and Jimmy Dorsey grew up in the coal mining area of Shenandoah,
Pa. Their father worked in the mines, taught music, and led
the local band. He taught Jimmy and Tommy how to play cornet,
then taught Jimmy alto saxophone and Tommy trombone. Their father
taught them very well. The Dorsey boys became excellent musicians.
other brothers, the Dorseys often fought. Jimmy, the timid one,
could tee off Tommy with a simple statement or question.
May 30, 1935, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra was playing at the
prestigious Glen Island Casino. This was a band that their friend
Glenn Miller helped
them to assemble. Miller did most of the band's arrangements
and also played trombone.
who was conducting, beat off the tempo for "I'll Never
Say Never Again." Jimmy, playing in the sax section, called
out, "Isn't that a little too fast, Mac? Let's do it right
or not at all."
right!" Tommy shouted! "We won't do it at all!"
Tommy turned and walked off the stage. The Dorsey brothers went
their separate ways until 1953.
Dorsey and His Orchestra (circa 1941)
the next decade, Tommy outscored Jimmy hit for hit, dollar for
dollar, but both did very well. Tommy had a strong business
sense, which enabled him to live very comfortably. His Long
Island mansion even had a 50-foot long Lionel train layout in
the basementsomething Frank Sinatra really admired. Years
later, Sinatra built one that surpassed Tommy's on his estate
in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in a specially designed building resembling
the train station in Ramsey, N.J. Sinatra modeled it not on
Tommy's but on the larger layout in the Lionel Trains showroom
in New York City circa 1949.
acute business sense dovetailed nicely with his musical genius.
He insisted on top talent for his band. Looking back, you'll
find more than 50 jazz legends passed through his band during
the decade of 1935-1945, the Swing Era.
as Tommy knew how to present his instrumentalists, he knew how
to showcase his vocalists. For example, listen to any of his
songs with Jo Stafford and The Pied Pipers, or Frank Sinatra,
together or solo, and you'll see how very well Tommy provided
a terrific musical backdrop for them.
is a story trumpeter Charlie Shavers told about how Tommy
could not tolerate incompetence. Shavers related how Tommy once
kept a piano player around whom he couldn't stand, just to make
the guy's life miserable. Dorsey also had a generous side, too,
often paying personal expenses, such as medical bills, for his
sidemen and their families.
impressed everyone with his marvelous playing. Sinatra always
credited Dorsey for teaching him, by example, about breath control
and phrasing. Tommy inhaled through the side of his mouth while
the last of his previous breath passed through his horn. Listening
to his recordings, one after another, attests to this remarkable
often drew material from unusual sources. Listen to the band
swing "March Of The Toys" from Victor Herbert's 1903
operetta "Babes in Toyland" or "Rollin' Home"
from the "Largo" for Anton Dvorak's "New
World Symphony." Swingin' the classics was fairly common
during the Swing Era, but no one ever did it better than Dorsey.
Another unusual source was Spike Jones, who had a real genius
for hiring excellent musicians to play some of the funniest
music this side of heaven. Spike's 1942 recording of "Chloe"
was a blockbuster. Tommy had Bill Finegan arranged it for
his band, and once again Dorsey had another hit on his hands.
was always the key to his band. John S. Wilson once wrote: "The
band was, initially, a result of his trigger-tempered nature
and, eventually, a reflection of his demanding sense of perfection."
out musicians became a Dorsey trademark. By 1940, Dorsey featured
top talent from other bands. Buddy Rich came over from Artie
Shaw's band, trumpeter Ziggy Elman and lead sax player
Hymie Schertzer from Benny Goodman's, and Frank Sinatra
(replacing Allan DeWitt, who had recently replaced Jack
Leonard) and Connie Haines from Harry James. Joe Bushkin took
the piano chair. Bunny Berigan, one of the stars of the early
Dorsey band, returned to the trumpet section for a few months
while he was in between leading his own bands.
and his band turned out one hit after another, often rivaling
and sometimes surpassing Glenn Miller's on Your Hit Parade.
Among Tommy's biggest hits were Sy Oliver's originals, "Well,
Git It!" and "Yes, Indeed!" and Sy's arrangements
of "Swanee River" and "Deep River,"
plus many of Frank Sinatra's numbers, including "I'll
Never Smile Again," "This Love Of Mine," 'There
Are Such Things," and "Without A Song," Jo Stafford's
"Embraceable You" and "For You," and a string
of hits by Jo Stafford and The Pied Pipers.
of the best records Jo Stafford and The Pied Pipers recorded
with Tommy Dorsey was "Blues In The Night" in March
1942, but it would not be released for more than 20 years because
of an argument later that year.
Stafford was still a member of The Pied Pipers, but she often
sang solos. She and The Pied Pipers had a blow-up on Thanksgiving
Day 1942 with Tommy Dorsey at a Portland, Ore. train station.
issue: Who had given a redcap the wrong direction? The
upshot: The Pied Pipers and Jo Stafford left Tommy Dorsey, never
many other big band leaders, Tommy kept his band together during
the late 1940s as vocalists replaced big bands in the public's
eye. Jimmy tried to keep his band going, too. In 1953, after
their celebrated break-up 18 years earlier, The Dorsey Brothers
reunited. During their 18-years apart, Tommy had been one of
Jimmy's biggest fans. He often brought his musicians and friends
to hear Jimmy's band.
made a successful transition to television in the mid 1950s,
hosting one of my favorite hours every week. Then, in November
1956, Tommy died suddenly. He was only 51 years old. A few months
later, Jimmy died. It was the end of the Dorsey Eraand
what an era it was!
Dorsey was one of the best musicians of the 20th Century who
led what many consider to be the finest big band of the Swing
June 2003, I listened to many Dorsey songs I hadn't played
for awhile. The more I listened to Dorsey's music, and particularly
to his own trombone playing, the more I wanted to hear. The
result: I listened and listened and eventually transferred
60 of Tommy Dorsey's songs to Tuxedo Junction. His music is
that infectious! These Dorsey songs are in the three audio
players at the top of this page.
it was like hearing Dorsey for the first time, and maybe I
did. Even his earliest recordings sound great to me today.
What might begin as a tame arrangement can suddenly take off
into a hip swing number.
Marsala (trumpet) and Bud Freeman (tenor) at Jimmy Ryan's
in New York City around 1947. Photograph courtesy of
William P. Gottlieb. Visit Bill Gottlieb's web
pages on the Library of Congress web site.
of my Chicago friends in the early 1980's was the legendary
tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman, who played with Tommy Dorsey
in the mid 1930s. Bud was a great storyteller who captured
my attention for hours and hours. Like many jazz musicians,
Bud preferred playing in small groups, but he worked in big
bands during the 1930s and 1940s because that's where the
best money was.
and Tommy must have been a great pair. Bud related how he
quit Tommy's band twiceand how Tommy fired him three
times! Like so many other musicians, Bud deeply admired Tommy's
genius with the trombone. "There will never be another
like him," Bud said.
you listen to the Tommy Dorsey sides on Tuxedo Junction, one
after another shows Dorsey's talent on trombone, enough to
make us want to hear more and more, over and over.
this would be enough, but then we have the great instrumentalists
with his band, like Buddy Rich on drums, Charlie Shavers
and Bunny Berigan on trumpets, and Buddy DeFranco on
clarinet ("Buddy’s just about one of the world’s greatest
clarinet players," George Shearing once told me).
And many more....
would be enough, but we have more: the vocalists. Listening
to these Frank Sinatra recordings again, and the first time
I've listened to a lot of of Sinatra's music since he died
in 1998, is an eye-opener. You're hearing Sinatra at the beginning
of his recording career, backed by one of the finest bands
in the business. Knowing just how successful Sinatra would
become, it is fun to listen to these sides, to hear Sinatra
as if it were 1941 again....
left: Tommy and Frank at recording session in 1941.)
would be enough, but then we have Jo Stafford (photo
right) and The Pied Pipers. Jo solo or with The Pied
Pipers is terrific! Embraceable You and For You
are my favorites by Jo alone, but when you add the Pied Pipers,
with Jo centerstage, you hear one of the finest vocal groups
of the Swing Era. Add Frank Sinatra and together they are
this would be enough, but then Sy Oliver came along in mid-1939
from Jimmy Lunceford's band. His arrangements gave a real
lift to Tommy Dorsey's band right off the bat. This is big
band music at its best! Of course, Tommy had other excellent
arrangers, including Bill Finegan, Nelson Riddle, Alex Stordahl,
Paul Weston, but Oliver was the best, the one who gave Tommy
his distinctive, swinging style.
all this would be enough, but we keep hearing and loving Tommy
Dorsey's trombome. Man, no one plays like that, no one ever
has, and no one ever will. Pure genius!
Dorsey Brothers Orchestra (1935)Tommy Dorsey is
standing, leading the band, holding his trombone. Jimmy
Dorsey is seated, playing alto. Behind him is arranger
and band organizer Glenn Miller on trombone. Vocalists
Bob Crosby and Edythe Wright are seated in front row.
top it all off, I've included the early Dorsey Brother's 1935
recording of Annie's Cousin Fanny, written and arranged
by Dorsey's trombonist Glenn Miller. This is a silly novelty
song, fun to hear. I remember reading about it in George Simon's
biography of Glenn Miller. Until now, I didn't even know I
had it in my collection!
remember watching The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra on television
in the mid-1950s. It gave me a chance to see and hear two
legends from the big band era. As a teenager, I liked this
music from long, long ago, as it then seemed to me. After
all, it was the music I heard my parents and my mother's two
sisters listen to on the radio way, way back in the distant
1940s, when I was a little boy!
remember, too, when I heard about Tommy Dorsey's death in
November 1956. He was only 51. A few months later, his slightly
older (by 18 months) brother, Jimmy, passed away. And then
Jimmy's record company released his last recording, So
Rare, which soared to the top of the charts. So Rare
became Jimmy Dorsey's best-selling record, but he never lived
to see it happen.