Monday, August 03, 2020

Tommy Dorsey Livin' in a Great BIg Way - Peter Levinson

Not something that I would have normally picked up for myself, but my lovely wife found this at a thrift store and thought that I might enjoy it. I'm not much of a Big Band guy personally, but I dig reading about almost any musician's life (unless I actively dislike their music) and learning how they did what they did.

Coming from a rock'n'roll upbringing, it's kinda fascinating to hear how the Big Bands worked, as it's a very different fashion - members move from group to group regularly and, of course, they had charts that they had to read (instead of memorizing) and especially interesting, each band had their own arranger to work out the various parts for the group based on their line-up. Again, as a rock'n'rollers, I'm used to groups making their own arrangements individually and I would never have thought of hiring someone to do it for you, but it makes sense for these "orchestras". It is somewhat amazing that the groups were able to maintain a coherent sound when they used outside arrangers (Tommy used several different ones at a time) to put together the music (that was also written by others, of course).

Tommy and his brother Jimmy came from a musical family and, in fact, their father insisted on them becoming musicians to avoid working in the local coal mines. Their talent made them in demand early on, even at a time when there were plenty of stellar musicians on the scene, and they made a good living even during the Depression and cut hundreds of tunes with various combos before forming the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. The brothers volatile relationship meant that this orchestra did not last long, but each brother ended up fronting his own group and were each responsible for a staggering number of hit records.

Tommy's temper and perfectionism meant that members came and went - one estimate was as many as 250 in 5 years!! But he made many careers, including a skinny kid's named Frank Sinatra, who led the group on innumerable hits.

For me, the myriad musicians and characters that appear in the story are mostly unknown so listing them - the people coming and going from the band, the hangers-on, the arrangers, the friends'n'fans, etc. - continually does get to be a bit much. I'm sure this information is much more important to those in the know, but regardless, Levinson tries to keep the story moving throughout.

Tommy was able to keep his band going for longer than most, and even had a reunion with his brother Jimmy for a few years at the end of their lives, before the hard living brought both of their lives to early ends. They kept Big Band music alive for a number of years, but with the advent of rock'n'roll (ironically, Elvis Presley was a guest star on several TV specials that they hosted in the late 50's), their draw had greatly diminished by the time of their deaths.

I'm sure that fans would find this even more enjoyable, but I got a kick out of the book and appreciated looking at this musical style from a different perspective.