Tommy Dorsey

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  • Biography
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  • The Great Songs

Sibling rivalry is an odd thing. It drove Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey apart before finally bringing them back together. Jimmy was the older of the two brothers, and, after taking trumpet lessons from his music teacher father, he made his debut in his father’s marching band when he was only seven years old. Two years later, in 1913, he became a pro, playing with J. Carson McGee’s King Trumpeters. Tommy also took lessons from dad and decided to play trombone and trumpet, so Jimmy switched to alto saxophone and clarinet.

Sibling rivalry is an odd thing. It drove Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey apart before finally bringing them back together.

The brothers joined forces and in 1906 formed Dorsey’s Novelty Six. They changed the name to Dorsey’s Wild Canaries a few years later, and then Jimmy left for the Scranton Sirens (they certainly don’t name bands the way they used to). In 1924 Jimmy joined the California Ramblers (where he played alongside Fred MacMurray) and brother Tommy followed. The next year Jimmy joined the Jean Goldkette Orchestra and brother Tommy followed. In 1926 Jimmy joined Paul Whiteman’s ensemble and—you guessed it—brother Tommy followed.

In 1927, figuring if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, the brothers formed the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra and recorded on the Okeh label. The band was a success and in 1934 they decided to tour for the first time. That same year they signed with Decca Records, a wise decision that would prove propitious later in their careers.

On May 30, 1935, the brothers were playing the Glen Island Casino. Tommy was conducting and gave the downbeat for “I’ll Never Say Never Again.” Jimmy yelled to his brother, “Isn’t that a little too fast, Mac? Let’s do it right or not at all.” Tommy responded, “All right! We won’t do it at all!” and stormed off the bandstand.

Jimmy assumed leadership of the band, and though he took his work seriously, he could never be called driven. A withdrawn man, his happiest moments were playing his instruments and golfing. He found that running a band was a lot of work, but he surrounded himself with wonderful musicians who were also friends. The group thrived as Jimmy led it with humor and a relaxed attitude. At the end of 1935, he officially changed the name from the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra to Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra (not qute as catchy as the Wild Canaries). When the opportunity arose to become the house band for Bing Crosby’s radio show, the Kraft Music Hall, Jimmy jumped at the chance to stay in one place for a while, remaining with the program for a year-and-a-half.

One of the mainstays of the Jimmy Dorsey band was vocalist Bob Eberly, brother of Ray Eberle (yes, they spelled it differently). Eberly was a great friend to Jimmy: they shared a house and stayed together through thick and thin, wives or not, until Jimmy’s death. Eberly was considered one of the top singers in the business, influencing many including Dick Haymes. He might have gone far—Warner even offered him a film contract hoping he’d replace Dick Powell. He had offers to record as a single act or to head a band of his own. But the fame and money didn’t matter to him, he liked where he was and stayed put. As he recalled to George T. Simon, “I didn’t want to leave, and I told Jimmy so. I was very happy making my four hundred dollars a week and twelve hundred and fifty dollars extra when we made movies.” Eberly even refused to sign a contract with Jimmy, preferring to operate on mutual trust.

Eberly’s partner in the band was Helen O’Connell and they made a number of successful recordings together. Their duets were unusual in that they tended to take alternate verses rather than singing together, but they clicked and America loved them. O’Connell had come to Jimmy straight from Larry Funk and his Band of a Thousand Melodies, which performed at the Village Barn in New York City. She punched out her vocals and sang hard, specializing in torchy ballads and novelty songs. Both genres were ideally suited to her style of oversinging.

When the war came Eberly went into the service. That December of 1943 marked the end of the golden era of Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra.

Tommy, after he left Jimmy with the band, needed to start his own group and he accomplished the task in one fell swoop by taking over the band of Joe Haymes, then playing at the McAlpin Hotel in New York City and going nowhere slowly. After a few adjustments in personnel and a change from nondescript dance music to the smooth, sentimental, creamy style that would serve him well for the next thirty-odd years, the band hit its stride. Dorsey made an important decision to bring in Axel Stordahl as an arranger and the difference in sound was immediate and historic, for when Frank Sinatra joined the band, Stordahl’s arrangements helped rocket him to the top of the charts with his own unique style.

If Jimmy was laid back and relaxed, Tommy was a taskmaster with a very, very short fuse. His musicians admitted that he was a brilliant musician who knew exactly what he wanted, but his temper and belittling attitude led to constant personnel changes until the leader learned to relax a little and support his players. Luckily for Tommy, after he erupted he tended to realize the error of his ways and make fun of himself. Tenor sax great Bud Freeman reported that he quit the band twice—and was fired three times!

Tommy’s first important vocalist was Jack Leonard, a favorite with the band and with audiences. But after five years of placidity, Tommy’s natural sense of competition grew and grew and he fired Leonard for no concrete reason. After a brief stint with Allan DeWitt, Tommy found the perfect replacement: The band was playing at the Palmer House in Chicago while Harry James was playing the Sherman Hotel. Tommy went to check out “that skinny kid with James.” His name was Frank Sinatra and Tommy made him an offer to join the band. With his wife Nancy pregnant, Sinatra needed more money so James let him out of his contract.

Sinatra was an immediate sensation but he had a lot to learn and Tommy Dorsey was there teaching him. Sinatra was serious about singing and practiced all the time, perfecting his phrasing, dynamics, and even his vibrato, all learned at the knee of Tommy. He worked closely with Jo Stafford and the rest of the Pied Pipers on achieving just the right blend of voice and style. Ambitious and intelligent, Sinatra and the band had a marvelously symbiotic relationship. But in 1942 Sinatra left to go it alone, just as the war years and the recording ban were about to change the face of music forever. Members of the band were drafted and Jo Stafford quit the Pied Pipers to spend more time with her husband, Paul Weston.

In 1944 it appeared that the Dorsey brothers might be getting back together. Tommy bought the Casino Gardens ballroom in Ocean Park, California, and Jimmy became a partner in the venture (as was Harry James). His band played there to great success. The two bands even joined up to record a V-Disc. But the time was not right for the brothers to join forces permanently.

After the war, audiences were abandoning the big bands in favor of vocalists like Frank Sinatra. Bookings were harder to come by and the competition was fierce. America’s suburbs were growing and the cities were largely abandoned in the evenings, so many of the great music venues folded and even the musicians themselves preferred to stay near home, declining to tour.

Dorsey announced the breakup of his band in December 1946. It would prove to be a premature announcement. Two years later he put together another ensemble and found work where he could, self-producing records that he licensed to various companies.

By 1953, Jimmy Dorsey had shut down his band and brother Tommy convinced him to join a newly renamed Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Jimmy was happy to play in the band while his still-more-driven brother led the ensemble. In a typical performance, Tommy would lead the band for the first half while Jimmy played some solos. After intermission, Jimmy would conduct his hits, giving Tommy a chance to solo. They played a few songs together at the end.

For two seasons beginning in 1954, the brothers had their own television series, Stage Show, a summer replacement for Tommy’s friend Jackie Gleason, who also produced it. Stage Show marked the first appearances by a young Elvis Presley and a younger Connie Francis.

In November 1956 Tommy Dorsey died. Jimmy followed in June 1957.  (KB)

Singing at home

In the summer of 1939, the Tommy Dorsey band flew to Toronto (the first time a band flew to an engagement) to play at the Canadian National Exhibition. Every evening a young girl named Ruth Lowe waited by the stage door in order to meet Tommy. This went on for most of the engagement. Band members noticed the girl and finally guitarist and arranger Carmen Mastren asked her what she was there for. She explained she had a demo of a new song that she considered perfect for the band. Mastren loved the demo and played it for Cliff Leeman who also loved the number—but for months no one could get Tommy to give it a hearing. Songwriter Ray Henderson listened to the demo and gave the song his approval. Once Henderson had listened to the song, Tommy relented, but wasn’t bowled over. In fact, he offered it to Glenn Miller, who recorded it at a relatively fast tempo. Finally, eight months after the Toronto engagement, Dorsey decided to record the song. Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers were looking for a way to perform it that would set it apart from the Miller version. They slowed it down and made it more intimate and conversational. They couldn’t get it quite right until Tommy suggested that they sing it as if they were just getting together informally at someone’s house. It worked—the song became one of their biggest hits.I'll Never Smile Again

Eight of ours for one of theirs

Tommy Dorsey wrote in the June 1938 Metronome, “We were playing a theatre in Philly once upon a time, and there was a colored band playing the same show called the Sunset Royal Serenaders [led by Doc Wheeler]. They had this arrangement of ‘Marie’ and all of us in the band liked it; in fact, after a couple of days we all knew it by heart. I figured that we could do more with it than they could, and so I traded them about eight of our arrangements for one of theirs.

“The funny part of it is that I tried to get Eli Oberstein to let us record it. Eli couldn’t see it, and so I tried it out on our studio audience after one of our commercials. It went over so big that I tried it out on the program. We got so many requests that we had to repeat it the next week. It was then that Oberstein let us record it.” The song was a huge hit for Victor.Marie

Saw the connection

The flip side of “Marie,” this tune was suggested to Tommy Dorsey by Victor recording chief, Eli Oberstein. “The funny part of it was that for months, driving home at night, I had been singing to myself that lick that we used on the introduction—you know: DUH—duh deed a dee duh duh duh duh duh—DA DA—but I could never get a tune to follow that figure. As soon as Eli suggested ‘Song of India’ I saw the connection.”Song of India

Contest winner

In 1939 a contest was held by the publisher of Victor Herbert’s 1919 piano piece “Indian Summer,” requiring lyricists to add words to the tune. Al Dubin’s attempt came in first and the song became a hit recording by Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra, and also by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra with a vocal by Ray Eberle.Indian Summer

Close to perfect

Shaw to Sam Litzinger of CBS Radio: "If I had to say something was perfect musically, the solo I did on ‘Stardust’ is as close to being perfect as I would have wanted."Stardust

Sitting on the wall

In 1927, Hoagy Carmichael was sitting on the “spooning wall” of Indiana University pining for a girl named Dorothy. He ran to an old upright piano in The Book Nook and finished the song. A great story but apparently not true. Carmichael appears to have been working on the song since 1926. He even wrote a lyric to the tune which contained the words “Star Dust melody.” However and wherever it happened, Carmichael recorded it in 1927 for Gannett Records. Publisher Irving Mills took the song to Mitchell Parish and with its melody slowed down Parish wrote new lyrics for the tune. Carmichael’s friend (and lyricist for “Georgia on My Mind”), Stuart Gorrell, came up with the title, “Star Dust,” as the melody reminded him of “dust from stars drifting down through the summer sky.”

In 1936 RCA pressed what must certainly be one of the most unique records of all time—“Star Dust” on both the A and B sides of a 78 with Benny Goodman’s Orchestra on one side and Tommy Dorsey’s on the flip.Stardust

Sing between the cracks

George Gershwin loved this song. He loved the way that Carmichael wrote the tune for the melody line to be sung between the cracks. Gershwin played at Carmichael’s wedding reception.Hong Kong Blues

Other way ‘round

Harry Warren: "I didn’t know where to put that title in the melody. I was trying all ways of starting off with the line. Then I finally got it the other way, with the title at the end, which worked out better."On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe

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Recordings
Let’s Do It
Frank Sinatra
Stardust
Hoagy Carmichael at the piano
Stardust (Intro for The Fabled 24 September 1940 San Francisco Concerts)
Intro for Hoagy Carmichael
The 3 part PBS Series
Own the DVD