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May 11, 2012
Earl Rose Comes Home
Tonight Show documentary features Rose score by Jon Burlingame

Earl Rose

LOS ANGELES—Forty-five years ago, Earl Rose started working backstage at The Tonight Show. That long musical odyssey comes to fruition with Rose's score for the documentary Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, which airs Monday, May 14, as part of PBS's American Masters series.

The composer penned nearly an hour's worth of music for Peter Jones' two-hour film. Its jazzy tone, he thinks, might have met with the approval of the famously jazz-loving (and amateur drummer) talk-show host.

Jones' film draws from the vast Tonight Show archives and many earlier interviews that Carson gave over the years, and adds new interviews with virtually every major late-night host including David Letterman, Jay Leno, Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers and Conan O'Brien; and many comedians including Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, Garry Shandling and Steve Martin. All serve to round out this definitive portrait of the very private – and very powerful – television personality.

This is Rose's fifth project with Jones; their 2009 film Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times won a Peabody Award. Rose's other documentary scores include The Presidents and Stardust: The Bette Davis Story, and he has a Daytime Emmy for a song he wrote with Olivia Newton-John for As the World Turns.

Rose's score embraces many different styles, from solo piano to small combo to big-band jazz, with plenty of upbeat, melodic and cool late-night material along the way. It's a fun listen and his album, also titled Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, is expected to be available on iTunes beginning Monday.

Rose was attending New York's Mannes College of Music in the late 1960s when a family connection with then-substitute Tonight Show host Joey Bishop led to a late-afternoon, early-evening job as a page at NBC's Studio 6B in Rockefeller Center where the then 90-minute show taped nightly.

An aspiring pianist and composer, Rose quickly made friends in the all-star Tonight Show band (which included such top sidemen as trumpeters Clark Terry and Snooky Young, flutist-saxophonist Lew Tabackin, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and drummer Bobby Rosengarden). Assistant musical director Shelly Cohen, bandleader Doc Severinsen's right-hand man, liked Rose and his arrangements.

And, because Cohen didn't like to travel, when The Tonight Show moved to Los Angeles in 1972, Rose was occasionally hired to take Cohen's place as assistant musical director. He occasionally composed "play-ons" for guests, but, as Rose recalled, "I didn't do much of the arranging. My job was to make sure everything was well coordinated, that the arrangements worked, that the instrumentation was correct, and that everybody got what they were supposed to get."

The various L.A. trips – which continued through the end of Carson's tenure on Tonight in 1992 – meant about six weeks' worth of work a year for Rose. More important, "hearing these great musicians every day, and all of these great arrangements – I was like a sponge, studying everyone's charts. It was job training 101."

He met Carson on a memorable occasion when he was about to play one of his occasional solo gigs as a pop-jazz pianist in Carson's home state of Nebraska. Carson was cordial, Rose said, telling him to convey best wishes to the state where he grew up. Mostly, though, Rose says, he remembers "the true electricity" backstage each night before the curtain parted and Carson made his entrance to Ed McMahon's now legendary "Heeeeere's Johnny!" introduction.

"Doing this documentary was really like coming full circle," says Rose. "I started my career in a part-time situation at The Tonight Show. And over the years the knowledge that I gained, looking at those arrangements, working with the top musicians, seeing the discipline that Doc had with the band, all those things, I tried to soak up. Now I get a full-time gig doing The Tonight Show, and it's very fulfilling."

©2012 Jon Burlingame
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