Ed Shaughnessy, who held down the drum chair on “The Tonight Show” for nearly three decades, died May 24 of a heart attack in Calabasas. He was 84.
From 1963 to 1992, Shaughnessy held one of the most coveted gigs in TV, after he joined bandleader Doc Severinsen’s unit on the NBC show. He arrived at the job after a studio stint, and had feared the work would be similarly boring. He had to be convinced to take the date for two weeks.
He later said in an interview with the Percussive Arts Society, “When I got up there and Doc Severinsen was the lead trumpet player, Clark Terry was sitting next to me in the jazz trumpet chair, and there were all these great players, I said, ‘My God, this is not your ordinary studio situation.’ When the two weeks were over and they asked if I wanted to stay, I said I sure would.”
Shaughnessy was born in Jersey City, NJ, and began studying drums to escape an unhappy home life. As a youth, he was befriended by his first idol, swing and bop drummer Big Sid Catlett. As a teenager, he apprenticed with trumpeter Charlie Ventura and joined Benny Goodman’s band in 1950. He went on to work in the Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie orchestras, and would record with Gene Ammons, Dizzy Gillespie, Oliver Nelson and Jimmy Smith, among others.
On the small screen, Shaughnessy supported such variety show stars as Steve Allen and Garry Moore. But he gained his greatest renown on “The Tonight Show” during the era when host Johnny Carson reigned late-night TV and trumpeter Severinsen led one of the hottest big bands visible on TV. He exited the show with Carson’s retirement in 1992.