Johnny Carson Invited An Audience Member To Play Piano, And It Totally Transformed His Life

As the host of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson was used to entertaining audiences. And during one December 1985 episode of the series, this experience may have come in handy, as the entertainer encountered a problem that had the potential to derail that particular broadcast. But this unexpected speed bump actually turned out to have an upside. You see, what happened next would end up changing a young man’s life forever – as well as bringing down the house in the process.

Yes, while the young man concerned, David Tolley, entered The Tonight Show’s Burbank studio as an unknown, he emerged as anything but. Such are the twists of fate that can define lives, after all. And more than three decades later, the drama that unfolded on set may seem as unexpected now as it did then.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, as the show was known in 1985, was, and remains, an American institution. In fact, 17 years later it featured at number 12 in TV Guide’s “50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.” And a variation of the show still exists on NBC today – The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The format has also remained relatively similar since the show was originally broadcast on the network as Tonight! in September 1954. At that time, the host of the series was comedian Steve Allen.

ADVERTISEMENT

Since then, the show has been anchored by Jack Parr, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Fallon. It has also featured number of notable guest hosts, including Joan Rivers, Sammy Davis Jr. and Groucho Marx. And its blend of comedy, celebrity interviews and musical performances has wowed live and TV audiences for decades.

In 1985 Carson was in the middle of his legendary run as host, having taken over presenting duties from his successor, Jack Paar, 17 years earlier. Accompanying Carson was his announcer and sidekick Ed McMahon, who would remain with the former until the final show in 1992.

ADVERTISEMENT

Over the course of those 30 years, Carson’s show would consistently top the TV audience rankings during his time slot. As a result, the show became somewhat of a cultural influence and reference. Carson’s reach was so great that a 1973 joke about a shortage of toilet paper sent the public into a panic-buying frenzy and led to national rationing.

ADVERTISEMENT

Carson was also responsible for helping start the careers of many notable comedians, among them Jerry Seinfield, Joan Rivers and Tim Allen. Despite his rather curt interviewing style – described by actor Robert Blake as like “facing the death squad” – well-known faces actively coveted a guest slot.

ADVERTISEMENT

Over the years some huge names appeared on the show; from politicians such as Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon to sports stars including Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath. There was often Hollywood royalty such as Orson Welles and Bette Davis, and comedians including Robin Williams and Richard Pryor.

ADVERTISEMENT

Adding to the mix were the many notable musicians who performed live on the show down the years. These included David Bowie, Dean Martin, Dolly Parton, B.B. King, Liberace and many more. In fact, music segments were a common feature of the show during the Carson years – a trend that continues to this day with Fallon helming the series.

ADVERTISEMENT

Music has long featured on The Tonight Show, and in situ over the series’ long run has been a house band: The NBC Orchestra. That outfit was mostly led by Doc Severinsen during Carson’s reign, and among the notable components of that band was the jazz piano.

ADVERTISEMENT

During Carson’s 30 years of hosting on the show, both Ross Tompkins and Russ Freeman impressed on the piano as members of the NBC orchestra. And the instrument featured prominently when acts such as Liberace appeared, meaning accomplished piano playing was a common feature of the series.

ADVERTISEMENT

Liberace had been appearing on The Tonight Show since the series had been with its previous host, Jack Parr. Jazz pianist Frank Cunimondo and popular music pianist Elton John also featured while Carson was at the helm, ensuring audiences got a regular dose of the varying styles of the instrument.

ADVERTISEMENT

Another notable performer on the ivories over the course of the series’ run was classical performer Horacio Gutiérrez. In fact, it was he who had been scheduled to appear on that night in 1985 when events took an unexpected turn and an unknown young man’s life was transformed.

ADVERTISEMENT

Gutiérrez was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1948 and moved with his family to the United States 14 years later following the former country’s revolution. Having played in front of audiences since the age of four, Gutiérrez debuted on American television with Leonard Bernstein on the show Young People’s Concerts in 1966. And from there, he quickly established himself as one of the greatest modern classical pianists.

ADVERTISEMENT

Gutiérrez made his first appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in May 1985, playing “Etude” in F Minor. He subsequently made a second appearance in July that year, playing two tracks this time, including “Sparks.” Following that, Gutiérrez was then invited to return for a third performance in December of the same year.

ADVERTISEMENT

For its part, that show in December 1985 started much like any other. Carson had been hosting The Tonight Show for over two decades by that point, and so he was no doubt used to the routine. Even so, on this occasion there was a hitch to proceedings. In footage from the episode uploaded to YouTube, Carson announces, “Now, let me explain something here: we are in somewhat of a dilemma tonight.” And to begin with, the audience aren’t sure what’s happening.

ADVERTISEMENT

“We had booked… the famed pianist, classical pianist, Horacio Gutiérrez, who’s been with us three or four times on the show,” Carson explains. Indeed, it was actually Gutiérrez’ third booking to appear; but things had not gone according to plan, as the audience soon discovers.

ADVERTISEMENT

Carson asks producer Fred de Cordova to clarify the timing of an important phone conversation which was central to developments. Apparently, the call had come through just hours before the show was due to be recorded. Furthermore, it presented some bad news for the broadcast and those who had expected to hear some live music.

ADVERTISEMENT

Carson continues, “[At] about 1:30 this afternoon, [there was a call] saying that [Gutiérrez] had had an accident. He was closing the car door, and apparently he nipped his fingers or something and was in a lot of pain. Apparently, it’s not broken, [and] it’s not going to affect his career or anything – but we’re stuck.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Ever the professional, however, Carson has something up his sleeve – and the plan will ultimately make a big impression on the audience, too. The host says, “We’re not stuck, because here’s what I’m going to try to do.” Carson then takes a long pause, adding to the suspense of the moment.

ADVERTISEMENT

“These people came here to hear piano music, right?” Carson asks, to which de Cordova responds, “Right. They have a right to hear it.” Then Carson continues to add to the audience’s sense of anticipation. He asks in a deadpan tone, “How many of you in the audience play the piano?” And laughter starts to erupt in the studio as it becomes clear what the veteran entertainer is getting at.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Just applaud,” Carson urges, as he searches for volunteers. “Don’t be embarrassed now.” But it’s plain that this is easier said than done, as the assembled members of the public begin to laugh and squirm in their seats. Before long, however, the host’s eyes seem to settle on a young man who is eagerly trying to get his attention by holding his hand high in the air.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yes, it seems that Carson has found just who he’s looking for. He asks an audience member, “You play the piano?” Come on down.” And seemingly eager to rise to the challenge, the individual subsequently jumps up and quickly makes his way to the stage. The other people watching the show on set, meanwhile, continue to applaud as the drama unfolds around them.

ADVERTISEMENT

But while the guy appears nervous as he arrives on stage and shakes hands with Carson and his two guests, he also has a grin perched on his face. Yes, he’s clearly someone whom the audience can root for. Carson subsequently asks for the name of the man, who responds that it’s David Tolley. And so the host announces to those viewing proceedings on TV, “David Tolley in concert, so stay where you are.”

ADVERTISEMENT

It’s probably safe to say that Tolley never imagined he would end up here. In fact, the scenario almost seems too wild to be true. But Carson is quick to allay any suggestion that this is a prearranged stunt. He looks at his pianist and says, “You know this is not set up, because, obviously, David would not dress this way if he knew he was going to be on a big television show in front of a national audience.”

ADVERTISEMENT

And this quip has the audience in stitches. You see, Tolley is wearing a light-blue Nike T-shirt and a pair of faded denim jeans – certainly not the typical attire of a concert pianist. Instead, his clothing gives him the appearance of someone who may have spent the day at a nearby beach or painting a fence.

ADVERTISEMENT

So, who is this David Tolley? Well, he originally hails from Columbus, Ohio, where he grew up with his seven siblings. It’s safe to say, too, that he had a passion for music from an early age. Tolley took up the piano at five, in fact, beginning formal tutoring just two years later. And it seems that the young man never looked back. Indeed, he went on to complete a double major in piano performance and music composition at The Ohio State University.

ADVERTISEMENT

However, Tolley later moved out west to Los Angeles in order to pursue his musical dreams. And it was during this period in the musician’s life that he found himself at a studio in Burbank, California, watching a live performance of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

ADVERTISEMENT

So here he was – a young man from the Ohio suburbs who was about to be thrust into the limelight. But of course, those watching the live show weren’t sure that Tolley could even play the piano. And he certainly didn’t appear as though he had prepared for the occasion, either. Instead, the audience member arguably looked more like a college freshman who was pulling a prank.

ADVERTISEMENT

Appearances can be deceptive, though, as everyone in the studio, and all those who were watching on TV at home, would soon find out. But would Tolley’s nerves hold when he was before the eyes of a national audience? In the YouTube clip of the show, Carson asks, “What are you going to do for us, David?”

ADVERTISEMENT

Tolley replies that he will play “Memory” from the musical Cats. Carson says, “Well, that’s great. ‘Memory,’ it’s all yours.” Next, the host ushers Tolley over to the grand piano on the stage. And one can only imagine the sheer amount of pressure that would be weighing on the shoulders of anyone who was placed in the same circumstances.

ADVERTISEMENT

Years later, in 2013, Tolley would be asked whether he had been anxious in the run-up to his impromptu performance. He explained on Reddit, “I wasn’t nervous because I didn’t have time to think about what was really happening. Honestly, I would have been terrified if I knew 28 million people were watching every note I played.”

ADVERTISEMENT

But even before Tolley plays a single chord, he provides a flourish that signals the kind of confident performer – and the natural crowd-pleaser – that he is. First, he gives a quick bow. And after that, he makes light of the juxtaposition between his casual dress and the gravity of the situation. Specifically, Tolley makes a gesture as if to move non-existent suit tails out of the way before sitting down – a move that draws laughter from the crowd.

ADVERTISEMENT

Then the audience is silent, presumably waiting expectantly for what will follow. Will the young man be a competent amateur, or will he just be a joker looking to get some cheap laughs and his 15 minutes of fame on television? Nobody has to wait for long, though, as Tolley launches right into his routine.

ADVERTISEMENT

And what transpires no doubt leaves the spectators in a state of awe – both in the studio and at home. That’s because Tolley can play; he can really play. Yes, the young pianist gives what’s clearly a polished, professional performance. Not only that, but he also peppers his proficient musicianship with whimsical dashes of personality that may just endear him to those who are watching.

ADVERTISEMENT

For instance, Tolley often turns to the audience and the camera to smile, revealing a seemingly relaxed mood. He even points to the audience at one stage and then to his fingers, which are dancing gracefully down the keys. It’s certainly a feat that only a talented player could achieve. And in all, Tolley’s performance is both skilful and natural – a winning combination.

ADVERTISEMENT

Plus, another charming moment occurs when the camera flashes to Tolley’s feet, which are operating the piano’s pedals. And with that, it becomes strikingly clear just how unprepared the young man was for his performance: he’s donning a pair of worn-looking flip-flops. Tolley wrote on Reddit many years later, “[I was] straight from the beach, honestly.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Then when Tolley’s performance reaches its end, it is unsurprisingly met with rapturous applause. And the pianist beams with pride before bowing quickly to the audience and jogging over to join Carson, who shakes his hand enthusiastically. As the crowd to continues to voice their approval for the young musician, Carson says, “Congratulations.” The host, meanwhile, shakes his head in disbelief at what he has just witnessed.

ADVERTISEMENT

So, what was the secret to Tolley’s performance? The pianist explained on Reddit, “Well, I make sure I really know the piece inside and out. Then I just let go and try to make the piano sing. [I] don’t think about the audience or outside influences. [I] think about the music – but don’t over-think. [You have to] enjoy the music as you’re playing.”

ADVERTISEMENT

However, Tolley’s 1985 performance on The Tonight Show was far from the end of his story. You see, not only did the musician prove to be a hit with both Carson and the audience, but what happened that day would also have a pivotal impact on his life in the years that followed. So, how did things change for Tolley after this unexpected turn of events?

ADVERTISEMENT

Well, it all started quite slowly – as was made clear when he featured on Carson’s show for a second time just one month later. On this January 1986 episode, the host begins by teasing Tolley about the comparative rewards of his two appearances. “The one big difference playing tonight, David? You get paid tonight,” says Carson. “You know we just kind of dragged you out of the audience last time and gave you a couple of free dinners.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Of course, Tolley had also received the benefit of seeing his performance broadcast across America. For this second appearance, though, he would receive much more direct remuneration. Carson asks an individual who seems to be standing off-camera, “So, tonight. What would David normally get tonight for a performance?” They reply, “A fortune.” And when pressed for a specific number, they add, “Slightly under $500.”

ADVERTISEMENT

This figure is certainly an improvement on the rewards from Tolley’s first performance on The Tonight Show. And it’s easy to see that he’s deserving of it, as once again, Tolley delights the audience – this time by playing his own arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” His rendition receives thunderous applause on this occasion, too. As the young man hastily retreats off the stage, Carson then says, “You can take a bow, David.” But there was yet more to come from Tolley.

ADVERTISEMENT

After having appeared as a guest on one of America’s most popular TV shows, Tolley was set to go on to greater things. Tolley noted on Reddit decades later, “Johnny [Carson] really did help get my name out there. The only thing is that I focused on being a composer instead of a performer; I was too nervous to be a performer.”

ADVERTISEMENT

But while Tolley certainly didn’t appear to be nervous in his performance on the show, his choice to pursue composing proved to be an astute one. For starters, he can now boast of having a range of impressive accomplishments under his belt.

ADVERTISEMENT

Since his famed TV appearance, Tolley’s works have since been heard around the world. He has composed music for every one of the major networks in America, for instance, as well as for notable directors such as Steven Spielberg. The pianist has recorded 30 albums to boot and has written music for the Disney theme parks in Paris and Tokyo. But Tolley’s remarkable career goes even beyond that noteworthy laundry list of achievements.

ADVERTISEMENT

To start with, Tolley has composed no less than seven musicals, with his most recent work being Song of Solomon – a romance inspired by the story of King Solomon. One of Tolley’s efforts even received a pair of Grammy nominations, and he’s currently working on two more stage productions. Plus, Tolley’s biography notes that he has played for some extremely prominent individuals – people even more famous than Johnny Carson.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yes, Tolley has played for no fewer than four presidents of the United States. Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton have all been treated to Tolley’s talents, in fact. It’s perhaps fair to say that his musicianship crosses partisan divides, then, and that he’s not quite as nervous in performance as he may suggest. But, once again, Tolley has achieved yet more in his time in music.

ADVERTISEMENT

For example, Tolley performed in Russia at the Chernobyl Foundation Benefit Concert. And there, he appeared in front of none other than Boris Yeltsin – the first president of the Russian Federation. This isn’t the only time that Tolley has played abroad, either, as he also toured Europe with Jon Anderson of rock band Yes. All in all, then, he boasts quite the resumé.

ADVERTISEMENT

These days, Tolley works to inspire the next generation of musicians at Delaware State University, where he works as a professor and acts as the head of the college’s program on the music industry. Meanwhile, when it comes to Tolley’s personal life, he’s a father to four now-adult children. And presumably their dad’s prime-time television appearance with Johnny Carson counts as the stuff of family legend.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Tolley’s two appearances on the show weren’t the last contact that he would have with Carson. The pianist explained on Reddit, “[Carson] was extremely nice to me on both shows, and he would communicate to me through the producers of the show, like signing and sending a picture of himself to me. And [he] also let me come back and get several photos of me on the show from time to time.”

ADVERTISEMENT

And yet there was still further kindness on Carson’s part. You see, the TV legend ensured that Tolley got his hands on footage of his features on the show – long before the internet would immortalize them forever. The pianist explained, “That was another cool and friendly gesture that Mr. Carson did for me. He actually allowed his company, Carson Productions, to give me both shows on big Beta broadcasting tapes.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Indeed, what a shame it would have been if Tolley and his friends and family couldn’t have witnessed his star turn in the intervening years. There was the performer’s musicianship, the twinkle in his eye – and of course, his straight-from-the-beach look, running from the faded jeans to the flip-flops. It’s a true story of an ordinary guy with a whole load of talent who just so happened to be in the right place at the right time.

ADVERTISEMENT

And in terms of talents getting their big break in such an unconventional nature, Tolley is far from alone. Marilyn Monroe, for her part, was working in a munitions factory during World War II when she was discovered by a photographer.

ADVERTISEMENT

There are cases of accidental fame achieved in music circles too. John Lydon was famously only invited to join the Sex Pistols after Malcolm McLaren spotted the young man hanging around his clothing store. Once again, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time, as Tolley found out that fateful evening in California.

ADVERTISEMENT

These days, of course, things are rather different. If they were so inclined, the likes of Tolley could just appear on a show such as America’s Got Talent or American Idol. But 1985 was a very different time, and there were only a handful of talent shows which made it a little more difficult for aspiring performers to get their big break.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yet there are still unlikely musical success stories to this day. Perhaps one of the best-known examples was Susan Boyle’s appearance on Britain’s Got Talent back in 2009. Arriving on stage as a middle-aged woman with unkempt hair, the audience were certainly not prepared for Boyle’s angelic singing voice. Indeed, her incredible singing led to her topping the Billboard 200 for six weeks and receiving two Grammy Award nominations.

ADVERTISEMENT

Along with cable television, the internet has changed the game entirely. Nowadays, overnight viral sensations are so common that real talent can sometimes get lost in the noise. Yet it is that same internet which now allows us to view Tolley’s debut TV performance whenever we wish, and which has reignited interest in the story.

ADVERTISEMENT

Tolley’s appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson only came about due to a number of small twists of fate. From an accomplished pianist shutting his hand in a car door to Tolley going to the Burbank studio that evening and being invited down onto the stage by Carson himself. It is an unlikely sequence of events to say the least.

ADVERTISEMENT

And this stroke of fate, it seems, is the key to the endearing charm of the world-renowned musician. It’s perhaps what’s most engaging about his story, too. After all, as the man himself so succinctly explained, “That first show was a blur to me. It all happened so fast – from the beach to sitting next to Johnny [Carson] in one day.”

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT