Few kickoffs by a drummer are as signature as Ed Shaughnessy's start to Johnny's Theme, the Paul Anka song that the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson used each night. As a kid growing up, I associated the sound of Ed's drums at the start of the theme as the official end of a child's day and the start of adult down-time. When that theme came on, the universe shifted and a child was in adult space and on borrowed time. Make a noise, and any hope of lingering could end with a gruff remark demanding that you get into bed.
To this day, whenever I hear Ed's drum intro—which first was a one-measure lead-in and then a crisp downbeat—all I can think of are those metallic-colored curtains, Carson strutting out like a cock-of-the-walk, and adults listening to someone who spoke their language and filled in odd silences with knowing laughs.
In Part 2 of my two-part interview with Ed Shaughnessy, the drummer talks about the singers he's worked with, the sudden death of his close friend Eddie Costa in 1962, and the Tonight Show band...
JazzWax: In 1954, you recorded three tracks with Billie Holiday.
Ed Shaughnessy: When I was 23 years old, Columbia Records called and asked me to do a date with Billie for Norman Granz’s Clef Records. The contractor told me I’d be playing with Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Charlie Shavers. I couldn’t figure out why they wanted me but then I realized it was for my brushes. I was very fast, and Oscar and Ray knew that. We were going to record What a Little Moonlight Can Do, which needed that sound. Oscar and Ray could swing—they were enormously dynamic rhythm players. I remember seeing them follow Maynard Ferguson’s band at Carnegie Hall, and they swung harder than Ferguson’s whole band.
JW: What about Chris Connor?
ES: She was an awfully good singer. Chris was very inspiring. She liked me to be spirited behind her on the drums, so there would be life in the rhythm. She’d always go for a new approach on a song and would never play it safe.
JW: And Jackie Paris?
ES: He was a very good friend. We hung out a lot together. I don’t think he achieved what he should have. Maybe the time wasn’t right. He could be a little feisty. If some club owner said the wrong thing to him, he’d go off. His voice was very intimate and optimistic. John Pizzarelli reminds me of him.
JW: You were the drummer on Jimmy Smith’s hit, Walk on the Wild Side in 1962.
ES: The Walk on the Wild Side arrangements were my favorites by Oliver Nelson. That record was one of the first to cross over from jazz to general listening. A lot of people bought that record. Every time we’d meet, Jimmy would pick me up in the air and say, “Eddie, you gave me my crossover record.” I used African bells at the beginning of the song because it needed something extra. I also played with a lot of drive and jazz on there, a lot of power and energy, goosing the music along with accents and things. Jimmy liked it, but I think he gave me a lot more credit than I deserved. Oliver Nelson deserves much of the credit.
JW: What happened the night Eddie Costa died on July 28, 1962?
ES: I was at the Half Note in New York listening to Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. It was raining like all get-out. Eddie [pictured] was there too. We weren’t working. We were listening. Eddie said to me, “I have to go uptown.” I said, “Eddie, it’s raining so hard. Wait until it stops.” Eddie drove a tiny VW Bug. He wouldn’t listen. He said had had to meet someone uptown.
JW: And he left?
ES: Yes. I heard later that night that Eddie had skidded on the West Side Highway and his Beetle flipped over. The roof caved in and killed him.
JW: What did you think?
ES: I almost went into a spin. I had a record date the next morning but hardly slept. I finally fell asleep at 6 a.m. The record date was at 10 a.m. The contractor knew I was close with Eddie. He came over and got me up and washed and dressed me. Eddie and I were very good friends. I tried to get him not to go. It hurt me a great deal. Eddie was great on vibes and piano, and he was such a funny guy.
JW: You played drums on The Gary McFarland Orchestra with Bill Evans.
ES: I didn’t do much on there, frankly. I love that album because of the way it’s conceived. It really sets-off Bill Evans, and he didn’t need a lot of whipped cream.
JW: You also were on The Happiness of Joe Mooney (1963) and The Greatness of Joe Mooney (1963)—two amazing but little-known albums.
ES: I think Joe was, without a doubt, one of the most unrecognized music geniuses. He was all taste. Mr. Class. So original and different.
JW: And then there you were on one of Count Basie’s best albums of the 1960s—Basie’s Way, in 1966.
ES: That session was one of the joys of my life. Bill [Count Basie] came up to me after the first session and said, “Well, Shaughnessy, you fit the band like a glove.” What I loved about that band was I could play my way—strong and driving but having the good taste to stay out of the way when necessary. The band had taken Chico O’Farrill’s charts on the road and practiced the book for a month. Then I came in for the studio date and played the music cold. That’s what it was all about.
JW: All this time you were in the Tonight Show band?
ES: Yes. I joined the band in the late summer of ‘63. The show was based in New York from 1962 to 1972, when Johnny wanted to move the band out to L.A. for four or five years. Out there, he used West Coast musicians, mostly the guy’s in Louie Bellson’s band.
JW: What was wrong with New York?
ES: In L.A., the studio could hold 500 people rather than 200 in New York. As popular as Johnny was, he was working out of a converted radio studio at Rockefeller Center.
JW: Why did you move to California with the show?
ES: I had two little boys at the time. They were four and six years old. We were able to buy a lovely home in Tarzana with a great big backyard and pool. The kids had a great place to play, and I didn’t have to dig my car out of the snow. But I missed New York. My roots were in New York. In the mid-40s, I played the jazz clubs on 52nd St. That’s where I learned to play.
JW: Did you come up with the drum figure that kicks off Johnny's Theme?
ES: The chart called for a one-bar intro from the drummer [recordings of the theme feature two bars, to let Ed stretch]. That way Doc Severinsen could look at me and I’d just kick it off. Later he wanted me to play just a downbeat and not beat-off a rhythm. They wanted it slightly shorter
JW: What’s your favorite album with Severinsen?
ES: The last one, Swingin’ the Blues. I played the best on that album that I could possibly play. I was 70 at the time, and everything came off just great. The engineer gave my drums a natural sound. Most engineers muffle it. Doc also gave me two solos, but that’s not why I love the album. The band sounds so great and swings so good. Not that the Basie albums aren’t good or my other four with Doc, like Once More with Feeling, aren’t special. I just love this one.
JW: Johnny Carson loved the drums, didn’t he?
ES: Oh yes. Johnny played at home all the time. I helped him set up his drum set. He had played since he was a kid. He was a drummer in high school and a magician. He idolized Buddy Rich. Johnny told me that when he was at home, to unwind, he’d sit with his big headphones and play the drums along to his favorite big band albums. He said, “It relaxes me. I don’t think about the show or anything else.”
JW: Ever take a shot at writing a theme song?
ES: I did. I tried to write a theme for The Tonight Show when Jay Leno took over, but it was rejected.
JazzWax pages: Ed Shaughnessy's new memoir, Lucky Drummer, is available as an e-book here.
JazzWax clips: Here's a two-measure intro to Johnny's Theme by Ed Shaughnessy on a Doc Severinsen album...
And here's his downbeat intro...
And here's a taste of Ed's brushwork behind Chuck Wayne's group in 1953, featuring Zoot Sims...