The tune was composed by the show’s longtime musical director, Doc Severinsen. The song’s title is “Johnny’s Theme”, and it was originally called “Tonight Show Theme”.
It premiered on the show in 1972 when Johnny Carson returned to host it after 15 months of retirement. Johnny Carson gave Severinsen a copy of his favorite Paris jazz album and asked him to write something for him that captured the feeling of those songs.
Severinsen went home, played the record over and over, and stole his melody from one of those songs without changing a note. He also took most of the lyrics from one verse in particular where they rhymed nicely with one another.
When he was done, he asked some of his friends what they thought. Their reactions were exactly like Carson’s – a big smile and a “good job” from both him and the others.
Severinsen then presented it to Carson. The latter was immediately impressed by the melody and felt that it captured the show’s style of late night humor perfectly.
Over time, however, in line with its many other composers, Doc Severinsen gave his most famous melodic theme another name: “Johnny’s Theme”. This has been the name of the tune ever since.
The original tune was written using a jazz-style motif. It is very simple and starts out with a high-pitched descending melody over a bass beat.
The melody’s main theme starts with an upward melodic leap followed by another to lead into the second verse, which is slower and more complex than the first verse.
Several phrases are used several times throughout the piece, such as the ascending riff that occurs in both verses, as well as other sections that return later in both verses or are mentioned at other parts of the piece.
The last phrase heard before the end is a descending one. The piece ends with the melodic leap of the first phrase, but extends it downward and ends on a very low note that fades into nothingness.
After Doc Severinsen wrote the music for “Tonight Show Theme”, he gave it to Johnny Carson who had decided to call it “Johnny’s Theme”.
This was before he had picked a lyricist to write lyrics for the tune. Carson first wanted to try Bob Merrill who had written many comedy songs for Steve Allen’s late night show, but Merrill refused, saying that he didn’t want to be tied down to writing just one song for Johnny Carson.Carson then went to another Carson’s favorite songwriter Steve Gordon, but he too refused.
Eventually, Carson asked his old comedy partner from his days on “The Ed Sullivan show,” Ernie Kovacs, who was in a lower tax bracket at the time and with no pension. Kovacs was paid $25 for his work on “Johnny’s Theme”. As a result, Kovacs did not really care about it and spent all of that money paying off one of his many reported gambling debts.
Kovacs later said that the tune was “the most boring thing I ever wrote.” Later in life he would describe it as a “chit” tune.
Once he had finished, Johnny Carson had heard that the lyrics were much like Cleveland Amory’s 1939 song “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”, which was used in the 1942 film “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Carson sought out Amory to change them.
That song’s lyrics are as follows: