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The Tonight Show Band


The Tonight Show Band

The Tonight Show Band is the house band which plays on the American television variety show, The Tonight Show. From 1962 to the 1990s, during the years the show was known as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the band was a 17-piece Big Band, and was an important outlet 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 current Tonight Show Band is Philadelphia-native hip/hop band The Roots under the tenancy of Jimmy Fallon.


  • History 1
  • Tonight Show Band lineups 2
    • With Johnny Carson in Burbank, California 2.1
    • With Leno 2.2
    • With O'Brien 2.3
    • With Leno (second tenure) 2.4
    • With Fallon (current) 2.5
  • Discography 3
  • References 4


The band was founded in 1954, coincidental to the NBC Symphony Orchestra being disbanded. Its first long-term director was Skitch Henderson (1954–57). 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's, took over as bandleader when Paar assumed hosting duties in late 1957. Henderson returned in 1962 when Johnny Carson took over from Paar. Carson increased the band budget, and Henderson created a major jazz big band by hiring some of the best jazz musicians from the touring big bands which were going out of business at the time, and by commissioning charts from top jazz arrangers. The new band included Clark Terry, Bobby Rosengarden, Doc Severinsen, Urbie Green, Ed Shaughnessy, and Ernie Royal, among others.

In 1966, Henderson left the show and was replaced by Milton DeLugg, who in 1967 was replaced by Doc Severinsen. Severinsen continued to add important musicians to the band, including Louie Bellson, Allen Vizzutti, and Snooky Young. The show's move from New York to California effected a significant change in the band's personnel. In 1992, when Jay Leno replaced Carson, Branford Marsalis took over as musical director, and a new smaller band was formed. Marsalis was succeeded in 1995 by Kevin Eubanks. This ended the tradition of a large in-house studio orchestra on American Television.

In June 2009, Conan O'Brien took over hosting duties from Leno. Max Weinberg likewise 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 came back as host for a second tenure, bringing back Kevin Eubanks, who took a more limited role in Leno's second run as host. Eubanks announced his departure from the show in February 2010; his last show was May 28, 2010.

On June 7, 2010, Rickey Minor officially became the new bandleader for The Tonight Show Band, writing a brand new theme song which has been shaken up for the third time in one year (including Conan O'Brien's version). Minor claims that the new band will bring a brand new tone and energy to the show. Minor has said he's been approached by approximately 75 artists after being hired for the show, some of whom include Smokey Robinson, Nancy Wilson, Steve Vai, Arturo Sandoval, Bret Michaels, Snoop Dogg, Shania Twain, and more who will eventually sit in with the band.

Upon the show's return to New York City in 2014 (and Jimmy Fallon's assumption of hosting duties), The Roots, an already-established hip-hop band that served as house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, assumed the role of house band. The Roots added two horn players from Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings; bandleader Questlove noted that "You can't be The Tonight Show without a horn section."[1] The Roots are typically announced as "the legendary Roots crew" during the opening credits, and have not (As of May 2014) been formally called "The Tonight Show Band".

Tonight Show Band lineups

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

With Johnny Carson in Burbank, California

With Leno

With O'Brien

With Leno (second tenure)

With Fallon (current)


The Severinsen-led incarnation of the band released several record albums on the Amherst Records label.[2]

  • The Tonight Show Band (Amherst AMH-3311, 1986)
  • The Tonight Show Band, Vol. II (Amherst AMH-3312, 1990)
  • Once More...with Feeling! (Amherst AMH-94405, 1992)
  • Merry Christmas (Amherst AMH-94406, 1992)


  1. ^ David Hiltbrand (February 17, 2014). bandleader has show-biz roots"Tonight Show"New .  
  2. ^ Allmusic discography
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