Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, born in 1904 and 1905, respectively, grew up in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, under the instruction of a bandleader father who was so intent on getting his sons to practice their instruments that he would hide their shoes to keep them from leaving the house. Both brothers started out on cornet but, by the time they were teenagers, had moved on to the instruments that would bring them fame: Jimmy to alto saxophone and clarinet, and Tommy to trombone. They were traveling with various bands by the age of 17, and by 1925 they had begun to find work in New York City, where the radio boom had created a big demand for musicians who could handle the pressure of playing live over the airwaves. The Dorsey brothers were reliable workers and expert sight readers, so they did well as freelancers.
By 1928, they had gained enough experience and respect to form The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Eddie Lang and Glenn Miller were early members, as was Smith Ballew, who takes the vocal turn on “Was It a Dream?”
“Was It A Dream?” must have been a gig hit for the songwriting team of Sam Coslow, Larry Spier and Addy Britt, because it was recorded by at least six different acts in 1928 alone. Annette Hanshaw’s version has a lilting charm to it, and the Reveler’s version made excellent use of their silky four-part harmonies. But the Dorsey brothers were the only ones to stretch the song out to nearly six minutes, giving the ballad an almost classical feel that showed just how much range a swing band could have. I personally think this song should have been used in Fantasia, perhaps to tell the story of some pastoral daydream.
You may notice that the title of the video makes no allusion to separate parts. Indeed, none of the other versions that were recorded in 1928 did, either. But they usually just fell under the three minute mark, which fit perfectly well on one side of a 78. But on this version, the vocal doesn’t even come in until the second side of the disc; also note how the piano quiets down at the end of the first side to crate a natural transition between the two.
Here’s a fun example of The Dorsey Brothers doing some more conventional work, backing up Alice Boulden in a 1929 soundie called High Hat.
And here is their lilting take on “Singin’ In the Rain.”
As brothers will, the Dorseys would often fight. The competitive tension would usually bear great musical fruit, but by 1935 the squabbling had gotten to be too much and Tommy stormed off the stage of the New Rochelle Glen Island Casino after Jimmy had criticized for setting a tempo too fast. The partnership was ended, then and there. They went on to form separate bands, with Tommy’s band helping a young singer named Frank Sinatra get his start. In 1953, Jackie Gleason reunited the brothers to play together on his television show. This led to the brothers getting their own show, and in a hugely symbolic move, they even introduced Elvis Presley, perhaps unknowingly passing the torch from the big band style of music that they had helped create to that of rock and roll.
Tommy died in 1956, and Jimmy followed less than a year later. Before he left us, though, he managed to keep the band going and record his final and biggest hit, “So Rare.”