That “Sentimental Gentleman” of Swing

Trombonist and band leader Tommy Dorsey (or simply “TD” as many of his friends called him) was arguably one of the most important musical ‘influencers’ of the Big Band Era. Known to many as the “Sentimental Gentleman of Swing”, he gave a start to many fine vocalists including Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes and the Pied Pipers. Several musical greats such as Glenn Miller, Bunny Berrigan and Gene Krupa all worked for him. And some of the best arrangers (Alex Stordahl, Sy Oliver and Nelson Riddle) all got their big breaks in the music business working under Tommy.

Tommy Dorsey (whose father was a music teacher and band director) was born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania just two years after his older brother, saxophonist and band leader Jimmy Dorsey. Introduced to music by his father, Tommy played both trumpet and trombone in his early years. He got his start professionally while a teenager, playing in local bands along with brother Jimmy. The Dorsey Brothers made their earliest records while working for bandleader Jean Goldkette when a March 1924 session produced four sides recorded for RCA Victor. Enjoying early success, Tommy and his older brother Jimmy moved to New York and found work as session musicians. The brothers together made their first records as ‘The Dorsey Brothers’ for the Okeh label in 1927. By 1934 they had organized a full time band and signed a recording contract with Decca Records.

Aside from work as studio musicians, they enjoyed early success as soloists with recordings such as ‘Coquette’ in 1928, and ‘Let’s Fall in Love’ (with Bing Crosby on the vocal) in 1929. By the mid-1930’s they operated one of the most popular (and commercially successful) bands in the country. But while audiences across the nation showed a lot of affection for the Dorsey team, feelings of affection were not necessarily shared between the two brothers. Fights between Tommy and Jimmy were legendary both on and off the bandstand, and there was reportedly constant arguing between two on everything from music tempos to where the band should eat. By May of 1935, things came to a loggerhead. As Tommy gave the countdown for a song, his brother Jimmy yelled out from the saxophone section “little fast, don’t ya think, Mack?.” That was the last straw. Tommy walked off the bandstand mid-performance and out of the “Dorsey Brothers Orchestra” for good.

At this juncture, Jimmy continued to lead the band (now renamed “The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra”), and Tommy assembled his own organization out of what remained of the recently disbanded Joe Haymes band, changing the name to “The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra”. Recording for RCA Victor records under his own name for the first time, Tommy enjoyed several hits that first “solo” year, and had four hits in the top ten national music charts, including his first number one hit record “The Music Goes Round and Round” (featuring vocalist Edythe Wright). By 1937, the new “Tommy Dorsey Orchestra” had amassed 18 top ten hits including several number one chart toppers including “Satan Takes a Holiday”, and “The Dipsy Doodle” (again with Edythe Wright) and one of Tommy’s biggest all-time hits, “Marie”, with  Jack Leonard on vocal and the incredible Bunny Berigan trumpet passage. Tommy’s theme song “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” remains an audience favorite to this day.

Tommy’s band featured not only big talent, but big egos as well. Infamous among musicians were reports of strong rivalries between performers like Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich.  It is said that if Rich thought Sinatra was singing a ballad too slow, he would sit on the bandstand, arms folded, refusing to play drums. Most notably, there are reports that when Sinatra, whose fame by this time was meteoric, wanted out of his contract, Tommy refused. Frank had joined the band after leaving Harry James, and Dorsey “owned” fifty percent of all of Frank’s earnings. Allegedly one night, Tommy received a visit in his hotel room by several ‘questionable characters’, and shortly thereafter Tommy released Sinatra. The story, whether true or not, is immortalized in Francis Coppola’s “Godfather” movie. The Character of Johnny Fontane (played by Al Martino) is loosely based on the story.

As the brothers continued to enjoy success independent of each other, finally shortly after the war, the Dorsey Brothers began to patch up their differences and performed and recorded together occasionally. By 1953 Jimmy joined up with Tommy permanently, billing the band once again as “The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.” Television specials followed and their program called “Stage Show” ran once a week during the 1955-1956 season. Elvis Presley appeared on the show for six consecutive weeks starting in January 1956, his first nationally broadcast appearances.

Tommy Dorsey accidentally choked to death in his sleep on November 26th, 1956 at the age of 51. His brother Jimmy led his band briefly afterward, and subsequently died in 1957.