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.