The Dorsey Brothers
The Dorsey Brothers
Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, two talented and energetic brothers from a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania, produced a music that lifted and unified a depressed American consciousness, providing “an alluring escape from the often distressing real world— into that other world of dancing feet, twirling bodies, and tapping toes,” Gunther Schuller noted in his study The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945. Although illusory in nature, the world created by the music and the shared identity of the listeners “is perhaps the happiest and most significant aspect of the Swing Era,” Schuller declared. That facet of swing faded, however, when the American consciousness was permanently changed by World War II. Stereo Review’s Peter Reilly consequently dismissed the Dorsey brothers’ music for modern listeners: “It doesn’t have enough vitality or true style to bridge the years.” But Schuller contended in 1989 the music should not be measured by the subjectivity of timelessness, for swing’s important qualities are “impossible to recapture now, and, for those who did not actually experience it, difficult to savor in retrospect.”
Born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, in 1904 and 1905, respectively, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey were both playing instruments by 1910 under the strict tutelage of their father, a music teacher and bandmaster, who, to be certain his sons practiced, hid their shoes so they couldn’t play outdoors. After starting out as cornetists, both Dorseys quickly switched to instruments for which they would later become known: Jimmy to alto saxophone and clarinet, Tommy to trombone. By the time they were 17 years old, they were musically proficient enough to leave Shenandoah and tour with various bands. By 1925 both had ventured to New York City to work as free-lance section players and as soloists. “Despite the oncoming Depression, radio was expanding rapidly,” Jeff Scott recounted in the liner notes to Big Bands: Tommy Dorsey. “The networks and radio stations insisted on live music, so there were plenty of studio jobs.… The Dorseys made good livings as freelancers because they were known to be reliable, as well as virtuoso players and expert sight readers.”
In 1928, using various studio musicians, the Dorsey brothers began recording under the name the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra for special engagements and studio work. A permanently functioning orchestra was not formed, however, until early in 1934. “The repeal of Prohibition [a ban on the manufacture and sale of alcoholic liquors] in 1933 led to the proliferation of city clubs, roadhouses, and dance pavilions,” Scott wrote. “Despite the hard times, prospects for a good band
For the Record…
Jimmy Dorsey born James Francis Dorsey February 29, 1904, in Shenandoah, PA; died June 12, 1957, in New York City; Tommy Dorsey born Thomas Francis Dorsey November 19, 1905, in Shenandoah, PA; died November 26, 1956, in Greenwich, CT; sons of Thomas Francis (a coal miner, then music teacher and bandmaster) and Theresa (Langton) Dorsey; Jimmy Dorsey married Jane Porter; children: Julie Lou; Tommy Dorsey married Mildred Kraft (first wife), Pat Dane (second wife), Janie (third wife); children: (first marriage) Thomas Francis III, Patricia. Education: Both brothers studied in public schools and under their father.
The Dorsey brothers formed first band, Dorseys’ Novelty Six, then Dorseys’ Wild Canaries, c. 1920; brothers then performed with the Scranton Sirens and the California Ramblers in the early 1920s; both worked as free-lance and studio musicians, 1925-34; began recording sessions under Dorsey Brothers label with studio groups, 1928-34; formally organized Dorsey Brothers Orchestra and recorded, 1934-35; brothers split up and formed separate bands, 1935; Jimmy led Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra (original Dorsey Brothers Orchestra), 1935-53; Tommy led Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, 1935-46 and 1948-53; Tommy was director of popular music for the Mutual Radio Network, 1945-46; brothers reunited to form the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra Featuring Jimmy Dorsey, 1953-57; had CBS television series featuring the orchestra, 1955-56. Both brothers’ orchestras appeared in numerous films; the brothers also appeared in and were the subject of the semi-biographical film The Fabulous Dorseys, 1947.
looked promising.” As a group the Dorsey brothers and their orchestra turned out “a light, airy, bouncy style in which the arrangement was primary, solos and improvisation secondary and incidental, but which at its instrument best nevertheless achieved a pleasant danceable kind of swing jazz,” Schuller observed.
The group was never able to realize its full potential, though. The brothers’ constant harassing and challenging of each other—a characteristic honed in their childhood—prevented a harmonious coalescing of the group. In May of 1935, while playing at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra came to an end when Tommy, admonished by Jimmy for setting a tempo too fast, walked off the stage and never returned.
Jimmy Dorsey’s preference would have been to remain in the sax section, but after his brother departed, he was forced out in front. At this time, Jimmy’s musical technique was highly regarded. “His execution was impeccable, his choruses either demonstrations of effortless command or examples of modern thinking, full of whole tone scales, unusual chordal voices, wide intervals, and other innovations,” Richard M. Sudhalter wrote in the liner notes to Big Bands: Jimmy Dorsey. But Jimmy was not an overbearing bandleader. George T. Simon stated in his book The Big Bands that Jimmy Dorsey’s temperament allowed him to be “dedicated to high musical standards but less blatantly devoted to ruling the roost.” His easygoing manner helped create a “disciplined spirited ensemble and made it a resounding commercial success without exercising an authoritative hand. Dorsey’s men respected and loved him,” Sudhalter explained.
The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra achieved commercial success by playing for motion pictures and for such radio broadcasts as Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall. With the addition of singers Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell, the orchestra reached the top of the popularity polls in the late 1930s and early 1940s with songs such as “Amapola,” “Green Eyes,” “Maria Elena,” and “Tangerine.” Sudhalter placed this success in historical perspective: “Since popular-music tastes had shifted from the instrumental pyrotechnics of the thirties to something more subdued and sentimental, it seemed almost inevitable that Jimmy Dorsey’s band, playing arrangements that spotlighted the boy-and-girl-next-door attractiveness of Eberly and O’Connell, should catch the public fancy.”
In an overall assessment of the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Schuller maintained that while the ensemble was important for its period, it failed to reach high enough, that the combination of “commercialism, financial competitive survival, and the seductions of mass popular appeal… undercut much of what the orchestra was actually capable of.”
Tommy Dorsey, on the other hand, was constantly trying to extend his capabilities and those of his musicians. He was among those leaders who “approached their jobs with a rare combination of idealism and realism,” Simon observed. “Well-trained and well-disciplined, they knew what they wanted, and they knew how to get it. Keenly aware of the commercial competition, they drove themselves and their men relentlessly, for only through achieving perfection, or the closest possible state to it, could they see themselves realizing their musical and commercial goals.”
Tommy’s fierce drive was evident in his horn playing. “As a lyric player and a romantic balladeer [Tommy] Dorsey had no equal. Indeed, he virtually invented the genre,” Schuller proclaimed, adding that “Dorsey was clearly the creator and master of this smooth ‘singing’ trombone style, so seemingly effortless, largely because of his virtually flawless breath control.” Tommy’s technique helped him become “a master of creating moods—warm, sentimental, and forever musical moods— at superb dancing and listening tempos,” Simon opined.
Although Tommy’s single-mindedness worked for him as an individual, the approach lost meaning when translated to his musicians. “His big trouble, one which earned him a number of impassioned enemies, was his lack of tolerance of others’ mistakes and his lack of tact when they were made,” Simon pointed out. Tommy was quick to fire any musician who didn’t live up to his ideals, whether in the studio or on the bandstand during a performance. Because of the sudden change in personnel that occurred at any moment, Schuller contended, “the sections in the [Tommy] Dorsey band and the orchestra as a whole never developed cohesive ensembles.”
When everything did fall into place, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra exemplified the most favorable qualities of a quintessential big band of the Swing Era. Utilizing members of the Joe Haymes Band, Tommy formed his orchestra in the fall of 1935. “Virtually from the beginning, the band was a huge success,” Scott explained. “Tommy’s primary objective was to play music for dancing, and he and his men did exactly that with enormous skill.” The orchestra was immediately given a recording contract and appeared on several radio shows in the first few years after its formation, establishing its sound with a highly receptive public. “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You”—Tommy Dorsey’s theme song— “Marie,” “Song of India,” and “Boogie Woogie” solidified the orchestra’s top standing in the late 1930s.
In 1940 Tommy Dorsey signed Frank Sinatra away from the Harry James Orchestra. The 24-year-old crooner soon began his ascent under Tommy’s direction. Simon quoted Sinatra on Tommy’s influence: “There’s a guy who was a real education to me in every possible way. I learned about dynamics and style from the way he played his horn.” This relationship was extremely beneficial for Sinatra, but ultimately destructive for Tommy’s orchestra and big bands in general. “Indeed, the effect of Sinatra’s phenomenal success … was such that singers everywhere began to dominate popular music, even more than before, until eventually most big bands became strictly accompanimental and secondary to the vocalists,” Schuller pointed out.
The rise of vocal musicians and the demise of big bands was further prompted in 1942 by a thirteen-and-a-half-month recording ban issued by the American Federation of Musicians (AMF). While the AMF renegotiated contract terms with record companies, singers, because they were not members the union, continued to record and remained in the public eye. Consequently, “with wartime and postwar prosperity everyone was trying for ‘the big popular hit’—via the singers,” Schuller contended. “As a result, jazz—and even its most popular manifestation, swing—was driven to the sidelines or stifled altogether.”
Both Dorseys’ musical careers declined in the late 1940s. Jimmy formed and reformed his own big bands; Tommy disbanded his orchestra in 1946, only to reorganize in 1948. The brothers were brought back together briefly to work on the 1947 film The Fabulous Dorseys, but in light of the times, the film seemed retrospective at best. In 1953 they were finally reunited musically as the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra Featuring Jimmy Dorsey, regaining national exposure when Jackie Gleason had them appear regularly on his television show.
Despite new publicity, their era was over; a new one had arrived, as poignantly expressed when the Dorsey brothers introduced a young Elvis Presley on Gleason’s show. After Tommy died unexpectedly in 1956, Jimmy took over the band. Before his own death less than a year later, Jimmy recorded “So Rare,” a song he had introduced 20 years earlier. Unexpectedly, the record went to the top of the charts and became the biggest hit of his career. “Its popularity was a reminder of just how potent a musical force Jimmy Dorsey had been,” Sudhalter concluded, “but the record sounded less like a hit than a requiem.”
In the end the music the Dorseys created didn’t change; the country that listened to it had changed. The brothers’ work helped establish and define a specific period in American music and history. Tommy Dorsey is still regarded as one of the greatest trombonists of all time, and his orchestra “must be recognized as the greatest all-around dance band of them all,” Simon asserted. “Others may have sounded more creative. Others may have swung harder and more consistently. Others may have developed more distinctive styles. But of all the hundreds of well-known bands, Tommy Dorsey’s could do more things better than any other could.” The value of the Dorseys’ music, as a reviewer for People explained, lies in its defining quality of a bygone innocent time: “When everything meshed, when the talents, egos, and circumstances came together, they all produced music that was as good as any of its era.”
Singles; Dorsey Brothers Orchestra
“My Melancholy Baby,” Okeh, 1928.
“Praying the Blues,” Okeh, 1929.
“Oodles of Noodles,” Columbia, 1932.
“Fidgety,” Brunswick, 1933.
“Shim Sham Shimmy,” Brunswick, 1933.
“Stop, Look, and Listen,” Decca, 1934.
“Sandman,” Decca, 1934.
“Tailspin,” Decca, 1935.
“Dippermouth Blues,” Decca, 1935.
Singles; Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra
“Parade of the Milk Bottle Caps,” Decca, 1936.
“John Silver,” Decca, 1938.
“Dusk in Upper Sandusky,” Decca, 1939.
“My Prayer,” Decca, 1939.
“Contrasts,” Decca, 1940.
“Amapola,” Decca, 1941.
“Green Eyes,” Decca, 1941.
“Maria Elena,” Decca, 1941.
“Blue Champagne,” Decca, 1941.
“Embraceable You,” Decca, 1941.
“Tangerine,” Decca, 1941.
“Brazil,” Decca, 1942.
Singles; Tommy Dorsey Orchestra
“I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” Victor, 1935.
“Marie,” Victor, 1937.
“Song of India,” Victor, 1937.
“Boogie Woogie,” Victor, 1938, reissued, 1943.
“Hawaiian War Chant,” Victor, 1938.
“Music, Maestro, Please,” Victor, 1938.
“I’ll Be Seeing You,” Victor, 1940.
“I’ll Never Smile Again,” Victor, 1940.
“Yes, Indeed!,” Victor, 1941.
“Well, Git It!,” Victor, 1941.
“On the Sunny Side of the Street,” Victor, 1944.
“Opus No. 1,” Victor, 1944.
Reissues and compilations
The Dorsey Brothers: 1934-1935 Decca Sessions, MCA.
Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra: 1939-1940, Circle.
The Dorsey/Sinatra Sessions, Bluebird, Vol. 1, 1940, Vol. 2, 1940-41, Vol. 3, 1941-42.
Big Bands: Tommy Dorsey, Time-Life Music, 1983.
Big Bands: Jimmy Dorsey, Time-Life Music, 1984.
Best of Big Bands, Columbia/Legacy, 1992.
The Best of Jimmy Dorsey, MCA.
The Best of Tommy Dorsey, MCA.
Sentimental Dorsey, Pair.
Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Simon, George T., The Big Bands, Macmillan, 1967, revised, 1974.
New York Times, June 13, 1957.
People, November 1, 1982.
Saturday Review, January 17, 1970.
Stereo Review, January 1983; March 1983; April 1984.
Scott, Jeff, liner notes to Big Bands: Tommy Dorsey, Time-Life Music, 1983.
Sudhalter, Richard M., liner notes to Big Bands: Jimmy Dorsey, Time-Life Music, 1984.
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