Shelly Cohen, Longtime Music Man on 'The Tonight Show,' Dies at 84

Shelly Cohen - OBIT-H 2018
Courtesy of Howard Cohen

He was the assistant musical director for Johnny Carson's entire run, from the host's first day on the job in October 1962 until his last in May 1992.

Shelly Cohen, who served for nearly three decades as the assistant musical director during Johnny Carson's entire run on The Tonight Show — and even got to lead the band on the air once in a while — has died. He was 84. 

Cohen died July 25 of pneumonia at Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, California. Leona, his wife of 64 years, told The Hollywood Reporter that he had been ill for just a few days.

After joining NBC in the 1950s, Cohen worked on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson from Oct. 1, 1962 — when Groucho Marx introduced the new late-night host from Studio 6B at Rockefeller Center in New York — until Carson's final appearance from Burbank Studios on May 22, 1992.

Other than Carson and sidekick Ed McMahon, Cohen is believed to be the only person to have worked on the show for that complete stretch.

Born in Brooklyn on Nov. 8, 1933, Cohen attended Eastern District High School and played the clarinet and violin as a youngster. He had a stint with the U.S. Army during the Korean War, then spent seven years attending music school in the evenings while working in the NBC mailroom during the day. (Also sorting letters there at the time: Pat Harrington, future star of One Day at a Time.)

With an assist from his mentor, bandleader Skitch Henderson, Cohen was promoted to NBC music librarian before eventually joining the staff of The Tonight Show. He went on to work alongside Henderson as well as subsequent Tonight Show bandleaders Milton DeLugg, Doc Severinsen and Tommy Newsom.

When Cohen learned he would be stepping in for Henderson and fronting the Tonight Show Band for the first time, he made sure his mother had a seat in the audience, he told Mark Malkoff during a March 2017 installment of The Carson Podcast.

"Hi, mom, what did you think?" Cohen asked her after the show. "She paused and said, 'When are you going to get a regular job?' I never invited her back there. My ego couldn't handle it!"

Carson would call Cohen "The Kosher Mantovani" on the air. 

Cohen also helped out on Dick Cavett's talk show (Cavett was a former Tonight Show writer) for about a year while employed on The Tonight Show; wrote and produced two Christmas specials for NBC; and was a music coordinator on the Emmy Awards.

In addition, he produced McMahon's nightclub act, which featured the Tonight Show veteran singing "Ya Got Trouble" from The Music Man.

When The Tonight Show moved to California in 1972, Cohen came west as well and became choir director of St. Mel's Church in Woodland Hills. He served in that role for 20 years and produced jazz Masses and yearly concerts.

A two-time Grammy nominee, Cohen also appeared as guest conductor with the Los Angeles Pops, the Virginia Pops, the Pasadena Pops and the Brentwood Symphony; founded the 80-voice New Horizon Singers and the Pacific Pops Orchestra; and had his own band, The Swing Tones. 

In addition to his wife, survivors include their sons and their wives Steven (Carla), Howard (Jeanne) and Robert (Christy); their grandchildren Sean, Rachel, Claire and Dean; and Cohen's sister Eleanor.

A musical celebration of his life is set for 2 p.m. Aug. 25 at St. Mel's.

Cohen and the rest of the Tonight Show crew lost their jobs when Carson quit. In recent years, he gave lectures around the country, telling entertaining stories about his days on the iconic program.

"It was a home away from home; it was a wonderful career," Cohen said on The Carson Podcast. "I couldn't have scripted it any better if I had been writing an MGM movie. What an opportunity for a musician to be part of that. It was amazing."