Doc Severinsen and El Ritmo de la Vida headline 2010 EMF Fringe

by Keith Barber

Do Severinsen (courtesy photo)

As famous as Ed McMahon’s, “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” is the musical cue of brass and horns composed by “Tonight Show” bandleader Doc Severinsen that filled the homes of millions of Americans for 30 straight years. And when one of the greatest gigs in show business history ended abruptly on May 22, 1992, Severinsen, 82, admits it was difficult to move on.

“For about six months, I felt like sitting in a dark corner,” Severinsen said. “But I was the luckiest one of all because I had a career as a musician before ‘The Tonight Show,’ so I could just go back to that and I did. I thought, ‘I’ll have maybe six months when people will still remember me,’ but here it is [18 years] later, and it’s still the same — people come up and want to talk about Johnny, Ed and [Assistant Band Director] Tommy Newsom.”

Despite the life change, the venerable Severinsen didn’t slow down one bit. Within a week of Carson’s final curtain call, Severinsen, his Big Band and his flamboyant wardrobe were entertaining audiences across the country. But performing live gigs for appreciative audiences didn’t hold the same luster as being a part of one of the most successful shows in television history.

“On ‘The Tonight Show,’ we had great artists come in and out every day of the week practically,” Severinsen said. “It would be almost impossible to tell you all the great artists I worked with — everybody from Elvis Presley to Placido Domingo to Benny Goodman to Louis Armstrong.”

For the next 14 years, Severinsen and his band continued to tour. Finally, in 2006, Severinsen decided to retire and moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. But when Severinsen heard the talented guitarist Gil Gutierrez and violinist Pedro Cartas playing in a local caf’, his love of music overpowered all else.

Severinsen, Gutierrez and Cartas are the heart and soul of El Ritmo da la Vida, which will perform at the Eastern Music Festival on the campus of Guilford College on June 26.

When Severinsen first heard the beautiful music of Gutierrez and Cartas, he knew that was exactly what he wanted to do. El Ritmo de la Vida, AKA the San Miguel Five, plays gypsy jazz, French gypsy jazz, Latin and just plain old American music. Improvisation is a key component of the band’s unique fusion of Latin and jazz.

“You never know what the music is going to be until you start playing,” Severinsen said.

Improvisation and good fortune have been the hallmarks of Severinsen’s storied and improbable musical career. Severinsen grew up in a cattle ranching town of 600 people in eastern Oregon — not exactly a hotbed of young musical talent.

“The town was very, very small and if you wanted to play an instrument, you got hold of a used instrument from a neighbor that they had given up on,” said Severinsen. “A friend of my father’s was a mechanic and he had a trumpet up in hisattic. My father asked him about it and he gave it to me. I was seven years old.”

Doc described his father as a talented violin player who had “a very innate sense of musical interpretation.”

“He just taught me at home — there was a lot of guesswork, because there wasn’t anyone around to tell us how to play the trumpet,” Severinsen said. “He thought it was something we could share.”

Severinsen had a natural gift for the trumpet and after a brief stint in the Army, he made his way to New York.

“When I first got to New York, the thing that saved my life were Latin bands and for a while, I was doing almost exclusively Latin work,” he said. “It really contributed to my development. I played with Tito Puente, and the band I spent the most time with was from Cuba — Noro Morales.”

Working with legends like Puente and Morales led to Severinsen getting an audition for “The Tonight Show,” which at the time was hosted by Steve Allen. Severinsen became part of the band and was eventually promoted to bandleader by Johnny Carson in 1967. Severisen said he owes a great debt of gratitude to Carson. Ultimately, however, Severinsen’s passion for the trumpet and love of music has proven to be the driving force in his life.

“Every day I play the trumpet, whether I’m home or on the road, whether there’s an audience or whether it’s just me — the trumpet is addictive,” he said.

wanna go?

Doc Severinsen & El Ritmo De La Vida Saturday, June 26 at 8 p.m. Dana Auditorium, Guilford College For tickets, call 336.272.0160 or 866.579.TIXX.