Tommy Dorsey was born the second son of Irishman Thomas Francis Dorsey, Sr., a music teacher and band director in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania 21 months after his, also famous, brother Jimmy. After receiving music instruction from his father, Tommy played both trumpet and trombone in his early years. While still in his teens he played in local bands along with his brother Jimmy. The Dorsey Brothers played in a series of bands in the 1920s. They were heard on records for the first time while working in the band of Jean Goldkette when a March 27, 1924 session that produced four sides was recorded for the RCA Victor label. The brothers later settled in New York as session musicians for the radio studios. Tommy and Jimmy waxed their first records as The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra using a pick-up band for the Okeh label in 1927. In 1934 they organized a full time band and signed with Decca Records.
Big success had been following both brothers since 1928 when they broke into the charts with a recording of Coquette. In 1929 a recording with Bing Crosby of Let’s Do It (let’s fall in love) broke into the top ten. By 1935 they had one of the hottest bands in the country and may well have been the band that ushered in the Swing era instead of Benny Goodman. However, the fighting Dorsey’s had a volatile relationship. There was reportedly constant bickering between the two. After a bitter disagreement on the bandstand in May of 1935 (some say a fist fight) Tommy left the band for good.
While Jimmy continued to lead the band, Tommy took over the remnants of an orchestra led by Joe Haymes leading it under his own name by the fall of 1935. By the end of 1935 TD had four hits peak in the top ten of the charts. In January of 1936 he had his first #1 hit on a song called The Music Goes Round And Round that featured a vocal by Edythe Wright. In 1937 Tommy Dorsey had 18 top ten hits including several number one chart toppers like the instrumental Satan Takes A Holiday, Jack Leonard’s vocal on Marie with the famous Bunny Berigan trumpet passage, and Edythe Wright’s vocal of The Dipsy Doodle.
In 1939 Tommy Dorsey reinvented himself making a number of personnel changes. See the article below for details on Tommy Dorsey during this phenomenal period.
In 1945 the band began to change again with the addition of trumpeter Charlie Shavers. Soon more modern and still swinging recordings spotlighting musicians like clarinetist Buddy De Franco, drummer Louie Bellson and arranger Bill Finnegan were being laid down.
Inevitably, in the mid 1940s the Dorsey Brothers began to patch up their differences occasionally performing and recording together. In 1953 Jimmy joined up with Tommy permanently, billing the band once again as The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Television specials followed and their program called Stage Show ran regularly once a week during the 1955-1956 season. Elvis Presley appeared on the show for six consecutive weeks starting in January 1956, his first nationally broadcast appearances.
Sedated by sleeping pills and following a heavy meal, Tommy Dorsey accidentally choked to death in his sleep on November 26th, 1956 at the age of 51. His brother led his band briefly afterward, but Jimmy Dorsey died in 1957.
Below you will find more colorful and detailed musings about Tommy Dorsey, his recordings and his bands by Swing era authority John Cooper. Mr. Cooper has authored liner notes for a number of CDs.
TOMMY DORSEY: THE KING OF SWING/DANCE BANDS
by John Cooper
Tommy Dorsey has been overlooked lately for reasons not totally clear to me.
I keep looking for his recordings from his 1940-1946 bands, arguably his strongest bands with giant after giant in there--Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Dick Haymes, Buddy Rich, Ziggy Elman, Don Lodice, Chuck Peterson (it's Ziggy and Chuck on Well, Git It), Sy Oliver arranging, Charlie Shavers, Heinie Beau, Buddy De Franco. There are two great vocal groups that recorded with Dorsey as well: The Pied Pipers and "The Sentimentalists" aka The Clark Sisters (of Chicago and On the Sunny Side of the Street fame). And in front if it all, Mr. Tommy Dorsey himself, standing tall in a gleaming white suit with that shining trombone ready to go and looking after the needs of dancers and listeners 24/7.
He could be a rugged guy offstage or to work for, but on stage, he was THERE for the paying customers...and for the kids. In 1946, when the bottom dropped out of the band biz, he was one of the first leaders to cut his price to venues so that not only would he keep his guys working, but so that "the kids will have something to come dance to" again. Just one HELL of a band! Way past its due recognition from the current crop of Swing dancers and listeners.
Some random thoughts on Tommy Dorsey
Well, Git It! Great number! Great sidemen with great solos.
Sy Oliver: the man behind Lunceford and Tommy Dorsey!
You must hear the other choice Dorsey swing stuff from the 1940 - 1942 era.
Powerful and swinging.... even the pop tunes kick along. Buddy Rich did for
Dorsey exactly what he had done for Artie Shaw; More Power!!!
3 HUGE egos (at least) in one band: Dorsey, Rich, and Sinatra with a big rivalry between Rich and Sinatra. I've read that if the band was playing a ballad that Sinatra was singing and that Rich thought was too slow, he would sit up there with his arms folded and not even play his drums! Oh, man!!! Well, they were both young and talented and Rich could also sing and dance very well. I guess they grew up a bit as the years went by (or when they didn't have to work with each other). There's another story of either Rich or Sinatra throwing a full glass pitcher of ice water at the other one's head and it smashed up against a pillar. Wow! Danger!
Blues In the Night with Dorsey and Jo Stafford. Yes, that's a smoky one! It's one of the few versions of Blues In The Night that I like almost all the way through. I like lots of versions of the tune, but I have never heard the definitive one (for me). The Tommy Dorsey / Jo Stafford comes the very closest. Did you know that that recording was never originally released on a 78 rpm Victor disc? It appears that the first issue was on that famous Reader's Digest ten LP set, “The Great Band Era" (an essential set, BTW, for anyone exploring the world of 1935 - 1945 pop and swing music hits by RCA Victor artists). I think it's still available on CD from Reader's Digest. If not, the LP sets turn up all the time, fairly cheaply.
I was watching film clips tonight of the Tommy Dorsey band and Buddy Rich is always up there swinging away with this cocky look on his face, even when he's wearing that Louis the XVI wig in "Du Barry Was a Lady". (Ziggy Elman in his wig and twentieth glasses is a riot!)
That was a kick ass band. Tommy was always punching someone out. His famous nightclub brawl with actor Jon Hall made all the newspapers. It takes that kind of extra edge and aggressiveness to make a really great and memorable band. Most of the leaders that musicians of those days badmouth for being tough or temperamental to work for, such as Tommy Dorsey, Goodman, Miller, Shaw, all had one thing in common: they had great bands that people still talk about and listen to today. And, essentially, all these men made their initial mark on Swing history in the space of just a few years.
My favorite Tommy Dorsey band on record is the band from 1940 - 1942. I think it is Tommy Dorsey
at his peak with great sidemen, great singers and great arrangements, great songs, great specialties, great spirit. However, it is one of the many odd things in the record business that RCA has never gotten around to doing a complete Tommy Dorsey for that period. Their "Complete Tommy Dorsey" series on Bluebird LPs made it all the way to 1939...and then died! Collectors were groaning!!! "They were just getting to the best stuff” was the general complaint. A fair amount of the material has made it out, but much has not. Naturally, all the Sinatra / Tommy Dorsey sides were issued in that big box set and all the Pied Pipers sides with Tommy Dorsey came out recently on a 2 CD set, but that still leaves all the hot numbers scattered here and there. All those barnburners featuring all his "ride" men like Buddy Rich, Ziggy Elman, Don Lodice, Chuck Peterson, Heinie Beau and those raging Sy Oliver arrangements...sooooooooooo roaring and with such an edge and bite to them. Let me do some from memory, as I don't feel like getting the discography off the shelf:
ANOTHER ONE OF THEM THINGS
SERENADE TO THE SPOT
WELL, GIT IT!
SWINGTIME UP IN HARLEM
NOT SO QUIET, PLEASE
and lots more.
Also, the pop tunes are extremely good and very few of them go by without a good solo or two and some real kick from the band. Bottom line is, due to RCA's lapse of reissues of his best stuff, TD is falling into the 'legend' category; remembered for his name and a few hits, but forgotten for many other things. For me, TD had probably the best all around band of the time, since he could play everything and did... except junk tunes. The man had a 17 piece band, six singers and when he added that string section and a harp, he had it all. He was also in more Hollywood movies than any other bandleader with the possible exception of Harry James.
I think that Tommy Dorsey made better use of his string section than any other big name and was a pre-war pioneer in that area, along with Harry James and Artie Shaw. After the war, quite a few bands had string sections, but by that time Tommy Dorsey, Harry James and Artie Shaw had dropped theirs. I don't think that there is any Tommy Dorsey material that is shoddy or second rate, but by the late forties and into the fifties, the stuff isn't clicking any longer. His band of that period is beginning to turn into what Basie was to become in the 50s and 60s, a very smooth and skillful sounding studio band. Tommy's 1950s recordings are about the same, but more so. The ballads are very mellow, but more like "easy listening" music. The swinging charts are still well played, but with what I feel is a lack of inner fire. I think perhaps that Tommy Dorsey was so “in tune” with the tastes of younger listeners and dancers and really enjoyed playing to that crowd and “fed off” them, that when the youth of America essentially vanished from the big band scene after the end of WWII, TD lost his “soul mate”, the American Swing and dance public. Heck, he even got one of those college guy flat top hair cuts in the fifties in order to stay current and all it did was to make him look older than he was. The passion was gone. There was still fine music from Mr. Dorsey, but he had to know it was over.
Battle of the Bands
I was having a discussion about bands and was about to state who I thought had the best 'all around' dance band of the Swing era. My friend thought I was going to cite Glenn Miller, but I named Tommy Dorsey as my number one choice in the "sweet/swing" category (as Metronome Magazine used to term it). I don't think any other band handled both styles of music, sweet and Swing, as well as Tommy Dorsey's band did. Essentially, he never fails. His sweet numbers were the height of taste and musicality and his Swing numbers rocked the house. To quote Charlie Barnet out of context, for Tommy Dorsey, musically, “the best was adequate”. By the time he hit his peak in the years of 1940 - 1945, he had been on top so long, that money was no object. He hired the best in every category; instrumentalists, vocalists, arrangers, songwriters. Music was his life. He owned one of the first hi-fi sets in the country and one of the best bands in America.
Dorsey in the 30s vs Dorsey in the 40s.
In 1939, Tommy Dorsey began to totally re-vamp the style of his band. This was a daring move as it required him to let go two very popular vocalists and any number of sidemen and taking on a new principal arranger (Sy Oliver) and six (!) new vocalists: Frank Sinatra and Connie Haines (both out of Harry James' band) and Jo Stafford plus the three man vocal group, the Pied Pipers.
His sweet style went from the most sophisticated sounds of the 30s to a bit more robust sound suited to the times. Many Dorsey ballads of the 1940 - 1945 period have a kick to them in the first chorus or final chorus. Example: Just when one might think that Be Careful, It's My Heart, which begins with a stunning string section intro and trombone solo, is going to be a somewhat sedate side, the entire band comes in with a glorious use of dynamics and syncopation and a sound that fills the room with it's presence.
Tommy Dorsey's Swing style went through an even more dramatic change. Much of his Swing and Jazz had been “Dixieland” based, but once he hired Sy Oliver away from Jimmie Lunceford, the Dorsey style went Sy Oliver's way. The 30s Dorsey swing / jazz had been fine and exciting, with the best of it at the top of its form. Sy Oliver brought it into the 1940s. With the new personnel and attitudes and arrangements, the entire band took on a new edge and excitement. The Dorsey pop tunes took on a new type of pulse with lots of Swing touches and the pure Swing charts are completely hot as hell, almost manic at times. They wail, they blast; they just knock you over or make you dance with a fever.
All this good stuff continued through the end of WWII and beyond, but soon began to change as the tempo of the times changed once more. Dorsey was still the king offering the best to his musical subjects, but the audience had begun to migrate in a different direction.
Poor Tommy. He still cared, but few others did.
Jazz biographies and photos are added regularly. Our weekly live jazz radio program Jazz Joint Jump can be heard Tuesdays from 4-6PM Pacfic Time through the link on our Jazz Radio page.