Thomas Francis Dorsey (November 19, 1905 – November 26, 1956) was an American jazz trombonist, trumpeter, composer, and bandleader of the Big Band era. He was known as “The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing”. He was the younger brother of bandleader Jimmy Dorsey. After Dorsey broke with his brother in the mid thirties, he led an extremely popular band from the late thirties into the nineteen fifties. Dorsey disliked improvisation and had a reputation for being a perfectionist. He was volatile and also known to hire and fire (and sometimes rehire) musicians based on his mood.
Thomas Francis Dorsey, Jr. was a native of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, the second of four children born to Thomas Francis Dorsey, Sr. and Theresa (née Langton) Dorsey. The Dorsey brothers’ two younger siblings were Mary and Edward (who died young).
At age 15, Jimmy Dorsey recommended his brother Tommy as the replacement for Russ Morgan in the germane 1920s territory band “The Scranton Sirens.” Tommy and Jimmy worked in several bands, including those of Tal Henry, Rudy Vallee, Vincent Lopez, Nathaniel Shilkret, and especially Paul Whiteman. In 1928, the Dorsey Brothers had their first hit with “Coquette” for OKeh records. The Dorsey Brothers band signed with Decca records in 1934, having a hit with “I Believe In Miracles”. Future bandleader Glenn Miller was a member of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in 1934 and 1935, composing “Annie’s Cousin Fanny”and “Dese Dem Dose” both recorded for Decca for the band. Ongoing acrimony between the brothers, however, led to Tommy Dorsey’s walking out to form his own band in 1935, just as the orchestra was having a hit with “Every Little Moment.” 
Tommy Dorsey’s first band was formed out of the remains of the Joe Haymes band. The new band was popular from almost the moment it signed with RCA Victor with “On Treasure Island”, the first of four hits for the new band in 1935. The Dorsey band had a national radio presence in 1936 first from Dallas and then from Los Angeles. Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra took over comedian Jack Pearl’s radio show in 1937.
By 1939, Dorsey was conscious of criticism that his band lacked a jazz feeling and Dorsey hired arranger Sy Oliver, from the Jimmy Lunceford band to arrange for his band. Sy Oliver’s arrangements for Tommy Dorsey include “Well Git It” and “On The Sunny Side of the Street”. In 1940, Dorsey hired singer Frank Sinatra from bandleader Harry James. Frank Sinatra made eighty recordings from 1940 to 1942 with the Dorsey band. Two of those eighty songs are “In The Blue of Evening” and “This Love of Mine”. Frank Sinatra achieved his first great success as a vocalist in the Dorsey band and claimed he learned breath control from watching Dorsey play trombone. In turn Dorsey said his trombone style was heavily influenced by that of Jack Teagarden. Among Dorsey’s staff of arrangers was Axel Stordahl who arranged for Frank Sinatra in his Columbia andCapitol records years. Another member of the Dorsey band was trombonist Nelson Riddle, who later had a partnership as one of Sinatra’s arrangers and conductors in the 1950s and afterwards.Another noted Dorsey arranger, who in the nineteen-fifties, married and was professionally associated with Dorsey veteran Jo Stafford, was Paul Weston. Bill Finegan, an arranger who left Glenn Miller’s civilian band, arranged for the Tommy Dorsey band from 1942 to 1950.
The band featured a number of future famous instrumentalists, singers and arrangers in the thirties and forties, including trumpeters Zeke Zarchy, Bunny Berigan, Ziggy Elman, Carl “Doc” Severinsen, and Charlie Shavers, pianists Milt Raskin, Jess Stacy, clarinetists Buddy DeFranco, Johnny Mince, and Peanuts Hucko. Others who played with Dorsey were drummers Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Dave Tough and singers Jack Leonard, Edythe Wright, Jo Stafford with The Pied Pipers, Dick Haymes and Connie Haines In 1944, Dorsey hired The Sentimentalists who replaced The Pied Pipers. Dorsey also performed with singer Connee Boswell Dorsey hired ex-bandleader and drummer Gene Krupa after Krupa’s arrest and scandal for marijuana possession in 1943. In 1942 Artie Shaw broke up his band and Dorsey hired the Shaw string section. “They’re used in the foreground and background (note some of the lovely obbligatos) for vocal effects and for Tommy’s trombone.”
Dorsey branched out in the mid nineteen forties and owned two music publishing companies, Sun and Embassy. After opening at the Los Angeles ballroom, The Hollywood Palladium on the Palladium’s first night, Dorsey’s relations with the ballroom soured and he opened a competing ballroom, The Casino Gardens circa 1944. Dorsey also owned for a short time a trade magazine called The Bandstand. Dorsey was also part owner of the Bob Chester band in 1940. He was also an early investor in Glenn Miller’s second successful band of 1938.
Tommy Dorsey Playing, “Manhattan Seranade” featuring, Jo Stafford
Tommy Dorsey’s “Opus One”
Tommy Dorsey disbanded the orchestra at the end of 1946. Dorsey might have broken up his own band permanently following World War II, as many big bands did due to the shift in music economics following the war, but Tommy Dorsey’s album for RCA, “All Time Hits” placed in the top ten records in February, 1947. In addition, “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?” a single recorded by Dorsey became a top ten hit in March, 1947. Both of these successes made it possible for Dorsey to re-organize a big band in early 1947. The Dorsey brothers were also reconciling. The biographical film of 1947, The Fabulous Dorseys describes sketchy details of how the brothers got their start from-the-bottom-up into the jazz era of one-nighters, the early days of radio in its infancy stages, and the onward march when both brothers ended up with Paul Whiteman before 1935 when The Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra split into two. In the early nineteen fifties, Tommy Dorsey moved from RCA Victor back to the Decca record label.
Jimmy Dorsey broke up his own big band in 1953. Tommy invited him to join up as a feature attraction and a short while later, Tommy renamed the band the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra featuring Jimmy Dorsey. In 1953, the Dorseys focused their attention on television. On December 26, 1953, the brothers appeared with their orchestra on Jackie Gleason‘s CBS television show, which was preserved on kinescope and later released on home video by Gleason. The brothers took the unit on tour and onto their own television show, Stage Show, from 1955 to 1956. On one episode they introduced future noted rock musician Elvis Presley to national television audiences.
Dorsey’s married life was varied and, at times, lurid. His first wife was 16-year-old Mildred Kraft, with whom he eloped in 1922, when he was 17. They had two children, Patricia and Tom (nicknamed “Skipper”). They divorced in 1943 after Dorsey’s affair with his former singer Edythe Wright. He then wed movie actress Pat Dane in 1943, and they were divorced in 1947, but not before he gained headlines for striking actor Jon Hall when Hall embraced Dorsey’s wife. Finally, Dorsey married Jane Carl New on March 27, 1948 in Atlanta, Georgia. She had been a dancer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City. Tommy and Jane Dorsey had two children, Catherine Susan and Steve.
On November 26, 1956, Tommy Dorsey died at age 51 in his Greenwich, Connecticut home. Dorsey had eaten a heavy meal and began choking in his sleep. He had begun taking sleeping pills regularly at this time and he was so sedated that he was unable to awaken and died from choking. Jimmy Dorsey led his brother’s band until his own death of throat cancer the following year. At that point, trombonist Warren Covington assumed leadership of the band with Jane Dorsey’s blessing as she owned the rights to her late husband’s band and name. Billed as the “Tommy Dorsey Orchestra Starring Warren Covington”, they topped the charts in 1958 with Tea For Two Cha-Cha. After Covington led the band for a short period, Sam Donahue led it starting in 1961, continuing until the late sixties. The Tommy Dorsey orchestra today is conducted by Buddy Morrow. Jane Dorsey died of natural causes at the age of 80, in Miami, Florida in 2003. Tommy and Jane Dorsey are interred together in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
Tommy Dorsey had a run of 286 Billboard chart hits. The Dorsey band had seventeen number one hits with his orchestra in the 1930s and 1940s including: “On Treasure Island”, “The Music Goes ‘Round and Around”, “You”, “Marie”, “Satan Takes a Holiday”, “The Big Apple”, “Once in a While”, “The Dipsy Doodle”, “Our Love”, “All the Things You Are”, “Indian Summer”, and “Dolores”. He had two more number one hits in 1935 when he was a member of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra: “Lullaby of Broadway”, number one for two weeks, and “Chasing Shadows”, number one for three weeks. His biggest hit was “I’ll Never Smile Again”, featuring Frank Sinatra on vocals, which was number one for twelve weeks on the Billboard pop singles chart in 1940. “In the Blue of Evening” was number 1 on the Billboardpop singles chart in 1943.
- Segar Ellis and His Embassy Club Orchestra (1929)needs citation
- Alice Bolden and Her Orchestra (1929)
- Las Vegas Nights (1941)
- Ship Ahoy (1942)
- Presenting Lily Mars(1943)
- Girl Crazy (1943)
- Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)
- Thrill of a Romance (1945)
- The Great Morgan (1946)
- The Fabulous Dorseys (1947)
- A Song Is Born (1948)
- Disc Jockey (1951)
Tommy Dorsey studied trumpet with his father, a part-time musician, and later changed to trombone. With his brother Jimmy he was leader of Dorsey’s Novelty Six and Dorsey’s Wild Canaries, then in the early 1920s played with the Scranton Sirens. Later in the decade Tommy worked with such prominent dance orchestras as those led by Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman. He then moved to New York, where he was in demand as a player in studio and pit orchestras. In 1934 he founded with Jimmy the successful but short-lived Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. After a public argument in 1935 the two separated, and Tommy organized a dance orchestra of his own, which quickly became one of the most popular of the swing era.
The band’s music was characterized by smooth, well-crafted arrangements played with great precision and, at times, with excellent jazz solos by Bunny Berigan, Yank Lawson, Buddy Rich, and others. One of its most successful recordings was Boogie Woogie (1938), an orchestral adaptation of a piano piece by Pine Top Smith; other hits included lively swing versions of Marieand Song of India (1937), both with brilliant solos by Berigan. However, Dorsey’s orchestra was known primarily for its renderings of ballads at dance tempos, frequently with singers such as Jack Leonard and Frank Sinatra.
After the collapse of the swing-band movement in the late 1940s Dorsey struggled to keep his band intact. Eventually he brought in his brother Jimmy and the two ran another version of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra (1953-6) which had some success, particularly in its television appearances.
The Pied Pipers – From the 1957 tribute to Tommy Dorsey. “I’ll Never Smile Again”
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.
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