Monday, May 12, 2014

THE LAST DAYS OF THE DORSEY BROTHERS

When Jimmy Dorsey and 17 sidemen strode into New York's Capitol Records studio on Nov. 11, 1956, they had no illusions of bringing back the glory days of the big bands. Theirs was at best a twilight rear guard action, perhaps an act of faith, perhaps an act of defiance, perhaps nothing more than a handful of people who loved the music of their youth saying that music would not surrender simply because today's youth culture had moved on to rock 'n' roll. Certainly Dorsey had no illusions, for by November of 1956 he was not sure he would outlive even the last remnants of big band music.

At 54, he had lung cancer. Still, he wasn't giving up. Just three years earlier he had reunited with his brother Tommy, from whom he had been estranged for 18 years, and that reunion had provided a modest rejuvenation for both their careers at a time when big band players everywhere were struggling. Now Jimmy was getting a shot at something else he hadn't had for a while: a record deal. Harry Carlson, a songwriter, one-time bandleader and now owner of a photography studio in Cincinnati, had started a label of his own, Fraternity Records. After he had a hit with Cathy Carr's "Ivory Tower," he approached Dorsey, whose swing tunes Carlson had loved for years. There is some evidence Carlson was wildly optimistic about this project, that he felt just a few modernizing adaptations would enable the big band sound to compete with Elvis Presley and Little Richard.

He wasn't thinking small. He and Dorsey rounded up four trumpets, four trombones, two alto saxes, two tenor saxes and one baritone, plus piano, guitar, drums and bass - in addition, of course, to Dorsey's own alto. They also brought in the Arthur Malvin Singers, a group intended to conjure the old mellow sound of the Modernaires with a snappier, hipper touch. The session would include four songs: "Sophisticated Swing," a Mitchell Parish/Will Hudson tune; "Mambo en Sax," a Latin-flavored number by one of the hottest lights of the moment, bandleader Perez Prado; "It's the Dreamer in Me," which Dorsey wrote years earlier with Jimmy Van Heusen, and "So Rare," a Jerry Hersey/Jack Sharp song that had been a top-five hit for Guy Lombardo and Gus Arnheim in 1937. Dorsey had played "So Rare" on stage over the years. But for the Fraternity session, perhaps because of his health or because he hadn't been in a studio for a while, he played it a little differently - with more of what musicians called a growl, apparently influenced by the then-popular style of rhythm and blues saxman Earl Bostic.


The band did two takes of "So Rare" and decided to issue the second one. It wasn't the most memorable Jimmy Dorsey song, but it was pleasant enough, and it clearly evoked the musical spirit of yesteryear. In fact, it evoked yesteryear so well that Carlson couldn't find any major pop radio station that would play it. Finally he went back home to Cincinnati, called in some favors, and got enough spins so it drew a little notice - which wasn't all that surprising, as radio still had many deejays with a strong fondness for the big band era. But by the time "So Rare" started to appear on the charts, Jimmy Dorsey's life had further crumbled.

On November 26, 1956  just 15 days after the "So Rare" session, Tommy Dorsey choked to death in his sleep at his home in Greenwich, Conn. - a bad blow for Jimmy, despite the fact he and Tommy had not always gotten along. In the early days, when they'd played in bands together, they were known to settle things with their fists, and their breakup in 1935 was big band legend. Tommy was counting off the tempo to "I'll Never Say 'Never Again' Again" on stage at the Glen Island Casino and Jimmy, working on a hangover, suggested it was too fast. Tommy said, fine, do it your way, picked up his trombone and walked off. For the next 18 years they each fronted enormously successful bands of their own and barely spoke. Still, they were brothers and partners, and it was fine with Jimmy that Tommy led the reunited band, since Tommy liked being the main man and Jimmy didn't.


A few weeks later after Tommy's death, Jimmy entered the hospital for what the newspapers were told was the removal of a "common nonmalignant wart" from his lung. Actually, the doctors had taken out the whole lung, in a desperate and futile attempt to stop the cancer. He returned to playing, but then he collapsed on a bandstand in Wichita and was flown back to Doctors Hospital in New York, where the newspapers were told he had neuritis. When he had to return to the hospital later, the newspapers were told he was visiting his ill mother. In reality, he was looking at the end. Doctors who had ordered him to stop drinking several years earlier told him to go ahead, it didn't matter anymore.

On June 10, 1957, trumpet man Lee Castle visited Jimmy at Doctors Hospital and presented him with a gold record, the fifth of his career. "So Rare" had sold a million copies. Jimmy died two days later. A few days after that, Carlson had Castle reassemble the rest of the band from the Nov. 11 sessions and record eight more sides so he would have enough material to release an album. It yielded only one modest hit, "June Nights. It was the end of the Dorsey brother era as we knew it...


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