Who is the Songwriter Behind the Johnny Carson Theme Song?

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Bright horns, full of brassy fanfare, and a swinging beat, warm and bouncing, come together for a sound that screams, “Heeeere’s Johnny!”

The theme song of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, aptly called “Johnny’s Theme,” is a memorable one, one that evokes visions of evenings in front of the television, watching the salt-and-pepper late-night host with his hearty radio-ready voice and friendly wit.

Playing from the beginning of the very first show in 1962 until its finale in 1992, “Johnny’s Theme” was as dazzling as Johnny Carson’s late-night legacy.

Sweet Beginnings

“Johnny’s Theme” did not start out as a TV theme song. The big band piece instead had sweeter beginnings as a Paul Anka composition. The tune’s life began in 1959 as a song called “Toot Sweet.”

The pop singing-songwriting icon of “(You’re) Having My Baby” fame composed the ditty for trumpeter Salvador “Tutti” Camarata of Tutti’s Trumpets. Anka later added lyrics to “Toot Sweet,” changing the title of the song to “It’s Really Love.” The song was meant to be a debut of sorts for former Micky Mouse Club Mouseketeer, Annette Funicello.

Enter Johnny Carson

When Carson was appointed to take over hosting The Tonight Show in 1962, he knew he would need a theme song fitting for the coveted position. It couldn’t be just any old attention-grabbing, too-often schmaltzy theme song.

Anka and Carson had known each other before the theme song ever came to be. “I met Johnny in Great Britain,” Anka recalled on Larry King Live after the host’s passing in 2005. “I was doing a TV special. And I needed a comedian for the show. Someone sent me a kinescope of a bunch of comedians. Johnny was doing a bit with a bunch of kids in the morning … where he had been drinking the night before, had a hangover, he’d show up and these kids would start screaming. It was a funny bit, I forget the name of the bit. And I said, ‘I love that guy, bring him over.'”

But it was fate that would bring them together again. “Fade out, fade in, we’re in New York, I run into [Carson] on 57th Street with his manager,” Anka continued, explaining the theme song’s origins. “We started talking, and he said, ‘We’re going to take over this Tonight Show, blah, blah, blah, ‘looking for a new theme.’ And I had this other song that I’d written for Annette that I was in the middle of. So we did a demo of the song with the band at Bell Sound Studios, the whole drum lead-up, and I sent it to him.”

The Tonight Show bandleader Skitch Henderson was reportedly perturbed by the fact that a 20-year-old Anka had written a new theme for Carson. “I’m a 20-year-old kid,” Anka added. “You know, all these guys are older than I am. And I got this call that Skitch was real PO’ed that this kid wrote this song.”

However, the song endured. Performed by The Tonight Show Band for the next 30 years, “Johnny’s Theme” would become synonymous not just with the host, but with late-night television as a whole. “It was accessible,” said long-running Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen, “People could understand what it was, and it was associated with Johnny. I loved every single time I played it, and I love it when I play it still to this day.”

Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images

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