The Tonight Show Band

The Tonight Show Band is the house band that plays on the American television variety show The Tonight Show. From 1962 until 1992, when the show was known as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the band was a 17-piece big band, and was an important showcase for jazz on American television. During the Carson era, the band was always billed as "The NBC Orchestra" (not to be confused with the NBC Symphony Orchestra) and sometimes "Doc Severinsen and the NBC Orchestra".


The band was founded in 1954, coincidental to the disbanding of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Its first long-term director was Skitch Henderson (1954–57) and was notable for including a young vocalist, Andy Williams; Williams's ex-girlfriend and career mentor, Kay Thompson, was a friend of Tonight's producer and secured a spot on the show for Williams, giving him his first national exposure. During the Tonight! America After Dark period in 1957, a string of short-lived bandleaders (Lou Stein, Mort Lindsey and Johnny Guarnieri) led either a trio or quartet of musicians as the show's house band. José Melis, a friend of Jack Paar, took over as bandleader when Paar became the host in late 1957.

Henderson returned in 1962 when Johnny Carson took over from Paar. Carson increased the band's budget. Henderson hired musicians from touring big bands which were going out of business and commissioned charts from top jazz arrangers. The band included Walt Levinsky, Clark Terry, Bobby Rosengarden, Doc Severinsen, Urbie Green, Ed Shaughnessy, and Ernie Royal.

In 1966, Henderson left the show and was replaced by Milton DeLugg, who in 1967 was replaced by Doc Severinsen. Severinsen added Louie Bellson, Allen Vizzutti, and Snooky Young. When Jay Leno replaced Carson in 1992, he ended the tradition of a large in-house orchestra. Branford Marsalis became musical director, and a smaller band was formed. Marsalis was succeeded in 1995 by Kevin Eubanks.

In June 2009, Conan O'Brien became the host, and Max Weinberg replaced Kevin Eubanks as band leader, with the erstwhile house band from Late Night with Conan O'Brien forming Max Weinberg and The Tonight Show Band. Eubanks and his band migrated to The Jay Leno Show in September 2009 as the Primetime Band. When Conan O'Brien left The Tonight Show in February 2010, Leno returned as host, bringing back Kevin Eubanks, who took a more limited role. Eubanks announced his departure from the show in February 2010; his last show was May 28, 2010.

On June 7, 2010, Rickey Minor became the bandleader. He wrote the theme song, which had been changed for the third time in one year (including Conan O'Brien's version). Minor said he was approached by approximately 75 artists, including Smokey Robinson, Nancy Wilson, Steve Vai, Arturo Sandoval, Bret Michaels, Snoop Dogg, and Shania Twain.

When Jimmy Fallon became the host in 2014, and the show returned to New York City, the Roots became the house band, migrating from their role as house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The Roots added two horn players from Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings; bandleader Questlove noted, "You can't be The Tonight Show without a horn section".[1]

Tonight Show Band lineups

Additional former members of the New York Tonight Show Band from 1962 onward include:

With Johnny Carson

With Jay Leno

With Conan O'Brien

With Jay Leno (second tenure)

With Jimmy Fallon


With Skitch Henderson and "The Tonight Show" Band

  • Skitch...Tonight! (Columbia, 1964)[2]
  • More Skitch Tonight! (Columbia, 1965)[3]

With Doc Severinsen and "The Tonight Show" Band

  • The Tonight Show Band (Amherst, 1986)
  • The Tonight Show Band Vol. II (Amherst, 1987)[4]


  1. David Hiltbrand (February 17, 2014). "New Tonight Show bandleader has show-biz roots". Philadelphia Daily News. Archived from the original on March 1, 2014. Retrieved February 19, 2014.
  2. Skitch Henderson, liner notes to Columbia LP, CL 2367
  3. Mort Goode, liner notes to Columbia LP, CL 2450
  4. "Tonight Show Band | Album Discography". AllMusic. Retrieved 28 February 2019.
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