Trumpeter Doc Severinsen (b. 1927) is probably best known as the bandleader – as well as sometime sidekick, sometime host, comic foil and sartorial satirist – of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, from 1967 until Carson’s retirement in 1992: more of a comical character than a serious musician. But he was very much a serious musician.
Born Carl Hilding Severinsen, “Doc” – a nickname he earned as his father was a dentist – got his start in the big bands of Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. In 1949, he was hired as a studio musician for NBC-TV, where he worked primarily on the precursor to the Carson show, Tonight Starring Steve Allen, which featured Severinsen himself playing the closing theme each night.
By the mid-fifties, Severinsen was an in-demand studio musician, playing on scores of sessions recorded in New York City, including discs by Tony Bennett, Dinah Washington, Chris Connor and Lena Horne as well as jazz records with Urbie Green, Gene Krupa, Dizzy Gillespie and, notably, Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band.
Severinsen launched his own recording career in the early sixties at Enoch Light’s Command Records label, surrounded by a stable of studio pros who cranked out many orchestral records for both the jazz and easy-listening markets. The trumpeter rejoined the Tonight Show in 1962, but his session work ground to a halt when he took over the show’s band as leader in 1967.
The bandleader did, however, continue putting out albums under his own name – as well as fronting a little-known series of records by American high-school and college bands. After several records that attempted to crossover (with more popular fare), Severinsen teamed with arranger Don Sebesky, then the premier purveyor of crossover jazz.
At the time, Don Sebesky (b. 1937) was known for the exquisite, sensitive and complimentary – but otherwise critically reviled – “sweetening” added to such Creed Taylor productions as those by George Benson, Paul Desmond, Astrud Gilberto, Kai Winding and, most memorably, Wes Montgomery. Somehow, Sebesky mixed an understanding of classical, pop and jazz – and the way all three genres could work together – into a pleasing cacophony of sound that worked for any fan of…good music.
Plus, Sebesky always worked with the world’s greatest musicians – whether they were fronting the band or backing it.
Sebesky also acquired a well-deserved reputation for subtly adapting then-emerging popular music (especially The Beatles) into jazz without losing any credibility along the way. He also had an amazing talent for wedding disparate genres into a musical whole.
Interestingly, given how much time Severinsen and Sebesky spent in New York studios during the sixties, there is no indication they had ever worked together before – or after – these records. Their brief collaboration yielded a single-only release of “Knowing When to Leave” and the two LPs, Doc Severinsen’s Closet (Doc’s final Command record) and Brass Roots (his first on RCA).
“Knowing When to Leave” b/w “Barbarella” (1968)
Doc Severinsen first teamed with Don Sebesky on this 45-rpm single release of “Knowing When to Leave,” backed with the theme from the 1968 film Barbarella. Released in November 1968, the single’s a-side is one of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs from the musical Promises, Promises, which ran on Broadway from late 1968 to early 1972. (The production yielded two better-known hits for Dionne Warwick in “Promises, Promises” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”)
Record World said “Doc Severinsen does wonders” with “Knowing When to Leave,” while Billboard claimed the trumpeter fills the song with “excitement and jukebox appeal.” Cash Box added that Severinsen and Sebesky concocted “a winning sound” here.
To these ears, though, “Knowing When to Leave” is all over the place: Doc starts off in low-gear Herb Alpert-Burt Bacharach mode here before turning it up to eleven, revealing his inner Maynard Ferguson (the two played alongside each other in the Charlie Barnet band). Sebesky prods Doc along in surprisingly full-blown brassy Vegas show mode – as though he was scoring a Ferguson record, or his own Broadway musical.
The original “Barbarella” sounded enough like Don Sebesky that Sebesky himself had little to do to makeover the Bob Crewe and Charles Fox song. Replacing the Glitterhouse vocal with Severinsen’s appropriately sexy trumpet and adding some electronics makes “Barbarella” sound as though it could have come straight outta Sebesky’s The Distant Galaxy, recorded around the same time as this Severinsen single.
While these tunes never found their way on to a Doc Severinsen album, “Knowing When to Leave” was issued as part of the kooky Command LP compilation called The Command Revolution: The Spirited Sounds of 1969, which billed itself as “…a switched-on preview of eleven selections from the new, revolutionary COMMAND/PROBE albums.” Uh huh.
Doc Severinsen’s Closet (1970)
”Switched-on” is surely the idea here. Doc was aiming to pull in listeners of a certain age – he was 42 at the time – while also hoping against hope to appeal to the kids already digging these new sounds. Leaving aside the fact that “the kids” were likely not among those millions watching the Carson show (either because they were in bed or too cool for Carson), it was an ambitious plan anyway.
Severinsen therefore wisely enlisted arranger Don Sebesky, certainly a hipper force in music at the time but also an expert in successfully contemporizing the big band sound. Here, as on the pair’s sequel, Brass Roots, Sebesky sat in the producer’s chair, putting him in charge of the musicians, the program, the sound and the whole hip factor.
Naturally, Sebesky stuck close to the Creed Taylor formula: retrofitting jazz with contemporary concepts and mixing up something old (a classic), something new (pop hits of the day) with an original or two.
Here, the covers touch on Sebesky’s lovely arrangement of the Beach Boys’ 1963 hit “Surfer Girl,” the Chairman of the Board’s soulfully whiny “Give Me Just a Little More Time,” and a seemingly pointless six-minute “Abbey Road Medley” – coming right after Sebesky oversaw George Benson’s album-length medley, The Other Side of Abbey Road (the only overlap is “Because” and “The End”). One might have otherwise preferred a whole version of any one or two of those Beatles songs.
Sebesky’s originals include the Dixielandish “Bottleneck,” the album’s sole single and an obvious gloss on Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass,” and the unexpected hippie anthem “Power to the People” – surely not to be confused with the John Lennon song of the same name. This “Power” is catchy enough but dragged down by Sebesky’s mawkish intrusions of “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” that all sound like the air going out of a balloon. Pure protest-eesh, or something.
What makes Doc Severinsen’s Closet notable, on the other hand, is not the trumpeter himself but rather Sebesky’s presentations of the Spanish-tinged “The Court of the Crimson King” and the remarkably ambitious “Footprints of the Giant.”
The former, from prog-rock group King Crimson’s 1969 debut single (and the band’s only “hit”), spotlights a bravura arrangement and features compelling solo spots helmed by the fine playing of Tommy Newsome (a frequent Severinsen ally and Tonight Show band member) on tenor sax, Rod Levitt or Paul Faulise on trombone and the Doc himself on trumpet.
The latter, a Sebesky concoction based on themes by Bela Bartok, opens as free as Severinsen was likely to get (though he’s probably not playing here) before delving in to a four-on-the-floor rock rhythm. Solos here spotlight Joe Beck on electric guitar, Arnie Lawrence on electric sax, the Doc on trumpet and Ray Barretto on percussion. Sebesky would revisit “Footprints of the Giant” – winningly – on his 1975 CTI album The Rape of El Morro, featuring an even more powerful Joe Beck in positive Hendrix mode.
All of this is to say that for a Doc Severinsen album, there is curiously little Doc Severinsen to be heard. What’s up, Doc? The melody lines here are almost exclusively carried by vocalists (!) - “Give Me Just a Little More Time,” “Power to the People” and “Abbey Road Medley” – or the orchestra, while Doc pops in for a solo or fade-out fills here and there. Throughout, he solos with great aplomb. But the album never feels like his own.
If it feels more like a Don Sebesky record, after all, then “The Court of the Crimson King” and “Footprints of the Giant” make for required listening and ensure that this Closet is well worth digging in to.
Brass Roots (1971)
Brass Roots, the sequel to Doc Severinsen’s Closet, was released almost exactly one year after the previous album in the summer of 1971. While the formula for this record is pretty much the same as the earlier disc, something immediately feels different; as to say, if Closet is how we did it in the sixties, then Brass Roots is how we do it now.
Here, the sound isn’t so much “crossover” – more of an attempt than a genre or subgenre - but more like the fusion of jazz – with rock, pop, Latin, soul and funk – that was beginning to take shape at Sebesky’s home at the time, CTI Records.
Make no mistake. Brass Roots will never be taken for a CTI record. There is no question Severinsen has the chops and can adeptly skate his way through the stratosphere. But he isn’t the kind of player who can balance nuance with power, the way, say Freddie Hubbard could or the way other big-band veterans like Kai Winding did.
What’s more, Sebesky’s charts here are as unlike his CTI work as they could be: heavy on the upper brass and replete with turbo-charged tempi that too often undermine the mood or groove of a song.
Still, Brass Roots is a step up and a foot forward, particularly for its leader. First, the covers are much stronger – and, thankfully, for the most part, are not as overly familiar – are boosted by some really strong charts, including the funky horn parts for Janis Joplin’s “Move Over” (which, here, sounds like a Lalo Schifrin cue from an action score) and the beautifully baroque setting of “Theme from ‘Love Story’.”
The nearly third-stream take on “Love Story,” in particular, is beautifully built on Bach's "Come Sweet Death" (sounding a little like the Beatles' "Because") and showcases some of Severinsen’s finest-ever playing on record. It’s a superb rendition of the song that stands strong – if not even more memorably – with the earlier version Sebesky arranged for Hubert Laws.
(“Love Story” was, coincidentally, a big hit in early 1971 for Henry Mancini, who waxed two records with Doc Severinsen after Brass Roots.)
Sebesky contributes the terrifically funky “Good Medicine” (a nice nod to “the Doc”) and the very brassy “Brass Roots,” a love letter from Sebesky to Severinsen that out-Maynards Sebesky’s former boss, a certain Mr. Ferguson. I would like to think Severinsen played this at least once on The Tonight Show; it comes across as a sort of theme song for the bandleader.
The festive and fiery “Good Medicine” – which gave a 1992 Severinsen-on-RCA CD compilation its title – should be far better-known than it is. Sebesky, in this strange brew, beautifully mixes the hops of Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers with the barley of first-generation Santana. The rhythm section fuels Severinsen, who really rocks this one. It’s a tremendous performance.
The Sebesky novelty “Okefenokee” (comparing a lover not so very lovingly to the so-named swamp) and “Celebrate” seem to feature Doc Severinsen (or someone) on lead vocals – an unnecessary addition, particularly on the latter title. Both, however, have terrific Severinsen trumpet solos, but “Celebrate” yields an extraordinary trombone-sax-trumpet solo section which makes the piece well worth hearing…for about a minute or so.
The album’s pièce de résistance, though, is surely the strange but compelling “Psalm 150.” Jimmy Webb’s curious, though clever piece – whose lyrics are derived from the final Psalm of the Bible – gets a spirited and strangely compelling reading here.
“Psalm 150,” a.k.a. “Psalm One-Five-O,” is an odd choice. It appears to have been written for the British group Revelation for its eponymous (and only) 1970 album. Shortly thereafter, the song’s composer featured “Psalm 150” on his own album Words and Music.
Neither version was ever issued as a single, so it's curious how anyone came about this thing. Here, Severinsen offers a brief, yet signature solo and a typical high-note fade out. Sebesky’s arrangement, combined with the guitar and organ solos, strongly recalls Lalo Schifrin’s unheralded 1971 opus Rock Requiem, likely issued around the same time.
Severinsen continued performing the song in concert – at least through the following year. For his part, Sebesky would go on to cover “Psalm 150” even more remarkably on his 1973 CTI debut Giant Box, in a stellar feature for such luminaries as Jackie & Roy, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Bob James.
While Brass Roots surprisingly yielded no single releases – though several pieces seem perfectly eligible – the album reached 185 on the Billboard 200, Severinsen’s first to do so since 1966. He wouldn’t crack the charts again until 1976’s Night Journey. Wounded Bird issued Brass Roots on CD in 2009.
About the cover: The supremely weird cover graphic of Brass Roots has much of the absurdist quality of Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus (which didn’t make its way to the U.S. until three years later, in 1974) - and a half-buried (!) Doc Severinsen looking, in 2023, an awful lot like a seventies-fied version of Kevin Spacey.
The uncredited illustration is signed by one “Patrick,” possibly the same “Patrick” as Scottish playwright and artist John “Patrick” Byrne. The latter “Patrick,” has done a number of Stealer’s Wheel/Gerry Rafferty album covers (including Rafferty’s 1978 hit City to City) as well as Donovan’s H.M.S. Donovan (1971) and the 1980 compilation The Beatles Ballads - a cover that Patrick originally designed for The Beatles, a.k.a. The White Album (1968).
The problem, though, is that the “Patrick” signature on Brass Roots looks in no way like the baroque – and frankly artier – “Patrick” signature on those other albums. So, who illustrated the curious Brass Roots? Who knows?
Endnote: I’ve written plenty about Don Sebesky over the years. But to read my other Doc Severinsen posts, check out Henry Mancini (the two Doc-Hank albums from 1972 and 1973) and the great Tom Scott-helmed Brand New Thing (1977).