The Tonight Show Band

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The Tonight Show Band is the house band that 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.


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 that "You can't be The Tonight Show without a horn section."[1] The Roots are announced as "the legendary Roots crew" during the opening credits and have not (As of May 2014) been called "The Tonight Show Band".

Tonight Show Band lineups[edit]

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

With Johnny Carson[edit]

With Jay Leno[edit]

With Conan O'Brien[edit]

With Jay Leno (second tenure)[edit]

With Jimmy Fallon[edit]


Skitch Henderson released three albums on Columbia Records with The Tonight Show Orchestra.

  • Skitch . . . Tonight! (Columbia CS-9167, 1965)[2]
  • More Skitch Tonight! (Columbia CS-9250, 1966)[3]
  • Broadway Tonight! Skitch Henderson & The Tonight Show Orchestra Play Music From 'Mame' (Columbia CS-9318, 1966)[4]

Milton Delugg released one album on RCA Victor Records with The Tonight Show Band.

  • Presenting Milton Delugg And The Tonight Show Band (RCA Victor LSP-3809, 1967)[5]

Doc Severinsen's version of the band released several albums on Amherst Records.[6]

  • The Tonight Show Band (Amherst, 1986)
  • The Tonight Show Band, Vol. II (Amherst, 1990)
  • Once More...With Feeling! (Amherst, 1992)
  • Merry Christmas (Amherst, 1992)


  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 . . . Tonight!".
  3. ^ "More Skitch Tonight!".
  4. ^ "Broadway Tonight! Skitch Henderson & The Tonight Show Orchestra Play Music From 'Mame'".
  5. ^ "Presenting Milton Delugg And The Tonight Show Band".
  6. ^ Allmusic discography