David Tolley – His Musical Journey from The Tonight Show to Recording the Music for Disneyland Park in Paris to Tenured University Professor

“I’m twenty-one and working on my doctorate in music.  I thought, I am too young to be doing this.  I need real-life experience. So I packed my VW Rabbit and moved to Southern California.” -David Tolley

Tommy Thomas: Three years ago, I started a tradition on the podcast. I’m interviewing someone from the music industry for the episode being released the week of Christmas. My logic is that most people probably aren’t doing much professional development this week. And rather than not have a release, I would default to something that is near and dear to my heart. I started taking piano lessons when I was seven. In high school, I played in a local garage band. In college, I sang folk music, and, in my twenties, I sang with a bluegrass group in Birmingham.

In fact, one of the things on my bucket list is to play a set with the cover group, Jay and the Elders from Birmingham. So, Jim Blackman, if you’re listening, I’m waiting on my invitation.

Our guest this week is Dr. David Tolley, the Associate Professor and Director of The Music Industry Program at Delaware State University. David is a very talented composer, arranger, producer, and instructor. I believe you’re going to love his story.

[00:01:08] Tommy Thomas: Before we take too deep of a dive into your professional career, take us back into your childhood. What’s your happiest memory?

[00:01:17] David Tolley: Happiest memories of childhood. I’m one of eight kids. I’m number seven. And we were born, not really on a farm, but in Dublin, Ohio.

[00:01:25] David Tolley: We had an apple orchard, chicken coop, and things like that, but it wasn’t a full fledged farm. But we used to play Cowboys and Indians, hide and go seek. And playing with all my brothers and sisters probably was one of my favorite memories.

[00:01:39] Tommy Thomas: What about the gifts your parents gave you? What’s the greatest gift you remember?

[00:01:44] David Tolley: Greatest gift or appearance? Probably the electric football game where you put the players on there and the game vibrates. Yeah. That was that. I had to think about that. I haven’t thought about that in a long time yet.

[00:01:56] Tommy Thomas:: Wow. We had one of those that was fun.

[00:01:58] Tommy Thomas: Yeah. And what was high school like?

[00:02:01] David Tolley: I went to Worthington High School, and it was great. I wasn’t in the marching band or the choir because I was a pianist, and in junior year, Columbus started a brand-new performing arts school called Fort Hayes, and it was modeled after the one in New York and then one went down into Dallas. So it was experiential Columbus and it’s still going, but went there my junior and senior year and half of the day to Worthington. So it was a lot of fun. I started composing for some theater things and other things. And I was valedictorian of the class when I graduated.

But the only regret I have about that is I cut off my social life from my high school friends. Because I went down there at noontime and then was downtown Columbus. And you know how after high school, a lot of people, they have afterschool activities, and I was out of town.

[00:02:56] Tommy Thomas: Yeah. I guess when you enrolled in Ohio State you knew you were into music by then.

[00:03:01] David Tolley Yeah, I played sports, Tommy, and believe it or not, I used to play football and was quarterback and I played basketball and baseball, but I didn’t grow to be huge, you know, like 6’ 2”, 6’ 3”. And so it started to hurt in middle school. So I got back into music heavy and I was just practicing all the time and I was lucky to get this pianist, Richard Telly Curtis, and he was head of the piano division at Ohio State and I got him in high school.

I don’t know how I got him. But he said he took me because I had a good smile. I don’t know. I practiced all the time and that’s performing arts school. They just kind of let me go and I would go down to the practice rooms and just practice all my whole time there.

So I entered Ohio State and got a double bachelor’s in piano performance and composition, and then got my master’s in theory and composition before I moved out to Los Angeles.

[00:03:55] Tommy Thomas: Had you started your PhD before you moved to Los Angeles?

[00:03:58] David Tolley: Yeah, back then we were on the quarter system, so I had the first quarter and then I thought, wow, I’m only 21 or 22, I think. And I’m like, I’m doing my doctorate in music. I got into music to perform and to compose, mostly compose. So I thought, and I talked to my mom and I was playing at a church, Liberty Presbyterian Church, all through college and stuff.

[00:04:22] David Tolley: They didn’t want me to go and my mom of course didn’t want me to go, but she actually gave me her blessing and packed up my rabbit and moved out to Los Angeles.

[00:04:31] Tommy Thomas: Wow. Yeah, I can see Los Angeles. Back then, Nashville wasn’t in the scene. I guess it would’ve been LA or New York probably your two options. What was the early days like in Los Angeles as a fledgling musician?

[00:04:45] David Tolley: Yeah, it was scary. I tell these stories to my students because they have the itch in them, these young college kids, and I’m like, you know what, if it’s really on your heart and you’re passionate about it, you gotta try it now because you might be regretful later on.

So I was scared to be honest, and because I only knew one person out there. I took every other thing I had in a VW Rabbit and I went to North Hollywood, and that was the year that they had Richard Ramirez, the Hillside strangler, and then all of the freeway shootings. I was like, what did I do? But after about a year, it settled in and I was fine.

[00:05:25] Tommy Thomas: I’m going to probably not remember the details from how you told it years ago, but as I remember you told me that your brother came out to visit you one Christmas and y’all ended up at the Johnny Carson Show. Can you fill in the details there and tell our viewers a little bit about that?

[00:05:42] David Tolley: Okay. So being one of eight kids, I was number seven, and my youngest brother was number eight.

We pretty much grew up without a dad and so my mom thought, this is David’s first Christmas away from home. And Christmas was a big thing, eight kids and the Christmas tree and gifts. So she was very wise and sent my youngest brother out to visit me. And for a week we went to the beach, we went to all these different things. The Hollywood Stars, Beverly Hills houses, went to where the Lakers played and everything. And then he had the idea to go, hey, can we go to The Tonight Show?  I don’t know how to do that.

[00:06:20] David Tolley: It was like his last day. And so he called up and he said, all you have to do is show up in line in Burbank and wait outside. So, we did after we had gone to the beach all day, and then we walk inside and we got in barely. And we were about three quarters of the way back in the audience. And it was Johnny’s last show before he went on Christmas break the next day. And it was a Friday night, I think it was December 19th, 1985. And Johnny comes out with no preparation during the monologue, he said, you know what, you’re all in the Christmas spirit, and we have a dilemma tonight.

We scheduled this beautiful nine-foot Steinway piano that we had imported in for the classical pianist, Ori Gutierrez, who won the Van Clyburn Award. And the only thing is, he nipped his fingers because he shut his hand in the car door accidentally. His career’s not hurt. But he doesn’t feel like playing. And so, we have a dilemma. I’ll let you know after the commercial break what we’re going to do. And so he comes back, he goes, you know what? We’re going to try something we’ve never done before. Is there anyone in the audience that plays a piano? And so I didn’t even know what was going on. My brother raises my hand and before I know it, I have a Nike T-shirt and jeans and flip flops, and I’m playing on a nine foot Steinway for 28 million people.

[00:07:42] Tommy Thomas: Wow. I’m just thinking what was going through Carson’s mind. My gosh what a mistake it could have been.

[00:07:49] David Tolley: Yeah, he actually mentioned that. Actually you can see it on YouTube. He says, wow, this could have been a real bomb. And actually, he picked a woman to go first and she played silver bells and she was good. And but he said, just in case she lays a bomb, is there someone else?  And that’s when he picked me.

[00:08:08] David Tolley: He was pretty amazed of the crowd’s reaction. 

[00:08:12] David Tolley: He put his hands up the air like, I don’t believe this, so it was fun. I didn’t know Tommy; I didn’t know I was playing for all these people. It was kind of like a dream. I went up there, I was smiling and, back in Ohio, for the church for years, and then I used to play a lot of parties, so I thought, oh, this is fun. I’ll just start playing. I didn’t know all those 28 million people were watching, so I was winking at the audience. I pretended I had tuxedo on. I was just goofing off. I was a little clowned, but I guess the audience really liked that.

[00:08:45] Tommy Thomas: So everybody can Google I guess David Tally the Tonight Show and you can see the YouTube of this. So what did you play? How did you think about it, or did you just go up and just start playing?

[00:08:58] David Tolley: I must’ve been on autopilot because I barely remember the show. I know it happened, but we only had a minute to think. And so I though, the Cats was real popular at the time, the musical, so I said, how about Memories from Cats? He goes, oh, that’s great. And I went up and played.

[00:09:17] David Tolley: After I got done, you can see on the video, the audience was just clapping and roaring. And I touched Johnny’s hand, oh wow, that worked out. And so yeah, it was fun. Johnny was super nice to me. Both shows. I left and they got my name and number and stuff like that.

And I went with my brother back to my little studio apartment in North Hollywood and he was like, he kept on hitting me in the arm going, did that really happen? Did that really happen? So, it was a great way to end the week with my younger brother and actually my dad’s mom, Grace , who I partially dedicated Amazing Grace, my variation, and she had never seen me play the piano and she was 92 at the time.

She lived to be 99. My whole family got to watch it. My grandmother that never saw me play got to see it. So it was neat.


[00:10:12] Tommy Thomas: So, what did you play on your second appearance?

[00:10:15] David Tolley: They called, they had lost my number somehow, so they put a search team out because Johnny came back and Grant Tinker was the CEO of NBC. And he called Johnny the next day. He says, boy, that was great planning that kid on the show. Johnny goes no. I didn’t plan it. I just took a chance.

He goes, what? So he said, we have to have him back. We have all these letters and phone calls. We gotta let them know. And so Johnny goes, yeah, that’d be great. So they actually called me and I was in North Hollywood. I answered the phone. I still remember, it was lunchtime. They said, hey we have so many letters and phone calls. We really have to have you back on the show so we can explain to the audience this is really what happened. I actually said no. I said, I’m a composer. I’d be too nervous. He said, yeah, but what you just played on there? I’m like, yeah, I didn’t know was going on.

[00:11:07] David Tolley: So they said, let me call you back after lunch. And I still remember, Tommy, I got my little can of Chicken Noodle soup, Campbells, and I cooked it and put it on my spoon. I could not even keep a noodle on my spoon. I was shaking.

So, I had a week to think and I thought, you know what? This is a great opportunity to give glory to God, and do my theme and variations on amazing grace. I wrote it for the church when I left because they had a wide variety of people that some liked pop, some like gospel, some like straight hymnals, some like country, some like jazz. I thought, you know what, it’s all music to me as a composer. It’s just an attitude of the heart. And so, I did my theme and variations on Amazing Grace as a gift to them. And for my gram Grammy Grace. And so I played that and Johnny, at first they thought, oh, that might be too religious. And actually Johnny said no – let him play what he wants to play. And anyway, so that’s what I played.

[00:12:08] Tommy Thomas: Wow. And what was the immediate aftermath of that? Did you see any uptick in any opportunities to record or to write?

[00:12:17] David Tolley: Yeah, I got to see the great side of Hollywood, and the bad side. Because I had like agents, managers, it was so confusing. From a little town, at the time it was a small town, a suburb of Columbus and I didn’t know anything about the music business. I had what, three degrees and started my doctorate, but I didn’t have one music business course. Nothing about contracts or intellectual property or anything. 

[00:12:40] David Tolley: I was very confused and the White House saw it and they said, we would like you to play at Easter time at the White House. I’m like, okay. And I was actually the MC for the Easter Fest. I actually showed up at the White House and they booked a hotel and brought me in. They said, you know what? We know you’re playing and performing, but we’d like you to be the MC. And they handed me a script. I’m like, I wish you guys would’ve told me. But anyway, so a lot of things like that.

I tried out for some movie parts. Madonna and Michael Jackson’s manager had a record deal that they were working on, which didn’t work because, like I said I saw the good and the bad and a lot of things like that. A lot of projects, some TV and film projects that I did.

[00:13:28] Tommy Thomas: As I remember for a while, weren’t you Mayor Bradley’s pianist of record for a lot of his parties?

[00:13:36] David Tolley: Oh wow. Yes. Wow. I haven’t heard that name in a long time. Yeah I did. Even though I was out there as a composer, I still was a pianist, and I would still play on people’s albums. A lot of rock bands that were signed that didn’t have people or players. I was a studio musician that would come in and play and in between projects, if it was a cartoon or scoring an anime film or TV show. I did a lot of stuff for ABC, CNBC and CBS. But there are gaps. There are gaps in between projects, so I always kept up my playing. So, I was playing at the Bel Air Country Club for years, and I played, which when you’re out in the public Mayor Bradley saw me and I played so many functions for him. And I played Muhammad Ali’s birthday party and I’ll never forget it. Muhammad came up and his Parkinson’s had set in and he came up to the piano during his birthday, and he wrote me a poem. He was shaking and he was always one of my favorite athletes of all time. And then just a lot of parties and things because they’re just people that happen to live out there. And since I’m out in the public I did a bunch of parties for Clint Eastwood and I remember one party in Malibu that I was sitting, it was just a cliff with nothing but glass, looking at the ocean. And I’m like, okay, I’m showing up for this birthday party.

So out there and all of a sudden right next to me is Walter Mattau. Right behind me is Gregory Peck, Jack Lemon, Marlon Brando. I’m like, what’s going on here? And it was a birthday party for their acting coach, Stella Adler. So it was a party, and I played Hello Dolly for Carol Channing to sing. And my mom would’ve been in heaven if she would’ve been there. So yeah, I had a lot of neat experiences like that.

[00:15:29] Tommy Thomas:  And then somewhere along the way you got connected with Disney.

[00:15:33] David Tolley: And that actually wasn’t a result of the Tonight Show. That was, I forget how many years later, five or six years later. Because all that hype and everything slowed down. My phone was off the hook. I was like, oh boy. Yeah, I didn’t know what to do. And I probably made a lot of bad decisions.

[00:15:54] David Tolley: But I finally settled down to be a composer and play in between. And Disney got ahold of one of my first CDs and they were doing a new park in Paris or Euro Disney. And they took the music from Frontier, Leanne? I forget the land shoot. This is terrible. Anyway, tomorrow land and, this is a brand-new park, and they wanted a brand new lands called Discovery Land. And so it had all these explorers and things like Jules Verne and thing themed rights. I was lucky that out of, I don’t know, hundreds or thousands of composers that wanted to do the theme music for this land, I got the job. So I did a two hour soundtrack for piano and orchestra. And it still plays. It opened in 1992 and I still see my, it’s not great royalties, but it’s, yeah, I’m not going to turn them down. Every quarter I see royalties from my music that’s playing 18 hours a day.

[00:16:55] Tommy Thomas: So, looking back on the Southern California portion, what’s your biggest takeaway?

[00:17:03] David Tolley: That’s a good question. Just, probably hang on to God, hang the thick and the thin though it wasn’t always great times. There were sometimes it was very thin, and I bought a house in Woodland Hills, started having kids and those were great years and then there was some thin years. But God’s grace was with me the whole time, and it’s exciting. It’s not for everybody. In fact, my younger brother moved out there, a lot of friends moved out there. They saw the hype, and within a year they moved out because it’s like a concrete jungle. And you have to love the creativity. That’s what I liked about it. And it’s not for everybody.


[00:17:45] Tommy Thomas:  What brought you back east and how did you decide it was time to finish that doctorate?

[00:17:52] David Tolley: Good question. So basically, I told my mom when I started my doctorate and when I was making that decision to move out to LA, I’m like, I will finish this. I will finish. I wanted to be a brain surgeon, I ended up going into music. So, I said, Mom, I will be a doctor. And I still remember that conversation. So my wife, we had four kids and we were out in Los Angeles. We had a house, a pool, a studio, and she got cancer. And she was from Ohio too and she had a cancer called MOC Sarcoma, a soft tissue cancer.

[00:18:26] David Tolley: So, it was an extremely hard decision because the kids had all their friends in middle school and stuff like that.

We had a great setup. I was finally out there living, and doing what I love to do, but thought, it’s pretty serious stage four cancer. So we moved back to be with her family, my family and the support. She fought it for a good three and a half years and then passed.

[00:18:50] Tommy Thomas: How did you, as someone that’s never had that kind of experience, how did you get through that?

[00:18:56] David Tolley: Oh, it was all God. It really was God. And it’s funny that, through most of life, at least for me, it’s a pretty constant relationship. But in those very trying times, it’s almost like you can hear him breathe. I mean it’s very real and that’s really what kept me going. Prayer, the church and support.

[00:19:18] Tommy Thomas:  You finished your doctorate; you became that doctor that you had promised your mom.

[00:19:22] David Tolley: Right.

[00:19:23] Tommy Thomas: So now you’re on the faculty at Delaware State. Tell us about that. I guess you commute from Columbus to the campus periodically or regularly.

[00:19:32] David Tolley: You’d think I was a nut, I probably was, but I moved back to LA, finished, and I thought, Mom, I’m not in an entertainment town anymore. I have to think of a living now. So, I finished my doctorate, and I started Ohio State Music Industry Program from textbook stuff and then real live street knowledge that I gained out there.

[00:19:52] David Tolley: The only thing is they started it and everything and built the studios. Boom. And it came time to get the director of the music industry program and I already started the curriculum and everything. They had a new director and I guess they went by the rules. I had one quarter left to go or two and they were doing a search, and they couldn’t hire someone unless they had already been an assistant associate, an associate.

They wanted a director and I was just finishing up my doctorate so I couldn’t even be on the table. My faculty was furious, but that was a hard blow to me. And I finished up and I thought, you know what? I guess I just gotta keep on looking. I’ve had four or five job offers. One in New Orleans. One was in the Midwest, like in Indiana. I forget the name of the school. But Delaware State, I could fly there to Baltimore in one hour and commute. You thought, why don’t you move the family there? If you remember, I moved the family home to bite the cancer. Because they have a great cancer center at Ohio State. And I did that every Monday into Thursday for 10 years. Every single week. I flew there and then now after Covid. I talked to the Dean, and I was full professor now and with tenure, so I was able to say things like this.

I was like, I can’t travel like this anymore. I’m too old. This airport thing, and Covid, so they made me a deal that I come at the beginning, the end and in the middle. And the rest of the time I’m home.

[00:21:31] Tommy Thomas:  I do a lot of work in higher ed, and I ask all my higher ed people this question. What was the greatest lesson that you learned through Covid that you think you’ll take forward in your career?

[00:21:43] David Tolley: It’s being a global world in and with the way broadband is and connections. It took a while to get used to online teaching, and some of my students really like it because they can stay in their apartment or dorm and listen and but sometimes they really miss the one-on-one contact, at least showing them something in the studio or at the piano. But it seems like the tools are getting better and I do all my pro tools and other things. I share my screen, they can hear it, they see it, things like that. But just the question about AI and everything, I still think, that human heart, spirit, that’s hard to put into computer code.

[00:22:31] Tommy Thomas: I know you’re not a conductor but you probably own the fringes of conducting.  I’d like to ask you to respond to this quote from Ben Zander, the Boston Philharmonic. He says, the conductor doesn’t make a sound. The conductor’s power depends upon his or her ability to make other people powerful.

[00:22:51] David Tolley: Wow, that’s a great quote. Yeah, there are great conductors and then there are beginning conductors and even at the bus in Symphony Hall when I saw Beethoven’s ninth, it’s amazing. There are great leaders. They’re going through the same gestures of downbeats and expressiveness of dynamics and things like that, but they have such a charismatic power that kind of pulls energy out of the orchestra that they go to new heights that other people can’t do.


[00:23:29] Tommy Thomas: Yeah. So I’d like to close out with a lightning round of questions. These are generally short answers, but sometimes not. Yeah.

[00:23:38] David Tolley: Okay, I’ll keep it short.

[00:23:39] Tommy Thomas: What’s been the greatest invention in your lifetime?

[00:23:45] David Tolley: Probably the internet.

[00:23:47] Tommy Thomas: What’s the best compliment anybody’s ever paid you?

[00:23:55] David Tolley: I still get comments from that Tonight Show. In fact, I got three this morning. It’s crazy. It was so long ago. But I remember a lady, her email, it is almost like you could see her cry. She was, I guess losing someone in the hospital and she would play that over and over for their family member and she said, I felt like you’re playing that from heaven for us.

[00:24:17] Tommy Thomas:   So if you could go back in time and tell a younger version of yourself one thing, what would that be?

[00:24:28] David Tolley: Find what you’re really passionate about. Spend some quiet time in prayer, away from the noise and screens. Once you have that down, educate yourself as much as you can, take chances, because God’s going to be there with you.

[00:24:45] Tommy Thomas: If you could meet any historical figure and ask them one question, who would it be and what would the question be?

[00:24:56] David Tolley: My favorite composer of all time is Beethoven. So I would’ve loved to have met him and since he wrote the whole ninth Symphony in his head, and he was an outcast. People thought he was crazy, but he couldn’t hear and he’d walk through town and he had a terrible childhood, but he kept on writing music and I’d love to know what kept him going.

[00:25:17] Tommy Thomas:  What’s the most worthwhile lesson you’ve learned so far in your career?

[00:25:35] David Tolley: Boy, you just stumped me. I wrote a musical on Solomon, and it’s never been mounted. And but one of the main themes of that is chasing the wind and you can have all this stuff, all these riches, all this stuff, but if you don’t have God, it’s nothing.  It’s empty.


[00:25:51] Tommy Thomas: I hope you enjoyed this podcast. After we turned the recording button off David and I were talking and he told me that he is expecting one of his musicals to appear off Broadway sometime in the spring of 2024. If you want to bring some laughter to your day, watch the two YouTube clips of David’s first and second appearances on the Johnny Carson Show. The first appearance will have you in stitches. Only Johnny Carson could do the setup like he did for David. I’ve included links to both appearances in the episode notes.

January brings us to a new year for the podcast. And I’m pleased with the guests that we’ve lined up so far. Next week, our guest will be a man who’s been the president of three different universities. One of these being a startup.

He has a lot to share about leading institutions of higher education through the various stages of their life cycles.

“God got me through the death of my wife.  In those trying times it was God and the prayers and support I received from my friends at church.” -David Tolley


Links and Resources

JobfitMatters Website

Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas

The Perfect Search – What every board needs to know about hiring their next CEO

David Tolley’s first appearance on the Johnny Carson (the Tonight) Show

David Tolley’s second appearance on the Johnny Carson (the Tonight) Show

David Tolley’s interview with Scott – the Piano Guy

David Tolley’s Interview – the 200 Year Anniversary of Liberty Presbyterian Church


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