“Tonight Show” bandleader Kevin Eubanks has made it official: He’s leaving as Jay Leno’s sideman in May after 18 years with the late-night host.
He told Leno during Monday’s taping of “Tonight” in Burbank, Calif., that he was ready for a career change of pace, but he didn’t announce specific plans. Eubanks called the NBC late-night show his “home” and said it had been “a wonderful experience” working there.
Eubanks, 52, whose duties included comic sidekick to Leno as well as guitarist, has been aboard since Leno took over “Tonight” in 1992. Eubanks became musical director when Branford Marsalis left in 1995.
In February, NBC said Eubanks had expressed interest in personal touring and recording.
His final day on “Tonight” is May 28. NBC did not immediately announce his replacement.
“After 18 years of playing America into commercials, I’m gonna go somewhere where I can finish a song,” Eubanks said when Leno asked what he planned to do first.
Leno, who invited Eubanks to sit with him to make the announcement, called their time together “a pleasure.”
“You’ve been a great friend and really supportive. When those jokes die, I got to look to you, man,” Leno told him.
In an interview afterward, Eubanks said he had no specific plans and was “keeping everything open.”
Asked about the highlights of his “Tonight” years, Eubanks said it was “just meeting B.B. King, Willie Nelson, all these wonderful musicians that I’ve grown to be friends with.”
When he told King he planned to leave the show, the legendary musician expressed suprise but, Eubanks said, “you could see the pride in his face. … He felt pride, like he had something to do with it. It felt good that I was part of the lineage.”
So would he like to see another African-American musician take his place?
“I want to see a really great band leader replace me. But I wouldn’t be mad,” he said, with a laugh.
Eubanks was with Leno for the short-lived “The Jay Leno Show” in prime-time, then came back to “Tonight” when Leno reclaimed the show from Conan O’Brien in March. O’Brien left NBC rather than move “Tonight” to a later slot to make room for Leno in late night.
The turmoil had nothing to do with his decision to leave, Eubanks said.
“Nah,” he said. “We have a job to do and we do it.”
Eubanks’ announcement came the day that O’Brien announced plans to start a late-night show on TBS later this year.