Many people today have no memory of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. But back in the days of swing they were right up there in popularity on the Big Band stages with Glenn Miller and other stars. They even bridged the swing-rock music gap. Starting in January of 1956 on their popular Stage Show program, they featured six times a then-little known singer named Elvis Presley. When he introduced his version of the song “Hound Dog,” they showed the young singer with a droopy-eared puppy at his side.
Jimmy Dorsey was born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania in 1904, his younger brother Tommy in Mahoney Plane in 1905. Their father, Thomas Francis Dorsey Sr., was a coal miner turned music teacher and later band leader. There were four children; the two youngest, Mary and Edward, died young.
In that musical household it did not take long for both brothers to step into the spotlight as musicians. Jimmy, a trumpet player, first appeared with a local band, called the King’s Trumpeters as early as 1913. By 1915 he had switched to alto saxophone. At the same time Tommy was following in his father’s footsteps by playing the trumpet. Later he switched to the trombone, which became his signature instrument.
By the time Tommy was 15, he was appearing in a local band, the Scranton Sirens. It was a job brother Jimmy helped get for him. At that point in the 1920s, radio had just come in. Its first listeners were given mostly classical music programs. But gradually the audience for jazz grew and bands like the ones Jimmy and Tommy were playing for were popular. To take advantage of the new entertainment medium, Jimmy formed the Dorsey Novelty Six, one of the first jazz bands to be heard on radio. Among the band leaders of the day that they played for were those conducted by Rudy Vallee and Vincent Lopez.
As the demand for jazz grew, so did the Dorsey brothers’ reputations. In 1923 Tommy followed Jimmy to Detroit to play for a band there. By 1925, they were with the California Ramblers in New York. By 1927 they had joined Paul “King of Jazz” Whiteman’s band. Jimmy also did a lot of freelance radio work. It was in 1929 that the Dorsey brothers had their first hit recording, “Coquette,” for an outfit called Okeh Records.
Although the 1930s were horrible times for most Americans mired in the Great Depression, those years were largely successfully if at times acrimonious ones for the Dorsey brothers. Jimmy began the decade traveling to Europe on Ted “Is Everybody Happy” Lewis’s Band. In that same decade they formed the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Among its members in 1934-35 was a future orchestra leader named Glenn Miller. Despite their success with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, the brothers did not always see eye to eye.
Following a musical dispute with his brother, Tommy quit the band in 1935. It was a time when the popularity of bands and leaders would come and go. So Tommy Dorsey based his own band on the members of other bands who were looking for both artistic freedom and bigger pay checks. Some sources claim that Tommy Dorsey would “raid” other bands to attract its top talent to his.
“If he admired a vocalist, musician or arranger, he would think nothing of taking over their contracts and careers,” contends one source. This may well have been the case but there were other reasons why Tommy Dorsey’s band survived and thrived while others fell by the wayside. For one thing he was known as a perfectionist. He was very demanding of those who worked for him and would fire someone abruptly if they did not meet up to the high standards he set.
Tommy Dorsey was also aware of the importance of listening to what others had to say about his band if he thought they had merit. In 1935 he apparently began to sense that the “hot jazz” sound that had been popular since the early 1920s was beginning to lose favor with the type of public he wanted to attract. This may be why from 1936 on he began to attract a larger and larger national radio audience. But by 1939 the critics were saying publicly that Dorsey had taken it in a direction that made it barely a jazz band at all. Aware of this, Tommy Dorsey hired African American musician Sy Oliver, to, for want of better words, “jazz it up.” One of the premier arrangers of the 1930s and 1940s, Oliver managed to re-shape Dorsey’s image with popular hits like “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “Opus One.”
Perhaps Dorsey’s biggest coup came in the early 1940s when he managed to lure Frank Sinatra, then still in his bobbysoxer teenage heart throb phase, away from bandleader Harry James, later better known as the husband of the popular G.I. pin-up Betty Grable. From 1940 to 1942 Sinatra made 80 songs that were recorded with the Dorsey big band, among the most popular being “In the Blue of Evening” and “This Love of Mine.” Some sources claim that his work with Dorsey was the real start of Sinatra’s career. The singer later claimed he learned breath control from watching Dorsey play the trombone.
Brother Jimmy continued his career in the 1930s with what was now called The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. In 1939 he hired female vocalist Helen O’Connell and teamed her with male singer Bob Eberly. This proved a popular singing team with the public of that day and gave Jimmy Dorsey’s band some of their greatest hits. Although not quite as big a name in that era as his younger brother, he was still able to continue his band into the early 1950s.
Due to a shift in music economics following the end of World War II, Tommy Dorsey in 1946 broke up his big band. But in 1947 he re-organized it. That same year both Dorsey brothers played themselves in a movie “The Fabulous Dorseys,” a sketchy bio-pic of their lives that showcased their careers.
Television drew both brothers back together. They appeared with their band on Jackie Gleason’s show for CBS. This led to Stage Show, their own television program, from 1954 to 1956. It was there that they introduced Presley several months before his famous “no camera on shaking hips” appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
On November 26, 1956, Tommy Dorsey died in his sleep, choking after a heavy meal. It is said it was partially a result of the sleeping pills he was taking. He was 51. His brother Jimmy died of lung cancer the following year. He was 53.