Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Thomas Francis Dorsey, 26 November 1905, Shenandoah PA; d 26 November 1956, Greenwich CT) Trombonist and bandleader: one of most successful recording artists of the century. The birth date is from a baptismal certificate; the date usually given is 19 November: Dorsey evidently had to make himself a year older at some point, perhaps to play one of his early gigs. (This info uncovered by researcher David Sager.)

The early career details are similar to those of his brother, Jimmy Dorsey. He formed his own band in 1935 after a split from Jimmy by taking over that of old friend Joe Haymes: among the first-rate sidemen who passed through were trumpeters Bunny Berigan, Yank Lawson, Charlie Shavers, Max Kaminsky, Sterling Bose and Charlie Spivak (see Bob Crosby), Pee Wee Erwin and Ziggy Elman (see Benny Goodman); also Buddy DeFranco, clarinet; Bud Freeman, tenor sax; drummers Dave Tough, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson; Carmen Mastren, guitar (b Carmen Nicholas Mastandrea, 6 October 1913, Cohoes NY; d 31 March 1981, Valley Stream, Long Island); arrangers Paul Weston, Axel Stordahl, Sy Oliver, Deane Kincaide (b 18 March 1911, Houston TX, d 14 August 1992, St Cloud FL; also with Bob Crosby, others; played tenor sax until 1981), singers Jack Leonard (later managed Nat Cole, was married to Percy Faith's daughter; d 17 June 1988, Los Angeles, aged 73), Bob Eberly, Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Connie Haines. At first Leonard, Stordahl and trumpeter Joe Bauer made up a vocal group called the Three Esquires; the Pied Pipers including Jo Stafford joined in early 1940.

Other bands were sweeter, still others could play hotter, and Glenn Miller had more hits 1940-43, but 'The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing' probably had the best dance band: as George T. Simon put it, he could do more things better. Listening to the recordings with Frank Sinatra 1940-42 it is remarkable how the band could keep swinging at slow tempos, a difficult feat: there is always a lovely lilt, while some of Miller's slower records sound plodding. On ballads Dorsey was one of best trombonists in music, with seamless legato and beautiful tone; Sinatra admitted learning about phrasing and dynamics from Dorsey. He was a good jazz musician, but he knew he was outgunned by Jack Teagarden: at the RCA Victor All-Stars session in 1939 Tommy was asked to solo on 'The Blues', and refused because Jack was there; the beautiful solution had Dorsey's legato statement of the theme with Jack improvising a decorative counterpoint. The band's theme 'I'm Getting Sentimental Over You' was first recorded in 1932 by a Dorsey Brothers pickup group.

Chart placings from before the Billboard pop charts began in 1940 are guesswork, but Dorsey sold a lot of records from the beginning, at a time when a record didn't have to sell many copies to break even. Nearly 200 TD hits 1935-53 began at the top with a probable number one in 'Treasure Island', vocal by Edythe Wright (b Bayonne, NJ; d 28 October 1965). More huge hits were 'The Music Goes Round And Round' '35 with Wright, 'Alone' '36 with Cliff Weston, 'You' '36 with Wright, two-sided 'Marie'/'Song Of India' '37, both with solos by Berigan. 'India' was an instrumental from Rimsky-Korsakov, the head arrangement pinned down by trombonist Red Bone; 'Marie' was perhaps the biggest hit of the era: Dorsey traded eight arrangements for it during a gig opposite Doc Wheeler's Sunset Royal Serenaders in Philadelphia: it used the 'swing choir' effect pioneered by Don Redman, with the band chanting a paraphrase of the lyrics to a countermelody while Leonard did a straight vocal. 'Who' was a similar follow-up. The hits continued with 'Satan Takes A Holiday', 'The Big Apple' (by the band-within-a-band, the Clambake Seven), 'Once In A While' (with vocal quartet), all '37; 'Music Maestro, Please' '38 with Wright, 'Our Love' '39 (from Tchaikovsky), 'Indian Summer' and 'All The Things You Are' '39. Billboard chart hits '40-49 included number ones 'I'll Never Smile Again' '40, 'There Are Such Things' '42 and 'In The Blue Of Evening' '43, all with Sinatra, the first two also with Pied Pipers, last two arranged by Stordahl. Pinetop Smith's 'Boogie Woogie' recorded '38 in a Kincaide arrangement sold a million by '41, made no. 5 '43 during the musicians' union strike against the record companies, when bands couldn't record, and re-entered at no. 4 '45, allegedly selling four million total, enormous then. Sy Oliver was hired away from Jimmie Lunceford and wrote 'Easy Does It', 'Quiet Please', 'Opus No. One', 'Well, Git It!', 'Yes, Indeed' (no. 4 '41); arranged 'Chicago' and 'On The Sunny Side Of The Street' (the latter with the swing choir again).

Dorsey took over the string section from the Artie Shaw band when Shaw joined the U.S. Navy '42, then had 34 pieces including singers. He became a music publisher; started flop music paper Bandstand (only six issues), bought a ballroom '44 (with partners Jimmy and Harry James); was Director of Popular Music for the Mutual Radio Network '45-6, but the big-band business was going downhill: he disbanded at the end of '46 along with eight other big names but re-formed two years later, and the Dorsey brothers were back together in 1953. They had a CBS TV series '55-6 (starting as a summer replacement for Jackie Gleason) where Connie Francis and Elvis Presley first appeared on TV. He died combining sleeping pills and liquor after a big meal. He appeared in biopic The Fabulous Dorseys '47, other films; Tommy and Jimmy -- The Dorsey Years by Herb Sandford was published in 1972. A 'Tommy Dorsey Orchestra starring Warren Covington' (trombonist, b 1921, Philadelphia) had cha-cha hits '58. The original band was portrayed in the period opening scene of Martin Scorsese's film New York, New York '77.