NEVER TOO LATE: THE DOC SEVERINSEN STORY
From our continuing coverage of the 2020 Nashville Film Festival by Jason T Sparks
Once upon a time, there was a skinny guy from Nebraska named Johnny Carson, and he was the burning-hot epicenter of American popular culture. Every weeknight, at 11:30 Eastern/10:30 Central, he hosted The Tonight Show, a talk show on NBC—yes, the same show now hosted by Jimmy Fallon, who had not been born when Carson first took the job—and in America, one had not truly “arrived” as a celebrity until appearing on Carson. Not that every guest was a celebrity: the stand-up comedians were often still in the dues-paying phase of their careers, which Carson could single-handedly change. The animals, courtesy of the San Diego Zoo, were never celebs, but they definitely had their moments. Even eccentric, quirky folks like a woman in her 80s who collected potato chips that looked like celebrities were treated to a moment of fame by Johnny Carson. He was an unparalleled force in television for thirty years.
In 1977, critic Kenneth Tynan wrote about Carson for The New Yorker, and described the usual beginning of an episode of The Tonight Show thus:
On his lips as he walks toward applauding audience is the only unassuming smirk in show business. He halts and swivels to the right (upper part of body turning as rigid vertical unit, like that of man in plaster cast) to acknowledge Big Ed’s traditional act of obeisance, a quasi-Hindu bow with fingertips reverently joined. Then the leftward rotation, to accept homage from Doc Severinsen—lead trumpet and musical director, hieratically clad in something skintight and ragingly vulgar—which takes more bizarrely Oriental form: the head humbly bowed while the hands orbit each other.
I have talked, so far, at length, about Carson; it’s hard not to. As the title suggests, however, Kevin S. Bright’s Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story is not about Carson, but about a man who accompanied and supported him on his journey through the culture, one Carl “Doc” Severinsen, a trumpet player who was with the Tonight Show Band from its inception in 1962, and in 1967, became the bandleader, a position he held for 25 years. I suspect that the average person’s response to the title of this film—assuming the average person is of sufficient age to know who the subject is—would be something along the lines of, “Oh yeah! Him! What happened to that guy?”
The short answer is that a lot happened to that guy, most of it Doc’s own making. We fall prey in this country to the cult of celebrity: to the idea that life begins and ends with fame. This documentary makes it abundantly clear that, while his time on The Tonight Show was probably the most significant chapter (and definitely the longest) of his life, it was after all only one chapter; he was alive before the show, and he is most definitely alive after. A point repeatedly driven home in this movie is that, as of this year, Severinsen is 93 years old; in other words, you’re seeing a 93-year-old man do what he does and experience what he experiences.
What he does, and what he experiences, all seem to stem from a philosophy Doc expresses early in the film.
“Part of the commitment to being a professional”, he says, “is that when you learn something special, you pass it on.”
What Doc has learned is playing the trumpet, which he has been playing since childhood. His father had wanted him to learn the violin; he refused. He was three.
He is not only still playing at 93, but filling his life with trumpet playing. We see him teaching and sitting in with college and high school bands. We see him in his newly-adopted hometown of Maryville, Tennessee (perhaps three hours from me in East Nashville), going to a gym three times a week—again, at the age of 93—doing rigorous exercise in the service of his core. Why? Simple: the core houses the diaphragm, and a strong diaphragm makes a strong trumpeter. We travel with Doc to Massachusetts, where the Destino, his signature line of trumpets, is manufactured; in between meetings with company staff, we watch Doc devote a considerable portion of his day to an impromptu, 1-on-1 class in trumpeting with a young music student—a young, legally blind music student. This is the scene that leaves the best impression of the good Doc, who counsels the young man on pitch, diaphragm strength, and tools for increasing same, and, as he leaves the session, tells the student that he has to “spend the rest of my day…with a lot of people less interesting than you!” Sure, the directors of the documentary intentionally added this scene—every scene in a film is, after all, intentionally added—but there’s no hint of insincerity to the moment. He’s told us that when you learn something special, you pass it on; here we see him doing it.
That said, this film does not deify Doc Severinsen; if anything, we get a close glimpse at how very human the man is, and always has been, and freely admits to being. We learn that he’s been married three times. The first marriage ended when Doc (and Mrs. Doc) were both struggling with drinking problems. The second wife was with him until 1972—when Carson moved The Tonight Show from New York City to Burbank—and Doc travelled to Burbank with him, but opted to leave the wife and kids in NYC, which ended exactly as you’d expect it to (with the added bonus, for us at least, that it led to this classic Tonight Show moment). Linda, the third wife, actually appears on camera in the documentary; she was a secretary for Carson when she met Doc, married him soon after, and expected to live out her golden years with the bandleader, buying an animal-laden ranch house in California with him not long after May 22, 1992—in other words, the night of the final Carson-hosted episode of The Tonight Show. But that doesn’t happen, because, according to Linda, “he’s overly involved with the trumpet…but he has to be”. What Linda means by this—and the film itself largely bears out—is that Severinsen, despite having just left the job he’s had for 30 years, either can’t or won’t retire. He continues touring, he continues releasing albums; he doesn’t stop, as indeed he still hasn’t, working on his 93-year-old core.
We also meet Doc’s current partner, one Cathy Leach, who has similar interests to Doc’s: she’s a former president of The International Trombone Guild (which is, it turns out, a thing), and performed with Doc when he worked with her high-school band (yes, she’s younger than he is, as are most people.) Theirs seems to be a stable relationship, but even Cathy sees Doc potentially over-commit to playing, stopping only when he is hospitalized for pneumonia and heart issues. Or, rather, pausing when hospitalized; he’s performing again less than a month later.
Watching Never Too Late, you find yourself agreeing that Doc could have balanced his life better —but then again, maybe he couldn’t. We watch a story unfold about a pure, driven musician, a musician who happened to become pop-culture history for one season of his life, and when that season ends, what’s left for him is what has defined his whole life—musicianship—and he leans into it, and it seems to be keeping him alive.