On December 19, 1985, The Tonight Show Starting Johnny Carson had booked Horacio Gutiérrez, a Cuban-born concert pianist. A couple hours before the show was going to tape, Gutiérrez called producer Freddie de Cordova with bad news. He had smashed his fingers in his car door and wasn’t able to perform.
It was The Tonight Show, so getting a replacement performer even at the last minute wouldn’t have been a problem. They could have had The Tonight Show Band play if they needed to, but instead they decided to try something fun and random. They’d get someone from the audience to perform.
Sitting at his desk, Johnny explained to the audience about Gutiérrez’s cancellation. He told them they were in a dilemma.
Johnny asked, “How many of you in the audience, play the piano?” He asked for applause and got a smattering. He narrowed it down and asked, “Is there anyone in the audience who’s studied for five years?”
A guy in a Nike t-shirt, blue jeans and flip flops raised his hand. Johnny invited him down. The guy introduced himself as David Tolley. Johnny told the crowd, “Obviously you know this is not set up because David would not have dressed this way if he knew he was going to be on a big television show in front of a national audience.”
“Uh ‘Memories’ from Cats.”
David sat down at the piano and started to play. It was beautiful and the audience clapped their approval.
Last October, on Halloween, David uploaded the video from that performance to YouTube. It didn’t really get a lot of attention until today when someone posed it on reddit. Now it’s gone viral.
Today David Tolley lives in Powell, Ohio where he works on composing and recording music for corporate clients. He travels to Los Angeles on weekends where he performs at the Callender’s Restaurant across from the La Brea Tar Pits.
The video of David Tolley’s first performance is up at the top. Johnny invited him back as a proper musical guest, and Tolley played an extremely unique arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” That video is below.