Jimmy Dorsey Biography

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29 February 1904, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, USA, d. 12 June 1957, New York City, New York, USA. Musically active as a small child under the tutelage of his father, who was a coal miner turned music teacher, Dorsey switched from brass to reed instruments while still in his early teens. Concentrating on clarinet and alto saxophone, he played in various bands, mostly with his brother, Tommy Dorsey. Their co-led group, Dorsey’s Novelty Six, later renamed Dorsey’s Wild Canaries, was one of the first jazz bands to broadcast on the radio. Dorsey later joined the California Ramblers. Sometimes with his brother, sometimes alone, Dorsey played in a number of leading bands, including those led by Jean Goldkette, Paul Whiteman, Red Nichols and Ted Lewis. He also recorded frequently, often in company with Nichols and his Goldkette/Whiteman colleague, Bix Beiderbecke. He continued to associate with his brother, and in 1934 they formed the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, which became extremely popular. Unfortunately for the band, the brothers frequently disagreed, sometimes violently, and after one such argument, on the stand at the Glen Island Casino in May 1935, Tommy walked out leaving Jimmy to run the band on his own.

One of the most accomplished of the white bands of the swing era, Jimmy Dorsey’s band retained a strong jazz element but also catered to popular demands. Particularly successful in this respect was a series of hit records devised by arranger Tutti Camarata. In an attempt to present all aspects of the band’s work in one three-minute radio spot, Camarata made an arrangement of a song which featured first the band’s male singer, Bob Eberly, in ballad mood, then the leader with an up-tempo jazz solo on alto, and finally, a wailing sensual vocal chorus by the band’s other singer, Helen O’Connell (b. 23 May 1920, Lima, Ohio, USA, d. 9 September 1993, San Diego, California, USA). The first song treated in this manner was ‘Amapola’, followed by ‘Yours’ and then ‘Green Eyes’, which was a runaway hit, as was the later ‘Tangerine’. Records such as these ensured Dorsey’s success and, by the mid-40s, his was one of the most popular of the big bands. This ensured Dorsey’s survival over the hard winter of 1946/7, a time which saw many big bands fold, but the 50s proved difficult too, and in 1953 he was reunited with his brother who promptly renamed his own still-successful band as the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Jimmy remained with the band until Tommy’s death, by which time he too was terminally ill, dying only a few months after his brother. An outstanding technician, Jimmy Dorsey was one of the finest jazz saxophonists of his era and a major influence on many of his contemporaries and successors.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.