Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Big Band Sound of Jimmy Dorsey

Grave of Jimmy Dorsey
Shenandoah Heights
A trip through Pennsylvania’s coal country found me in the small community of Shenandoah Heights, just north of the town of Shenandoah. Two lines of row houses bordered the narrow road I drove along in search of the Annunciation Blessed Virgin Mary Church Cemetery. I definitely felt like an outsider as I traveled along the narrow street - every person seemed to turn and watch me pass by.

Arriving at the end of Schuylkill Avenue I could see the Annunciation Blessed Virgin Mary Church Cemetery directly across the road from me. This cemetery is the first of a series of cemeteries along Cemetery Road (also listed as Ringtown Road Raven Run Road on maps). The large monuments within the cemetery were definitely eye-catching, but I came in search of one particular grave – the grave of a native son whose name is forever connected with the Big Band Era.

It was in the coal mining town of nearby Shenandoah that James "Jimmy" Francis Dorsey was born on February 29, 1904, the oldest of three sons. Less than two years later, his brother, Thomas, Jr, would be born. His father, a coal miner turned music teacher, taught his boys, James, Thomas, Jr, and Edward, to play and appreciate music. Jimmy and Tommy would start out playing cornet, but Jimmy would soon learn and excel at the clarinet and alto saxophone while Tommy would perfect playing the trumpet and trombone.

The brothers would form their first band, Dorsey’s Novelty Six, while they were still teenagers. The band would later be known as Dorsey’s Wild Canaries. In 1927 they began recording on their own label: The Dorsey Brothers and Their Concert Orchestra, though it did not officially debut until 1934. During this period of time, the lead vocals for their orchestra was Bing Crosby.

Dorsey Family Tombstone
Their combined orchestra did not last long. Tension and rivalry ran high among the brothers and less than a year later Tommy left to form his own band. On the night of May 30, 1935, the tension between the two exploded. As the band started "I'll Never Say 'Never Again' Again," the two started to argue about the tempo and in the middle of the performance Tommy walked off the stage, abandoning his brother and the band.

Tommy would form his own orchestra and of the two brothers, Tommy's is the one that is often remembered. Tommy was referred to as the "Sentimental Gentleman of Swing." The fact Tommy in 1940 had a young Frank Sinatra singing with his band also helped with the popularity of his orchestra.

Jimmy's Orchestra continued without his brother and retained an international following. With popular singers Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell, his orchestra had a series of hits throughout the 1930s and 1940s including "The Breeze and I," "Tangerine," "Contrasts," "So Rare," and "Maria Elena." In all he had eleven number one hits, including "Pennies from Heaven," with Bing Crosby as the featured vocalist.

In 1938 he was featured in the famous “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” column. His unique ability – he played the entire “Flight of the Bumblebee” in two breaths.

Close-up of the Dorsey's Stone
Despite their personal issues, the brothers briefly reunited in 1947 for the highly fictionalized film The Fabulous Dorseys but they did not reconcile until a couple years later. With the Big Band Era declining, Jimmy was forced to disband his orchestra. In 1953, the brothers reunited and joined forces to form one orchestra: The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra featuring Jimmy Dorsey.

The brothers hosted a Jackie Gleason produced show called "Stage Show" from 1954 to 1956, where they introduced an unknown singer to the world, a young singer who would change the face and sound of music. On January 28, 1956 a young Elvis Presley would make his first television appearance, almost eight months before his "hip swinging incident" on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Tommy passed away unexpectedly in his sleep in November 1956 and Jimmy took over the band. He rerecorded an earlier single, “So Rare,” and it charted at number one, giving Jimmy his biggest hit. Sadly, Jimmy had been diagnosed with cancer and was in the last stages of it. Just months after his brother's death, Jimmy rejoined him when he passed away on June 12, 1957 in New York City. Jimmy was buried with his parents and youngest brother, Edward, in the family plot in Shenanodah Heights.

Memories of their music popped into my mind as I stood before the grave of Jimmy Dorsey. No, I'm not old enough to remember it first hand, however, I discovered them in college, in a music class. The professor I had for music was a fan of the Big Band Era and introduced my class to music most of us had never heard before. I grew up listening to older country, gospel, and "oldies," missing out on the modern country, rock and pop from the late 1980s/early 1990, so the introduction of Big Band Music was something relatively new to me.

While taking his class, I was introduced to The Glenn Miller Orchestra when they made an appearance at Lock Haven University that year. Little did I knew at the time that Glenn Miller had once been a part of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in the early 1930s.

In the years since, I've learned to appreciate most music. However, listening to the sounds from the Big Band Era, I realize how much the current generation is missing out on with their "music" of today. I'm not saying the artists today are bad, but (in my opinion) the 1930s and 1940s produced some of the best music ever. Back then it was actual music, not just noise.

Standing there in front of his grave I paid my respects to him and I couldn't help but recall the lyrics from "The Breeze and I" - "The breeze and I are saying goodbye...Ending in a strange, mournful tune."

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