Tommy (1905-56) and Jimmy Dorsey (1904-1957) were among the biggest musical names of the Big Band era, and we’ve had dozens of occasions to mention them here, so today we shine the spotlight in their direction.
The Dorseys were from Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, about an hour northwest of Allentown. Their father was a music teacher and marching band leader. The boys began playing instruments as children. Both started out on trumpet, then later switched to other instruments: Jimmy on sax and clarinet, Tommy on trombone. Both also became composers, arrangers, conductors and bandleaders. When still teenagers they formed a hot jazz combo called Dorsey’s Novelty Six, later known as Dorsey’s Wild Canaries. In 1927 they formed their orchestra, which enjoyed great success on radio, record, and in live performances over the decades. From 1935 through 1945 they operated separately for the most part, then they reunited during their final years. That’s criminally simplified timeline, just to get you oriented.
The brothers were at the center of everything during that period of popular music, playing with famous mentors in their early years, then nurturing young newcomers when they were on top. In their nonage, one or the other or both played with Tal Henry, the California Ramblers, Rudy Vallee, Vincent Lopez, Paul Whiteman, Bix Beiderbecke, Ben Pollack, Red Nichols, and Hoagy Carmichael. Glenn Miller was a member of their band for a time, as were Bunny Berrigan, Buddy Rich, and Doc Severinson (later famous as the bandleader for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, one of the last places to feature big band music in mainstream popular culture). Their singers included Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ken Curtis, Dick Haymes, Jo Stafford, Edythe Wright, Connie Haines, Helen O’Connell, and many others. Jerry Lewis’ wife Patti Palmer had sung with Jimmy’s band before joining Ted Fio Rito.
Both brothers appeared as themselves in numerous Hollywood movies. Tommy is in Las Vegas Nights (1941), Ship Ahoy (1942), Presenting Lily Mars (1943), DuBarry was a Lady (1943), Swing Fever (1943), Girl Crazy (1943), Broadway Rhythm (1944), Thrill of Romance (1945), and A Song is Born (1948). Jimmy can be seen in The Fleet’s In (1942), Four Jills in a Jeep (1944), Abbott and Costello’s Lost in a Harem (1944), Hollywood Canteen (1944), Music Man (1948) and Make Believe Ballroom (1949). Both are in Birth of the Blues (1941) and I Dood It (1943), and of course The Fabulous Dorseys (1947), one of the first bio-pics in which the subjects portray themselves.
Naturally the Dorseys were network radio stars as early as the 1920s; it’s less well remembered that they also left their handprints on television. Jimmy appeared on such shows as Cavalcade of Bands and Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall. Tommy was on The Frankie Laine Show and The Kate Smith Evening Hour. They appeared together on such programs as The George Jessel Show and What’s My Line? Joint appearances with their band on The Jackie Gleason Show led to the Dorseys own Gleason-produced TV variety program Stage Show which ran from 1954 to 1956. Frequent performers on the show included comedian Jack Carter and The June Taylor Dancers. Elvis Presley’s network TV debut was on Stage Show (not The Ed Sullivan Show or The Steve Allen Show, as is sometimes intimated).
The advent of Elvis of course rings the bell for a changing of the guard. It needn’t have been as drastic a shift as it turned out to be, but as it happens to old generation of big band leaders was largely wiped out! Glenn Miller’s WWII death is famous. The temperamental Artie Shaw had retired from music in 1954. And then the world lost both the Dorsey brothers within months of each other. Appallingly Tommy Dorsey choked to death in his sleep in 1956 after topping off a large meal with sleeping pills. Jimmy Dorsey died of cancer the following year.
Lester Young and Charlie Parker both said Jimmy influenced their sax playing. (Parker actually died while watching Stage Show on TV). Frank Sinatra said he learned breath control from watching Tommy play trombone. Some indication of the sizable shadows they cast.
For more on show biz history, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,