Biography of Tommy Dorsey



Tommy Dorsey was an American musician and bandleader and one of the prominent figures of the Big Band and Swing era. A jazz trombonist, trumpeter and composer, he was a younger brother of another famed Swing musician and bandleader Jimmy Dorsey. The brothers came even to a point of competing each other in the music business.  They formed the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra and together they enjoyed a string of hits during the 1930s. More volatile between him and older brother Jimmy, Tommy immediately walked out of their own band following their bitter arguments, and formed his own band in 1935. Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra became extremely popular during the 30s up to the 50s music era churning out numerous hits and now oldies music classics such as “On Treasure Island,” “Alone,” “You,” “Once In a While,” “Satan Takes a Holiday,” “The Big Apple,” “Music, Maestro, Please,” “I’ll Never Smile Again,” “In the Blue Of Evening,” and many others. Dorsey’s orchestra had also featured famous musicians and arrangers, including Ziggy Elman, Buddy Rich, and Gene Krupa; and singers such as Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford with the Pied Pipers and Jack Leonard. By 1953 brothers Jimmy and Tommy had patched up their differences and the former moved to Tommy’s orchestra which he was also the co-leader. The renewed Dorsey Brothers Orchestra also appeared on the TV series Stage Show during the mid-1950s. Tommy Dorsey died suddenly in his sleep in 1956, aged 51; Jimmy’s lung cancer took his life seven months later.

Early life and career

Thomas Francis “Tommy” Dorsey was born in Mahanoy Plane, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1905. His older brother, Jimmy Dorsey, was another renowned bandleader. During their youth Jimmy and Tommy were greatly influenced in music by their father, a coal miner turned music teacher. The brothers went on to form their first band, a jazz outfit called Dorsey’s Novelty Six, while they were still teenagers; they later changed it to Dorsey’s Wild Canaries, and then simply to The Dorsey Brothers.

The Dorsey Brothers enjoyed a string of hits such as “Chasing Shadows,” “I Believe In Miracles,” “Lullaby of Broadway” and “You Are My Lucky Star,” among many others. Future bandleader Glenn Miller was also a part of The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.

However, the growing disputes between Jimmy and Tommy caused them to break the band apart in 1935.

Solo career

Tommy Dorsey began to form his own band from the remains of the Joe Haymes band, and this started his practice of “stealing” artists from other bands. His reputation for being volatile and a perfectionist oftentimes led him to hire and dismiss (and later re-hire) musicians, vocalists or arrangers for his band.

Like many other bandleaders during the era, Dorsey also worked with several vocalists. One of the most notable singers was Frank Sinatra, whom Dorsey hired from bandleader Harry James in 1940. Sinatra would go on to do 80 recordings with Dorsey, notably “This Love of Mine” and “In the Blue of the Evening.”

From the 1930s up to the 1940s, the Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra enjoyed 132 Top 10 hits on the Billboard chart, including 81 top 10 hits and 11 number ones: ” “On Treasure Island,” “Alone,” “You,” “Marie,” “Once in a While,” “Satan Takes a Holiday,” “The Big Apple,” “Music, Maestro, Please,” “I’ll Never Smile Again,” “There Are Such Things” and “In the Blue of Evening.”

Like in many big bands at that time Tommy Dorsey dissolved his own band after the Second World War mainly due to economic factors. However, his records such as his RCA-Victor LP All Time Hits, still continued to fly off the music store shelves. A fictionalized film account of the Dorsey brother’s life, rise to stardom and breakup, The Fabulous Dorseys, was released in 1947.

Reunion with brother Jimmy Dorsey, and death

When Jimmy Dorsey dissolved his own band in 1953, his brother Tommy asked him to join for a feature attraction. This eventually led to form their own band once more, which was later renamed Tommy Dorsey Orchestra feat. Jimmy Dorsey. Their stint on Jackie Gleason’s TV show became successful and yielded the brother’s own TV program Stage Show, which lasted from 1955 to 1956.

Tommy Dorsey died on November 26, 1956, seven days after his 51st birthday. His death was quite unexpected and untimely. Shortly before his death he had started to take sleeping pills regularly. He became so sedated that he ended up accidentally choking himself after eating a heavy meal.

After Tommy Dorsey died, Jimmy Dorsey took the leadership of his brother’s band until his own death from lung cancer seven months later, aged 53.

The Music of Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra

Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra were among the most famous and well-liked Big Bands of the swing era, renowned for their polished, professional sound. Their tunes were a jazz, swing, and pop fusion, with elaborate arrangements and harmonic complexity. A vital element of the Tommy Dorsey style was the trombone, which Dorsey frequently performed. His virtuoso solos on the trombone were highlights of many of the orchestra’s recordings. He was widely regarded as one of the best trombone performers ever.

Tommy Dorsey’s style was distinguished by a relaxed, laid-back timbre and a highly refined rhythmic sense. Each orchestra member was allowed to shine in arrangements that highlighted their talents while fostering a cohesive and beautiful whole. Overall, Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra’s music reflected the elegance and refinement of the swing era. Here are some of the most unique arrangements played by Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra.

1. I’m Getting Sentimental Over You 

Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra released the song “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” on their album in 1932. Ned Washington wrote the lyrics, while George Bassman composed the music. The Lawrence Music Publishers, Inc. was given the initial copyright of the song in 1933, and in 1934, Mills Music, Inc. was also given the copyright. Noni Bernardi, a saxophonist in the Dorsey orchestra, arranged this song.

Dorsey was the spotlighted trombone soloist when his orchestra performed it in September 1935. Tommy subsequently used the precise arrangement captured on a second recording on October 18, 1935. In 1936, it was made available as a single performed by Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra after Tommy Dorsey passed away in 1956. He also included it on the album I Remember Tommy. The song was also included in several movies, such as The Twilight Zone’s “Static” episode, the film Carnal Knowledge, Bart Got a Room, and the Oscar-winning The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

2. Opus No.1

The Jazz classic “Opus No. 1” was written by Sy Oliver, arranged, and first performed by Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra in 1943. It is a fast-moving, up-tempo swing song with numerous instrumental solos, including a standout trombone solo by Dorsey. The piece instantly became popular among the most well-known big band classics. Due to its popularity, many musical genres—including bebop, Latin jazz, and rock and roll—have produced countless cover versions and adaptations of the song.

Moreover, “Opus No. 1” significantly impacted American broadcasting history and its musical significance. The song served as the opening theme for the Armed Forces Radio Network’s signature show, “GI Jive,” which was aired to American troops deployed abroad during World War II. The program contributed to the postwar global dissemination of jazz music. It helped make it more popular among soldiers and women. Until today “Opus No. 1” is still a regularly performed jazz classic, and its position in American music history is unquestionable.

3. Song of India

Tommy Dorsey recorded one of the most well-known versions of “Song of India” in 1937. The “Song of India” was initially composed by Russian composer and music educator Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as an instrumental composition in 1896. The tune was first used in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “Sadko” and afterward transformed into a stand-alone piece. 

The melody was played on Dorsey’s trombone over a sumptuous orchestral backdrop. The song was a hit, peaking at number 20 on the Billboard charts. It has since become a jazz standard, with other artists performing their own versions. Jazz artists used the melody frequently in the 1930s and 1940s due to its exotic and oriental flavor. This song has become Dorsey’s most memorable, brought massive success for him and his band, and contributed to their becoming well-known American popular music performers.

4. Music Goes Round and Round

The famous swing tune “Music Goes Round and Round” was composed in 1935 by Edward Farley, Mike Riley, and Red Hodgson. The song was initially recorded that same year by a group led by Riley and Farley; however, Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra turned the song into a huge hit. The song’s cheery lyrics and energetic rhythm highlight the fun of music and dancing. It became a defining song for Dorsey and his band, and their recording is still one of the most well-known and enduring pieces from the swing era. A vocal refrain was one of the first swing songs, and “Music Goes Round and Round” was one of the earliest swing songs to use. Since then, jazz and swing ensembles have chosen this song frequently because of its memorable melody and lyrics. Many other musicians have covered it.

5. Marie

A popular song, “Marie,” was written by Irving Berlin and was initially performed in 1928 in the Broadway musical “The Great Magoo.” Since then, it has been recorded numerous times. However, in 1937, Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra recorded Jack Leonard singing “Marie,” It became an instant hit. One of the biggest songs of the Big Band period, the recording lasted 10 weeks at the top of the charts.

The arrangement of “Marie” by Tommy Dorsey is well-known for its memorable beginning, in which a solo trombone plays the melody before the rest of the band joins in. The song’s lyrics detail a man’s unrequited love for a woman named Marie and his pleas for her to feel the same way about him. The song “Marie” is still a fan favorite, and many performers have recorded their versions. Its continued success is a tribute to the ageless quality of Irving Berlin’s music and the timeless charm of Tommy Dorsey and his swinging orchestra.

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