The youngest of the famous Dorsey brothers, 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. Tommy’s orchestra quickly established itself as one of the best in the nation, racking up a score of hit songs over the next seven years and featuring what was easily the best vocal section of any band during this period of time. The war years proved hard on Dorsey, however, and by the mid-1940s he struggled to maintain a quality organization. Despite attempts to modernize his sound in the late 1940s, his output in those years often proved outdated and nostalgic, and in the early 1950s he recombined with Jimmy to form a new Dorsey Brothers band.
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.
Tommy refused to rejoin the orchestra and set about working to establish his own, eventually taking over Joe Haymes’ band and shaping it into his own. The evolution of Dorsey’s sound can be divided into three distinct phases, each with three sets of distinct vocalists.
Despite getting started when the swing era was in full bloom, 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, Glenn Miller, and Artie Shaw. 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 in late 1935, 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 took medical leave, and the second in December of that year when she abruptly left the band during a stay at the Hotel New Yorker. Wright supposedly departed to wed tennis star Don Budge, but some suspect it may have been a publicity stunt on her part. Mary Ann McCall was hired to replace Wright, debuting with the band 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 finally left the band for real in October 1939. Wright and Dorsey had often been linked in gossip. Rumors in the press continued for several years after she’d quit, 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 in early 1936. 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 Block’s arranger, Odd (Axel) Stordhal, and trumpeter, Joe Bauer. Together the three men sang as The Three Esquires, a vocal ensemble which later expanded to become The Four Esquires.
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. Vocal group the Pied Pipers joined the band in late 1939. To replace Wright and Leonard, Dorsey first hired Anita Boyer and Allan DeWitt. Neither lasted long however. Boyer left in January 1940. Dorsey initially decided to replace her by using Pied Piper Jo Stafford as his sole female vocalist, but he soon hired Connie Haines as well, who could handle jazzier numbers. Dewitt, with whom Dorsey became unsatisfied, was let go in January 1940 when Dorsey managed to secure Frank Sinatra’s release from Harry James.
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 Stafford often stepped up to sing romantic tunes or specialty songs. The Pipers themselves were rivaled in popularity only by Miller’s Modernaires. Arranger Oliver also sometimes sang on specialty tunes.
By early 1941, Dorsey sax player Paul Mason was handling novelty tunes, and in early 1941 Dorsey announced the he had hired soprano Marie Frye as well, though if she actually ever appeared with the band is unknown, as Dorsey’s announcement is the only mention of her in the trade press. Mason left in mid-1941 to go into the retail music business in West Virginia.
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.
None of Dorsey’s post-classic vocalists ever captured the public’s ear like Sinatra, Haines, Stafford, and the Pied Pipers. To replace Stafford, Dorsey brought in Barbara Canvin, also known as Bobbie Canvin, formerly part of the Quintones with Charlie Barnet and one of the Mellowaires who backed Capitol Record artists. 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 rather than sign. Dorsey rehired Cook as his replacement.
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. Carolyn Grey took her place in June but quit after less than two weeks. Dorsey often had to hire 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 heralded 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 members Lucy Ann Polk and her brother, Gordon, soloing. Other vocalists for this later band included English singer Denny Dennis, Harry Prime, and Audrey Young. The Clark Sisters returned in late 1947 to record several songs with the orchestra under both the name Sentimentalists and their own name. When the Town Criers left in early 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 led by Jack Duffy. Lucy Ann and Gordon Polk returned to sing as soloists by mid-1948. Gordon was soon dropped when Dorsey cut personnel for financial reasons. Lucy Ann remained until late 1949.
In 1951, Dorsey recorded two songs with Jack Leonard in hopes of lifting the singer’s flagging solo career. The songs were old-fashioned in composition, mimicking the 1930s hits that Leonard had sung, and failed to appeal to modern audiences. In 1953, Dorsey merged his band into brother Jimmy’s, forming a second Dorsey Brothers orchestra, which was billed 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.
Tommy continued leading the orchestra until his sudden death, at age 51, in November 1956, when he choked to death in his sleep. Jimmy took over the orchestra, but grieving for Tommy and secretly suffering from lung cancer, he soon turned the band over to trumpeter Lee Castle. Jimmy Dorsey passed away the following June.
Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.