Tommy Dorsey

Photo of Tommy Dorsey
  • Born

    November 19, 1905
    Shenandoah, Pennsylvania
  • Died

    November 26, 1956 (age 51)
    Greenwich, Connecticut

Tommy Dorsey formed his first solo band in 1935, tak­ing over the Joe Haymes or­ches­tra af­ter an ar­gu­ment with his brother, Jimmy, led the in­fa­mously ill-tem­pered trom­bon­ist to walk out on the band they co-led. The evo­lu­tion of Tommy Dorsey’s sound can be di­vided into three dis­tinct phases, each with three sets of dis­tinct vo­cal­ists.

Early Period

Getting started just as the swing era was born, much of Dorsey’s out­put dur­ing the 1930s had one foot in the past. Songs like Who,” Marie,” and The Music Goes Round and Round” harken back to early-1930s white jazz and seem quaintly nos­tal­gic in com­par­i­son to the out­put of con­tem­po­raries like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. This early pe­riod, from 1935 to 1939, can be neatly book­ended by the ar­rival and de­par­ture of Dorsey vo­cal­ists Edythe Wright and Jack Leonard, whose singing styles were also rooted in the early 1930s.

Dorsey’s man­ager dis­cov­ered Wright when she filled in one night as vo­cal­ist for the Meadowbrook Ballroom’s house or­ches­tra, and her voice be­came syn­ony­mous with the band’s early suc­cess. She re­mained with Dorsey for four years, with two brief in­ter­ludes, the first in June 1938 when she had an ap­pen­dec­tomy. Then in December of that year she abruptly left the band while they were at the Hotel New Yorker, sup­pos­edly to wed ten­nis star Don Budge, in what some sus­pect may have been a pub­lic­ity stunt on her part. Mary Ann McCall was hired to re­place her. McCall’s de­but came on open­ing night in a Hartford, Connecticut, the­ater in January 1939. Some re­ports at the time say McCall was booed off the stage with au­di­ence mem­bers de­mand­ing Wright’s re­turn. The real story, how­ever, in­volved a con­tract dis­pute. Dorsey’s con­tract with the the­ater spec­i­fied that Wright would ap­pear, and when she did­n’t the the­ater man­ager pressed the term. McCall was out, and Wright re­turned the next night, say­ing she had only been on va­ca­tion and had­n’t re­ally de­parted the band.

Wright left the band per­ma­nently in October 1939. Wright and Dorsey had of­ten been linked in gos­sip. Rumors in the press con­tin­ued for sev­eral years af­ter she’d quit, of­ten spec­u­lat­ing that Dorsey was go­ing to leave his wife and marry her, even af­ter Wright her­self had mar­ried a Vermont doc­tor.

Cliff Weston had been Dorsey’s orig­i­nal male vo­cal­ist, ap­pear­ing on the band’s first stu­dio record­ings in September 1935. Jack Leonard was singing with Bert Block’s or­ches­tra when Dorsey hired him away later that year. He quickly be­came Dorsey’s main as­set, ri­val­ing Bing Crosby as the most pop­u­lar male vo­cal­ist in the coun­try. His voice graced some of the band’s most suc­cess­ful record­ings, such as Marie,” All the Things You Are,” Our Love,” and Indian Summer.” Leonard was fired from the band in November 1939, a month af­ter Wright left, in what was likely Dorsey’s an­gry re­ac­tion to ru­mors that the singer was go­ing to leave for a solo ca­reer. Publicly it was an­nounced that Leonard was tak­ing time off and would re­turn soon, though that never hap­pened.

Along with Leonard, Dorsey also hired arranger Odd (Axel) Stordhal and trum­peter Joe Bauer away from Block’s or­ches­tra. The three men sang as The Three Esquires, a vo­cal en­sem­ble which later ex­panded to be­come The Four Esquires.

Golden Years

Soon af­ter Leonard and Wright’s de­par­ture, and partly be­cause of it, Dorsey’s sound took on a more mod­ern tone. The loss of a ra­dio con­tract forced him to shuf­fle the band to cut costs. He let go higher paid mu­si­cians and brought in younger tal­ent. He also hired arranger Sy Oliver, who had just left Jimmy Lunceford’s or­ches­tra. Oliver’s arrange­ments gave Dorsey’s band the more swing­ing sound it be­came noted for in the early 1940s.

Dorsey’s choice of vo­cal­ists also re­flected this shift. To re­place Wright and Leonard, he first hired Anita Boyer and Allan DeWitt. Neither lasted long how­ever. Boyer left in January 1940, to be re­placed by Connie Haines, and Dewitt, with whom Dorsey be­came un­sat­is­fied, was let go that same month when Dorsey man­aged to se­cure Frank Sinatras re­lease from Harry James. Vocal group the Pied Pipers also joined the band in late 1939.

The new sound brought by this change in per­son­nel is ob­vi­ous when lis­ten­ing to Dorsey’s out­put be­tween 1939 and 1942, and never was a band­leader so blessed with vo­cal tal­ent. Sinatra’s voice quickly earned him both the num­ber one spot in every vo­cal­ist poll and the ado­ra­tion of mil­lions of shriek­ing teenage girls. Dorsey’s fe­male chirps also proved pop­u­lar with the pub­lic. Haines han­dled the bouncier num­bers, while Pied Piper Jo Stafford of­ten stepped up to sing ro­man­tic tunes or han­dle spe­cialty num­bers. The Pipers them­selves were ri­valed in pop­u­lar­ity only by Miller’s Modernaires. Arranger Oliver also some­times sang on spe­cialty tunes.

This golden age of Dorsey, though, came to a crash­ing halt in late 1942. When Haines left in March of that year due to ill­ness, Stafford stepped up as solo fe­male vo­cal­ist, tem­porar­ily at first, but as au­di­ences re­sponded pos­i­tively to her, Dorsey kept her in the top spot. Sinatra, sens­ing that now was the right time to cash in on his ex­treme pop­u­lar­ity, left the band in September to go solo, and Dorsey shrewdly brought in the al­most equally as pop­u­lar Dick Haymes to re­place him, which might have worked had it not been for a row be­tween the Pied Pipers and Dorsey on Thanksgiving Day, which ended with the band­leader an­grily fir­ing one of the mem­bers. In re­sponse, the en­tire group quit, in­clud­ing Stafford. While Haymes might have been able to re­place Sinatra in Dorsey’s over­all sound, the loss of the Pied Pipers and Stafford left a big gap that proved im­pos­si­ble to fill. The band’s sound was never quite the same again, and its pop­u­lar­ity suf­fered.

Later Years

None of Dorsey’s post-clas­sic vo­cal­ists ever cap­tured the pub­lic’s ear like Sinatra, Haines and Stafford. To re­place Stafford, Dorsey brought in Barbara Canvin, also known as Bobbie Canvin, one of the Mellowaires who backed Capitol Record artists in 1942. She was gone at the end of April 1943, with Liz Tilton, sis­ter of for­mer Goodman vo­cal­ist Martha, hired to re­place her. Tilton her­self left in June for health rea­sons, re­placed by Betty Brewer. Pat Dane, Dorsey’s wife, joined right be­fore Tilton’s de­par­ture to help out and share vo­cal du­ties. She re­mained for a short while when Brewer joined.

In early 1943, Dorsey hired the four Clark Sisters to re­place the Pied Pipers, chang­ing their name to the Sentimentalists, a play on his nick­name, the Sentimental Gentleman of Swing. They re­mained with the band un­til April 1946 when they left, with Dorsey’s bless­ing, to star in a sus­tainer pro­gram on the Mutural Network, Endorsed by Dorsey, at which time they re­verted to their for­mer name.

Haymes left in May 1943 to start a suc­cess­ful solo ca­reer. Dorsey then hired Skip Nelson, who had pre­vi­ously worked for Chico Marx and Glenn Miller. Both Nelson and Brewer sur­vived Dorsey’s in­fa­mous purge of August 1943, when he fired all his mu­si­cians and started a new band from scratch. Nelson ex­ited in September, how­ever, to be­gin a failed solo ca­reer. Brewer re­mained into early 1944.

After Nelson de­parted, Dorsey had a dif­fi­cult time find­ing a suit­able male vo­cal­ist who was will­ing to go on the road. Jimmy Cook briefly sang, and then in November Dorsey re­sorted to putting gui­tarist Teddy Walters in front of the mike. Walters, who sounded much like Sinatra, was an un­ex­pected hit, wow­ing au­di­ences. Dorsey of­fered him a five-year con­tract, but Walters ob­jected to a clause which gave Dorsey a per­cent­age of his earn­ings should he go solo. Walters left the band at the first of the year rather than sign.

In January 1944, Bob Allen dis­banded his own or­ches­tra and joined Dorsey as vo­cal­ist. Freddie Stewart took Allen’s place in late 1944 when Allen went into the ser­vice, stay­ing un­til February 1945. After Stewart left, Dorsey again went through a dif­fi­cult pe­riod of male vo­cal­ists. Hal Winters re­place Stewart but lasted only three days. Bassist Charlie Karroll then sang for one night un­til Dorsey hired both Frankie Lester and Billy Usher, un­cer­tain which he’d choose for the per­ma­nent spot. Usher recorded with the band but was gone be­fore the end of the month. Lester was gone by early March. Stuart Foster re­placed them, fi­nally giv­ing Dorsey some sta­bil­ity. Foster re­mained with the or­ches­tra un­til its demise.

Bonnie Lou Williams re­placed Brewer as fe­male vo­cal­ist, re­main­ing un­til mid-1945. Dorsey had trou­ble find­ing and keep­ing fe­male vo­cal­ists af­ter Williams left. He of­ten hired es­tab­lished singers for record­ing ses­sions or tour dates. Pat Brewster recorded with the band in late 1945, as did both Peggy Mann and Dorothy Claire in early 1946. In August 1946, as part of a ra­dio stunt pro­moted by the Mutual Broadcasting System, a na­tional con­test was held to se­lect the band’s new chirp, with six re­gional win­ners vy­ing for the spot on live ra­dio. 18-year-old Sherry Sherwood of Washington won the hon­ors, which was also to have in­cluded an ap­pear­ance in the film The Fabulous Dorseys the fol­low­ing year. Sherwood ap­par­ently did­n’t stick around very long. In early November, Claire was singing with the or­ches­tra again.

Dorsey dis­banded in November 1946 af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing se­ri­ous prob­lems with his book­ing agency, though he briefly re­or­ga­nized in December to ful­fill a four-week con­tract at New York’s Capitol Theater that he’d pre­vi­ously signed. As soon as that gig ended, he dis­banded again. During that same pe­riod, seven other ma­jor band­lead­ers folded as well, in­clud­ing Benny Goodman, Harry James and Les Brown. All faced sim­i­lar prob­lems. Venues had dried up, ra­dio work was harder to get, record sales were slow, and mu­si­cians in­creas­ingly re­fused to go on the road. It was the end of the big band era.

Dorsey could­n’t stay away from the band­stand how­ever. He or­ga­nized a new or­ches­tra in May 1947 which in­cluded sev­eral holdovers from his old band. Foster re­turned as male chirp. Vocal group the Town Criers also sang with mem­ber Lucy Ann Polk solo­ing. Other vo­cal­ists for this later band in­cluded English singer Denny Dennis, Harry Prime, Audrey Young, and Lucy Ann’s brother, Gordon. The Clark Sisters re­turned in late 1947 to record sev­eral songs with the or­ches­tra un­der their own name, and in late 1948 Dorsey fea­tured an­other vo­cal group called the Sentimentalists, though they were not the Clark Sisters but in­stead a Canadian quin­tet of three males and two fe­males. Dorsey even­tu­ally folded his new band into brother Jimmy’s, form­ing a sec­ond Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, which he lead un­til his death in 1956.


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  • The Music Goes 'Round and Around
    Tommy Dorsey and His Clambake Seven (Edythe Wright), Victor (1935)
  • May I Have the Next Romance with You?
    Tommy Dorsey (Jack Leonard), Victor (1936)
  • On the Beach at Bali-Bali
    Tommy Dorsey (Edythe Wright), Victor (1936)
  • Where Are You?
    Tommy Dorsey (Jack Leonard), Victor (1936)
  • San Francisco
    Tommy Dorsey (Edythe Wright), Victor (1936)
  • Tea on the Terrace
    Tommy Dorsey (Edythe Wright), Victor (1936)
  • The Dipsy Doodle
    Tommy Dorsey (Edythe Wright), Victor (1937)
  • Marie
    Tommy Dorsey (Jack Leonard), Victor (1937)
  • The Big Apple
    Tommy Dorsey and His Clambake Sevem (Edythe Wright), Victor (1937)
  • The Lady Is a Tramp
    Tommy Dorsey and His Clambake Sevem (Edythe Wright), Victor (1937)
  • Who?
    Tommy Dorsey (Jack Leonard), Victor (1937)
  • Midnight on the Trail
    Tommy Dorsey (Jack Leonard), Victor (1938)
  • Music, Maestro, Please
    Tommy Dorsey (Edythe Wright), Victor (1938)
  • The Big Dipper
    Tommy Dorsey (Edythe Wright), Victor (1938)
  • Jezebel
    Tommy Dorsey (Jack Leonard), Victor (1938)
  • Back to Back
    Tommy Dorsey (Edythe Wright), Victor (1939)
  • All the Things You Are
    Tommy Dorsey (Jack Leonard), Victor (1939)
  • You Don't Know How Much You Can Suffer
    Tommy Dorsey (Edythe Wright), Victor (1939)
  • Indian Summer
    Tommy Dorsey (Jack Leonard), Victor (1939)
  • Careless
    Tommy Dorsey (Allan DeWitt), Victor (1939)
  • I've Got My Eyes on You
    Tommy Dorsey (Allan DeWitt), Victor (1939)
  • Darn That Dream
    Tommy Dorsey (Anita Boyer), Victor (1939)
  • Angel
    Tommy Dorsey (Allan DeWitt), Victor (1939)
  • I'll Never Smile Again
    Tommy Dorsey (Frank Sinatra, Pied Pipers), Victor (1940)
  • Two Dreams Met
    Tommy Dorsey (Connie Haines), Victor (1940)
  • Blue Skies
    Tommy Dorsey (Frank Sinatra), Victor (1941)
  • Kiss the Boys Goodbye
    Tommy Dorsey (Connie Haines), Victor (1941)
  • Let's Just Pretend
    Tommy Dorsey (Jo Stafford), Victor (1941)
  • Oh, Look at Me Now
    Tommy Dorsey (Frank Sinatra, Connie Haines, Pied Pipers), Victor (1941)
  • What Is This Thing Called Love
    Tommy Dorsey (Connie Haines), Victor (1941)
  • Will You Still Be Mine
    Tommy Dorsey (Connie Haines), Victor (1941)
  • Yes, Indeed
    Tommy Dorsey (Sy Oliver, Jo Stafford), Victor (1941)
  • Like Someone in Love
    Tommy Dorsey (Bonnie Lou Williams), Victor (1944)
  • Sleigh Ride in July
    Tommy Dorsey (Bonnie Lou Williams), Victor (1944)
  • The Sunny Side of the Street
    Tommy Dorsey (The Sentimentalists), RCA Victor (1944)
  • Any Old Time (I'm Feeling Blue)
    Tommy Dorsey (Billy Usher), RCA Victor (1945)
  • There's No You
    Tommy Dorsey (Billy Usher), RCA Victor (1945)
  • Chicago
    Tommy Dorsey (Sy Oliver, The Sentimentalists), RCA Victor (1945)
  • The Moment I Met You
    Tommy Dorsey (The Sentimentalists), RCA Victor (1945)
  • That Went Out with Button Shoes
    Tommy Dorsey (Stuart Foster, Pat Brewster, The Sentimentalists), RCA Victor (1945)
  • Never Too Late to Pray
    Tommy Dorsey (Stuart Foster, The Sentimentalists), RCA Victor (1945)
  • A Door Will Open
    Tommy Dorsey (Stuart Foster, The Sentimentalists), RCA Victor (1945)
  • Nevada
    Tommy Dorsey (Stuart Foster, The Sentimentalists), RCA Victor (1945)
  • Aren't You Glad You're You?
    Tommy Dorsey (Stuart Foster), RCA Victor (1945)
  • Where Did You Learn to Love?
    Tommy Dorsey (Stuart Foster, The Sentimentalists), RCAC Victor (1946)
  • Moon Love
    Tommy Dorsey (The Town Criers, The Sentimentalists), RCA Victor (1947)
  • Like a Leaf in the Wind
    Tommy Dorsey (Stuart Foster, The Sentimentalists), RCA Victor (1947)
  • Because I Care
    Tommy Dorsey (Harry Prime, The Town Criers, The Clark Sisters), RCA Victor (1947)
  • Evelyn
    Tommy Dorsey (Harry Prime, The Clark Sisters), RCA Victor (1947)
  • Until
    Tommy Dorsey (Harry Prime, The Town Criers, The Clark Sisters), RCA Victor (1947)
  • Starlight Rendezvous
    Tommy Dorsey (Harry Prime, The Town Criers, The Clark Sisters), RCA Victor (1947)
  • The Things I Love
    Tommy Dorsey (Stuart Foster), RCA Victor (1947)
  • Down by the Station
    Tommy Dorsey (Lucy Ann Polk, Denny Dennis, The Sentimentalists), RCA Victor (1948)
  • I'm in Heaven When I See You Smile Diane
    Tommy Dorsey (Jack Leonard), Decca (1951)
  • Sweet Adeline
    Tommy Dorsey (Jack Leonard), Decca (1951)

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  • Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands: Tommy Dorsey
    February 12, 1945 (AFRS) 14:29


For sources, see entries for each vocalist or vocal group.