No musician evokes the time of the Big Band era more strikingly than Tommy Dorsey (1905 – 1956), whose towering trombone style and smash hits created legions of fans and influenced popular music for decades. Peter Levinson, the author of criticially acclaimed biographies of Harry James and Nelson Riddle, has now written the definitive account of this icon of jazz, drawing on exhaustive new research and scores of interviews with the musicians and others who knew him best.
Dorsey led a rich and complex life. After a harsh childhood in the coal mining towns of eastern Pennsylvania, the young trombonist rose to fame and fortune during the Jazz Age. With his brother Jimmy, Tommy Dorsey created one of the most popular bands of the era and played with such giants as Bing Crosby and Glenn Miller. But Dorsey’s volcanic personality eventually erupted, and he went off to start his own band. Within a few years, he launched the career of the young singer Frank Sinatra#.
In a November, 2005 interview, Paul Morris talks with Levinson about one of the brightest stars of the “Greatest Generation.”
“He would take a musical phrase and play it all the way through seemingly without breathing for eight, ten, maybe sixteen bars. How in the hell did he do it? I used to sit behind him on the bandstand and watch, trying to see him sneak a breath, but I never saw the bellows move in his back. His jacket didn’t even move. I used to edge my chair to the side a little and peek around to watch him I discovered he had a ‘sneak’ pinhole in the corner of his mouth — not an actual pinhole, but a tiny place where he was breathing [this was something Pop Dorsey had taught him]. In the middle of the phrase, while the tone was still being carried through the trombone [he’d] take a quick breath and play another four bars with that breath.
“Why couldn’t a singer do that, too? It was my idea to make my voice work in the same way as a trombone or violin — not sounding like them, but ‘playing’ the voice like those instruments.”
– Frank Sinatra
PM I want to start by thanking you for writing this book. I thought I knew big band music pretty well, but after reading Livin’ In a Great Big Way, I can see that I didn’t know Tommy Dorsey well enough.
PL Part of that is probably because, to my knowledge, my book is the first book written on Dorsey since 1973. I was surprised to discover that. I got motivated to write this book after flipping through the last Encyclopedia of Jazz and learning that Dorsey would have been one hundred years old in November of 2005.
PM In general, I have found that books on jazz have not properly shown his importance — especially his commercial importance of the 1930’s and 1940’s.
PL That’s right, and he really had that commercial appeal. While doing this book I discovered a somewhat obscure fact that he referred to his own style of playing as “Civil War Jazz.” It was in a tiny publication, but still, there he was, talking about his jazz background and his own playing. His forte, of course, was playing in that legato style trombone for ballads, and it is what really made him distinctive. He just wished he were Jack Teagarden, who he knew he never could be.
PM Gunther Schuller has said that he was one of the greatest trombonists of all time in any field.
PL That’s true, when you look just at the instrument, forgetting the jazz aspect.
PM How do you think he will be remembered as a jazz player?
PL Probably not all that favorably. The writer Dick Sudhalter is one of the few who thinks seriously of him as a jazz player. Dick is a cornet player, while I am not a musician, so he has reason for his opinion. Dick also loves that period of the 1920’s and 1930’s, so, let’s just say that as a jazz player, he thinks Dorsey is more important as a jazz musician than I do.
PM Sudhalter is especially enthusiastic about his cornet playing.
PL That’s right, and he was the one who told me about and encouraged me to listen to it, even saying that I would hear a lot of Armstrong in Dorsey’s style of cornet and trumpet playing. The cornet probably only amounted to his instrument to fool around with. He would occasionally play last sets on cornet and especially trumpet.
PM You paint a really vivid picture of him as a personality. Could you talk about the phrase, “Living in a great big way”?
PL I gave credit for choosing this title for the book in the acknowledgements. Bill Ruhlmann wrote a piece for Goldmine magazine in the early nineties called “Living in a Great Big Way” that I used as a kind of road map. The piece told of Dorsey’s career in great detail, so, not only was the piece important, but it also gave me a title. As I started to write the book, I saw the way he lived, and felt that he did indeed live in a “great big way.” And of course there is another thing, and that is that he took that title from “Marie,” where the band yells out “Living in a great big way, Mama,” followed by the Bunny Berigan trumpet solo. You could call it a double entendre that I took from a magazine article.
PM Dorsey grew up in the coal country of eastern Pennsylvania. What was the musical culture of the immigrants of that part of the country?
PL There were many Welshmen from England — who tended to be the coal mine owners — and they possessed a great hatred of the Irish. I am not certain about the musicology of that culture, but I assume they would play Celtic folk songs and that kind of thing.
Tommy’s father “Pop” Dorsey was very important because he had been a coal miner and was willing to do anything to keep his boys out of the mines. He was making about ten dollars a week as a miner, and saw that it was dead-end work that could lead to serious injury or death. He felt that if could instill the importance of music in his three sons and a daughter, and provide them with a training in music, it would enable the boys to get into a career other than coal miner.
As far as describing the music in the town, I can’t do that other than to say that dancing was very important to the Welshmen, Irish, Poles and Italians who were living there. While I was there I saw the remnants of a gigantic ballroom that was destroyed by fire in the 1950’s, as well as the Lakeside Ballroom, which has been restored and looks exactly like it did during Dorsey’s era. They now have polka dancing there a couple times a week. These ballrooms are a little more than a half-mile away from each other, and during the big band era, one had bands on Thursday evenings, and the other on Saturday evenings. They were able to draw name bands to both places. The larger one hosted the bigger name bands, while the Lakeside would host the more square “Mickey Mouse” bands. It is a quite remarkable statement about how much dancing meant to that area that they could, for decades, have two dance halls host large music events on a twice-a-week basis.
PM So, by the time Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey became pros in their teenage years, they had a lot of venues in which to play.
PL That’s right. Tommy came along during a time in the early 1920’s when jazz was becoming very important — it was a time when so many players from Chicago moved to New York due to attempts to rid the city of Al Capone. The cleanup was not entirely successful, but many of the musicians who had all this work in Chicago came to New York.
After the Wild Canaries, the first band Tommy and Jimmy co-led, they joined the Scranton Sirens, which brought them to New York. Later, after Stints with Jean Goldette and Paul Whitman, they joined the California Ramblers that played in Westchester County. Many of the great young Chicago players who came to New York had a big influence on them, so that their jazz credentials — I hesitate to even use that expression — were honed by rubbing shoulders and playing sessions with them during the early 1920’s.
PM Duirng this time they met the likes of Joe Venuti, Bix Beiderbecke, Eddie Lang
PL Yes, and they met Louis Armstrong in Chicago as well — after he returned to Chicago once he left Fletcher Henderson’s band. Tommy and Louis had a close friendship all their lives. At Tommy’s funeral, there were many large wreaths of flowers, and the second largest in size only to Jackie Gleason’s was the one sent by Louis Armstrong.
PM By 1928, you write that he had worked in New York extensively, and that he had recorded as a sideman on over two thousand records. He was quite a hard-working player.
PL Some of the bands he played with like Ben Selvin and Howard Lanin are not important bands now, but so many great musicians played with them, and they were important dance bands in that territory at the time.
PM Some of the more significant people that he worked with were Jack Teagarden and the Boswell Sisters.
PL Yes, very definitely. Listen to a Boswell Sisters record and you can hear exactly where the Andrews Sisters came from.
PM Of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra — which started recording in 1928 — you write, “By 1935 they were the leading band in the country.”
PL Yes, but they were really on the cusp of making it, and given that they were from the East where the media is centered, that band could have been the first to really break through on a national basis. But, of course, it was Goodman who did. It is kind of ironic that Goodman started it happening on the other coast, about three months later.
PM Nonetheless, Dorsey was tremendously successful, and was a millionaire by 1935.
PL As you pointed out earlier, he was on two thousand sessions and was a very hard worker. He had plenty of work and took care of his family quite well. The Depression meant nothing to those brothers because they were in such great demand. Tommy and the brass section — including Charlie Margulis and Manny Klein — played with everybody, and they could play any kind of music, which all came from the discipline and the drive Pop Dorsey instilled in them. He was single-handedly responsible for their careers, and they knew it.
PM What qualities of leadership did he possess that helped his son’s success?
PL Perfectionism, drive, discipline, and a very strong, powerful personality. As Bill Finegan and several others said to me, when Tommy Dorsey walked into a room, there was electricity. I certainly saw that with Sinatra many times.
PM It was said that Dorsey had “star presence.”
PL Yes, I really believe that he did. He was very interested in creating an image, and the clothes he wore were an essential part of it. He was very slim and had tailor-made clothes to accentuate his thinness, which, along with the elevator shoes he wore, made him appear taller than he really was. The way he stood was also extremely important. But that was all part of an impression, and the clothes were also a way of saying, “I am successful. I am a rich man. I can wear the best clothes.” His motivation was to make a lot of money, which was derived from the poverty he grew up with.
PM There are some fascinating anecdotes in the book that illustrate his complex personality. He could be both cruel and generous to musicians who worked for him.
PL One of the main aspects of my book something no other biographer of Dorsey or Sinatra ever got — which I have trouble understanding — is that Frank Sinatra’s entire personality was that of Tommy Dorsey’s. That is a really important part of this story. Buddy DeFranco said the entire personalities of Buddy Rich and Frank Sinatra, in fact, came directly from Dorsey. Buddy Childers, who played with Dorsey and later with Sinatra in his last years, said that Rich tried hard to be Dorsey and was unsuccessful at it, but Sinatra came pretty close. I think that says something. Everybody felt that the breathing and the long phrases were Dorsey’s greatest contributions to Sinatra, but it goes a long way past that.
PM In an explanation for one of his moods, you write that Sinatra was overheard saying, “This is how Tommy would do it.”
PL Yes, that’s right, he said that toward the end of his life, and that quote was provided to me by Vince Falcone, whose book on Sinatra is just out. Falcone told me that Sinatra once said to him that the two most important people in his life had been his mother and Tommy Dorsey, which pretty much says it all.
PM I was fascinated to read about how the musicians who worked for him felt about Dorsey. They would talk about a lousy feeling that existed in the band, and that they didn’t like Dorsey, but in the next paragraph you quote someone saying that he “ran the band in a good way. ”
PL Artie Shaw said, “Tommy Dorsey demanded discipline, and he got it.” He wanted things to be done his way, and he got what he wanted. Musicians did it “his way,” or they were gone. One of his expressions was, “Nobody leaves this band. I only fire people.” When the Canadian trumpeter John Frost left to play with Benny Goodman, Dorsey threw a chair against the wall and told him that he was going to get his green card removed.
DeFranco said, “If you could put up with him, and he could put up with you, you could learn a lot from him.” You make an interesting comparison of Goodman and Dorsey, writing that, “Goodman fundamentally wanted his music to swing, while Dorsey was interested in his band being danceable.”
PL I think that is very true because Benny was a jazz musician, whereas Tommy was not — his interest was in building a band that could take advantage of the dance craze sweeping the country. He felt that if his band was successful in getting people to dance, he would make a lot of money. Now, Benny made a lot of money as well, but he did so by concentrating on jazz, which is why he hired people like Jimmy Mundy and Fletcher Henderson, who gave him the jazz feel. While Dorsey had two gigantic hits with “Song of India” and “Marie, ” by the late 1930’s, Dorsey felt that his band was getting stale — they were basically just covering other people’s hits. Meanwhile, the country was swing crazy, and swing meant jazz. Realizing he had to go in that direction, he hired Sy Oliver, whose hiring really had nothing to do with a racial breakthrough, but had everything to do with Dorsey feeling Oliver could make his band relevant.
PM He had a great band during the Sy Oliver times, and I found in listening to the records from the early forties, especially, that the variety of interesting arrangements he recorded made for music that has a lot of jazz interest.
PL Yes, and remember, it was not only Sy Oliver, he also hired arrangers like Paul Weston, Dean Kincaide, and Bill Finegan, whose writing was quite important after the war. While Sy wrote most of the good arrangements, these other arrangers were able to provide him various settings. No matter who the arranger was, the music was aimed at creating a danceable identity for the band.
PM The majority of the records had vocals, but I think the instrumentals are the ones that stand the test of time.
PL Regarding that, Artie Shaw told me that he didn’t understand why he relied on singers so much, as if to say that he made jazz instrumental hits, but Tommy had to use vocalists.
“Beyond his musical influence, working with Dorsey intensified personal traits that Sinatra had in common with his mentor. Among them were his impatience, his insistence on exerting a firm control over every situation; his demands to achieve and maintain perfection; his largesse in helping his friends and those under extreme distress; his habit of often treating longtime employees with disdain, while constantly testing both their efficiency and their loyalty; his enjoyment of playing the dedicated host; his spendthrift ways – which didn’t always carry over to the paychecks of his underlings; his natural charm (which could be followed by abrupt mood swings); his constant search to associate himself with upper class people while in the long run finding that he was more comfortable with his own peers; the vengeance aimed at his enemies; and a complete inability to apologize for his actions even when confronted by the fact that he was wrong. The ‘My Way’ aspect of Frank Sinatra’s character absolutely emanated from Tommy Dorsey. Why, he even walked like Dorsey!”
– Peter Levinson
PM The stories of his years with Sinatra have been told many times. You provide some interesting details about the rivalry between Sinatra and Buddy Rich.
PL Think about it; how could Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich live together? They couldn’t. They were all the same person! The other thing my book has that others don’t regarding Sinatra and Dorsey is that I printed a copy of their contract, which nobody has ever seen before. Early on in my relationship with Tommy Dorsey III, he told me that he had something I would probably be interested in. When I found out it was the contract, I knew I had to include it in the book.
PM In exchange for a $17,000 loan and releasing him from his Dorsey contract, Sinatra agreed to pay Dorsey one-third of his future gross earnings.
PL That’s right, although the contract never would have stood up in a court of law. Dorsey actually received several firm and threatening phone calls from Mafia figures, telling him to, in effect, tear up the contract, but he wouldn’t because he knew he had a contract with the most important musical figure — a musician who was on the verge of changing everything in popular music. He eventually wound up making $43,000 dollars on the $17,000 he lent Sinatra, which was, again, an example of him being a very tough and resourceful businessman.
PM In the early 1940’s, you point out that he had two thousand fan clubs around the country, and was neck and neck with Glenn Miller as favorite college band.
PL There is a great recording demonstrating his appeal. It is a live WNYC radio recording of Leopold Stokowski conducting the New York City Symphony’s performance of the Nat Shilkret Concerto for Trombone, and, during the performance’s first movement, Dorsey walked on stage unannounced, causing the place to go into bedlam. All these kids start screaming. Then, after playing the second movement, the noise got so loud that Stokowski told them if they didn’t shut up he wouldn’t even play the third. While that is hard to believe, that is really the way it was because he was such a fan favorite.
PM You write that he was not widely loved: “The repercussions of his way of doing things caused him to make many enemies. That didn’t faze Tommy Dorsey in the least. He was now a big success; that’s all that really mattered to him.”
PL He had tremendous ego, coupled with tremendous drive, and his attitude was that as long as he was succeeding on the level he did, he would do things the way he wanted to, and to hell with anybody else. That was the way it was going to be with him.
PM He remained popular into the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, though he had to tour more to maintain his income.
PL Yes, during which time he featured vocalists even more. Bill Finegan was coming along, as well as Charlie Shavers, who was very important. Dorsey withstood bebop changing the music and the bandstands going down through sheer determination and resourcefulness. By the early 1950’s, he certainly wasn’t as popular as he was in the 1940’s, but he still did well enough. At that time, his brother Jimmy was down and out. As several people have said, Tommy was the leader and Jimmy was essentially a good sideman, and that is the role Tommy put him into. Tommy took him in because their mother demanded it. While they were considered to be co-leaders, Tommy got all the profits.
PM Your book has a great deal of information about the early days of television, when the Dorsey Brothers had a show called Stage Show.
PL That show was tremendously important because it featured major variety performers and introduced so many great people, among them Elvis Presley, Della Reese, Bobby Darin, and Connie Francis.
PM This show started out with Jackie Gleason as host?
PL Yes. Years before, the brothers used to hire Gleason quite a bit for stage shows, where a comic may have been needed to perform for fifteen or twenty minutes. Gleason didn’t cost them very much. They would drink together during that time and became good friends. Gleason ultimately paid them back after he got into a position of power himself, hiring them as guests and summer replacements for his variety show.
In January, 1956, Elvis Presley was a guest on Stage Show. Watching it today, I have to say that it was an earth-shattering thing. The old and the new were right there to be seen. Big bands were finished, and rock and roll took over, right there on Stage Show.
PM This was Presley’s first appearance on TV?
PL Yes. Most people would say Ed Sullivan, which is ridiculous. People tend to forget history quite easily these days.
PM Sony/BMG has just brought out a three-disc set of Tommy Dorsey. Did you have any involvement in putting it together?
PL I encouraged that to be done. I talked to Jeff Jones of Sony/BMG about a year and a half ago, and I had hopes that he would come through with a Dorsey package, which he did, and the bonus was that there is a two-disc Sinatra package out as well.
PM I noticed that the last track on that set is of Elvis doing “Heartbreak Hotel,” backed by the Dorsey band and from the TV show.
PL While I am not suggesting I am the one responsible for that, I did tell Michael Brooks, the producer, that I thought “Heartbreak Hotel” was the perfect closer because it was the clear symbol of how the music had changed.
PM But you didn’t have involvement as a producer?
PL No. I have known Michael and I suggested that idea to him, and he liked it. He may have missed a few hits on the second record, but that is not very important. Dorsey only had one-hundred-eighty-six hits, so, since he could only include twenty-five or so in the package, how could he possibly include every one? But from an historic point of view, the first disc is especially important because he found all those obscure recordings that we discussed earlier, where the beginnings of Tommy’s trombone style is featured, as well as some great playing on trumpet and cornet.
PM It is good that you were able to get some excellent recollections from some of the key people in Dorsey’s life — people like Jo Stafford, Buddy DeFranco and Bob Bain.
PL This is my third book, and I have learned to interview the older people as quickly as you can, because I missed a few in the past. You can see from the list of people interviewed that many of them are now referred to as “the late.” I was fortunate to be able to get to some of them only days or weeks or months before they died. Kay Weber, for example, was tremendously important, and she just died a few months ago at age ninety-six.
PM One last question. If you could choose one of Dorsey’s performances to go back and see, which would it have been?
PL I was quite fortunate to have been able to see Tommy, and it happened to be on an historic date, April of 1953, which was when the brothers began their reunion. But, there is a pretty easy answer to your question: it would be the opening of the Palladium in Hollywood on Halloween night in 1940, which was only ten months or so after Sinatra joined the band. The band had really taken hold that winter and spring and, here it was, coming to California when it had really developed as a huge attraction.
“…one thing about him, you knew what he was getting mad at — it was always for a good reason, and it was very obvious. Dorsey would sometimes turn crimson, foam at the corners of his mouth, and then suddenly cool off and laugh at himself. He wanted you to come onstage dressed right. You couldn’t wear a tuxedo and white socks; otherwise back in the dressing room and get straight. And he wanted you to play your best every night.”
– Louis Bellson
Peter J. Levinson is the author of Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James and September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle. He has worked for four decades in the entertainment business as a publicist, freelance writer, booking agent, and personal manager. He lives in Malibu, California.
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This interview took place on November 5, 2005
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Peter Levinson on the life of Nelson Riddle
# Text from publisher.
photos used by permission of author and publisher