Stop The Presses!

Max Weinberg: Proving It Every Night On The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien

Stop The Presses!

When The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien makes its debut on Monday (June 1)--at 11:35 p.m. EDT/10:35 p.m. CDT--it'll be a special thrill for bandleader Max Weinberg. Not only has he made the move with O'Brien's former Late Night crew to the West Coast, but they'll been seen an hour earlier. Perhaps more importantly on a personal level, Weinberg will be stepping into a role once occupied by one of his idols, jazz trumpeter Doc Severinsen, who led the NBC Orchestra on The Tonight Show from 1967 through Johnny Carson's retirement in 1992.

"I feel wonderful, absolutely over-the-top to see my name in the same sentence as Doc Severinsen, because in the annals of late-night television talk show music, he was the absolute leader and remains, the top of the field," Weinberg says. "The rest of us just simply stand on his shoulders. Doc and his band absolutely set the standard for late night music presentation."

That's no faint praise coming from the man whose other job since 1974 has been manning the drum kit in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. In fact, Weinberg says that he initially turned to Severinsen's blueprint when he put together the Max Weinberg 7 for Late Night With Conan O'Brien when that show began in 1993.

"My whole idea--because I came up with Doc and the band with on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show--was to create our band as almost an homage. We didn't have the budget to have the 17-piece band; seven was all we could do. But the idea was to hearken back to those days when bands dressed up in suits, when they played everything from Sinatra to the Rolling Stones, which is something that had gone away from television almost completely."

Weinberg points out that his "good friend and mentor" Paul Shaffer had brought classic rock to late night TV as David Lettermen's bandleader since the early '80s. Yet he wanted to do something different. "I've been playing rock 'n' roll all my life," he says. "I've been off-and-on with Bruce since 1974, so I wanted to do something that recalled those days when the Tonight Show was the only game in town."

Of course, Weinberg has had to make some sacrifices while maintaining the balancing act of his two high-profile gigs. The premiere of The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien conflicts with his other Boss's European tour. In the past, Weinberg has called on drummer/percussionist James Wormworth to fill in for him on Late Night when he hit the road with Springsteen. Wormworth will join the band when it makes its debut on the Tonight Show, but it won't be as Weinberg's replacement. He's now a full-fledged member of the crew, now known as Max Weinberg & the Tonight Show Band. "He's a great young drummer, a wonderful addition to the band, and a great guy to have in the locker room as they say," Weinberg quips.

As for Weinberg, this time around his sticking to his duties with O'Brien, rather than hitting the road with the E Street Band. "I didn't want to miss any of Conan if I could avoid it, and certainly not the debut of the show," he says. So Springsteen, his longtime manager Jon Landau, and E Street keyboardist Roy Bittan came up with a solution to the scheduling conflict by offering the gig to another Weinberg, Max's 18-year-old son, Jay. "It turned out to be a very elegant, home-grown solution to the scheduling problem. Jay has now done three full shows on his own and he has absolutely killed on the gig," Weinberg says. "Someone remarked to me, 'It's clear that you don't get a job with Bruce & the E Street Band because you're related to someone.' He's doing a fantastic job."

The proud father marvels how has son, whose musical taste runs much harder than his own, has adapted to the new challenge. "He's a metal drummer," Weinberg says. "He came up listening to Slipknot, Lamb Of God, Atreyu, and punk bands like Green Day, Alkaline Trio, and Against Me!, so he's of that generation. But he was amazingly able to sort of integrate my sort of old-school '50s, '60s-style old-school rock drumming into his own style and even bring a new direction in the rhythmic propulsion of the E Street Band that worked in perfectly. As his father, I knew he could do it. As a drummer, I am incredibly impressed with his performance as is everybody else in the E Street Band, because it's a big job driving a band like that."

As for the elder Weinberg, he and the rest of The Tonight Show staff has been busy taping some test shows to work out any quirks or technical challenges that might occur in their new home on the Universal Studios lot, which is three-times larger than the Late Night space in 30 Rock. In the clip below, watch O'Brien and Weinberg check out the new digs.

As you may have noticed, the clip featured Andy Richter, who is returning to the O'Brien team after a decade-long absence from late-night TV. "Andy's one of the funniest people in the world," Weinberg says. "His chemistry with Conan is a hallmark of the early Late Night programs and it's still intact." Weinberg expects that the trio of himself, O'Brien, and Richter will once again team for comedic bits on the new show. "They used to like to say, and it still may be true, I was the adult," he says. Weinberg also plays O'Brien's straight man, something that the musician has grown to enjoy over the years. Check out this clip below.

"I have a blast doing that stuff," says Weinberg. "Whatever the writers--who work unbelievably hard--come up with, I'm happy to do it. I think I've made it clear over the last 16 years; I'll do pretty much whatever they ask me."

He also has great admiration for O'Brien after watching him initially struggle to fill Letterman's timeslot. "Conan is someone who came through several rings of fire to ascend to this position, particularly in the early days of Late Night," he says. "So no one deserves it more in my view." Weinberg adds that O'Brien's profile was raised considerably when he hosted the Emmy Awards in 2006. "He killed on that and got great ratings and great reviews, so I think people are expecting more of the same [on the new Tonight Show]--comedy that will have you laughing out loud, a great selection of guests, and a band that whatever your age, will be able to play the music you enjoy.
 
"I've been in hard-working rock bands and on a hard-working TV shows, no one works harder than the people that put this show together," he adds. To paraphrase one of his other Boss's famous tunes, Weinberg has a guarantee, "Conan and The Tonight Show will prove it every night."

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