About this Recording
8.120762 - DORSEY BROTHERS: Stop, Look And Listen (1932-1935)

‘Stop, Look and Listen’ Original 1932-1935 Recordings

Whether you call them The Fabulous or The Battling Dorsey Brothers, Tommy (1905-1956) and Jimmy Dorsey (1904-1957) were major influences on the development of jazz in the 1920s and ’30s. The tempestuous brothers really had three separate stages of their careers: first, as freelance sidemen for the small, hot New York studio bands of the late ’20s; second, as co-leaders of the short-lived Dorsey Brothers Orchestra and finally, as highly successful leaders of their own respective big bands of the late ’30s and ’40s. This CD deals with the second of these stages.

Although two people acting as co-leaders of a popular dance band sounds like a difficult concept, it has been done successfully, although not often. Note the ’20s groups led by, respectively, Victor Arden/Phil Ohman and Carlton Coon/Joe Sanders. However when the leaders are brothers, the result can be even more troublesome, as Tommy and Jimmy soon discovered. Joining forces as a recording unit beginning in 1928, the Dorseys not only made records on their own, but backed some of the most influential vocalists of the ’30s, including Bing Crosby, Mildred Bailey, and the Boswell Sisters. They hit their stride in 1934 when they decided to form a touring band, recording first for Brunswick, and then moving with Jack Kapp over to the newly formed American Decca label.

In the two knock-down drag-out years that followed, the Dorseys produced some outstanding and exciting jazz, all the while engaging in repeated bouts of fisticuffs with each other; spitting, slashing brawls, in which they not only beat each other up, but destroyed each others’ instruments as well. Usually, these battles were over the most mundane disputes, and when someone would attempt to break them up, the two brothers often ganged up on the peacemaker.

Born in Pennsylvania, Jimmy (a leap year baby, born in Shenandoah on 29 February 1904) and Tommy (born in Mahanoy City on 19 November 1905), both took cornet lessons early on from their father, who led a local concert band. By the time they were teenagers, Jimmy had settled on the clarinet and Tommy on trombone. Jimmy would later become an adept alto saxophonist as well and would double frequently on the instrument as well as occasionally play trumpet. Both worked in a popular territory band called the Scranton Sirens that traveled a lot but unfortunately released only one 78. By the late 1920s they were firmly ensconced in the lucrative New York studio business, cutting hot jazz sides with the likes of Red Nichols, Miff Mole, Joe Venuti, and Eddie Lang. In addition, they played for many of the biggest names in the dance band business, including Jean Goldkette, Nat Shilkret, Rudy Vallee, and Paul Whiteman.

In 1928 the Dorsey brothers began recording under their own name, but only as a studio group. Their records reflected some of the better Paul Whiteman efforts of that period and even included an attempt to emulate Whiteman’s combining classical music with jazz. One of the two records issued by The Dorsey Brothers and Their Concert Orchestra was even conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

The earliest record included in this collection is an alternate take of Jimmy Dorsey’s 1932 tour de force, Oodles of Noodles, in which Dorsey’s virtuosity on the alto sax is exhibited. This ‘B’ take was first issued in the 1940s on a Columbia 78 album in the ‘Hot Jazz Classics’ series featuring early sessions by the Dorsey Brothers. Even when provided with a transcript of the music, it is difficult to follow the notes as they whiz by.

The 1933 tracks are carry-overs from the Dorseys’ career in the compact New York outfits typified by Red Nichols’ Five Pennies. Backing facile singers such as Crosby, Bailey, and the Boswells, Tommy and Jimmy were featured in solos that showed their versatility in accompanying singers with different styles. The Boswells’ lovely version of the Duke Ellington standard Mood Indigo includes glorious harmonies by the sisters (replicating the threeclarinet lead popularized by Ellington) and a gliding trombone solo by Tommy Dorsey that forecast his reluctant but necessary label as the ‘sentimental gentleman of swing’. The Dorseys had a knack for bringing out the best in vocalists who fronted their band. Bing Crosby seemed to genuinely enjoy himself when he sang Someone Stole Gabriel’s Horn at their joint session for Brunswick in 1933.

When they decided to go on the road with their band in 1934, they took some of their members from remnants of the recently disbanded Smith Ballew orchestra, including trombonist/arranger Glenn Miller, drummer Ray McKinley, saxophonist Arthur ‘Skeets’ Herfurt, and vocalist Kay Weber. The new group was larger than those the Dorseys had been playing with in New York studios, consisting of 11–15 men, a size that could be compared to the Casa Loma Orchestra, one of the best of the white bands of the period that played arranged jazz. According to Ray McKinley, the idea was to pitch the sound of the band around the middleregister sonority of Bing Crosby, who had fronted the Dorsey band on occasion. Crosby was then the hottest vocalist in the business and the Dorseys felt that there was something in his resonant baritone that would work by focusing their sound in the low brass and saxophones. This may have been one reason why they frequently used Bing’s brother Bob on vocals on their records.

The Dorseys’ repertoire was uneven, thanks in part to frequent ‘requests’ to record certain publishers’ material. Witness such mundane selections as “I’d Like to Dunk You in My Coffee” and “I Threw a Bean Bag at the Moon”. But the tracks displayed on this CD show the musical brilliance Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey were capable of in the two short years they were together.

Shim Sham Shimmy features one of the Dorseys’ patented ‘fade-in’ and ‘fade-out’ arrangements with one of Bunny Berigan’s most memorable solos in the middle. I’m Getting Sentimental Over You foreshadowed Tommy’s fame in later years when the Ned Washington/ George Bassman tune became his theme song (the Dorseys had previously recorded it in 1932). It is crooned most effectively by Bob Crosby, who does his best to replicate brother Bing’s style.

Tailspin, one of their hotter numbers, was co-written by Jimmy Dorsey and Frankie Trumbauer (who also recorded it with Paul Whiteman) and featured a beautiful Bixian solo by Tommy on trombone. Jimmy adds two fourbar solos of crisp triple-tonguing on alto to round out the track, with a tasty coda added as a final dessert topping. King Oliver’s Dipper Mouth gets a sprightly treatment highlighted by Ray McKinley’s crisp drumming and off-the-beat cymbal slaps (Ray’s is the voice who yells out the obligatory ‘Oh, play that thing!’). Skeets Herfurt was a valuable addition to the group, playing hot tenor sax solos and even substituting a lighter sound on the flute for Milenberg Joys.

The band does get a chance to stretch out on several songs, including Solitude (featuring a languid vocal by Kay Weber) and the perennial flag-waver, Weary Blues, which proved once and for all that Dixieland could be danceable. Both of these titles were issued on 12-inch 78s. The other extended track was the two-part 10-inch release of Fats Waller’s Honeysuckle Rose.

The Dorseys had used a variety of trumpet players on their New York studio recordings, and continued to do so in their new touring band. Bunny Berigan, Charlie Margulis, and Manny Klein were used on many of their pre-1934 recordings, but for their dance band, they used mainly George Thow, a veteran of the Isham Jones orchestra who proved to be a source of many hot solos, punctuated by the imaginative percussion work of Ray McKinley. Both Dorsey brothers played trumpet, but by this time Tommy had abandoned it entirely in favor of the trombone (a tragedy since T.D.’s trumpet playing best reflected his explosive temperament).

Ray McKinley would later say that what the Dorseys needed most was an identifying sound. Although Glenn Miller would later prove to be a superb arranger, and who would create one of the most unique sounds in the Big Band Era, McKinley recalled that Miller’s inability to define a particular sound for the Dorseys resulted in his ‘heading off in all kinds of directions’. As a result, most of the songs the band played were the result of head arrangements.

Although the new band opened with optimism for the future at the exclusive Sands Point Bath Club on Long Island, the frequent, explosive fights that took place between the coleading brothers dashed any hopes of success. In an interview with Richard Sudhalter, Bonnie Lake, who wrote the Dorsey Brothers’ theme song, “Sandman”, recalled them fighting constantly: at rehearsals, recording sessions, and even in public. On one occasion at the famed Onyx Club on 52nd Street in Manhattan, Tommy threw Jimmy down a flight of stairs.

Writing in Metronome, George T. Simon grandly called the Dorsey orchestra ‘one of the slickest, most exciting musical aggregations ever to enter our musical lives’. But it was to last little more than a year. On Decoration Day, 1935, Tommy Dorsey stalked off the bandstand at the Glen Island Casino, never to return. Although the dispute was reportedly over a mere disagreement as to what tempo to play on “I’ll Never Say ‘Never Again’ Again”, it was probably just one fight too many. Tommy left the band to Jimmy and formed his own group, virtually taking over Joe Haymes’ orchestra.

Worldwide fame remained ahead for both Dorseys as their respective orchestras were among the most successful and best remembered of the Big Band Era. One wonders how they would have fared had their sibling rivalry not got in the way, and the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra had continued into the heart of the Swing Era.

Cary Ginell – writer and music historian, a 2004 recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor award.

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