- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 26, 2005

TOMMY DORSEY: LIVIN’ IN A GREAT BIG WAY: A BIOGRAPHY

By Peter J. Levinson

Da Capo, $27.50, 352 pages

REVIEWED BY WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD



It’s my regret that, although I lived in a town that had a ballroom (a “pavilion” it was called) where the great dance bands of the 1940s appeared, I never caught Tommy Dorsey. Indeed by the time (1948) I was old enough to hear in person such bands as Gene Krupa’s and Claude Thornhill’s, the swing era was over and big bands were in trouble, disbanding and recombining but always tenuously so. As Peter Levinson points out in this excellent biography of Dorsey, the late 1940s was an era in which increasingly corny “novelty” efforts were outselling the more standard ballads and swing numbers made memorable by Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and perhaps most notably — the Dorsey band.

Still, I owned a few of his records, most notably hits from the late 1930s like “Song of India” and “Marie.” And although by 1948 the singers who became famous through their association with his orchestra — Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford — were working on their own, they left behind a treasury of music that, with the advent of long-playing records was inexpensively available.

From every page of Mr. Levinson’s biography it’s evident that the hackneyed phrase “labor of love” seems unavoidable in characterizing it. He hasinterviewed scores of interested parties, surviving relatives, musicians who knew or had worked with Dorsey. There’s unanimity of opinion about a fact one had already gleaned from publicized altercations involving the “Sentimental Gentleman” (as he was so misleadingly hyped), namely that Dorsey had a hair-trigger temper. Max Kaminsky, who played trumpet in the band for a period, remarked that working for him “was like cooking on a hot stove that might explode at any moment — and always did.”

Yet, Kaminsky added, mad as you got at him it was hard to stay that way because “he got over it so quickly, with no trace of animosity.” Dorsey’s most vigorous set-tos within the band were with his equally explosive drummer, the brilliant Buddy Rich — although “arguments” with his brother Jimmy and his most famous employee, Sinatra, were also right up there. Among a number of colorful and eagerly-reported newspaper accounts of dustups involving fists and other instruments, Dorsey’s most famous brawl involved his second wife, Pat Dane, and a now-forgotten B-movie idol Jon Hall. Reading about it then and now is unedifying yet irresistible.

The most memorable part of Dorsey’s story may well be his days of growing up in the anthracite country of eastern Pennsylvania. He was born in Shenandoah, near Pottsville (the scene of John O’Hara’s fiction), the second child of four, his brother Jimmy a year older. Dorsey senior worked in the coal mines but was also a trained musician, coaching various bands and especially his sons whom he determined to rescue from a life in those mines. Accordingly he presided over their musical education — Tommy learned to play four different instruments — and sensibly forbade them to risk breaking limbs and teeth in playing football. Tommy dropped out of school for good in seventh grade and later, with his brother, formed a group called Dorsey’s Wild Canaries; then the brothers joined up with a nine-member popular band, The Scranton Sirens, which toured southern New York and New Jersey.

Next came the big step, when he and Jimmy joined the great Jean Goldkette band, remembered most for featuring the cornet of Bix Beiderbecke. At age 19, in 1924, Dorsey had made it in the music world. After a further stint with Paul Whiteman, who took over much of Goldkette’s personnel, it was inevitable the Dorseys would form their own band, signing with Okeh records in 1928, for whom they produced 200 items while traveling arduously about the country in a bus that Tommy would sometimes drive himself.

In 1935, feuding between the brothers led to a breakup of the band, with Tommy establishing his own group, a dance but also a swing band (you know what “swing” is when you hear it) whose first hit, “Take Me Back to my Boots and Saddles” was sung by your reviewer when a tiny lad. Even bigger hits followed over the next six years until, in 1942, James Caesar Perilla, in a union dispute imposed his infamous recording ban soon after the country went to war.

By February 1940 Frank Sinatra had signed on and recorded the first two of the 83 tunes he would make in a three-year period: “The Sky Fell Down” and “Too Romantic” were both arranged by Axel Stordahl and each, even at this early point in Sinatra’s career, revealing his absolutely distinctive way with a song. The band was at its peak, as Mr. Levinson rightly notes, in the early ‘40s, with Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers (on her own she recorded such matchless ballads as “Who Can I Turn To” and “For You”); with the original swing arrangements of Sy Oliver complementing Stordahl’s; with Joe Bushkin on piano, Rich on drums and with the precision-tooled saxes and trumpet sections. Most of these elements can be heard on a now completely forgotten (and probably not very successful at the time) number titled “Snooty Little Cutie,” full of “hep” slang in which Sinatra, Stafford and another female singer, Connie Haines, have their innings while the band, when given the chance, swings away nicely.

And then there was the leader himself with his 60 suits and sport jackets (many of them tailor-made) supplemented by 40 pairs each of socks and shoes. Even the neckties matched, proving how far from anthracite country Dorsey had moved. The Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, Cedar Grove New Jersey, on the Pompton Turnpike, Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook — just saying the names of once renowned nightclubs where the bands played can give someone over a certain age a thrill. But the postwar years were mainly struggle for Dorsey and the others big bands. Bebop had reared its head (Dorsey thought Dizzy Gillespie’s brand of it sounded like “Chinese Music”) and the dancers had departed.

Although the rising star Jackie Gleason became friends with Dorsey (both were powerful drinkers) and featured the band in slots on his show, and although Tommy reconciled with his brother to make the Dorsey brothers an orchestra once again, the hits stopped coming. Dorsey’s third and final marriage was in trouble (Mr. Levinson calls him a “serial philanderer”) even as it produced two children. In 1956 at age 51, depressed and heavily sedated he went to sleep, vomited and asphyxiated himself. His musical achievement remains, and may be sampled most conveniently on a just-released Sony Centennial album of three CDs. In the words of one of Frank Sinatra’s last (and best) recordings with the Dorsey band, “There Are Such Things.”

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College, and is the author most recently of “Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews.”

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