Few big bands were quite the extreme study in contrasts as the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra of the early 1940s. It could blast the roof off with high-energy swing and then turn around and play the lushest, most romantic sounds imaginable. And with great singers and musicians like Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich in the band, the Dorsey Orchestra created some of the finest musical entertainment of the day.
This week on SDPB Radio’s Big Band Spotlight, we’re featuring music from Tommy Dorsey’s remarkable orchestra of 1940-42. It’s a band that, in my estimation, ranks among the ten finest groups of the Swing Era.
This Dorsey outfit wasn’t just a dance orchestra, but a musical variety show. Like all the top bands of the day, Dorsey worked just as much in theaters as ballrooms, playing stage shows between movies. While the “sweet bands” of Kay Kyser, Horace Heidt and others specialized in musical entertainment designed for theater engagements, Dorsey’s was one of the few swing bands that did. Glenn Miller’s did too, but not at the same level of musical excellence.
By 1940 Tommy Dorsey had been one of the most successful bandleaders in the country for a half-decade, racking up dozens of hit records. But despite its popularity, the Dorsey band, other than the leader’s pretty trombone, wasn’t all that special. It cranked out hundreds of dull, pop tunes that all sounded more or less the same. Its jazz instrumentals were often stuck in an old-fashioned, two-beat Dixieland rut.
Dorsey knew he needed to freshen his approach if he wanted to maintain his popularity in the increasingly crowded and competitive big band field. His first move was hiring arranger Sy Oliver away from the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, one of the greatest and most admired African-American bands of the thirties. Oliver and Dorsey revamped the band’s book and within a few months almost completely overhauled the personnel. The band now had a totally new musical personality, dramatically changing from a sluggish, middle-of-the-road pop group into a thrilling, modern jazz band.
With Oliver on board, Dorsey was able to entice master drummer Buddy Rich away from Artie Shaw, just before the clarinetist ran away to Mexico. With his technical skills and extroverted personality, Rich gave the band an unrivaled power and drive.
But that was just one side of the Dorsey orchestra’s personality. There was also romantic, mood music often featuring Dorsey’s smooth, lyric trombone. To enhance the sweet side, Dorsey brought in some new singers: Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers; and that skinny kid from trumpeter Harry James’ band, Frank Sinatra.
The arrival of trumpeter Ziggy Elman was the last important addition to Tommy Dorsey’s greatest band. A spirited and effusive musician, he had been a member of Benny Goodman’s classic 1936-39 orchestra, although for most of the time he was stuck in the shadow of Harry James. After Goodman temporarily disbanded in 1940, Elman found a new home in the Dorsey band where he dominated the brass and was the featured trumpet soloist.
The sweet, romantic side of the band can be heard in such timeless records as “I’ll Never Smile Again,” “Star Dust,” and “Everything Happens to Me,” all featuring Frank Sinatra. The band’s powerful swing is represented by Sy Oliver arrangements like “So What,” “Loose Lid Special,” and “Well, Git It!” Although jazz fans loved the Oliver numbers, the vocal ballads were much more popular and sold many more records.
Big bands were such big business in the early 40s that Hollywood producers were signing them up for appearances in movie musicals and comedies. The Dorsey band’s first movie, Las Vegas Nights, came out in March of 1941 and was notable for being Frank Sinatra’s film debut. The band’s next movie was Ship Ahoy, starring tap dancer Eleanor Powell and comedian Red Skelton.
One of the big production numbers in the movie is “I’ll Take Tallulah.” (Powell’s character is named Tallulah.) Dorsey’s band does little more than provide accompaniment, but Buddy Rich gets to participate in Powell’s dance routine. Dorsey has a speaking role, but he’s stuck with hokey lines that were a Hollywood writer’s idea of how jazz musicians talked. (“Don’t tell me you’re from squaresville.”) The man walking in with the bevy of beauties is Bert Lahr.
Half-way through the shooting of the Ship Ahoy, Tommy Dorsey, Buddy Rich and Frank Sinatra attended an all-night party at actress Lana Turner’s home. According to Dorsey biographer Peter J. Levinson, the party broke up the next day when Turner’s mother showed up with the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Turner’s ex-husband, bandleader Artie Shaw broke up his band after the U.S. entered World War Two. Dorsey took the ten-piece string section Shaw had been using, added a harp, and increased his orchestra to thirty-one musicians and singers. The strings gave Sinatra the lush, sumptuous backing he always craved while adding to the moody romanticism already heard in songs like “I’ll Never Smile Again.”
But in July 1942 this greatest of all Tommy Dorsey bands made its last commercial records. Because of a dispute between the musicians union and the record industry, a ban on recording strike went into effect on the first of August. Dorsey’s label RCA Victor didn’t settle with the union until over two years later.
At the end of September, Frank Sinatra left, taking arranger Axel Stordahl with him. Meanwhile the military started taking Dorsey’s musicians. Trumpeter Ziggy Elman was drafted and entered the army air corps. Buddy Rich joined the Marine Corps.
But before the band fell apart, it starred in the M-G-M Musical DuBarry Was a Lady. In this scene, the band plays one of Sy Oliver’s jazz arrangements, “Well, Git It!” The soloists are Ziggy Elman and Jimmy Zito, trumpet; Heinie Beau, clarinet; Don Lodice, tenor sax; and Buddy Rich, drums. The pianist is Milt Raskin who is joined on camera by an unknown player. The pre-recorded track actually features Raskin and ex-Dorsey pianist Joe Bushkin.
The record ban ended in November of 1944 around the time Buddy Rich returned from the service. There were still a few more great records like Oliver’s “Opus One,” but Dorsey’s glory days as a popular bandleader were coming to an end. He reunited with brother Jimmy in the early 50s and together they had their own television program. On January 18th, 1956 they introduced a new singer form Mississippi, Elvis Presley. Ten months later, Tommy Dorsey was gone.