Jimmy Dorsey

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Biography

Born: February 29, 1904; Shenandoah, PA   Died: June 12, 1957; New York, NY  
Jimmy Dorsey was both an accomplished reed player, specializing in alto saxophone and clarinet, and one of the top bandleaders of the swing era. In the early and late periods of his career, he co-led bands with his younger brother Tommy; in between, he scored a series of Latin-tinged hits that established his orchestra as one of the most successful recording and performing units of the early '40s. The first son of Thomas Francis Dorsey Sr., a Read more music teacher and marching-band director, and Theresa Langton Dorsey, Dorsey received early music instruction from his father; by the age of seven, he was playing cornet in his father's band. Switching to trumpet, he made his professional debut at nine when he appeared with J. Carson McGee's King Trumpeters in New York in September 1913. But two years later, he had switched to reed instruments, alternating on alto saxophone and clarinet. Less than two years younger, his brother Tommy had taken up horn instruments, sometimes playing trumpet but mainly trombone, and the brothers formed Dorsey's Novelty Six in 1920. As Dorsey's Wild Canaries, they played an extended engagement at a Baltimore amusement park and made their radio debut. Dorsey then left to join the Scranton Sirens. Around September 1924, he moved to New York and joined the California Ramblers, switching to the Jean Goldkette Orchestra in 1925 and to Paul Whiteman's orchestra in 1926. His younger brother followed him into each of these bands. Eventually the brothers settled in New York, where they worked as session musicians, appearing on records, on radio, and in the pit bands of Broadway musicals. Beginning in 1927, they began organizing studio-only ensembles dubbed the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra for recordings on OKeh Records, and they first reached the charts in June 1928 with "Coquette" (vocal by Bill Dutton). Their first Top Ten placing came in the spring of 1929 with "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" (vocal by Bing Crosby). The Dorseys organized a permanent touring band in April 1934 and later signed to the newly formed Decca Records. They reached the Top Ten in the fall with "What a Diff'rence a Day Made" (vocal by Bob Crosby) and in the winter of 1935 with "I Believe in Miracles" (vocal by Bob Crosby), "Tiny Little Fingerprints" (vocal by Kay Weber), and "Night Wind" (vocal by Bob Crosby). "Lullaby of Broadway" (vocal by Bob Crosby) hit number one in May. The same month, the brothers had a falling-out, and Tommy Dorsey left the band to form his own group. Several recordings, however, were still in the pipeline, and "Chasing Shadows" (vocal by Bob Eberly) hit number one in June, while "Every Little Movement" entered the charts in July and reached the Top Ten. Despite his brother's departure, Jimmy Dorsey at first continued to record as the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, and he scored two Top Ten hits in the fall of 1935, "You Are My Lucky Star" and "I've Got a Feelin' You're Foolin'." (These and all other Dorsey hits unless otherwise noted featured Bob Eberly on vocals.) By the end of the year, however, with Tommy Dorsey having launched his own band, Jimmy Dorsey changed the group's billing to Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra, scoring his first chart entry under that name with "You Let Me Down" in December. The same month, Dorsey signed on to provide the musical accompaniment for host Bing Crosby on the weekly radio series Kraft Music Hall, remaining with the show until July 1937. By squabbling, the Dorseys had lost crucial momentum in their careers; while they sorted themselves out, Benny Goodman emerged and was crowned "the King of Swing." Tommy Dorsey quickly put together a highly commercial outfit and gave Goodman serious competition. Jimmy Dorsey was not as successful at first, though he topped the charts in June 1936 with "Is It True What They Say About Dixie?" It was only after he left the Crosby radio show and began appearing extensively on his own that he started to figure among the more popular bands. In 1938, he scored seven Top Ten hits culminating in "Change Partners," which hit number one in October. He had six Top Ten hits in 1939 and three in 1940, including the chart-topper "The Breeze and I," which was a key hit, since it began a series of adaptations of Spanish songs arranged by Tutti Camerata. Dorsey's career really took off in 1941 when he scored 12 Top Ten hits. "I Hear a Rhapsody" reached number one in April, followed by "High on a Windy Hill" the same month. Another key hit was Dorsey's third consecutive chart-topper, "Amapola," with alternate verses sung by Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell, which hit number one in March and was the most popular record of the year. Before 1941 was over, Dorsey had returned to number one with "My Sister and I," "Green Eyes" (another duet between Eberly and O'Connell), "Maria Elena," and "Blue Champagne," and he ranked second only to Glenn Miller as the most successful recording artist of the year. Hollywood took an interest in him, and he made his film debut in Lady, Be Good in September 1941. The recording ban called by the American Federation of Musicians in August 1942 cut down on Dorsey's recording opportunities, but he still managed to score six Top Ten hits during the year, among them "Tangerine," another Latin-tinged number with duet vocals by Eberly and O'Connell, which was featured in his second film, The Fleet's In, released in March. Overall, he ranked as the fourth biggest recording artist of the year behind Miller, Harry James, and Kay Kyser. 1943 was more of a struggle, but Decca settled with the union a year ahead of its rivals, Columbia and RCA Victor, and so its artists, Dorsey among them, were able to dominate the charts in 1944. Dorsey scored five Top Ten hits, among them the chart-topper "Besame Mucho" (vocals by Bob Eberly and Kitty Kallen), ranking as the third most successful recording artist of the year behind Decca labelmates Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. The Dorsey Band went into a commercial decline from 1945 on, though there were two Top Ten hits in 1945 and one in 1946. By 1947, Dorsey had moved to MGM Records. In May 1947, he participated in a largely fictionalized film biography of himself and his brother, The Fabulous Dorseys. He scored a Top Ten hit with "Ballerina" (vocal by Bob Carroll) in January 1948 and continued to reach the charts for another couple of years, having moved to Columbia Records by 1950. But he was forced to disband his orchestra, and in 1953 he accepted an offer from his brother to join the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra as a featured player. Soon, the band was being billed as the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. From 1954 to 1956, the brothers hosted Stage Show, a live television series. Elvis Presley made his national TV debut on the show in January 1956. Dorsey was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1956. In November 1956, his brother died suddenly, and he took over the band briefly until he was hospitalized in March 1957. His last recording session for Fraternity Records had included "So Rare" (vocals by the Arthur Malvin Singers), which peaked in the Top Five the week of his death at 53. Jimmy Dorsey earned a place as a major jazz instrumentalist in the '20s. He backed into bandleading in the '30s, but by the early '40s had built one of the more successful orchestras of the big band era, with a distinctive style. His hits on Decca (now controlled by the Universal Music Group) are augmented by recordings for Columbia and many small labels, with many of his airchecks also available. Read less

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