It's a Long Day's Journey from 'tonight' When Doc Severinsen Comes Home to Oregon
07/13/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT
It is 3 a.m. in Arlington, Oreg., population 600, a sleepy little town even when it's awake. But one soul in the dusty eastern Oregon hamlet is not only awake, he is bright of eye and clear of head—and fairly weak-kneed with the excitement of homecoming. "Well, will you look at that," exclaims Doc Severinsen, driving slowly through the deserted streets. "There's Grandma's and Aunt Dot's house on the hill. This is where the Indians used to camp and tan hides. I remember cattle drives right through town. Hell, if you didn't shut your front door, they'd walk right into the living room. It's true. Oh, look at those locust trees. My father and I planted those. And look at those hills. My dad loved that sagebrush. It might be the best smell in the world, sagebrush after a rain."
Sagebrush? Cattle drives? Somehow it seems an unlikely ambience to have nourished the dandified bandleader who is Johnny Carson's most flamboyant foil. (When Doc showed up one night dressed in suede and satin, Carson cracked, "I wouldn't wear that to fondle Randolph Scott's saddle horn.") But after 14 years as The Tonight Show's primary music-maker, Severinsen was finally receiving a fanfare of his own. Late last month he left his baton and sequins behind to make a sentimental journey to the tiny town on the Columbia River where he was born and grew into young manhood. Doc, who turns 54 this week, had flown in from L.A. with his third wife, Emily Marshall, 38, for a Doc Severinsen Day celebration that stirred fond memories, a few tears and some laughs.
Waiting for him when he pulled up at the Arlington Village Inn motel was a suite equipped with a king-size water bed. "I don't know if I should sleep or tread water," Doc joked. There were flowers in his room from his childhood friend Ada Bowman Connor, coordinator of the day, and a warm greeting from the inn's owner, Lanny Wynia: "It's like Ralph Edwards—'This Is Your Life'—huh, Doc?"
The hugging and kissing began at 9 the next morning, when word buzzed around town that Doc was eating breakfast at the motel. Soon the place was packed with so many old friends exclaiming "Lordy, will you look at you!" that Doc missed a coffee social and an art show and needed an hour to walk 25 feet to a barbecue in his honor that afternoon. Frank Adams, his onetime high school band instructor, was there. "My Lord, this guy had to put up with me as a kid," Doc marveled. Another who turned up was Gordon White, a classmate's father, who hugged Doc and said: "I gave you a paddling one time." Doc sheepishly admitted it and added: "I deserved it too." Rancher Howard Stone stopped him and said: "Every time I see you on TV, I think of that little kid back in Arlington." Doc asked about some of his old friends: "Hey, is young Art here?" "Do you mean old Art?" came the reply. "I mean my-age Art," said Doc. "Yeah, he's still here. But he's old Art now."
Next came the dedication of Doc's Rock, a granite monument inscribed to the "native son" made good. "Oh, no," groaned Carl Hilding Severinsen, "whose idea was it to put in my middle name?" Then came the music. The town's children held up letters spelling out A-R-L-I-N-G-T-O-N as they sang a tribute to their town to the tune of Harrigan. "It's still the same," Doc said. "Remember when our mothers made us get up there and sing?" Doc was allowed to give a speech, and didn't abuse the privilege. He kept it short. "You are all from eastern Oregon and don't you forget it," he said. "You provided me with a background and stability I'll never forget or lose."
Doc was joined onstage and throughout the day by his 83-year-old mother, Minnie Mae. But it was from his late father, Carl Severin Severinsen, a passionate violinist and the town's only dentist, that Doc inherited both his love for music and his medical monicker (which stuck from birth). "He wanted me to play the violin, but I refused," Doc remembers. "He bought me a junior-size one and told me that I had to practice one hour every day or just sit in my high chair. So I just sat there. Eventually, he gave up." Doc had hoped to play the trombone, but his arms were too short to extend the slide. So he settled for a cornet. Herb Clarke, a neighbor, got Doc started writing out the scale and fingering on a brown paper sack. Then his father taught him the distinctive style of tonguing that he is known for today: "My dad would get a piece of tobacco on the tip of his tongue and say, 'Now, Carl, look at the way I get rid of it—spit—just like that. Spit the notes out.' " Young Carl was adept at his instrument from the start. Yet he hated to practice. "I remember my mother following me around with a piece of kindling wood, saying, 'If you don't practice, I'm going to spank you.' But back then I'd rather take a lickin' than practice."
Nonetheless, three weeks after he picked up his horn, 7-year-old Doc was playing in the high school band. Two years later he became Oregon's champion junior trumpeter. Afterward, incensed when band teacher Clyde Simpson said he was too young to play first chair in the high school band, Severinsen vowed to play first chair somewhere else—and he did, as the youngest member, at 13, of an all-star band from four Western states, Alaska and British Columbia. When he was 14, he tried out for Tommy Dorsey's band—and didn't make it.
In his junior year in high school, Doc formed the Blue Notes, a quartet that played grange dances for $8 a night. All four Blue Notes were back in Arlington for the reunion. There was Denny Clarke—"sort of a best buddy," said Doc—who is now a state transportation official, George "Junior" Shane, a wealthy landowner, and Gordon Schoewe, who gave up his clarinet and went into commercial art. Doc had known Gordon's talents lay there, he explained, "when I saw the dancing girl Gordon painted on the bass drum." Unfortunately, Clarke confessed, he threw out the drum only last year.
When he was still a senior, Doc went on tour with Ted Fio Rito's band. He finished his studies through the mail, returned to Arlington to graduate in June 1945, then joined the Army. When he got out, just over a year later, Doc finally did get to play with Tommy Dorsey—and Charlie Barnet and Benny Goodman too. Then in 1949 he grew a mustache to make himself look older and joined NBC in New York as a staff musician, playing for the likes of Kate Smith, Eddie Fisher, Steve Allen and Dinah Shore until he became Skitch Henderson's assistant on The Tonight Show in 1962.
Only a year earlier Doc had recorded the first of his 20 albums. He had a problem, though: He had learned to play so many different styles on TV—jazz, pop, symphonic, Latin—that, as he said then, "I was suddenly confronted with the realization that I had no distinctive style of my own. So I just played the way I felt." Since then he has cut a new LP practically every year and has been voted top instrumentalist in the Playboy Music Poll for 10 years running. Today, he says, his versatility is not a problem—it's his greatest asset. "What I want people to know," he says, "is that Doc Severinsen plays many different things." That's why he has formed a new group, Xebron, named after a fantasy place suggested by his psychiatrist—a place where problems are easily solved. "It's a group which will allow me to expand my musical horizons," says Doc. "Nowadays it's difficult to make a living just in jazz or just in classical."
But not, however, on The Tonight Show, where Severinsen's salary is estimated at more than a half million for about 200 appearances a year. (His contract calls for him to be present to lend moral support whenever a guest host pinch-hits for Carson.) Doc also plays six weeks a year in Vegas and serves as vice-president in charge of new product development at C.G. Conn, Ltd. of Elkhart, Ind., manufacturers of band instruments. He owns a baronial Mediterranean home in L.A.'s Nichols Canyon and fills it with the American art he collects with Emily, the TV scriptwriter (Laverne & Shirley) who became his wife 14 months ago. Married twice before—the first time for 15 years, the second for nine—Severinsen now has five grown children, three from his first marriage and two he legally adopted from his second wife's earlier marriage.
Contrary to the swinging image he cultivates on Tonight, Doc is a reformed alcoholic who has been on the wagon for 25 years. He and Emily begin their days early—at 6 a.m.—running and weight lifting. Afterward Doc may spend some time training his dogs—Henry, Rosie, North and South. A lifelong animal lover, he also owns an interest in several racehorses. "I've had this horse thing since I was a kid," he says. (Back in Arlington, Doc mounted a saddle horse named Rags, stroked its neck and sighed: "This is the happiest part of the trip so far.")
After taking care of some business by phone and practicing his horn, Doc gets to the core of his day. "Which is The Tonight Show," he says. "Let's face it. I owe my career to Johnny."
His colleagues give Doc his due. "I have not known a musician who is as talented as Doc and who works as hard as he does to stay there," says Tommy Newsom, Doc's less flamboyant fill-in. "Doc has always been the world's greatest trumpet player, and his crazy clothes just helped to make people aware of it."
Three times voted one of America's best-dressed men, Doc insists that he didn't start down the road to sartorial excess until he got on TV. Now, Emily jokes, "His side of the closet has more sequins than mine." When he was a kid in Arlington, Doc recalls, he stuck to the local fashion: jeans and cowboy shirts. "But I do remember that my mom made me a fire-engine-red silk shirt to wear to rodeos and I loved it. Maybe that's where it all started."
As evening neared on his first day back in Arlington in nearly nine years, Doc and Minnie went to the cemetery to pay their respects to Big Doc, who died in 1972. Severinsen wanted to be alone for a moment while he watched the sun dip near the horizon. "We used to take long walks along the river," Doc reminisced. "First we'd go by the pool hall, get a chocolate ice-cream cone and then watch the sun set. You've never seen a sunset until you've seen one from the river."
On Sunday morning there was a community church service held outdoors on a flatbed truck near Interstate 84. "It's like they were filming a movie, it's so beautiful," said Doc, above the rumble of the passing 18-wheelers. "I'm glad I'm from a small town. It's part of American life that you don't find anymore. The value system was different. Any older person would call your parents and say, 'I just whipped your son for you,' and the parents would say, 'Thank you.' "
Finally it was time to go—not home, perhaps, but to the place where he now makes his life. "Well, gosh darn it, I kind of hate to leave," he said with a sigh. Then he cast a last longing gaze over the rugged beauty of the Columbia Valley. "I'll tell you," he murmured, "God put in a full day's work creating this. That is for sure."