Music Of A Lifetime

Doc Severinsen’s 90th Birthday With The Kansas City Symphony, Jason Seber, Assistant Conductor
Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
Thursday, June 8, 2017 

Star: Doc Severinsen, guest conductor/trumpet
Vanessa Thomas, soprano/mezzo soprano/contralto
Joseph Wolverton, tenor
Mary Louise Knutson, piano
Kevin Thomas, bass
Stockton Helbing, drums
Brad Shermock, trumpet 

Doc Severinsen, who gained fame as the music director for “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” is still touring. He was in Kansas City, 2016, for his 89th birthday and I missed the concert. Friends still talk about the music. Who would have thought---but Doc came back in 2017 to celebrate his 90th birthday with the Kansas City Symphony. What a musical party it was. This time, I was there. 

Doc Severinsen was born in Oregon, 1927 and is the son of a dentist. He wanted to play the trombone as a child, but there was no instrument available for him, so he got a trumpet. At age twelve, he won his first music contest and by his late teens, he was touring with bands, gradually ending up with Tommy Dorsey. Eventually, Doc began as an NBC staff musician, working his way upward until, 1967, when he began conducting for the Carson Show. Since, then, it is a ride on the road of fame. 

Yes, Doc Severinsen wears clothes that would glow in the dark, sequins and all. His first outfit was a black suit with a sequined flamingo on the back, plus a fuchsia colored shirt. At 90 years old, the man has the endurance of a tank, breath control of a scuba per, and an iron lip. The high notes at the ends of songs are still lingering in Helzberg Hall. Not only that, but he brought along two vocalists who also have wonderful breath control, Vanessa Thomas (who is from Kansas City) and Joseph Wolverton.  Both vocalists have international music reputations that range from singing at the Hollywood Bowl (Thomas) to operatic roles such as in “Carmen” and “Lucia di Lammermoor” (Wolverton.) A Vanessa Thomas highlight was the aria "Un Bel Di verdremo" from “Madame Butterfly” and Joseph Wolverton shone with "Vesti La Giubba" from "Pagliacci.”  Their duet on “Summertime” from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” was smooth as glass. The musical arrangements were in lush Big Band style. 

The play list consisted of 13 music selections, including Doc's performances, vocal selections, orchestra selections and stories about life on the road. The beginning music caught everyone’s attention, as it was “The Tonight Show Theme” with Doc as lead trumpet. From there, it was a trip down memory lane including “Bugle Boy Rag,” “Mack The Knife” and “One O’ Clock Jump”  Doc’s trumpet work didn't look like work at all, it was seamless, from one note to another, the man and the instrument seemed one. Just close your eyes and listen, especially to “The Days Of  Wine And Roses.” Doc got poignant here and told of alcohol almost destroying his career years ago, and how AA saved him and he has been sober over 60 years. 

I had many chances to meet and talk with Doc Severinsen years ago when I was in college. The college band director and Doc were long time friends, and Doc would come there for several days in the summer, stroll the campus, give master classes, present a concert and just relax. It was at this time that Louis Armstrong came there for a concert, and Doc gave a humorous story of  Louis Armstrong’s visit to the Pope,  which was a personal invitation. Armstrong was so enthusiastic about the meeting that when the Pope came into the room, Armstrong rushed forward, grabbed the Pope’s hand and said, “How is everything going, Your Pope-ness?” 

Doc Severinsen is on tour throughout the country now, celebrating his 90th birthday. At this rate, he will be celebrating his 120th birthday and still going strong. By the way, for the instrumentalists out there, Doc Severinsen plays a S. E. Shires Severinsen Destino III, a trumpet he developed.  Enjoying life to the fullest. 


Copyright 2017 Marie Asner