Mister Carson Gracious To Musicians As Well As Comedians

Carson Was Generous Host to Musicians
Fri Jan 28, 2005 10:58 PM ET
By Geoff Mayfield

Photo Scan: BaltoBoy Steve

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) – Comedy was absolutely king during the 30 years that Johnny Carson ruled late-night TV from his desk at “The Tonight Show,” but from his very first program in 1962, the landmark series also made time for music.

Tony Bennett was one of the guests the night Carson took the reins, and music would continue to have a place at the table through the next three decades.

Laughter, no doubt, was the first order of the night, from the monologue through Carson’s vast array of sketch humor. Around the time he exited the show in 1992 and in the days since his death Jan. 23, Carson received rightful praise for the long line of star comedians whose first big break was an appearance on his series, a who’s who that includes David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Eddie Murphy, Drew Carey and Joan Rivers.

But, if comedy pumped the heartbeat of Carson’s “Tonight Show,” music provided its soul, from the peppy opening theme written by Paul Anka through the swanky big-band filigree that opened and closed commercial breaks, with Doc Severinsen leading the orchestra for 25 of Carson’s 30 years.

And then there were the musical guests.

Carson’s “Tonight” did not provide as many stepladder moments for emerging musicians as it did for comics, but it did realize plenty of pop glory. Bette Midler, whose music was not often a ready fit for radio, expanded her base on Carson’s stage. In 1987, he became the first talk-show host to interview Madonna, although she did not sing that night.

A young Whitney Houston blossomed after a performance there. Carson’s “Tonight” was also an important platform for a successful French Canadian artist who was trying on English for a shot at the United States: Celine Dion. Both Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang made their first network appearances on the Letterman-era “Late Night” but soon graduated to “Tonight” and became immediate Carson favorites, with Lovett being invited to appear twice in a single week.

Carson’s show also accelerated sales for two albums that found artists trading contemporary pop for standards. In 1983, a performance there made a difference for Linda Ronstadt’s “What’s New,” the first in a cycle of albums that paired her with Nelson Riddle. It happened again in 1991, when Natalie Cole embraced the repertoire of her father, Nat “King” Cole, on “Unforgettable,” which became the first album released in the Nielsen SoundScan era to grow its way to No. 1 after bowing below the top 10.

For many reasons, Carson’s “Tonight Show” had a different musical temperament than the program has exhibited during Leno’s tenure, or that which we see on “The Late Show,” “Late Night” and the other talk shows. For example, it is doubtful that this week’s chart leader, the Game, would have fit well with Carson.

While Leno, Letterman and their younger peers feature music four or five nights per week, the Carson show only did so two or three times per week, especially after 1980, when Carson negotiated with NBC to trim the show from 90 minutes to an hour.

Yet one publicist recalls that musical guests found benefits from Carson that are less likely on today’s talk shows, which almost always confine musicians to a single song in the last few minutes of the show. Singers often appeared earlier in Carson’s lineups. It was not unusual that they performed more than one song, and they were frequently invited to chat.

How often do musicians score couch time in today’s late-night talk landscape? Letterman interviewed Harry Connick Jr. last year, and Leno has given panel time to Dion and Clay Aiken, but such moments are rare.

During Carson’s long, unprecedented reign, music always held a princely place in his kingdom.

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