Wednesday 25 October 2017

Playing Tonight

Skitch Henderson had two kicks at being the frontman for the Tonight show band. The first time was when the show debuted in September 1954; he had been hosting a variety show with his wife Faye Emerson. When Steve Allen left Tonight in 1957 and battled Ed Sullivan for Sunday night ratings, Henderson went along. He returned to Tonight on April 29, 1962 when NBC was rotating hosts following Jack Paar’s departure and stayed when Johnny Carson became the host on October 1, 1962. Eventually, Henderson wanted to try other things and was replaced in October 1966 by Milton DeLugg, the bandleader on Tonight late-night predecessor Broadway Open House.

This guest column syndicated by King Features on August 12, 1963 tells us about Skitch’s band. Already, it appears Doc Severinsen was displaying the irreverence that stood him in good stead with Carson when DeLugg left in 1967 and he took over.

My Band’s Best, Says Skitch
(One of our editors suggested that we do a story on the men in Skitch Henderson's band on the "Tonight" show. It seemed like a good idea, but Skitch insisted on writing it himself. The commitment was made about a month ago, but the bearded one's schedule is one of the busiest in the business and his comments on his musicians just arrived.—Harvey Pack).
I've got the best band in the land. Maybe I'm partial, but the orchestra that plays for NBC-TV's Tonight show starring Johnny Carson consists of the finest musicians in the country.
I have conducted symphonies and operas all over the world and I'll go on record as saying that each one of the Tonight show band regulars could, if he wanted to, sit in and hold his own in any concert hall or opera house.
However, the guys love what they're doing now. Aside from their expert musicianship, their enthusiasm and spontaneity five nights a week, every week, is the secret of our success. Sure, it's work, but it's also play.
We have very serious rehearsals in which we have to work out brand new numbers for each evening's guests. This can run from jazz to novelty to grand opera. Rehearsal discipline is strict. There's no alternative as we rarely have time to go through an orchestration more than once.
Show time is something else. Anything goes, and usually does, once announcer Ed McMahon says: "And now, here's Johnny!" The music is constantly reshuffled while we're on the air, to go along with the mad ad-lib pace of show. At least 30 per cent of the music we play is totally unrehearsed and equally unexpected. How do we do it? The credit goes to the guys in the band. And what guys! Most of the regulars have been with me steadily for a dozen years and we played for the Tonight show when Steve Allen—a musical guy himself—was host.
Our line-up included Doc Severinsen (trumpet) who used to play side by side with our other featured trumpet soloist, Clark Terry, when they were with the Charlie Barnett band; Bob Haggart, the fabulous "Big Noise From Winnetka" bassist with the old Bob Crosby Bobcats; Hymie Shertzer, the saxophonist who was a mainstay of the Benny Goodman band; trombonist Will Bradley, who led his own great swing band in the '40s; Al Klink, whose sax sparked the original Glenn Miller orchestra; Harold Feldman, perhaps the country's No. 1 oboe player; Bobby Rosengarten, whose drum magic and versatility is unmatched.
There isn't enough space to include all the members and the bands they played with, but the list would include every great music group of the last 30 years. The musicianship is taken for granted. The boys are so good that even with their hair all the way down, they're incapable of playing badly.
Sometimes the going gets tough and occasionally chaos reigns. I've a bad habit of forgetting titles and simply labelling my orchestrations with numerals. One night I distributed three orchestrations among the band members, all marked No. 1. On the air I counted off the tempo for No. 1 and three different songs came forth simultaneously, each one played correctly and beautifully, I'm happy to add.
The boys frequently get into the act of the Tonight show itself, but it isn't planned in advance. When the contestants for the NBC International Beauty contest appeared as guests, Doc Severinsen, who is of Scandinavian descent, asked to speak to Misses Denmark, Sweden and Norway. I expected a flood of foreign words but Doc smiled into their faces and said "I yoost wanted to say 'hello'."
Another time, when we had a hypnotist as a guest panelist, Doc got up to play a solo ride on "Honeysuckle Rose," but out came "Rose Room." He claimed he was in a trance.
The confusion of the Tonight show is taken in stride by the band regulars. When Will Bradley was ill one evening, his last-minute substitute played the show reasonably well but got up and walked out of the studio halfway through the proceedings. It was a station break and he thought the program was over.
One night, Bobby Rosengarten was all set for a drum solo when his cymbal fell off the band stand. Thinking fast, he performed an impeccable solo on the bell opening of the nearest tenor saxophone.
The strings of Bob Haggart's bass fiddle once snapped in the middle of a beautiful slap chorus. He continued without missing a beat by merely singing the bass cords that followed.
Do I like the music we play on the Tonight show? More and more. Popular music is getting better, and so are the performing guests.
The groaners and screamers are on the way out. Perhaps it's the folk singers who have brought to the popular field some freshness, taste and musicality that's been conspicuously absent from Tin Pan Alley for too long.
Besides, Johnny Carson and producer Art Stark have given me a great deal of freedom in selecting the show's music and musical guests. I think our level is high, and still climbing.

1 comment:

  1. While Severnson would be the better known personalty by the end of the 1960s, the other trumpeter in the band Henderson mentions, Clark Terry, would have a minor hit the year after this story ran, with "Mumbles" in 1964 (Terry would also provide the music for the non-studio cartoon Warner Bros./7 Arts released in 1968, Ken Mundie's "The Door").