Together and separate, the Dorsey Brothers were responsible for some of the most memorable music of the swing era. Backed by many of the finest musicians and singers of the day they consistently topped the charts with some of the best rhythms ever recorded. They always strove to be the best in their field, and this showed in their strong musical output. Few bandleaders could equal their accomplishments.
Known as the Sentimental Gentlemen of Swing, Tommy was the younger of the two brothers. During the 1920s he and Jimmy lead Dorsey's Novelty Six and were members of the Scranton Sirens before moving to New York, where they played with several orchestras, including those of Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman. In the early 1930s they kept busy as studio musicians and occasionally co-led an orchestra, backing such singers as the Boswell Sisters, Bing Crosby and Mildred Bailey. In 1934 they officially formed the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Glenn Miller was an early member of the outfit. Kay Weber was the group's only female vocalist. Bob Crosby was the first male vocalist. Bob Eberly replaced Crosby as male vocalist when Crosby left to lead Gil Rodin's new outfit.
Though the two brothers shared leadership Tommy fronted the band and did most of the work. Jimmy was content to sit with the orchestra and was perfectly happy letting Tommy take charge. Tommy, though, was well-known for his temper. He had tremendous drive and often expected too much from those who worked for him. He often resented Jimmy, who was easy-going and well-liked by the band members. Jimmy was everybody's pal, while Tommy often kept distant.
Tensions boiled, and in June of 1935 they came to a head. One night, on the bandstand, Tommy counted off the tempo for their next number, and Jimmy interrupted him. "Isn't that little too fast, Mac?'' asked the elder brother. Tommy didn't say a word but grabbed his trombone and walked off stage, never to return. Everyone asked him to come back but he refused. Intent on starting his own band and showing up his brother, he soon took over the Joe Haymes Orchestra.
Tommy's orchestra soon became the top band in the country, a title it held throughout most of the swing era. It featuring at one time or another such musicians as Bunny Berigan and Charlie Shavers, arrangers Paul Weston, Axel Stordahl, and Sy Oliver, singers Frank Sinatra, Jack Leonard, Jo Stafford, Edythe Wright, Connie Haines, Anita Boyer and the vocal group the Pied Pipers. The orchestra is considered the greatest dance band of all time and was second to none when it came to ballads. In 1942 he hired the string section of the Artie Shaw Orchestra and expanded his sound even further.
Tommy also indulged in many outside business endeavors, including his own music publishing firm, his own magazine, his own booking agency and a ballroom. In 1945 and 1946 he served as Director of Popular Music at the Mutual Radio Network.
As the popularity of big band music began to wane in 1946 Tommy decided to quit the music business. He couldn't stay away for long, however, and he reformed his orchestra the following year as he and brother Jimmy began to reconcile during the filming of their quasi-biographical movie, The Fabulous Dorseys. Tommy struggled to keep the new group going. Finally, in 1953, Jimmy rejoined him to form a new Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, though the band was technically under Tommy's name and leadership. With the help of Jackie Gleason, they landed their own popular television program on CBS in 1954, one episode of which featured a then unknown Elvis Presley.
The end came unexpectedly. Tommy died in 1956, shortly after his fifty-first birthday, choking to death in his sleep. Jimmy never recovered from his brother's death and did not outlive him very long. He passed away seven months later, after losing a bout with cancer.