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WHEN THE King of Late Night bids...


WHEN THE King of Late Night bids his television audience farewell for the last time in the wee hours tomorrow (it will actually be early on Saturday, Eastern Daylight Time, when we see it here), it will mark the end of an era in cultural American history.

Thirty years of Johnny Carson is a lifetime for many of us. He has become as familiar as the bedroom furniture. And just as comfortable, and as predictably cozy, as those warm winter slippers.

But the real generational symbol is hardly getting any notice. His career spans the entire lifetime of the "Tonight" show -- from Steve Allen to Johnny Carson.

Carl "Doc" Severinsen was recruited by Skitch Henderson to play in a backup ensemble providing music for Steve Allen's new, experimental, late-night television show shown locally in New York. The year was 1953 and the highly regarded trumpeter, who had worked in the Tommy Dorsey band, was 27. A year later, the show went national. Doc Severinsen -- then just a jester and trumpeter, now the band leader (and jester) -- has been with the program for most of the past 39 years, taking a leave only during the Jack Parr era (1957-1962).

In a fascinating critique in the Wall Street Journal, music writer John McDonough laments the break-up of the Severinsen band because it is "the last big band on network television." And, he adds, "maybe the best there ever was." (It will be replaced in the Jay Leno era by a small jazz group led by virtuoso saxophonist Branford Marsalis.)

Only occasionally was there time given to the musical talents of the Severinsen gang. The studio audiences, though, got the benefits of their loud and brassy renditions during commercial breaks.

But at least this well-honed group of first-rate musicians (most members have been playing regularly there for 20 or 30 years) has cut some albums together. That part of the "Tonight" show will live on, probably long after Johnny Carson is forgotten.

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