The Dorsey Brothers:
Sultans of Swing
By Irish America Staff
To fans of jazz and swing, the Dorsey brothers need no introduction. As musicians, composers and dance band leaders, they are inextricably linked with the swing craze during the big-band era of the 1930s and 1940s. Their numerous hits include “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” “I’ll Never Smile Again,” and “Boogie-Woogie.” In all, they sold a combined total of 110 million records in their forty-year careers.
Born to Thomas Frances Dorsey and Theresa Langton, the two brothers grew up in an Irish mining community in Pennsylvania. A self-taught musician himself, Thomas Dorsey resolved to keep his boys out of the mines, and instead ignited in them his own love of music. He even formed a band with them, the Way Back When Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. After Thomas Sr. quit the band, they became Dorsey’s Novelty Six, later to be renamed Dorsey’s Wild Canaries. The band performed throughout Shenandoah until they broke up in 1922 and Tommy and Jimmy joined the Scranton Sirens.
As boys, Jimmy (B. February 29, 1904) and Tommy (B. November 19, 1905) started out playing the cornet. Later they branched out to include other instruments. After two years with the Scranton Sirens, the brothers moved to the Jean Goldkette jazz band in Detroit, Michigan where they performed with jazz talents Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. Jimmy began playing the saxophone and clarinet, becoming one of the finest players of his day, while Tommy took up the trombone, coaxing from it a velvety tone that would become his trademark.
The Dorseys’ big break came in 1927 when the entire Goldkette band was hired by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra of New York City, bringing the Dorseys radio and recording jobs and performances with singers like Bing Crosby and the Boswell Sisters.
In 1934, Tommy and Jimmy formed their own band, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, with Glenn Miller on second trombone. However, the band broke up only one year later, after a dispute broke out between the two brothers over tempo during a Memorial Day weekend performance. The more exacting and temperamental of the two, Tommy is generally blamed for the band’s demise.
Over the next eighteen years, the two went their separate ways. Jimmy led the original Dorsey Brothers Band, renamed the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, while Tommy took over a band from Joe Haymes, turning it into the Tommy Dorsey Band, a more jazz-oriented band that featured Frank Sinatra from 1940-’42.
Over the next eighteen years, Tommy and Jimmy enjoyed tremendous success with their respective bands. Both brothers compiled a healthy list of film and television appearances, and they reunited temporarily for the making of the The Fabulous Dorseys, a 1947 film based on their lives in which the brothers played themselves. Sara Ellen Allgood an Irish actress born in Dublin plays Ma, with a notable Irish accent, and Arthur Shields, also born in Dublin, plays the father.
In 1953, Jimmy’s band fell apart and the brothers were reconciled. Jimmy joined Tommy’s orchestra and they performed as The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra featuring Jimmy Dorsey. The brothers performed together for the next three years, and from 1955-’56, the brothers enjoyed wide national coverage with their own show on CBS called Stage Show. The two brothers died within six months of each other, Tommy on November 26, 1956 and Jimmy on June 12, 1957. Two days before Jimmy died, he received a gold record for his greatest instrumental, “So Rare.”
Note: This article first appeared in Irish America’s “Irish of the Century” issue, published at the end of 1999.