The Big Band Sound of Jimmy Dorsey

Grave of James “Jimmy” Dorsey

A trip through Pennsylvania’s coal country found me in the small community of Shenandoah Heights, on the northern edge the town of Shenandoah. The narrow street was lined with row houses and I definitely felt like an outsider as every person seemed to turn and watch as I passed.

As I arrived at the end of Schuylkill Avenue I could see the Annunciation Blessed Virgin Mary Church Cemetery directly across the road from me. These sacred grounds are one of many along Cemetery Road, which is also listed as Ringtown Road and Raven Run Road on maps. As I passed through the gate, I was immediately amazed by the large monuments and wished I had allowed time to explore more of them before continuing my journey. With limited time, I glanced at my notes and started off to search for the grave of a native son whose name is forever connected with the Big Band Era.

Following the directions, I soon was standing before the Dorsey family stone. The names of father, Thomas, Sr.; mother, Theresa; and son, Edward line the base of the stone. Listed above the rest of the family, bordered by a clarinet and saxophone, is James, or as the world knew him, Jimmy Dorsey.

James “Jimmy” Francis Dorsey was born in Shenandoah on February 29, 1904, the oldest of three sons. Less than two years later, his brother, Thomas, Jr, would be born, followed by Mary in 1909 and Edward in 1911. His father, a coal miner turned music teacher, taught Tommy and Jimmy to play and appreciate music. They both started by learning to play the 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. 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.

Their combined orchestra did not last long. Tension and rivalry ran high among the brothers and less than a year after their official debut, Tommy left to form his own band. On the night of May 30, 1935, the growing tension between the two brothers 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 The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra had eleven number one hits, including “Pennies from Heaven,” with Bing Crosby as the featured vocalist.

In 1938 Jimmy 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.

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. Though the two orchestras outlasted many others, with the Big Band Era declining, Jimmy was forced to disband his orchestra and in 1953 the brothers reunited 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. They used their orchestra for the show, keeping them in the minds of the American public, while other orchestras faded from memory. During their time hosting “Stage Show,” they introduced a young, unknown singer to the world who would change the face and sound of music. On January 28, 1956 a young Elvis Presley would make his first television appearance performing “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” almost eight months before the infamous “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 re-recorded an earlier single, “So Rare,” and it charted at number one, giving Jimmy his biggest hit and the last one for any Big Band Orchestra. Sadly, it was discovered that Jimmy was in the final stages of cancer. Just months after his brother’s death, Jimmy rejoined him when he passed away on June 12, 1957. Jimmy was buried with his parents and youngest brother, Edward, in the family plot in Shenandoah 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, but the Big Band Sound has been a part of my life since the late 1990s As a sophomore in college, I was introduced to the Big Band Sound by a music professor who encouraged us to explore the different genres of music. As part of the class, we were encouraged to go listen to The Glenn Miller Orchestra when they made an appearance at Lock Haven University. Little did I know at the time that Glenn Miller had once been a part of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in the early 1930s.

Standing there in front of Jimmy’s grave I paid my respects to him and I couldn’t help but recall the lyrics from “The Breeze and I.” The words echoed in my head as I left him to rest with his parents and younger brother. “The breeze and I are saying goodbye…Ending in a strange, mournful tune.”

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