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Summary Article: Dorsey, Tommy (1905–56)
from The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Thematic Encyclopedia

Trombonist and orchestra leader Tommy Dorsey led the quintessential big band of the swing era. As a trombonist, Dorsey had no equal. His seemingly effortless breathing control technique helped to create his “singing” trombone style and made him the master of his genre.

Thomas Francis Dorsey was born on November 19, 1905, in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. The son of an amateur musician and bandleader, he was taking cornet lessons by the time he was a toddler. To make sure that his sons would practice their instruments, Dorsey’s father would hide their shoes so they couldn’t play outside. Dorsey and his brother Jimmy played in their father’s band, and by the time the brothers were teenagers, they started their own band called Dorsey’s Wild Canaries. In 1922, the Dorsey brothers joined the Scranton Sirens, and in 1924, they joined Jean Goldkette’s big jazz band in Detroit. At about that time, Tommy switched from playing the trumpet to playing the trombone, while Jimmy played the alto saxophone and clarinet.

In 1927, the brothers moved to New York, where they embarked on extremely successful careers as freelance musicians. The success of the Dorsey brothers was even more impressive because their careers in New York started at the same time as the Great Depression. Very few artists were successful at making a living during those hard times. In 1934, after the repeal of Prohibition triggered a resurgence in nightlife and entertainment, the brothers established the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey had vastly different personalities, and they fought constantly. Tommy was a single-minded perfectionist, and his brother was easygoing but always challenging Tommy. They had a falling out in 1935 that led them to establish separate careers. For nearly two decades, the brothers rarely spoke or played together.

Tommy Dorsey took over leadership of Joe Haymes’s big band, known for its Dixieland style, in 1935. He gradually shifted the band’s style to a more tightly knit, harmonized, melodic, and danceable kind of swing jazz. By 1940, his orchestra was at the pinnacle of popular dance music. That year, he signed a 24-year-old singer by the name of Frank Sinatra, who began his phenomenal rise to superstardom under Dorsey’s influence. The coming of Sinatra was a turning point in the swing era, as the singers became perceived as the stars to the accompaniment of the big bands. Other singers in Dorsey’s orchestra included Connie Haines and Jo Stafford. The Dorsey brothers reunited briefly in 1947 to work together on the semibiographical film The Fabulous Dorseys.

The big band era largely came to an end after World War II, but Dorsey’s band was one of the few big bands that managed to survive. He and his brother reconciled in 1953, and his band became known as Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra, featuring Jimmy Dorsey. Tommy Dorsey died in Greenwich, Connecticut on November 26, 1956, and his brother died seven months later.

The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra released dozens of singles, including “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” (1935); “Marie” (1937); “Song of India” (1937); “Boogie Woogie” (1938); “Hawaiian War Chant” (1938); “Music, Maestro, Please” (1938); “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1940); “I’ll Never Smile Again” (1940); “Yes, Indeed!” (1941); “Well, Git It!” (1941); “On the Sunny Side of the Street” (1944); and “Opus No. 1” (1944). The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra’s singles include “My Melancholy Baby” (1928); “Praying the Blues” (1929); “Oodles of Noodles” (1932); “Fidgety” (1933); “Shim Sham Shimmy” (1933); “Stop, Look, and Listen” (1934); “Sandman” (1934); “Tailspin” (1935); “Dippermouth Blues” (1935); “Parade of the Milk Bottle Caps” (1936); “John Silver” (1938); “Dusk in Upper Sandusky” (1939); “My Prayer” (1939); “Contrasts” (1940); “Amapola” (1941); “Green Eyes” (1941); “Maria Elena” (1941); “Blue Champagne” (1941); “Embraceable You” (1941); “Tangerine” (1941); and “Brazil” (1942).

See also Goodman, Benny.

References and Further Reading
  • Dorsey, Tommy. 1944 The Modern Trombonist: A Complete Method for Trombone. Embassy Music New York.
  • Dicaire, David. 2003 Jazz Musicians of the Early Years, to 1945 McFarland Jefferson, NC.
  • Levinson, Peter J. 2005 Tommy Dorsey: Livin’ in a Great Big Way: A Biography. Da Capo Press Cambridge, MA.
  • Stockdale, Robert L. 1995 Tommy Dorsey: On the Side. New Brunswick: Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey; Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.
  • Crow, Bill. 2005 Jazz Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Sanford, Herb. 1972 Tommy and Jimmy: The Dorsey Years. Arlington House New Rochelle, NY.
  • McCallum, Lisa
    Copyright 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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