No biography of Jimmy Dorsey is complete without brother Tommy because their careers entwined or overlapped throughout their lives. They were born in the coal country of eastern Pennsylvania--Jimmy on February 2, 1904, and Tommy on November 19, 1905. Their father was a miner and self-taught musician who eventually left the mines to teach music. He was a hard taskmaster who insisted that his boys learn all the woodwinds and brass instruments, giving them a ticket out of the mines.
Both boys were proficient on all the instruments and were playing professionally as youngsters, performing their first gig in 1919. Jimmy settled on alto sax and Tommy on trombone, although Tommy continued to play trumpet and Jimmy, clarinet. In his book Tommy Dorsey: Livin’ in a Great Big Way, Peter J. Levinson says, “Jimmy’s ability as an improviser on both alto sax and clarinet...stands out. The sound of his alto saxophone, with its wide vibrato, is indeed unique, as is the loose, dancing quality of his clarinet playing.” Saxophonist Dexter Gordon is quoted in Gary Giddins’ Riding on a Blue Note: Jazz & American Pop as saying, “Jimmy Dorsey? He was a master saxophonist. Bird [Charlie Parker] knew that.” While Tommy later railed against the new music represented by bebop, Jimmy included jazz instrumentals in the band’s repertoire in addition to the chart-topping vocal sides.
The boys’ first band, the Wild Canaries, was regionally popular and even played Baltimore in 1921. They honed their skills in the bands of Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman and were always working--on the New York recording scene, in pit bands, and on radio. In 1928 they organized the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra to record with Bing Crosby, among others, and many of their sides charted.
The “Battling Brothers” had fought, often violently, since childhood and mostly about music. Jimmy was easy-going, but Tommy had a hot temper, and as Artie Shaw observed, “...Tommy was intent on being the boss man.” On May 30, 1935, Tommy walked off the bandstand. Jimmy stayed with the DBO which became Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra, and Tommy took over Joe Haymes’ band, calling it Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra.
Jimmy took his band to the West coast to perform with Bing Crosby on the Kraft Music Hour. By 1938, as a result of chart-topping record sales and successful personal appearances, Tommy’s band was leading the polls. After leaving Crosby, Jimmy’s band enjoyed seven Top Ten hits in 1938, and by 1941, with 12 Top Ten hits, his band was second only to Glenn Miller’s. That same year he made his film debut and followed it up with The Fleet’s In which featured the band’s chart-topping “Tangerine” in 1942.
Although Jimmy’s personality was not suited to being a leader (he preferred the role of sideman), he kept a successful band together for 15 years. But as big bands lost their luster, the brothers joined forces again in 1953, naming their band The Fabulous Dorseys after a film they’d made in 1946. The band debuted on Jackie Gleason’s top-rated Saturday night TV show and became Gleason’s summer replacement on Stage Show. The variety show, which the Dorseys hosted through 1956, featured stars from Count Basie to Elvis Presley.
Two weeks before Tommy’s death the brothers recorded “So Rare” which triggered another fight, Tommy accusing Jimmy of selling out to rock ‘n’ roll. Neither brother lived to see “So Rare” become a gold record. Tommy died suddenly on November 26, 1956. Jimmy, devastated by the loss of his brother and suffering from cancer, died on June 12, 1957.
Says Levinson, “The combined number of hit records amassed by the Dorsey brothers remains astounding to this day: a total of 286 top-forty Billboard Pop Chart records.” In 1966 the brothers were commemorated with a U. S. Postal Service stamp.