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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,014

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This is the grave of Tommy Dorsey.

Born in 1905 in Mahanoy Plane, Pennsylvania, Tommy Dorsey grew up in a musical family. His father was a local bandleader and he trained his children in music, not only Tommy but Jimmy, who would have a long career of his own. His father was a trumpeter and that’s what he wanted his kids to play too. But while Tommy trained on the trumpet, he really picked up on the trombone and that’s what he would play in his career, being one of the few jazz leaders to play the instrument. This point is actually kind of interesting. Of course there are many great trombonists in jazz history. But if anything the instrument is quite underrated and there are a lot more of the all time jazz leaders who played trumpet or piano or saxophone. Anyway, by the time Tommy was 15, he was ready to play professionally. His first major gig was with the Scranton Sirens, which was one of those local bands that played around a region. He and Jimmy both rose pretty fast in the regional jazz scene which led to the national jazz scene at a moment when the big band concept was integrating the jazz coming out of cities such as New Orleans and providing new opportunities for young exciting musicians.

So as the 1920s went on, Tommy Dorsey played in a number of bands under the leading swing orchestras of the day. That included people such as Rudy VallĂ©e, Tal Henry, and Vincent Lopez. Jimmy was playing in a band in Detroit in 1923 and so Tommy went their to join him, leaving the hills of eastern Pennsylvania behind. By 1925, he was a member of the California Ramblers, which was a New York based band despite their name. Beginning in 1927, he was one of the main members of Paul Whiteman’s very popular band. And then in 1929, Tommy and Jimmy collaborated on the first hit under their own names, “Coquette.” They had also based themselves in Baltimore for a good bit of the 20s where they had a lot of local success and became one of the first jazz bands to play live on the radio.

The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra was one of the most popular bands of the early 1930s. They had a lot of hits, mostly with Decca. They hired a young composer and trombonist named Glenn Miller, who wrote a bunch of hits for them before going out on his own. Up to 1935, this was a very big group. But the Dorsey brothers came to dislike each other and they couldn’t play together anymore. So even though they just had another big hit with “Every Little Moment,” in 1935, Tommy walked away and started his own orchestra.

While Tommy had a lot of success with Jimmy, it turned out going out on his own took his fame to another level. His new band had not one, but four hits in 1935 alone. However, Dorsey was moving away from jazz and into pure orchestra pop at this time. This got him a good bit of criticism from music critics. He was bringing in young singers such as Frank Sinatra to work with him, but the music became, well, extra super duper white during these years. So he made a move–hiring the composer and trumpter Sy Oliver, who was Black, away from Jimmie Lunceford’s band. This wasn’t the first time that a white orchestral leader had made such a hire. Benny Goodman had hired Fletcher Henderson before this. But it still wasn’t very common to have an integrated band in the late 30s. Dorsey increased Oliver’s salary by $5,000 a year for this, so he got paid. Oliver stayed with Dorsey for a long time. In 1946, he arranged a huge hit for Dorsey with “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Overall, this was the peak of Dorsey’s work. Among the others that Dorsey hired during these years include Buddy Rich, Johnny Mince, Charlie Shavers, and Doc Severinsen, who is somehow still alive.

Dorsey could be pretty difficult. He loaned a bunch of money to Glenn Miller to start his own orchestra, but then demanded really ridiculous terms when Miller got really successful. Miller was grateful but also had his limits. So Dorsey hired a completely separate band to sound just like Miller and hopefully steal his audience. Once, Dorsey had a run in Los Angeles. He was playing the Palladium. Somehow he got into a big argument with the owners of the club. So he quit and opened his own club, hoping to force the Palladium out of business. He was a smart business operator and made a lot of money generally, with his own publishing companies and even a big band trade magazine.

The music industry changed after World War II. The big bands of the pre-war period began to be replaced by smaller ensembles that made a lot more sense financially when you could no longer sell out a big building. Jazz changed a lot too, with the rise of a new generation of adventurous musicians taking the music in a vastly different direction from people like Dorsey. At the end of 1946, although still popular, Dorsey broke up his band and went smaller. He did recreate his big band for a bit after he had another big hit in 1947, but the ultimate direction of music was changing. However, he made up with Jimmy after all these years. There was even a movie about them in 1947 that they starred in, The Fabulous Dorseys. I have not seen it and by most accounts it’s pretty bad. By 1953, they were playing together pretty frequently again, increasingly on television. They had their own show, Stage Show, from 1954-56. It didn’t just play big band and swing either. In fact, Elvis’ first television appearance was with the Dorseys.

By 1956, Dorsey was taking a lot of sleeping pills. He was probably addicted. You can no doubt tell where this is going. One night, he had a big ol’dinner. Then he popped his pills. Then he choked to death in his sleep. He was 51 years old. Jimmy kept the band going but he died of throat cancer a year later. However, the band did continue under Warren Covington’s leadership and with Jane Dorsey’s (a former Copacabana dancer who was Dorsey’s third wife and is also buried here) blessing for several years.

It’s a bit easy to dismiss Dorsey these days because the music sounds so dated. But he was a gigantic hit maker for decades. He had well over 10 songs hit #1 on the charts and dozens of others end up on the charts. Among his biggest were “Marie,” which he wrote with Irving Berlin in 1928 but recorded in 1937, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” in 1936, and “I’ll Never Smile Again,” in 1940.

Let’s listen to some Tommy Dorsey.

Tommy Dorsey is buried in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other leaders from the big band era, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Charlie Spivak is in Travelers Rest, South Carolina and Jack Teagarden is in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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