Obituary: Ed Shaughnessy / Drummer on 'Tonight Show'

Jan. 29, 1929 - May 24, 2013

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Ed Shaughnessy, whose deft drumming anchored the "Tonight Show" orchestra for 29 years, died May 24 at his home in Calabasas, Calif. He was 84. The cause was a heart attack, said his son Dan.

Mr. Shaughnessy was a well-traveled and highly regarded jazz drummer when he was offered the "Tonight" job in 1963, shortly after Johnny Carson had taken over as the show's host. He had performed or recorded with Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday and numerous others. He had also worked for four years as a staff musician at CBS Television, and, remembering the tedium of that studio job, he was not sure he wanted another.

He agreed to take the "Tonight" gig for two weeks and see how he liked it. "When I got up there," he recalled in a 2004 interview for the Percussive Arts Society, "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.'"

Mr. Shaughnessy took the job and never left. He remained when Mr. Severinsen replaced Skitch Henderson as the bandleader in 1967 and when "The Tonight Show" moved from New York City to Burbank, Calif., in 1972. When Jay Leno became the host in 1992 and brought in his own band, Mr. Severinsen kept his ensemble together for concert appearances, with Mr. Shaughnessy still in the drum chair.

Being the house drummer for "Tonight" meant being flexible enough to support all manner of performers -- rock stars, opera singers, even comedians. It also meant mostly staying in the background. But among Mr. Shaughnessy's fondest memories of his years on the show were two moments in the spotlight: accompanying Jimi Hendrix in 1969 and engaging in a high-energy "drum battle" with Buddy Rich in 1978.

Edwin Thomas Shaughnessy was born in Jersey City, N.J., on Jan. 29, 1929, the only child of Tom Shaughnessy, a longshoreman, and the former Theresa Geetlein, a garment worker. He took piano lessons for two years without much enthusiasm, then switched his focus at age 14 when his father gave him a rudimentary drum kit.

"My dad brought me home those drums, and my attention could not stay on the piano," Mr. Shaughnessy wrote in his autobiography, "Lucky Drummer," published last year. "As soon as the drums came into the house, I got fired up."

He practiced fervently, participated in New York City jam sessions as a teenager and was a full-time professional by the time he graduated from high school. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he recorded prolifically as a sideman.

Shortly after moving to the West Coast, Mr. Shaughnessy formed his own big band, Energy Force, which performed locally in the late '70s and early '80s. His first and only recording as a leader, the quintet album "Jazz in the Pocket," was released in 1990.

obituaries - nation - music - tvradio


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here