Home > Donald H. Harrison, Music > Tonight Show veteran gives afternoon concert some Pop

Tonight Show veteran gives afternoon concert some Pop


One Baton, Two Conductors: David Amos and Shelly Cohen

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—The late Ed McMahon, a former colleague on NBC’s “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” might have introduced Shelly Cohen on Sunday afternoon, July 25,  at the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra’s pop concert, with a drawn out  “Heeeeeere’s Shelly!”   Such an introduction would have been in keeping with the show business patter that the guest conductor served up to the San Diego audience.

Cohen had served from 1962 to 1992 as an assistant music director under Tonight Show orchestra leader “Doc” Severinsen, and since has conducted the Los Angeles Pops Orchestra, the Virginia Pops Orchestra and the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, among others.  The conductor had driven down from Los Angeles to lead the show on Sunday joining his 12-member Los Angeles-based New Horizon Singers with the 80-piece community orchestra of San Diego in the presentation of familiar Broadway show tunes and Hollywood movie themes.

David Amos, the regular conductor of the TICO orchestra, took a middle seat in the second row of the audience and watched the orchestra that he has led for 35 years respond to the baton of Cohen, a good friend.   He described as a “warm pleasure” seeing a representative of Hollywood, in the person of Cohen, “appreciating what we do.” 

The concert began with Cohen conducting the audience in singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” Next he led the TICO orchestra in “Holiday for Strings” by David Rose, who had been the music director for Red Skelton’s TV Show.   Cohen, dressed in tan pants, blue blazer, pink shirt and blue patterned tie and conducting under a five-tiered, six-pointed Magen David chandelier, told the audience that when he was 10 years old his mother dragged him away from his beloved baseball and to a violin lesson, which he didn’t enjoy. So he took a holiday from strings.  However, when he got to high school, he took up the clarinet, and while he was at it, decided to fulfill his mother’s fond hope and play violin too.  “Stringed instruments are the closest thing to the human voice,” he declared.  Stringed instruments have emotion, and they make mistakes, he insisted.

Cohen said Leonard Bernstein had been of a similarly divided mind – not between baseball and music, but between popular music and classical music.  “Happily he did both,” composing not only West Side Story but the Jeremiah Symphony, Cohen commented before leading TICO in a West Side Story medley.

The Pops conductor moved through a program that included melodies from the musical Paint Your Wagon, and such movies as 2001, A Space Odyssey; The Apartment; Exodus; The Pink Panther and The Magnificent Seven.   He also incorporated into the program medleys from popular Disney productions, “The Wonderful World of Rodgers and Hart,” “Jule Styne on Broadway” and “Rodgers and Hammerstein.”  “Gymnopedies No. 1” by Erik Satie included a short, but notable, flute solo by TICO’s Sylvia Hansen.   During the concert, Cohen showcased New Horizon Singers Carol Bratcher, Kim Anderson, Gene Kowalski, Tim Aberdeen, Scott Robbins, Vicki Kirk and, in this reviewer’s opinion,  two vocalists who were particular standouts: Coleen Forward, who sang “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” from Evita, and Debbie Lowe who soloed Abba’s “I Have A Dream.”  Lowe is the daughter of jazz guitarist Mundell Lowe, a current San Diego resident who was introduced from the audience.

Cohen added immeasurably to the afternoon of popular music with shows about celebrities he has known, or studied, although, curiously, he refrained from sharing any anecdotes about his former colleagues Carson, Severinsen and McMahon.

A self-described jokester, who “will say anything to get a laugh,” Cohen did just that following the percussion filled finale of “Ritual Fire Dance” by Manuel  De Falla.   Pointing at TICO percussionist Ricki Pedersen, the conductor quipped.  “That really wasn’t castanets; she has false teeth.”  Pederson laughed along with the audience.

Discussing the “Exodus” selection in the concert’s “Saturday Night at the Movies,” Cohen noted that the lyricist for the song about Israel’s fight for independence was singer Pat Boone, who is “as Presbyterian as you could meet.”

In the concert’s second half, the first selection was Elmer Bernstein’s theme from The Magnificent Seven.  Cohen noted that Marlboro cigarettes later chose that theme for its “Marlboro Man” commercial, and quoted Elmer Bernstein’s observation that he “made more money from the Marlboro Man than from the Magnificent Seven.”

The second half featured the New Horizon Singers—five men and seven women, who wore black shirts or blouses, with different pastel colored ties or scarves. 

Cohen said that when Henry Mancini composed another of the evening’s selections, “Moon River,” he had difficulty finding someone to record it, until Andy Williams finally said, “I think I’ll take a shot at it.” It became one of the most famous songs in Williams’ repertoire.

The conductor urged members of the audience to join in the Disney Medley of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” “The Mickey Mouse March” and “Chim Chim Cheree,” suggesting however that “if the person next to you is completely out of tune—and doesn’t even belong in the same state,” an elbow jab to that person’s ribs might do nicely.

Moving onto the music of Rodgers and Hart, Cohen said rarely were two collaborators less alike.  Richard Rodgers was a Type-A personality, a punctual man to whom being in control was important, whereas Hart was the complete opposite, an alcoholic.   “They were at odds all the time.”   One time Richard Rodgers had been trying to track Larry Hart down for days, becoming increasingly panicked that they would not finish a song in time.  Hart finally arrived, and Rodgers remonstrated with him.   “Give me some paper,” said Hart, and in ten minutes time he wrote, “The Lady Is A Tramp,” and then walked out of the studio and disappeared for another three or four days, according to Cohen.

Later, discussing the collaboration of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon on El Condor Pasa, an Inca song they made famous with the English lyrics, “I’d rather be a hammer then a nail,” Cohen marveled that they were two Jewish boys who had lived in Queens.  How did they come up with this?

When Cohen reached a segment entitled “Jule Styne on Broadway,” he told the audience, “If you feel like singing along, please don’t!”  The medley included “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” “Just in Time,” and the show business standard, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

Ralph Barnes, a former Tifereth Israel Synagogue president who raffles off tickets for huggable stuffed toy bears during the concert’s intermission, led the cries of “More! More!” to persuade the singers and orchestra to provide some encores.  As “Encores” was printed on the program, it was hardly a surprise, however, that the audience’s pleas were successful.

After Lowe’s solo, the combined orchestra and choir concluded the concert with a medley from The Sound of Music, in a salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Evelyn Kooperman, principal cello, said that working under Cohen and seeing the volunteer orchestra’s own conductor, Amos, staring at her from the second row, was just a touch intimidating. 

“Each of them has a different style,” Kooperman said. “Shelly expects us to play like a professional orchestra—after one rehearsal.  He’s used to working with professionals who’ve played all their lives.”

“Each has his own idiosyncrasies,” she said.  “And they’re both wonderful gentlemen.”

Charles and Albeta Feurzeig were the sponsors of the concert.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

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