Musician and bandleader. Born Thomas Francis Dorsey Jr., on November 19, 1905, in Mahanoy Plains, Pennsylvania. His father was a coal miner who later became a music teacher and led a brass band; all three of his children studied music with him. When they were only teenagers, Dorsey and his older brother, Jimmy, formed their first band, Dorseys’ Novelty Six, later known as Dorseys’ Wild Canaries. During the 1920s, both brothers worked in various bands and as freelance and studio musicians, mostly in New York City. While both brothers had begun on the cornet, Jimmy became known for his playing of the clarinet and alto saxophone, while Tommy played the trombone and trumpet. The Dorsey brothers played with all the big names in big band and swing music, including the California Ramblers, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Vincent Lopez, Joe Venuti, and Ted Lewis; they also recorded as accompanying musicians with Bing Crosby, the Boswell Sisters, and Ruth Etting, among others.
In 1927, the Dorsey brothers began to record under their own label, “The Dorsey Brothers and Their Concert Orchestra.” The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra did not make its formal debut, however, until 1934, when it began a long residency at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York. With its sweet-toned instrumental style, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra combined a big band orchestral sound with the popular appeal of dance music, and quickly emerged as one of the most innovative bands of the developing Swing Era. In 1935, persistent sibling rivalry led the Dorsey brothers to split; Jimmy remained with the band, and Tommy, wanting to strike out on his own, formed a new band. Before long, the two Dorsey brothers’ orchestras—similar on the surface but each with its own distinct musical style—were two of the most popular bands in America. Tommy’s records eventually outsold Jimmy’s, especially by the time the swing craze reached its height, in 1938, and Tommy Dorsey was promoted as “That Sentimental Gentleman of Swing.” Tommy’s popularity only increased when, in 1940, he hired the rising young singer, Frank Sinatra.
Tommy Dorsey gained a reputation as an ambitious, hard-driving musician and bandleader who was constantly striving to extend the limits of what he and his band could achieve musically. He reportedly proved to be a demanding and relatively unforgiving leader who didn’t hesitate to fire his musicians if they were not performing up to his standards. His tremendously successful band recorded hits like 1935’s “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” (which became Dorsey’s theme song), 1937’s “Marie” and “Song of India,” and 1938’s “Boogie Woogie.” With his hiring of the 24-year-old Sinatra, who would become one of the biggest singing stars ever, Dorsey unwittingly ushered in the era of the vocal performer, in which big bands like his would be relegated to a secondary role.
The demise of the big bands in the 1940s, spurred by the focus on vocalists like Sinatra, led the careers of both Dorsey brothers to decline. Both men disbanded but later reformed their orchestras, and they worked together briefly on the 1947 film, The Fabulous Dorseys. In 1953, the two musicians were reunited in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra Featuring Jimmy Dorsey. They gained a good deal of notice for their regular appearances on The Jackie Gleason Show, witnessing the beginning of a new musical era when they introduced the young Elvis Presley. From 1955 to 1956, the Dorsey brothers co-hosted their own television program, Stage Show, on CBS.
On November 26, 1956, Tommy Dorsey died suddenly and unexpectedly after choking on his food. His brother Jimmy took over the band, but he died less than a year later.