The Tommy Dorsey Musical Legacy
Singer, Barnett, Contemporary Review
WHAT does an historian of France do for a break in his endless summer of history--of books and data? Music is always a nice shift of gears, and an advertised Tommy Dorsey band concert seemed like a good idea; however, this historian has demonstrated repeatedly that character trait which, throughout history, has led to so many disasters: underestimation. In this case, it turned out again that I had grossly underestimated, but at least it was no disaster. The Dorsey concert became one of those wonderful summer surprises, far exceeding expectations, and truly poignant for someone turned on to swing as a high school clarinet player in his early teens (circa 1958). We enjoyed ourselves immensely.
History has also shown much Hegelian synthesis, synergism, and all of that, and so it was with this concert. The current band mostly played arrangements of the late Tommy Dorsey--but with new players, and in the expert hands of one Buddy Morrow.
I shall tell you more about Morrow, leader of today's Dorsey aggregation; but first, something about TD himself. Those of you who have seen his bespectacled face on record albums, caught him in old movies, heard his gentle theme song, I'm Getting Sentimental Over You; or a number of his other classics, such as I'll Never Smile Again, featuring the young Sinatra of 1940, or Once in a While, will probably think of Dorsey as an avuncular, sentimental trombonist and bandleader of the Swing Era. I know I always did, through to a couple of years ago.
Then Peter Levinson's masterly biography of the man came out (Tommy Dorsey: Livin' in a Great Big Way, Da Capo Press, 2005), and Dorsey sentimental? Dulcet? Sure, there was some of that Irish stuff beneath the surface, and it definitely came out in the music; but the man was in the main, a terrifying, unpredictable, explosive powerhouse!
From the Pennsylvania coal mining country, Tommy had grown up with a no-nonsense father who locked him up to play music on several instruments, to play it and play it again; and from this dad with a ready hand who demanded constant effort to elude the mines, the older Dorsey boy grew up strong! So strong that he wasn't afraid of taking on the Mob when they were busy extricating Sinatra from his band contract in the early 1940s. So strong that he scared distinguished sidemen like Buddy DeFranco, Ziggy Elman, Bud Freeman, and even one for whom he always had a soft spot, the drummer Buddy Rich, himself a volatile personality. Numbers of these players quit on Dorsey once, twice, three times. Dorsey could himself fire and re-hire in the same evening. If they did manage to get away from him, Tommy was not above besmirching their name in the music world, so they would have to come crawling back. No-one was supposed to quit on Tommy Dorsey! No-fault divorce simply wasn't his dish; instead, he was almost a throwback to the age of medieval feudalism.
This feudal lord of the Swing Era would drive his men and girl singers mercilessly on gigs after long, gruelling bus trips sometimes of 600 miles or more, where on occasion, Dorsey himself drove the entire day; and where his old buses needed at certain times, to be pushed up hills. He then had his men play till all hours, with breaks minuscule, and with an almost gleeful penchant for making their lips bleed and mouths thirst. In swift bursts of temper, he would butt sidemen with his trombone slide when they didn't follow orders; but like any good general, he himself went through all the rigours of the Swing life, too.
He was somewhat softer with female vocalists he featured, like the classy, coloratura soprano, Jo Stafford, who later ruled the early 1950s as a crooner on her own (remember 'Fly the ocean in a silver plane/See the jungle when it's wet with rain ... You belong to me'?). Dorsey would also fight for minorities' rights to stay in the same hotel or eat at the same spots as the rest of the band, and once he unsheathed ready fists, he invariably got his way with people across the desk or lunch counter. …