The eldest of the famous Dorsey brothers, Jimmy Dorsey reluctantly became a bandleader in 1935 after younger brother Tommy walked out on their shared orchestra. Though Jimmy’s band never reached the same heights as did his brother’s, it far surpassed it in terms of stability and camaraderie. Jimmy’s easy-going demeanor was what made his band successful over the long term, but it also kept it from ever reaching the level of greatness achieved by others. He didn’t have the drive or demeanor to push his musicians harder.
Throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s, the Dorsey brothers worked with many of the top names in the business. They first recorded with their own studio orchestra in 1928, and in the early 1930s they backed such popular acts as Mildred Bailey, the Boswell Sisters, and Bing Crosby. In 1934, with help from Glenn Miller, they formed an eleven-piece touring orchestra, whose members included several future bandleaders. Miller played trombone and wrote many of the band’s early arrangements, bringing with him drummer Ray McKinley and other musicians from the recently disbanded Smith Ballew orchestra. Bunny Berigan initially played trumpet but left shortly after the orchestra’s formation, replaced by Charlie Spivak.
With a swinging sound, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra surprised jazz fans and quickly gained a solid reputation. Kay Weber, another Ballew refugee, served as the group’s female vocalist. The band’s first male vocalist, not named in sources, quickly proved a poor fit, and the Dorsey’s agency sent over a young, inexperienced Bob Crosby, Bing’s younger brother. Tommy resented being told by the agency who he could hire and often went out of his way to make Crosby’s time with the band miserable. In early 1935, Crosby received an offer to front a cooperative unit of ex-Ben Pollack musicians and accepted, beginning his own career as a bandleader. Tommy then hired singer Bob Eberly, whom the Dorsey brothers had recently heard on a one-nighter.
Though the band seemed to be doing well, beneath the surface tensions brewed. Jimmy and Tommy were polar opposites. Jimmy was easygoing and well-liked by everyone, while Tommy was highly-driven and explosive. Band members often kept Tommy at arm’s length, and he disliked Jimmy’s ease at making friends. Jimmy only made matters worse by needling Tommy at every opportunity. Tommy led the band and worked hard to keep it going, while Jimmy was content to sit in the sax section and just be one of the musicians. Jimmy also liked to drink, which Tommy didn’t allowed himself to do. The tension finally came to a head one night in June 1935 when, during a performance at the Glen Island Casino in New York, Jimmy criticized the speed of a tempo that Tommy counted off, and Tommy walked off the bandstand.
Early Band Years
Tommy refused to rejoin the orchestra, leaving the usually shy and reserved Jimmy to step up and take over. The band carried on with its summer engagement at the Glen Island Casino, with Jack Jenney and Jerry Colonna sitting in for Tommy in the trombone section until Jimmy eventually hired Bobby Byrne, then only sixteen years old, to replace his brother. When the engagement ended, the band headed to Hollywood, where they began an eighteen-month run on Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall radio series. While there, they rarely played live, focusing mostly on the program and recordings. At first, the orchestra could never decide what style of music it wanted to play, moving between swing, sweet, and two-beat jazz, even attempting an opera song at one point.
Both Eberly and Weber remained as vocalists. Having just been hired for the orchestra three weeks prior to Tommy’s walkout, Eberly feared losing his job, but both brothers offered him a position. He chose Jimmy, as Tommy wouldn’t be able to pay him for several weeks until his new band was ready to perform. Though he had admired Tommy and had been one of his few friends in the orchestra, he and Jimmy eventually became best friends, and he remained with the elder Dorsey’s band for eight years. McKinley, who stayed with the band until leaving to co-lead his own orchestra in 1939, sang specialty numbers. In 1938, the band also featured three of its musicians singing on hot numbers as the Dorsey Trio.
Weber, meanwhile, began to feel less and less useful. She didn’t appear on the Kraft Music Hall program, and as the orchestra rarely played live she had little to do. She also wanted to become an actress and decided to return to New York in mid-1936, where she ended up in Bob Crosby’s band. To replace Weber, Dorsey briefly turned to Vicki Joyce, later known as Evelyn Joyce, a New York club singer who was “vacationing” in Hollywood, before hiring Martha Tilton, then a relatively unknown West Coast singer. Tilton remained with the orchestra until mid-1937, though she never entered the studio.
After Tilton’s departure, Dorsey made history when he hired African-American singer June Richmond, the first African-American vocalist to publicly work for a white orchestra. Richmond caught the attention of Jimmy and Bing Crosby, and after hearing her perform one night in mid-1937 they invited her to their table and offered her a job. Proving popular with both critics and the public, she was as equally known for her weight as her incredible blues vocals and effervescent stage presence. Tipping the scales at 220 pounds, a hundred pounds more than the average weight of a woman in the 1940s, the press often used words like “hefty” or “portly” to describe her. She used her weight to her own advantage, though, making it part of her act.
Unfortunately, as happened to every black singer who worked with white bands in that era, prejudice reared its ugly head. While singing with the orchestra at the Hotel New Yorker one night in early June 1938, she experienced what journalists at the time called an “unpleasantness” in relation to the hotel. Soon after, Dorsey’s organization announced that Richmond was no longer with the band, sparking a flurry of rumors and speculation that the hotel incident had caused her to leave. Others denied that the incident had anything to do with her departure, citing the fact that Richmond was seen dining at a ringside table in the hotel the first night after the Dorsey band had left. Richmond herself, at the time, stated that she hadn’t left Dorsey but was only taking a vacation while the orchestra toured in the South. She indicated that she was to rejoin the band in two weeks for a Pittsburgh engagement. She remained with them through at least July but left soon after, ending up in Cab Calloway’s orchestra. Richmond was replaced by Lee Leighton.
1938 to 1943
Dorsey’s popularity began to rise after the band began touring the nation in late 1937. By then it had settled into a swing groove and had become more consistent. As the 1930s approached its end, Jimmy led a solid outfit that had finally cemented its place in the swing pantheon.
In 1938, the orchestra backed the Andrews Sisters on several recordings. Leighton left as female vocalist in December 1938, replaced by Texan Ella Mae Morse. Two popular stories exist about Morse’s short stay with Dorsey. One is that she called for an audition when the band was booked at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. Needing a female singer, Dorsey listened, liked her and hired her. She claimed to be 19 but was really 13, and when Dorsey later received a notice from the school board informing him that he was responsible for her, he fired her.
The second story, related by former bandmembers, tells that Dorsey discovered a 15-year-old Ella Mae at a Houston jam session. Having borrowed carfare to get to the event, she walked out with a Dorsey contract. She was inexperienced, however, and undisciplined, causing Dorsey to fire her after only a month.
The real story of Morse’s short stay in Dorsey’s band, as related in trade magazines of the time, lies somewhere in-between. Morse, most likely 17, a complete unknown even in Dallas, joined Jimmy’s band at the Adolphus Hotel, winning the position over two other better-known vocalists. She then returned to New York with the band. Eberly recalls that on one radio program she forgot the lyrics to a song and began to ad lib and on another song she used an alternate set of risqué lyrics that was banned by the network. She was out of the band by mid-February 1939.
To replace Morse, Jimmy hired Helen O’Connell, who he had heard singing with Larry Funk’s orchestra. O’Connell joined the band on February 20, 1939. Though she had limited vocal range, she became popular with the public, scoring several big hits with Dorsey. Most famous are her duets with Eberly. She was voted best female vocalist in a 1940 Metronome poll and won Billboard magazine’s 1942 college poll for best female band vocalist, having placed second in 1941 and fourth in 1940. Eberly himself was one of the most popular male vocalists of his era, regularly placing among the top three in polls, often just below his brother, Ray Eberle, who sang for Miller. O’Connell became Dorsey’s longest-serving female singer, staying until February 1943 when she left to start a solo career. Kitty Kallen replaced her and continued the tradition of dueting with Eberly.
Dorsey’s vocal department took a big hit in late 1943 when he lost both Eberle and Kallen. The draft caught up with Eberle in November and Kallen left the band in December. To replace Eberly, Dorsey chose Paul Carley, who had been an extra on the 20th Century Fox lot. Dorsey had already auditioned a “couple of dozen” prospects when Carley asked for a chance. He opened with the band on November 25 in Omaha and remained with them until spring 1944. Gladys Tell replaced Kallen.
In June 1944, Jimmy hired Teddy Walters as both a vocalist and later a guitarist. Walters briefly set the world on fire in late 1943 while filling in as a singer for Tommy’s band. Sounding almost exactly like Frank Sinatra, critics raved about him, and women swooned. Tommy had tried to sign Walters to a five-year contract, but Walters didn’t like the terms and had left the band so that Tommy would stop hounding him. With Jimmy, Walters again caused a sensation. Audiences couldn’t get enough of his voice, demanding encore after encore. Critics also loved him. One heralded him as the most important male band vocalist of the last three years, though many noted his stiffness at the mike. Not trained as a professional singer, Walters’ delivery and general appearance were often rough.
Anita Boyer came out of retirement to replace Tell as female vocalist in mid-1944, joining her husband, sax player Bob Dukoff, in the band. Both Boyer and Dukoff left in November, with Patti Palmer, who had just recently become the wife of Jerry Lewis, a then unknown comedian, taking Boyer’s place. A pregnant Palmer exited the band in March 1945, with Dorsey bringing in Memphis-native Jean Cromwell to replace her. At the same time, Dorsey also hired Nita Rosa to sing Spanish numbers. Rosa left in May, and Cromwell is no longer mentioned in the press beyond that same month. Her departure date is unknown.
In late summer 1945, struggling financially, as were many bands at the time, from the effects of high musician salaries and decreasing revenue, Dorsey underwent a major reorganization with, as Down Beat put it, “sidemen falling out like autumn leaves.” Those that remained saw their pay cut. Gloria Stark was female vocalist in early October. The position was likely open soon after when songwriter Inez James sang with the band on a recording of her tune, “Come to Baby Do.” Dorsey finally found a capable and stable girl singer in Dee Parker, who joined in November 1945. Parker had previously sang with Vaughn Monroe and was working as a soloist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra when hired.
Dorsey had similar trouble keeping a stable male vocalist in late 1945. Walters left the band in August to go solo. Dick Culver replaced him but was gone after late November. Paul Chapman then took over. Buddy Hughes replaced Chapman around the first of February 1946, with Bob Carroll finally settling into the spot in April. Carroll, who had sang with Charlie Barnet before the war, was fresh out of the Army Air Force and needed a big name outlet to re-establish himself, and Jimmy needed a strong vocalist.
By early 1947, Dorsey’s band was struggling again. Jimmy first tried to remedy the situation in January by switching from Decca to the new MGM label. Carroll left as male vocalist in February, replaced by Philadelphia singer Vince Carson. When disc sales didn’t improve, Dorsey disbanded and reorganized that spring, trimming five of his instrumentalists and bringing in a vocal quintet, the Skylarks, in hopes of building up his vocal section. Dorsey then switched agencies in August, blaming his old agency for a lack of acceptable dates. In September, Bill Lawrence was male vocalist, having only recently joined the band. Parker remained through the reorganization but left in October and returned home to Detroit.
1947 also saw the release of The Fabulous Dorseys, a fantastical biopic of the Dorsey brothers’ lives. Panned by critics, the motion picture echoed the popular myth that the split between Jimmy and Tommy in 1935 resulted in years of tension between the brothers. Jimmy and Tommy had been happy to play into that narrative over the years, as it was good publicity, but in truth the brothers never held a grudge against each other and by the early 1940s had put aside their differences. Their bands occasionally performed on the same bill, and in 1944 the brothers partnered to buy the Casino Gardens ballroom in Los Angeles.
Jimmy kept plugging along into the early 1950s. Carol Scott was female vocalist in 1948, with the band going through another reorganization that year. Dorsey kept busy with movie work during the summer. MGM dropped the orchestra in early 1948, and Jimmy didn’t sign with another label until inking with Columbia in 1949. Later vocalists included Claire Hogan, Helen Carroll, Larry Noble, Helen Lee, and the Swantones.
In 1953, Jimmy and Tommy decided to combine their orchestras and create a new Dorsey Brothers band, which often billed itself as “Tommy Dorsey featuring Jimmy Dorsey.” As in their previous incarnation, Tommy led the group, while Jimmy sat happily in the sax section. Friends said they never saw him more relaxed. The new band appeared in their own CBS television program, Stage Show, from 1954 to 1956, with Jimmy and Tommy co-hosting. The show first aired as an hour-long summer replacement for Jackie Gleason’s program but during 1955 became thirty minutes, sharing the hour with the classic Honeymooners sitcom. Stage Show featured many notable guests, including Sarah Vaughn, Dick Haymes, Helen O’Connell, Tony Bennett, Morey Amsterdam, Henny Youngman, Jack Carter and even Elvis Presley, who made six appearances.
After Tommy suddenly passed away in late 1956, Jimmy continued leading the orchestra but soon turned it over to trumpeter Lee Castle. Dorsey’s heart wasn’t in. Grieving for his brother and secretly suffering from lung cancer, his own health began to fail, and he passed away in June 1957 at age 53.
Yes, that’s the same bug-eyed Jerry Colonna of Bob Hope show fame. Colonna was working as a CBS radio staff musician at the time. ↩︎
Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.