Dorsey, Jimmy (actually, James Francis)

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Dorsey, Jimmy (actually, James Francis)

Dorsey, Jimmy (actually, James Francis), American bandleader, saxophonist, and clarinet player; b. Shenandoah, Pa., Feb. 29, 1904; d. N.Y, June 12, 1957. Dorsey’s was one of the top orchestras of the Swing Era. He reached his commercial peak during the first half of the 1940s, when he scored such Latin-tinged hits as “Amapola,” “Besame Mucho,” and “Tangerine,” but his notable work as an instrumentalist dates back to the 1920s.

Dorsey was the first son of Thomas Francis and Theresa Langton Dorsey. His father, a music teacher and the director of the Elmore marching band, gave him early music instruction, and he was playing cornet in his father’s band from the age of seven. He made his professional debut in September 1913 when he appeared with J. Carson McGee’s King Trumpeters in N.Y. By 1915 he had switched to reed instruments, playing alto saxophone and clarinet.

Dorsey and his younger brother, trombonist Tommy Dorsey , formed Dorsey’s Novelty Six in 1920, later renamed Dorsey’s Wild Canaries when the group played an extended engagement at a Baltimore amusement park and became one of the first bands to appear on local radio. Dorsey left to join the Scranton Sirens. He moved to the N.Y-based California Ramblers about September 1924; in 1925 he played with the Jean Goldkette Orch., and in 1926 he joined Paul Whiteman, the leading bandleader of the day.

Dorsey married Jane Porter on Nov. 5, 1927. They had a daughter, then separated in 1949. By 1928, Dorsey was living in N.Y and working as a session musician. He and his brother assembled a studio group that recorded as the Dorsey Brothers Orch., scoring their first hit with “Coquette” (music by Carmen Lombardo and John Green, lyrics by Gus Kahn) in June 1928. The Dorseys also played in radio orchestras and in the pit bands of the Broadway musicals Girl Crazy (Oct. 14, 1930) and Everybody’s Welcome (Oct. 13, 1931).

The Dorseys launched a full-fledged performing band in April 1934. They topped the hit parade in May 1935 with “Lullaby of Broadway” (music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin). That same month they had a falling-out, and Tommy Dorsey left the band to form his own orchestra. “Chasing Shadows” (music by Abner Silver, lyrics by Benny Davis), recorded prior to the split, reached the top of the hit parade in June.

Dorsey and his band backed Bing Crosby on the weekly radio series Kraft Music Hall from December 1935 to July 1937. In June 1936, Dorsey scored his first chart-topping record on the hit parade under his own name with “Is It True What They Say about Dixie?” (music by Gerald Marks, lyrics by Irving Caesar and Sammy Lerner). His version of “Change Partners” (music and lyrics by Irving Berlin) shared #1 honors on the hit parade with Fred Astaire’s in the fall of 1938.

Dorsey became one of the most successful recording artists of the first half of the 1940s by releasing a series of songs with a Spanish or South American feel, arranged for him by Tutti Camerata and prominently featuring vocalists Bob Eberly (originally, Eberle) and Helen O’Connell. The first of these was “The Breeze and I” (music by Ernesto Lecuona, English lyrics by Al Stillman), adapted from Lecuona’s “Andalucia, Suite Espanola” for solo piano, which went to #1 in September 1940.

In 1941, a year in which Dorsey ranked second only to Glenn Miller as the most popular recording artist in the U.S., he scored five #1 hits: “Amapola (Pretty Little Poppy)” (music by Joseph M. Lacalle, English lyrics by Albert Gamse), the biggest hit of the year and his first million- seller; “My Sister and I” (music and lyrics by Hy Zaret, Joan Whitney, and Alex Kramer); “Maria-Elena” (music by Lorenzo Barcelata, English lyrics by Bob Russell), another million-seller; “Green Eyes (Aquellos Ojo Verdes)” (music by Nilo Menendez, English lyrics by Eddie Woods), a third million-seller; and “Blue Champagne” (music and lyrics by Jimmy Eaton, Grady Watts, and Frank Ryerson).

Dorsey’s success stirred the interest of Hollywood, and he began to appear in motion pictures with Lady, Be Good, released in September 1941. The Fleet’s In, released in March 1942, contained his next #1 hit, “Tangerine” (music by Victor Schertzinger, lyrics by Johnny Mercer).

The recording ban launched on Aug. 1,1942, slowed Dorsey’s momentum, but after Decca, his record label, settled with the musicians7 union in the fall of 1943, he launched a series of hits, the most successful of which was “Besame Mucho (Kiss Me Much)” (music by Consuelo Velazquez, English lyrics by Sunny Skylar), which went to #1 in March 1944 and became his fourth million-seller.

Dorsey continued to score hits through 1950 while appearing in a series of films. He and his brother appeared as themselves in the fictionalized screen biography The Fabulous Dorseys, released in May 1947. But with the decline of the Swing Era he was forced to disband, and in 1953 he rejoined his brother in a reconstituted Dorsey Brothers Orch. The two hosted a musical variety series on television from 1954 to 1956; in January 1956 they gave Elvis Presley his TV debut.

Dorsey contracted throat cancer in 1956. He took over the leadership of the orchestra following Tommy Dorsey’s death in November 1956 but was forced to relinquish it to Lee Castle when he was hospitalized in March 1957. He had recorded a final session, however, and, as he lay dying, his revival of the 1937 song “So Rare” (music by Jack Sharpe, lyrics by Jerry Herst) reached the Top Ten, becoming his fifth million-seller.


Plays His Greatest Hits (1987); Dorsey, Then & NowFabulous New Jimmy Dorsey (1988); Jazz Collector’s Edition (1991); Pennies from Heaven (1992); Best of Jimmy Dorsey & His Orchestra (1992); Giants of the Big Band Era: Jimmy Dorsey (1992); Contrasts (1993); 1939–1940 (1993); Uncollected Jimmy Dorsey (1993); 22 Original Recordings (1994); Perfidia (1994); At the 400 Restaurant 1946 (1994); Don’t Be That Way (1995); Jimmy Dorsey (1995); Tangerine (1995); Frolic Club, Miami 7/16/44 (1995); America SwingsThe Great Jimmy Dorsey (1996); Mood Hollywood (1996); So Rare: Jimmy Dorsey’s Boogie Woogie (1996); Jimmy Dorsey & His Orchestra: 1940–1950 (1998). THE DORSEY BROTHERS : I’m Getting Sentimental Over You (1990); The Dorsey Brothers: Best of the Big Bands (1992); Harlem Lullaby (1994); Live in the Big Apple (1994); NBC Bandstand 8/2/56 (1995); Live in the Meadowbrook (1995); Mood Hollywood (1996); Opus No. 1 (1996); Dorsey-itis (1996); Stage Show (1996); The Dorsey Brothers, Vol. I—New York 1928 (1997); The Dorsey Brothers, Vol. 2—New York 1929–1930 (1997); 1954–1956 (1997); Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey: Swingin’ in Hollywood (1998).


E. Edwards Jr., G. Hall, and B. Korst, /. D. and His Orchestra: A Complete Discography (1966); H. Sanford, Tommy and /.; The D. Years (1972); C. Garrod, /. D. and His Orchestra (1980).

—William Ruhlmann