 5. Each will take place at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available at the MSO’s website or through the MSO ticket line (414) 291-7605.
Other events this week:
El Cimarrón by the Skylight Music Theatre
The Skylight Music Theatre presents El Cimarrón, a 1970 composition by Hans Werner Henze about a Cuban runaway slave. The performance is part of the theatre’s season focusing on freedom and revolution.
The show will run for the next two weeks, but will being Jan. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $37.50, available online or by calling (414) 291-7800.
Milwaukee Children’s Choir audition
Milwaukee children can start their own music career by joining the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, which is opening for auditions this week, beginning Jan. 6.
Auditions may be scheduled with the MCC’s office at 414-221-7040 and will take place at the Broadway Theatre Center. More information can be found at the MCC’s website.
Tuesday Night Jam Sessions with the MYSO
Here is a great way to enjoy the musical talent of young Milwaukee musicians for free. The Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra will be putting on its monthly Tuesday Night Jam Session. The events often feature favorite jazz professionals from the city.
The session will begin at 7 p.m. Jan. 7 at the Jazz Gallery. For more information, visit the MYSO’s website.