The Tonight Show Band: An Overview

A brief history lesson on 'The Tonight Show' band and its directors

Kevin Eubanks, former Tonight Show bandleader.
Cory Schwartz / Stringer / Getty Images

Name: The Tonight Show Band

Other Names: The NBC Orchestra

Musical Director: Rickey Minor

Past Musical Directors:

  • Max Weinberg (2009-2010)
  • Kevin Eubanks (1995-2009, 2010)
  • Branford Marsalis (1992-1995)
  • Doc Severinsen (1967-1992)
  • Milton DeLugg (1966)
  • Jose Melis (1957-1962)
  • Skitch Henderson (1954-1957, 1962-1966)

    Brief History
    Perhaps the most iconic late night talk show band that ever was, The Tonight Show Band has constantly evolved since its inception more than half a century ago. The first iteration of the band was formed in 1954 and was led by Skitch Henderson.

    Minnesota-born Lyle Russel "Skitch" Henderson was a pianist, conductor and composer and one of the few men who conducted the famous NBC Symphony Orchestra. Not to be confused with the NBC Orchestra, the name Johnny Carson gave his band, the NBC Symphony Orchestra was the network's house orchestra, playing various tunes for NBC's radio network. It was disbanded in 1954.

    Henderson conducted The Tonight Show Band until 1957, leaving the program when Steve Allen did as well. Henderson was replaced by Jose Melis in 1957 when Jack Paar got behind The Tonight Show desk.

    The 1950s and 60s
    Melis was Cuban-born and studied at the Havana Conservatory of Music. He studied at the Juilliard School of Music and worked as a lounge pianist until World War II. During the war, Melis directed the USO's New York City orchestra, and it is during this time he met Paar. The two became friends and stuck together. So it made sense that Paar's musical director of choice would be Melis.

    Melis stuck with Paar when he left The Tonight Show. And when Carson came aboard as host, a familiar face returned to the show: Skitch Henderson.

    Carson's popularity allowed Henderson to hire more musicians, and he was able to build a solid jazz big band. This all-star band, built from the best players from touring bands, included a trumpeter whose name would become synonymous with The Tonight Show Band: Doc Severinsen.

    The 1970s and 80s
    It wasn't long after Henderson left The Tonight Show for the second time in 1966 that Severinsen was named the show's newest musical director. Severinsen followed Milton DeLugg, a California composer who directed the band for a few months before pursuing other interests.

    Severinsen stuck with Carson for the rest of his run - from 1967 to 1992, 25 years. No other Tonight Show musical director has matched Severinsen's run. And it likely will be a very long time before someone comes close. It is during this time that the band became known as the NBC Orchestra.

    The 1990s and 2000s
    In 1992, Jay Leno became the fourth person to host the most recognized version of three well-known jazz musicians and Tonight Show bandleaders, Branford Marsalis.

    The world-renowned saxophonist led the new The Tonight Show Band for three years before opting out of the role. He was followed by Kevin Eubanks, another popular jazz musician, who stuck with Leno for 15 years - from 1995 to 2010.

    Late night shift
    In 2009, Eubanks left The Tonight Show with Leno to become band leader of the talk show host's new primetime program, .

    Conan O'Brien took over hosting duties when Leno left, bringing with him bandleader Max Weinberg and the Max Weinberg 7 (now Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band) from , O'Brien's former show.

    But the O'Brien and Weinberg's time would be short-lived on Tonight. As Leno's primetime program flailed, the network formed a plan to bring Leno back to late night. Leno wouldn't take over Toniight, but host a new talk show at 11:30 p.m. O'Brien would still host Tonight, but at midnight or 12:30 a.m.

    O'Brien felt that The Tonight Show should remain at 11:30 p.m., as it always had. And he felt that the new schedule would just put in place the same late night dynamics that existed a year before. Dissatisfied, O'Brien broke his contract with NBC and left Tonight.

    Leno returned to host The Tonight Show and so did Eubanks - but only for a few months. Shortly after the return, Eubanks departed and Rickey Minor, a self-taught musician from Louisiana, became the newest musical director of The Tonight Show Band.

    Minor will stick with Tonight at least through 2014, when Leno departs and newcomer Jimmy Fallon takes over as The Tonight Show's next host. Fallon will bring with him his Late Night band, The Roots, with musical director Questlove. No word yet on whether The Roots will adopt the name The Tonight Show Band for the purposes of the program.