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Tommy Dorsey: Livin' in a Great Big Way--A Biography
Tommy Dorsey: Livin' in a Great Big Way--A Biography
Peter J. Levinson
Da Capo Press, 2005
384 pp., $27.50

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Timothy Larsen

A Time to Swing

Tommy Dorsey and the big band era.

On January 18, 1956 Elvis Presley made his first national television appearance as a guest on Stage Show, a variety hour hosted by the big band leaders Tommy Dorsey and his brother, Jimmy. Tommy, who had fought racism with raw physical courage his entire career, had been using the show to feature African American greats such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. Ratings began to suffer. Tommy booked the 21-year-old unknown as a sop to white southerners. In rehearsal, the members of the Dorsey Orchestra were contemptuous. One of them later admitted, "We didn't like him because he looked dirty, and he needed a haircut. We thought he never bathed." Tommy was a classy perfectionist. His musicians were supremely talented and highly disciplined professionals, widely celebrated for their precision—the best, well dressed.

The clash of styles was grating, but Tommy's eye for spotting talent did not desert him even then. He prophesied to his incredulous players, "You see that guy Elvis Presley—he's going to be one of the biggest names in show business in a short time." Elvis wore a black shirt and sang "Shake, Rattle and Roll" while gyrating his body. The age of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll was born.

Things were different back in the good old days of sex, drugs, and swing. Tommy Dorsey (1905-1956), "The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing," had a penthouse suite at the top of that world, and Peter J. Levinson tells his story in a well-researched and engaging biography. In the Dorsey Orchestra's exquisite rendition of "Marie," the members of the band chant the phrase that Levinson has chosen as his subtitle, "Livin' in a Great Big Way." For Dorsey, such plentitude included habitual infidelity (he was in the midst of his third divorce when he died, and he had not been faithful to any of his wives), a drinking problem, and pill popping (the New York Times headline on his death at the age of 51 said it all: "Dorsey Drugged When He Choked").

But the music was good. ...

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