05/01/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
TALK ABOUT BEING DIFFERENT AS night and day: His television show is often the last thing viewers see before falling asleep. She, meanwhile, is the star of a classic afternoon soap. He lives in a secluded four-bedroom house in West Hills, Calif., 35 miles from Hollywood. She is settled in a one-bedroom apartment just outside of L.A. She's a neat freak. He's a slob. She prefers boots. He likes sandals.
Opposites do attract. Just ask The Tonight Show's new bandleader, Kevin Eubanks, 37, and his sweetheart, actress Tammy Townsend, 24, who plays Wendy Reardon, a struggling single mom, on NBC's Days of Our Lives.. Even when the pair look back on the same event, they have different takes. "He was nervous; he couldn't sleep," Townsend says, recalling Eubanks's behavior in early January, just before he took over the NBC band from departed sax player Branford Marsalis. Sitting on his sunny deck, Eubanks wrinkles his brow at Townsend's story. "No, man, I was cool," he remembers. "Well, it was an intense period."
Friends see it as a case of old-fashioned chemistry. "They're a good match," says Tonight host Jay Leno, who for a while last year teased Eubanks on the air about his "secret lover" constantly. "Tammy is really cute," Leno says, "outgoing, but not in a showbiz way. Kevin's kind of shy and reserved." Both the guitarist and his girlfriend looked decidedly sheepish last fall when Leno brought Townsend on the show to patch up a quarrel that began after Eubanks, a dedicated weight lifter, suggested that Townsend use weights to tone her legs. Says the actress: "Jay's a nice guy—but I could do without that kind of attention!"
In spite of their differences, Eubanks and Townsend share similar backgrounds—both came from strong, supportive families. Raised in what he calls a "pretty strict" home in Philadelphia, Eubanks is the second of four sons of William, a security manager for AT & T, and Vera, a music teacher. From an early age he was a loner—a plus in his tough neighborhood. "People thought I was weird," he says. "They left me alone."
He was happiest with music—a passion he acquired, literally, at his mother's knee. Because she couldn't afford a babysitter, Eubanks says, his mother would bring him to choir practice and have him sit on her lap. When he was growing up, punishment meant he wasn't allowed to play his guitar.
By 13, Eubanks was doing gigs in Philly jazz clubs. (Talent runs in the family: Eubanks's brothers—Robin, 39, and twins Shane and Duane, 26—are all musicians too.) In 1976, Eubanks enrolled at Boston's Berklee College of Music, where one of his best pals was a young Branford Marsalis. After leaving, Eubanks joined drummer Art Blakey's band, the Jazz Messengers, and earned a reputation as a top jazz guitarist. His old pal Marsalis invited him to join Tonight when he took over the orchestra from Doc Severinsen in 1992.
Townsend grew up in Carson, Calif., with her father, Thomas, a municipal judge, and her mother, Anorene, an interior designer. (She has one sibling, brother Travis, 19, who lives at home.) A self-described "wild tomboy," Town-send loved to sing and began acting lessons at age 9. She landed her first TV role at 14, a guest spot on Diffrent Strokes. The following year, she enrolled in L.A.'s High School of the Arts. "It's like the school in Fame," she explains, "but we weren't dancing on tables." She graduated in 1988 and soon found work on shows like In the Heat of the Night and Quantum Leap. Last year she got her big break playing Wendy on Days. The character, who's seeking a husband to help raise her son, often strains Townsend's sympathies. "She's family-oriented, like I am," Townsend says. "But she's not assertive."
Last June, Marsalis indirectly played matchmaker for the couple. They met in the parking lot of an L.A. recording studio where both had worked on a Marsalis album, Buckshot LeFonque (she sang lead on "Ain't It Funny"; he played guitar). Typically, their memories of the moment differ. Eubanks recalls introducing himself somewhat bravely. "I had to talk to her," he says. "She had a very low-key, organic vibe I really dug." But Townsend says: "He was awkward at first, which I thought was cute." When they had their first date a week later, she says, "he had a pimple on his chin. That was cute too."
The blemish has vanished, but not the affection—though the two agree they aren't ready for marriage. "We talk about it—sparingly," says Eubanks. "I'm not in a hurry," Townsend adds. Careers beckon. Townsend has completed a TV pilot called Divas, about an all-female R&B band. Eubanks recently released his 11th solo album, Spiritalk 2, and is hitting his stride on Tonight. He credits Townsend for helping him get through the transition from background player to bandleader. "Tammy told me to just go on, be myself, and then everything would be fine," he says. Naturally, Townsend has her own version: "I just told him that stuff so I could get some sleep."
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles