© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Although Dorsey recorded, especially in the 1920s, with Bix Beiderbecke and other major jazz players, he was not a notable jazz soloist. He was vastly admired by other musicians, however, for his technical skill on his instrument. His tone was pure, his phrasing was elegant, and he was able to play an almost seamless legato line; as a player of ballads he has rarely been surpassed”
- James Lincoln Collier, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz
“The one redeeming feature, however, on almost every piece was Tommy's trombone. Not a jazz player, Dorsey could at best render a sort of mechanical,
not very inspired, though technically facile Dixieland trombone. But as a lyric player and romantic balladeer Dorsey had no equal. Indeed he virtually invented the genre. His best emulator was the very gifted Bobby Byrne, who took Tommy's place in Jimmy Dorsey's band, playing all of Dorsey's high register lyric solos as well as the "hot" jazz parts). But Dorsey was clearly the creator and master of this smooth "singing" trombone style, so seemingly effortless, largely because of his virtually flawless breath control, the ultimate foundation of all great wind playing. As good as Dorsey already was in the early and mid-1930s, he kept somehow miraculously improving to the point where some of his recorded solos of the early forties are almost beyond belief.
Tommy began developing his smooth lyric manner in his studio work, which often called for a sweet-style solo, and with the Brothers orchestra. His father— who taught him on a number of brass and wind instruments—gave him a secure technical foundation and disciplined approach. It was that training, combined with his own great talent, that helped him become the top trombonist in New York. His perfect breath support, clean attack, and impeccably neat slide work enabled him to sing on the trombone's high register with unparalleled ease. It became his trademark and his ticket to popular stardom.”
- Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945
“Yet here, unmistakably, is the key to Tommy Dorsey as a jazzman: his work on trombone, polished and consistent, seemed more and more an index of his professional musicianship, its very evenness of temperament guaranteeing it could fit in anywhere, play any role, with verve and bonhommie. Not a particularly original hot trombone soloist (any more than Claude Jones, Sandy Williams, and Jimmy Archey are particularly original trombone soloists), he is nevertheless (as they were) a fine one. The near-universal regard in which he was held throughout the '30s—and not merely a matter, as Schuller would suggest, of ballad phrasing and breath control—attests to that. His solos on "Honeysuckle Rose," from the "Jam Session at Victor" date (1937) and on "Beale Street Blues," "Mendelssohn's Spring Song," and "Milenberg Joys" with his own band leave no doubt that he could swing hard and authoritatively when the need arose.”
- Richard Sudhalter, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945
Although the debate about trombonist Tommy Dorsey prowess as a Jazz player seems to have no end, I wasn’t aware of this discussion when I made my first purchase of of an extended play 45 rpm recording which featured his Clambake Seven [RCA EPAT-408].
The four selections - Chinatown, My Chinatown, The Sheik of Araby, Twilight in Turkey, and Rhythm Saved the World - played endlessly and effortless on my small Victrola while their sparkling and effervescent quality imbued me with the happy feeling that I get whenever I listen to Jazz.
We wanted to develop a series of profiles on Tommy Dorsey, one of the most successful bandleaders of the Swing Era, and what better place to begin than with one by George T. Simon.
By way of background, George T. Simon joined Metronome magazine in 1935, at the dawn of the big band era, remaining there for twenty years, the last sixteen as editor-in-chief.
He had begun his musical career by leading his own band at Harvard, and later helped organize the Glenn Miller orchestra, for which he played drums. Winner of a Grammy for distinguished writing and of the first Deems Taylor/ASCAP award, he has contributed articles and reviews to leading newspapers and magazines. A producer, writer and music consultant for network television and radio, he has also produced jazz and pop recordings for many major labels.
He is the author of The Best of the Music Makers, The Big Bands Songbook, Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, Simon Says: The Sights and Sounds of the Swing Era, and The Feeling of Jazz.
“WHEN Tommy Dorsey walked off the Glen Island Casino bandstand and out of the Dorsey Brothers band that spring evening in 1935, he had no idea just where he was going. He could have done the easy thing: he could have returned to the radio and recording studios where he had been making a mint of money and forgotten all about ever having a band of his own. But those who knew Tommy Dorsey best knew he wouldn't, in fact, couldn't, do that.
For Tommy, who was soon to achieve fame as "The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing," was a fighter—often a very belligerent one—with a sharp mind, an acid tongue and intense pride. He had complete confidence in himself. He felt he could do so many things better than so many other people could. And so many times he was absolutely right.
This time he set out to prove one specific thing—that he could have an even more successful band than his brother Jimmy had. And prove it he most certainly did.
In retrospect—and in big band history—Tommy Dorsey's must be recognized as the greatest all-round dance band of them all. 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.
It could swing with the best of them, first when it featured stars like trumpeters Bunny Berigan and Peewee Erwin, tenor saxist Bud Freeman, clarinetist Johnny Mince, drummer Davey Tough and Deane Kincaide's arrangements; later when it spotlighted Ziggy Elman's and for a while once again Berigan's trumpet, Don Lodice's tenor, Buddy DeFranco's clarinet, Buddy Rich's drums and Sy Oliver's arrangements.
Sure, the bands of Ellington, Goodman, Basie, Lunceford and possibly one or two others could outswing Dorsey's. But they couldn't begin to match it in other ways. For example, none could come close to Tommy's when it came to playing ballads. Tommy Dorsey, "The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing," was a master at creating moods—warm, sentimental and forever musical moods—at superb dancing and listening tempos. And, what's more, Tommy selected arrangers who could sustain those moods—Paul Weston, Axel Stordahl and Dick Jones. And he showcased singers who could project those moods wonderfully—Jack Leonard, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers and others. With the possible exception of Claude Thornhill’s, no other band ever played ballads so prettily, so effectively and always so musically.
And, of course, to top it all there was Tommy's trombone. It has often been suggested that his band was built around his singers and his sidemen and its arrangements. And yet throughout the twenty years of its almost continuous existence, its most pervading and distinguishing sound remained the warm, silken, sometimes sensuous, more times sentimental horn of its leader.
Tommy didn't start his band exactly from scratch. An old friend of his, Joe Haymes, was leading a band at New York's McAlpin Hotel. Joe wasn't getting anywhere, and it's not at all inconceivable that he wasn't completely averse to letting Tommy take over his band. At any rate, the entire Haymes sax and trumpet sections, his trombonist, his pianist, his guitarist, his bassist and his arranger, a young Dartmouth graduate, Paul Weston—twelve men in all—joined Dorsey en masse.
One of the first things Tommy did after changing the style of the Haymes band to suit his personal likes and needs—it had been playing essentially "hotel swing" with little distinction—was to record some sides for RCA Victor in September of 1935. In the first set of record reviews I ever wrote for Metronome, I commented on three of the Dorsey band's initial efforts, "On Treasure Island," "Back to My Boots and Saddles" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," giving the nod to Edythe Wright's vocal over Cliff Weston's and summing up with: "The three sides show a band with lots of promise, a great trombone and trumpet [Sterling Hose's], a good clarinet [Sid Stone-burn's] and drums [Sam Rosen's], some nice ideas in arrangements and a lack of polish. But the polish should come in time."
Several months later the band made its New York debut—in the Blue Room of the Hotel Lincoln. Tommy instituted numerous personnel changes, bringing in drummer Davey Tough and tenor saxist Bud Freeman. He also snatched three formidable talents from Bert Block's local band—trumpeter Joe Bauer, vocalist Jack Leonard and a young, flaxen-haired arranger who'd been known as Odd Stordahl but who, as Axel Stordahl, was to develop into one of the most sensitive and musical arrangers of all time, a man who was to contribute immensely to the success of Dorsey and, in later years, to the rise of Frank Sinatra. These three Block graduates, Leonard, Stordahl and Bauer, also functioned as a vocal trio, known as The Three Esquires.
Other important musicians soon joined. Tommy had played often with Bunny Berigan in the studios, and he persuaded the great Wisconsin trumpeter to join him. A young clarinetist named Johnny Mince, fresh out of Chicago Heights, had been making some attractive sounds around town (he played for Ray Noble for a while). Tommy got him, too, as well as Joe Marsala's guitarist, Carmen Mastren.
Actually, the band went through numerous personnel changes in its formative years—a procedure that continued to plague it through a good part of its early history. Tommy was a perfectionist, and if his men didn't measure up to what he expected from them, he'd let them know so in no uncertain terms. It didn't matter who else was listening, either, so musicians with thin skins or tin ears weren't likely to last long in the band. Later, as he mellowed a bit, his musicians stayed with him longer.
There's no doubt about it—Tommy knew what he wanted. He'd had years of experience, first during his early days in Pennsylvania, later with Paul Whiteman and other bands and most consistently in the radio and recording studios, where his ability had made him the most "in-demand" of all trombonists. 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.
But he was able to transmit his musical knowledge to those who were willing to listen—and who were able to put up with his temper tantrums. Paul Weston, later a top conductor in television, recently credited Dorsey for "teaching me just about everything I know. I have such great respect for his musicianship and his musical integrity." And the influence that Dorsey had on Frank Sinatra has been reported often. As Frank put it in the mid-forties in a Metronome interview: "There's a guy who was a real education to me in every possible way. I learned about dynamics and phrasing and style from the way he played his horn, and I enjoyed my work because he sees to it that a singer is always given a perfect setting."
This regard and respect for singers made singing with Dorsey's band the top spot for all vocalists of the big band era. Tommy began with a big, bearish man named Buddy Gately, who recorded one impressive side called "Love Will Live On," and then featured the lighter-voiced Cliff Weston, a Haymes holdover, before he snatched Jack Leonard from Block's band.
Jack turned out to be a real find and for several years rivaled Bing Crosby as the kids' favorite singer. He was a warm, decent, straightforward person, very handsome and rather shy. I have a feeling he never really knew how important he was. I remember once when he and I were going to the World's Fair together and we talked about taking some girls along with us I suggested he ought to be able to dig up a couple of really great ones and he said very simply, "You know, I hardly know any at all." That amazed me until he followed up with, "I meet a lot of them, but I don't really know what they look like. You see, I'm very near-sighted, and I can't wear glasses because that would ruin my romantic image!"
Jack stayed with the band for almost four years, recording such fine sides as "For Sentimental Reasons," "Dedicated to You," "If It's the Last Thing I Do," "Little White Lies," "You Taught Me to Love Again," "Once in A While" and probably the most famous of all Dorsey sides, "Marie."
The "Marie" side, with the band singing vocal riffs as Jack emoted a straight lyric, was so successful that Dorsey recorded several more standard tunes with the same formula—"Who," "Yearning" and "East of the Sun." "Marie" was recorded in January, 1937, after Tommy and his band had played a battle of music in Philadelphia with Doc Wheeler's Sunset Royal Serenaders. From Norman Pierre Gentieu's report in the November, 1937, issue of Metronome comes this excerpt about the battle between the two bands at Nixon's Grand Theater:
Although the Dorsey band was as good as reports had promised, I think that the Sunset Royal lads were a trifle more in the groove. . . . The Sunset Royal Orchestra (who arrived here in a pitiful second-hand bus) was in the pit. The leader wielded a baton which might have served for a Zulu spear. . . . The band played but three numbers (other than for the vaudeville acts): "Limehouse Blues," which indicated again the smoothness of the boys in their more frenzied moments; "Marie" in which the Don Redman influence became apparent when the band sang hot vocal licks back of the vocalist, and "Blue."
Tommy, himself, writing in Metronome in June, 1938, verified the report in this way:
We were playing a theatre in Philly once upon a time, and there was a colored band playing the same show called the Royal Sunset Serenaders. They had the 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 [Victor's recording chief] 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.
In the following issue, Dorsey wrote about how "fed up" he and his band had become with having to play "Marie" so often. Realizing that it wasn't so much the tune as the arrangement that people were clamoring for, he decided "to get out some similar arrangements of different songs and see what happens. That started our cycle. We finally hit upon 'Who.' The arrangers got busy and wrote something that sounded pretty much like 'Marie' only different. Edythe [Wright], aided by a couple of the fellows, wrote some band lyrics for the background behind Jack's vocal. After a while 'Who' started to wear us down, so we dug up 'Yearning.' "
The other side of "Marie" was also a huge Dorsey hit. It was "Song of India," which, Tommy admitted, was suggested to him by the same Eli Oberstein who had turned down "Marie." "The funny part of it," Tommy reported, "was that for months, driving home at night, I had been singing to myself that lick we use on the introduction—you know: DUH—duh dee da 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. The next night (we were at Meadowbrook then) a whole bunch of us in the band got together and started working out the arrangement. By the following night we had everything arranged through Bunny Berigan's chorus. He was playing with us at the time. So we tried it out on the folks at Meadowbrook, and when Bunny got through his chorus we just stopped and explained that we hadn't finished the arrangement. Well, finally, to make a long story short —or to make a longer arrangement short—we just decided to go back to the original intro—and there we were." [The arrangement has always been credited to Red Bone, a Dorsey trombonist, who whipped it into shape.]
Berigan, of course, was a Dorsey favorite. And so was Bud Freeman. Tommy loved to listen to Bud's tenor-sax passages, and many was the time when he would let him blow chorus after chorus (especially on "Marie"), each time holding up a finger indicating "one more" as the panting but forever-swinging saxist grew wearier and wearier and wearier. It was Tommy's way of showing his appreciation of Bud's talents while at the same time engaging in a typical Dorsey practical joke.
One thing about Tommy, he never failed to show his admiration if a musician did something well, not only the many men he featured in his band —Berigan, Freeman, Johnny Mince, Davey Tough, Pee wee Erwin, Yank Lawson, Babe Russin, Joe Bushkin, Buddy Rich, Ziggy Elman, Chuck Peterson, Buddy DeFranco, Don Lodice, Boomie Richman, Charlie Shavers and others—but also his arrangers, Weston, Stordahl, Kincaide, Oliver and two young trombonists Tommy encouraged, Nelson Riddle and Earle Hagen, currently among the most successful arranger-conductors in the world.
But the man who inspired the most awe in Tommy was a fellow trombonist —Jack Teagarden. I saw it plainly one night—the only time I ever saw Tommy ill at ease and even a bit flustered. The occasion was the first Metronome All Star date, during which we recorded two sides by the winners of the magazine's poll. The first had featured a Teagarden solo, and since Tommy had also been picked as a trombonist, I suggested that he solo on the next tune. Tommy appeared embarrassed as he refused. "Nothing doing," he said. "Not when Jack's in the same room." (As a matter of fact, we finally did get Tommy to solo; he played a pretty chorus of blues, absolutely straight, while Jack improvised around it. The result was really quite emotional.)
Tommy's relationship with the men he liked in his band—and he seemed to like most of them—was social as well as musical and extended well beyond the bandstand. Often many of them weekended at his sumptuous home in Bernardsville, New Jersey—complete with tennis court, swimming pool, pin-ball machines and a fabulous hi-fi set, one of the first of its kind. Invited too would be other friends, like Johnny Mercer, Lennie Hayton and Clay Boland, to share the food, the drinks and the many laughs.
Tommy was a fine host, and his first wife, whom everyone called "Toots," was a wonderfully warm and gracious hostess. Unfortunately, their marriage broke up. In October, 1939, Tommy's bright and attractive singer, Edythe Wright, of whom Toots had been more than critical, also departed from the Dorsey scene. She was replaced by Anita Boyer, a very good singer, in what was the first of several changes in the vocal department which were to reshape rather drastically not only the music but also the career of the Dorsey band as a whole.
The next change was an important one: Jack Leonard left the band and an | interim singer named Allan DeWitt was hired.
Jack was extremely popular not only with the public but also with the musicians in the band. There had been talk about his going out on his own as a single, but so far as anyone could determine, Jack himself had never been part of that talk, nor had he evidenced much interest in departing. However, it was entirely possible that Tommy heard some of these murmurings. It soon became apparent to many connected with the band that his attitude toward Leonard was cooling. Tommy was like that—impetuous and inclined to be suspicious. One day Leonard was late for rehearsal. It had been reported that he and Jimmy Blake, a trumpeter in the band, had been balling it up the night before. Those who knew Jack best doubted the story, but it seemed to be the final straw. In November of 1939 he left the band.
"I'll be back the first or second week in December," he said at the time. "That talk about Tommy and me having a fight is just talk. After five years of steady work, I was run down and just needed a rest—that's all. But I'm on one of those plenty-of-milk-to-bed-at-nine kicks now. I'll be back soon." Jack never made it. And Allan DeWitt wasn't what Tommy was looking for. What he was looking for, however, happened to be working at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago at the same time Tommy's band was at the Palmer House, a few blocks away. He was referred to as "that skinny kid with James." Tommy sent an emissary over to see if he was interested. Sinatra 'talked it over with James, with whom he was very close. Harry agreed to let him out of his contract. One reason: Nancy Sinatra was pregnant at the time and Frank could use the extra pay. So Sinatra told Dorsey "O.K." A few weeks later in Milwaukee he joined the band. Jack Egan, the veteran press agent who handled Dorsey in those days, recalls that Sinatra never got a chance to sing with the band in Milwaukee, where it was playing a theater engagement: "He had to wait until Allan DeWitt had worked out his two weeks' notice.
"Tommy had planned for Frank meanwhile to work on some new arrangements with Sy Oliver, who'd recently joined the band. But Jimmy Blake had taken sick, and Sy, who also played trumpet, had to sub for him. [According to Oliver, it was Lee Castle whom he replaced when an energetic dentist broke Lee's jaw.] That left no time for him to write for Frank. So when Frank made his first appearance with the band—it was at the Lyric Theater in Indianapolis —he had only two songs to sing. First he did a ballad—I forget what it was —it may have been 'My Prayer'—and then, of course, he did 'Marie,' which was still our big number.
"Well, he broke it up completely. And that was tough to do because a lot of the kids were big Jack Leonard fans. They kept yelling for more, but Frank had no encore prepared. So there right onstage he and Tommy went into a huddle and Frank suggested they fake 'South of the Border.' Well, that broke it up even more, especially when Frank started slurring down on those notes. You know, right then and there, when he went into the slurring bit, the kids started screaming, just the way they did later at the Paramount. And there was nothing rigged about it either. I know, because I was the band's press agent. And I was also Jack Leonard's close friend, and I wasn't inclined to go all out for any other singer. No, those screams were real!"
Dorsey must have been delighted at the response to his new singer. He had, as it turned out, already predicted Frank's success even before he had sung a note with the band. During a disc jockey interview while the band had played that week in Milwaukee, Tommy had stated that he thought Sinatra would become as big as Crosby. Maybe he really believed it. Maybe he was just showing his pique at Leonard for having quit the band. In any case, he was clairvoyant.
Sinatra blossomed with Dorsey, and with Sinatra the Dorsey band became more successful than ever. Frank has often admitted how listening to Tommy helped him develop his phrasing, his breathing, his musical taste and his musical knowledge. Dick Jones, once a Dorsey arranger and later a close friend of Sinatra, says simply, "Frank's musical taste was developed at Tommy's elbow."
It wasn't purely osmosis, however. Frank was never content to sit back and let things happen. He always wanted to improve himself and he was always working at singing. Jo Stafford recalls that after Frank joined the band he made a special effort to get a good blend with the Pied Pipers. "Most solo singers,” she points out, "usually don't fit too well into a group, but Frank never stopped working at it and, of course, as you know, he blended beautifully with us. He was meticulous about his phrasing and dynamics. He worked very hard so that his vibrato would match ours. And he was always conscientious about learning his parts."
Frank blended wonderfully well with Tommy on a personal basis. He was young and eager and effervescent, and he needed approbation. Tommy, wise and outgoing, found it easy to encourage his young singer, for he liked him as a person and tremendously admired his singing. The happy relationship continued while Frank remained with the band. Unfortunately it came to an end thereafter, for, just as Tommy could not forgive Jack Leonard for leaving him, he resented Frank's departure. What's more, Sinatra could be just as stubborn as Dorsey, so that in the years that followed, neither seemed to be willing to be the first to give. Apparently the antagonism became even more intense than many of us realized, because years later, when Frank was asked to join all the other Dorsey alumni in a special memorial broadcast for Tommy, he refused because, as he reportedly told an associate, "it would be hypocritical of me."
Sinatra had joined the band when it had been undergoing numerous changes. Some of these were caused by Dorsey's loss of his radio commercial, which forced him to cut salaries. Some of the high-priced stars in the band didn't like the idea, especially since he had just added four extra singers to his payroll in the persons of the Pied Pipers. (They were originally an octet, but Dorsey couldn't afford that many new singers!)
Tommy spoke out fiercely, as he so often did. He blasted those who refused to take cuts, claiming they were getting too big for the band. Anyway, he said, he'd rather lead a bunch of young kids than the stars he had built.
Sinatra was young. So was Jo Stafford, the distaff member of the Pipers, a remarkably cool, self-possessed person with musical control to match and a sly sense of humor that endeared her to all. After Anita Boyer left, Jo began to sing many solos, concentrating on ballads. There were also two more young newcomers—cute Connie Haines, who came in to sing the rhythm songs, and Buddy Rich, the brash, exciting drummer who'd been with Artie Shaw.
And then there was Sy Oliver, a bit older than the rest but also new with Dorsey. His scintillating arrangements created a fresh style for the band. Tommy had grabbed Sy when the latter had left Jimmie Lunceford's band, where he had been a mainstay for many years. "It happened one night out at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn." Sy recalls, "I'd given my notice to Jimmie, and Bobby Burns, Tommy's manager, was out there and said 'Come on in and talk with Tommy.' So he drove me to the hotel and we went up to Tommy's room. I remember he was shaving, and he turned to me and said, 'Sy, whatever you are making playing and writing for Jimmie, I'll pay you $5,000 a year more.' I said, 'Sold!' and that was it."
The Bobby Burns that Sy refers to was often the go-between in matters concerning Tommy and his men. He managed the band, not only handling all the usual details but also taking the pressure off the rest of the men. Many times when Tommy would lose his temper he'd yell out, "Burns! Burns! Come here!" And Burns, who somehow always seemed to be within hearing distance if not always in sight, would amble over to Tommy, wearing a sort of whipped-dog look, bear the brunt of Tommy's wrath, and do, or make believe he was doing, what was supposed to be done, and soon Tommy would be all smiles again. I always had a feeling this was all part of a game on Bobby's part, a game he partially enjoyed, for behind that vague look of his, intensified by thick glasses, was the mind of a sharp young man fresh out of Dartmouth College. There's no doubt about it—Tommy needed Burns very much and Bobby knew it. And if Bobby would do something that Tommy felt he couldn't do personally, like contacting Sy Oliver before it was known that he had resigned from Jimmie Lunceford's band, that was great with Dorsey.
Oliver infused the band with a new musical spirit. It was sort of a gentler version of the rocking, rhythmic sounds that he had created for Lunceford, now toned down somewhat and played with more precision and slightly less excitement by the Dorsey band. But swing they did, including some great original pieces Sy wrote for the band—things like "Easy Does It," "Quiet Please," "Swing High," "Yes, Indeed," "Swingin' on Nothin'," "Well, Get It!" and "Opus No. 1."
Oliver also had a unique way of approaching a straight pop tune, injecting a soft, two-beat feeling into it. This he did with resounding success in such arrangements as "What Can I Say After I Say I'm Sorry," "For You," "Swanee River," "Mandy, Make Up Your Mind," "Chicago" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street."
As for the singers, they worked individually and they worked together, and they turned out a slew of hit sides, all of them of superior quality. Thus there were Sinatra's "Everything Happens to Me," "Violets for Your Furs" and "This Love of Mine"; Jo Stafford's "For You" and "Embraceable You"; and the Pied Pipers and Sinatra's "There Are Such Things," "Just As Though You Were Here," "Street of Dreams," "Oh, Look at Me Now" and, of course, their biggest hit of all, the one that established vocal groups forever, "I'll Never Smile Again," a song that Glenn Miller had recorded at a faster tempo three months earlier. But Sinatra and the Pipers wanted to create a more intimate version (they met the song's writer, Ruth Lowe, who had recently lost her husband), and though they tried several times for just the right take, they could not seem to project a personal enough mood. Dorsey, noting how hard they were trying, finally suggested that they sing it as though they'd just gathered around the piano at somebody's house. They followed his advice, and a wonderfully personalized performance was the result.
The revamped Dorsey band got better and better throughout 1940. Bunny Berigan was back, but his erratic behavior finally forced Tommy to let him go. It was at this point that he raided Benny Goodman's band (Tommy always seemed to be raiding somebody's outfit) and pulled in Ziggy Elman. It was also in this period that Tommy, who had taken on a number of Joe Marsala's alumni, like guitarist Carmen Mastren, pianist Joe Bushkin and drummer Buddy Rich, received a wire that read: "Dear Tommy, how about giving me a job in your band so I can play with mine. Joe Marsala."
On Halloween Eve of 1940 a huge new ballroom opened in Hollywood. The Palladium was probably the most lavish of all dance palaces, and for the opening night the management chose the Dorsey band as its star attraction. Prices, incidentally, were upped from the usual one dollar to five dollars per person, but this included "a deluxe dinner." The regular price scale ranged from thirty-five cents for women to fifty cents for men on Saturday matinees; fifty cents for the ladies and seventy-five cents for the gents on weekday nights, with Saturday nights pulling the top admissions: seventy-five cents for ladies and a dollar for men.
Just as there has never been a band singer like Sinatra, so there has never been a drummer like Buddy Rich, Each respected the other's talents immensely, and yet they both had such fantastic egos that neither seemingly could stand seeing the other get too much attention.
One of the greatest bits of deflation that Rich ever devised was the night up at the Astor Roof when he talked a pretty girl he knew into asking Sinatra for his autograph. She waited in line with some other girls and then, after she had got Frank's signature, murmured very sweetly—per Buddy's instructions—"Gee, thank you so much, Frankie. Now if I can get just three more of these, I can trade them in for one of Bob Eberly's!"
Rich loved to tease Sinatra in other ways, chiefly by playing too loud during Frank's ballads. It wouldn't be an over-all high volume—just an occasional thud or rim shot, deftly placed, that would completely destroy Frank's mood.
One night, also on the Astor Roof, Sinatra finally erupted. He cornered Rich backstage and tossed a water pitcher filled with ice directly at him. Fortunately he missed. However, he did take a huge chunk of plaster out of the wall, and for quite some time thereafter the spot was encircled. Next to it was scrawled the simple but searching epitaph: "Who said it can't happen here?"
Of course, both Sinatra's and Rich's egos in those days paled in comparison with Tommy's. His was colossal. And yet Tommy had one tremendous attribute that his younger employees, more intense and less worldly, apparently lacked—he had a great sense of humor about himself. He could and would get terribly mad—he had a trigger temper—but he would also calm down very quickly. Many times, after a blast was all over, he'd sit around and kid about himself.
During several rides back with him when we were returning from those Bernardsville weekends, I had begun to gain a better understanding of that volatile, complex man. I learned, for example, that he respected more than anything else a man with a good education. He confessed to me one time that he would give just about anything he had—and he had just about anything that money could buy—if only he could have gone to college.
Another time he confided that he was sick and tired of the daily grind. He felt he had made enough money and that he had proved himself as a bandleader. "One year from now," he predicted, "I definitely will not have a band. That's all I give myself."
This, of course, was a big scoop for an editor of a music magazine. I printed the prediction, but, in order not to injure Tommy's bookings, I merely identified him as one of the top bandleaders in the world. Well, one year later Tommy was still very much in the business, with no sign of quitting, and my prediction would have looked like a completely phony story except that during that very month Artie Shaw decided he'd had enough, gave up his band and ran away to Mexico. So I turned out to be a great scoop artist after all.
Tommy continued gripe vociferously: "My life's not my own." "I want to get out to the ball park, but instead I'm stuck here in my dressing room all day." "I never made more than $750 a week when I was a musician in the studios, but when that week was over I could go home and forget about it. Nowadays I can't forget about anything. I make more money but what happens? The government takes about half of it. I have the other half left, but what can I do with it? You can't have fun with your money when you can't take time off to spend it." These were typical protests, and yet he grew more and more active.
For one thing, since he couldn't get out to all the ball games he wanted, he concentrated on having his own games. He outfitted his band with uniforms, and at one time he hired one of his early baseball pitching idols, Grover Cleveland Alexander, to coach his team.
Other interests kept taking his time, too. With all the hit records coming his way, he figured, why give away so much money in performance royalties to other music publishers? The solution was simple: he began two of his own publishing companies, Sun and Embassy Music, and both they and he did very well.
Farther afield, but still within publishing, was a far less successful Dorsey venture. This was in the field of magazines. Tommy noted that musical publications seemed to be doing rather well. Certainly they were noticed within the business. So why not publish his own magazine, which could also help to publicize his own business ventures, and which would be beamed not just at the trade but at the public at large, especially his fans?
Tommy revealed his plans to me on one of these rides back from Bernardsville. He wanted to know if I'd be interested in leaving Metronome and editing his paper. My polite "no thank you" turned out to be one of my more intelligent decisions, for after six issues of the tabloid-sized Bandstand, Tommy's career as a magazine publisher ended.
Jack Egan, who doubled as press agent and editor, notes that "the issues got larger and larger. It was a give-away, and at one time it had a circulation of a hundred and eighty thousand. The guys in the band contributed columns, and Tommy even had Zeke Bonura writing on baseball. I will say this for the man: when he ran a college poll and found that his wasn't the most, popular band, he printed the results just the same."
But Bandstand proved to be such an expensive proposition, costing Dorsey about sixty-five thousand dollars, that his personal manager, Johnny Gluskin, was rather easily able to convince him that the price was too high to pay for publicity and the satisfaction of a personal whim.
Dorsey dabbled in all sorts of other ventures, some rather immature, like toy trains (he stocked his home with more paraphernalia than he had time to unpack!) and some quite grown-up, like financial investments. The story of how several of his men lost money on one of his oil-well tips was well known in band circles, although it took a statement from Tommy many years later to set it in proper perspective. "Morton Downey gave me a tip," he said, "and so I invested four thousand dollars. I mentioned it to the guys in the band, and they got excited and wanted to invest too. Well, it wound up with them putting in four thousand dollars and I put in twelve thousand dollars and when the whole thing collapsed I gave all the boys their money back. See, I'm not as bad a character as some people might think."
In the spring of 1941 Dorsey took his biggest business plunge. Long fed up with the activities and inactivities of booking offices, he finally decided to book himself. This meant putting together a complete organization, which he called Tommy Dorsey, Inc. He rented the penthouse atop the famous Brill Building in New York, which housed many of music's top publishing firms, and opened his thirteen-thousand-square-foot offices with a gigantic party that eventually turned into a gigantic brawl. But his new venture was launched, nevertheless, and from then on Tommy Dorsey became as much of a businessman as he had been an orchestra leader.
This was the era in which the band was at its best. In the summer of 1941 it outranked even Glenn Miller's to finish first in one of the most indicative of all popularity polls—Martin Block's "Make Believe Ballroom" contest. Actually, this may have pleased Tommy less than most people suspected, because for years he had subscribed to the theory that it's best not to be Number One because, once you get there, you have no place to go except down. Jack Egan reports that at one time, on Tommy's instructions, he went out on the road and extolled the virtues, not of Tommy's band, but of Artie Shaw's because Tommy was scared that he himself might be getting too popular!
Tommy's involvement with business extended in other directions. For example, when Sinatra—wanting to start his career as a single before Bob Eberly, whom he admired greatly and who was rumored to be leaving Jimmy Dorsey, could start his—decided in 1942 to go out on his own, Dorsey made sure that he owned a big piece of him.
Dorsey's cut and that of his manager, Leonard Vannerson, amounted to almost fifty per cent. But eventually, Sinatra, with help from outsiders, including his booking agency, bought his release. According to Harry James, the irony of it all was that in all probability Sinatra's contract with the Dorsey band had been invalid in the first place. "When Frank left the band," Harry recently told me, "he was still legally under contract to me, so that any contract he would have signed with Tommy when he joined his band would have been null and void."
Before Frank and others started to leave, Tommy had put together what was literally the biggest band he ever had. To his regular complement of eight brass, five saxes, four rhythms and six singers he added a full string section of seven violins, two violas, a cello, plus a harp! Most of the strings had come from Artie Shaw's band, which had disbanded when their leader had enlisted in the Navy. Reviewing the huge Dorsey ensemble, I began with: "It's wonderful, this enlarged Tommy Dorsey band. It's really wonderful! It does all sorts of things, and it does all sorts of things well, too! It can rock the joint with the mightiest sort of blasting jazz, and then it can turn right around and play the soothingest sort of cradle music that'll rock any little baby fast asleep."
This was written in the summer of 1942. Shortly thereafter Sinatra departed of his own will, and the drafting of some of the top stars began. Elman went into the Army, Rich into the Marines, and Jo Stafford went home to spend some time with her husband, who also was about to go into the service. It was the beginning of the end of one of the greatest aggregations of all time. But it was by no means the beginning of the end of Tommy Dorsey as a bandleader.
For a while the band floundered. The replacements didn't measure up. Sinatra and Stafford and Rich and the Pied Pipers were sorely missed. Frank was replaced by another great singer, Dick Haymes, who stayed for just a few months, but long enough to realize that "Tommy was the greatest leader in the world to work for. He actually knew all the words of every song I sang!" Then came Teddy Walters, Betty Brewer, and the Sentimentalists. But Tommy was never the sort of a guy who'd settle for anything less than the best. Slowly he improved his band once again. Gene Krupa came in. Bill Finegan, no longer tied to Glenn Miller, who had gone into the service, returned to write more arrangements. And Buddy Rich, discharged from the Marines in the early summer of 1944, came back to spark the band with his drumming.
But it was especially in the world of business that Dorsey began to flourish. In that same summer (1944) he pulled a typical TD move. He had been feuding over money with the management of the Hollywood Palladium. They had offered him eighty-five hundred dollars a week. Tommy felt he was worth much more—and in this estimate he was supported by many other leaders who'd been feeling that the Palladium had been underpaying them while reportedly making a mint of money itself. So one night Tommy walked up to the mike at the Palladium and calmly announced to the thousands of customers that he had just bought his own ballroom, the Casino Gardens, in nearby Ocean Park, and wouldn't they like to come down next weekend and dance to his music?
Tommy had partners. One was Harry James. Another was his brother, Jimmy, whose band wracked up a house record at the Palladium that summer and then, a few short weeks later, moved into the Gardens; where it did just as well.
This was an era when the two feuding brothers seemed to be getting together again. In fact for a while Jimmy seemed to have gained the upper hand in popularity, so that Tommy, shrewd as he was, must have realized that he could gain by collaborating with his brother. Suffice it to say, during that summer they staged a gigantic battle of music that highlighted the Casino Gardens' season. Then at Liederkranz Hall in New York they combined their bands to record a memorable V-Disc that featured two rhythm sections (including a couple of the world's loudest drummers, Buddy Rich and Buddy Schutz) plus ten saxes and fifteen brass.
Other exciting things happened. In his personal life, Tommy, now married to movie actress Pat Dane, got into a headlined brawl in his own home with movie actor Jon Hall. So much bad publicity ensued that Tommy lost his radio commercial, and the future of his band seemed to be in jeopardy. His friend, Charlie Barnet, sent him a telegram which read, "I am now in a position to offer you the first trombone chair in my orchestra. You will receive feature billing. Can also use Pat as featured singer. Please advise at once." Tommy immediately replied to the ribbing with "Accept offer. How much dough?" and then went right ahead and began reorganizing his own band.
Eventually the Hall affair was settled, and the fears that the Dorsey career was in trouble were soon dispelled. As a matter of fact, several months later, when the 400 Club opened in New York, a spot that was to feature many of the country's top bands, Dorsey was chosen as its first attraction.
Soon thereafter, Tommy made another important move: he hired his first black musician, Charlie Shavers, who had been a star of the John Kirby Sextet and then had played at CBS with Raymond Scott's band. Shavers immediately added a flair to the band's music that had been sadly lacking since the exits of Berigan and Elman.
And yet for several years, despite the presence of Shavers and Rich and the subsequent additions of good jazz musicians like clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and tenor saxist Boomie Richman, plus a superb singer named Stuart Foster, Tommy's band tried but could never quite reach the brilliant heights of before. By now some of the enthusiasm that had always fired Dorsey had waned. He was concentrating more and more on outside interests. In the winter of 1945-1946 he was signed by the Mutual radio network as Director of Popular Music. Shortly thereafter he began a series of weekly radio shows during which he read what was generally a pretty tired-sounding script about bands, vocalists and arrangers.
And there were other, even more obvious reasons for this loss of enthusiasm. One was the inability all bandleaders were experiencing in trying to get musicians to go out on the road. The other was the increasing difficulty of finding places in which bands could play.
By late 1946 it was becoming apparent that the band business was getting worse and worse. The reason was obvious: the supply of bands far exceeded the demand. All at once this simple economic fact seemed to dawn on eight top bandleaders at one time, for in the single month of December, 1946, eight of them announced they were calling it quits—Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Les Brown, Jack Teagarden, Benny Carter, Ina Ray Hutton and Tommy Dorsey!
For all intents and purposes, this was the official end of the big band era. Herman, Goodman, James, Brown, Teagarden, Carter, Hutton and Dorsey, all gone at once. What was left?
Not much. And yet it was Tommy Dorsey, more than any of the other big names, who in the years immediately following was to fight the cause of the big bands—with words and with action. Less than two years later he was fronting a formidable new group that featured Shavers and Chuck Peterson on trumpets, Richman on tenor sax, Paul Smith on piano, Louie Bellson on drums and vocals by Lucy Ann Polk, her brother Gordon and England's Denny Dennis.
"It's about time somebody started things going again," Tommy said at the time. "You can't expect to have any real interest in dance bands if the bands don't go around the country and play for the kids." And so Dorsey went right ahead where others, like James, Goodman and Brown, feared to tread.
Actually, Tommy never gave up trying until the very end. Much help came from his old pal, Jackie Gleason, who featured the Dorsey band on its own TV series, which spotted, in addition to the usual band numbers, various guests, including two comparatively unknown singers uncovered by Gleason and producer Jack Philbin—Elvis Presley and Connie Francis. But Tommy still felt he needed first-rate exposure on records, and so when he couldn't get the right sort of a deal from any record companies—for big bands were hard to sell—he recorded his band himself and then found outlets for his masters later on.
The band, into which he had brought his brother Jimmy and which was once more known as the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, continued to work, though the pickings were getting leaner and leaner. Tommy himself was becoming increasingly more interested in forming a mammoth record company in which he would be joined by other top recording stars. His plan: each of the artists would have a financial interest in the company, each would own his own masters, each could make more money than by recording on the usual royalty basis for another company because his profits could be realized in capital gains and thus fall into a lower tax bracket and because other financial returns could conceivably come from profits of the company itself. It is interesting to note that Tommy's plan was not unlike the one which Sinatra instituted when he started his Reprise label several years later.
I saw quite a bit of Tommy during those final days. He was by no means a contented man, but then he always seemed to be fighting for. something that he didn't have. But the general demise of the band business, as well as the change in musical styles and values, depressed him. Then too, despite all his efforts and keen desires, his last marriage, complete with two adorable children and a wonderful house in Greenwich, Connecticut, was working out badly.
Who knows what went through his mind on the night of November 26, 1956, exactly one week after his fifty-first birthday. Certainly he must have been filled with all sorts of conflicts. He dreaded his impending divorce. The thought of the disintegration of his home life was upsetting him terribly, for,just as Tommy had been a man of intense hatreds, he had also been a man full of love, which he gave and shared willingly.
Impulsive he most certainly was too. Impulsive and impatient, as well, and the two traits of character formed a lethal and fateful combination that night when, possibly to get relief from the terrific tension that had been building up at home, he took several sleeping pills in hopes of getting a good night's rest.
That was the night he reportedly also had eaten a huge dinner. It was a dinner that apparently did not sit well. In his sleep, it has since been surmised, he became nauseous, then violently sick to his stomach. He began to vomit, and then to gag . . . and then to choke . . . and all the while the sleeping pills kept him in such a state that he was unable to rouse himself.
The next morning he was found dead in his bed. Apparently he had choked to death.
A few days later a whole bunch of us, headed by Jackie Gleason, put on a one-hour television show called "A Tribute to Tommy Dorsey." It was a fantastic affair, in which a host of musicians and singers who had been associated with Tommy took part.
Jimmy was there. So were other old friends like Joe Venuti, Eddie Condon and Russ Morgan. And there were some of his former sidemen, like Max Kaminsky and Peewee Erwin and Joe Dixon and Howard Smith and Sandy Block and Carmen Mastren and Bud Freeman and Boomie Richman and Bobby Byrne, who had taken his place in the Dorsey band more than a generation before. Connie Haines sang "Will You Still Be Mine?" while Axel Stordahl conducted and composer Matt Dennis played piano. Dick Haymes sang "Daybreak/' and Jo Stafford, with Paul Weston conducting, sang the first song she had ever recorded with the band, "Little Man with a Candy Cigar." Bob Crosby sang "Dinah" as he had done with the Dorsey Brothers band, and finally there was a long and emotional medley that began with "Well, Git It," featuring Charlie Shavers, followed by a short trombone passage of "Once in a While," then Stuart Foster singing "This Love of Mine," the full band playing "Opus 1," Tommy Mercer (Tommy's last boy singer) doing "There Are Such Things," Sy Oliver singing his special version of ''On the Sunny Side of the Street" and dueting with Lynn Roberts (who also had been singing with the last band) on "Yes, Indeed." Then the band went into a chorus of "Song of India," followed by a sax chorus of "I'll Never Smile Again," then into "Boogie Woogie" and finally into "Marie," with Jack Leonard returning to sing a final farewell vocal.
Gleason opened the show with a moving speech in which he stressed that "I don't think Tommy would want us getting sentimental over him, so in the next hour you'll be hearing a tribute that represents all the sentiments, happy and sad, that made up his music,"
Just before the close of the show, Paul Whiteman came on and said a few very simple, yet very meaningful words about Tommy: "I've been watching and I've been listening this evening to all the wonderful tributes to Tommy and I know there's not a thing I could possibly say that would match their sincerity and eloquence. . . . It's the sort of tribute that fits Tommy perfectly ... simple, straightforward and beautiful . . . and right from the heart.
"Just as I'm sure there'll never be another trombone player like Tommy, so I know there'll never be another man like him. . . . There was always a certain graciousness and greatness about everything he did. I first sensed this when he joined our band close to twenty-five years ago, and I felt it, perhaps even a little bit more, just a few weeks ago when he graciously rejoined the band and blew his last recorded notes in our fiftieth anniversary album.
"Looking back at his music is now—and I'm sure always will be—one of the real big pleasures in the lives of all of us."
The script's closing lines, assigned to Gleason, reflected the mood of the program: "I wish I could say, the way the announcers used to do, 'Join us again tomorrow night for more music by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra.' But I can't, because there are no tomorrows left for us with Tommy. . .
Good night, everybody."