Part 1: The Dorseys and Beyond

Nobody could be more surprised by this series than I am myself. I was making a few posts about music I like on my Facebook page, just for fun. And the next thing I knew, I ended up writing what amounts to a small book!

I am planning to do something kind of autobiographical for my next book project, that is to say after I finish writing, drawing and inking the book that I am working on now.* And I like to overlap projects a little. It helps me keep that head of steam going that powers me through a project. So that's what happened. That head of steam of mine blasted out kind of an extra added attraction book!

It has a lot about me and my background, but essentially it is about recorded music; listening to it, hunting for it, finding and collecting it. All kinds of music. What makes this particular series even more interesting is that there will be lots of links, so you can actually hear some of the music I will be talking about. I hope you enjoy it.

*The new book is called The Amazing, Enlightening And Absolutely True Adventures Of Katherine Whaley. Coming soon from Fantagraphics.

The Fabulous Dorseys: I just got my copy of The Big Broadcast CD, which is a perk one gets for contributing to WFUV's fund drive. Great as always. (Love that Singin' Sam.) But one cut in particular (not necessarily the best either), held particular fascination for me.


It is the first cut, "Fate", by a combo called The Scranton Sirens, from 1923. It features legendary jazz sidemen and future star band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey in what may be their first outing on wax. It is a pleasant record, by no means super. But it is amazing to hear these two legends at the very dawn of their illustrious careers.

It was particularly fascinating to me, as I DID get to see them frequently in action at the end. I'm old enough to remember very well their interesting adventures on live TV toward the end of their lives. I saw, live on TV, the famous episode of the Jackie Gleason show where Ralph Kramdon ends the Dorsey Brothers' famous feud. In reality it had been patched up years before, but I didn't know anything about that when I saw the show. I haven't seen the show since its live broadcast but it still remains fixed vividly in my memory. What I also didn't realize at the time was that this show was a setup for the Dorseys to take over as Jackie Gleason's summer replacement show, which was called Stage Show.

It was on this show that the Dorseys introduced Elvis Presley to a national TV audience for the first time. (Man! I didn't know WHAT to think of that, but it sure stayed with me! They hold up extremely well in kinescopes.) It was also the show that Charlie Parker (a Jimmy fan) was watching a year earlier, when he dropped dead.

The Dorseys were in their fifties at the time but seemed much older. I think there were two categories of roaring twenties burn outs: guys like Bix, who more or less drank themselves to death on the spot, and guys like the Dorseys, who tippled their way there by the time they were in their fifties. Tommy died in '56. Jimmy followed him shortly after in '57 (although he did go out with a top 40 hit on the charts, "So Rare").

I remember watching that show one evening. Jimmy was playing a sax solo just as my father walked into the room. He stood there watching with me and as Jimmy finished said, "Man. Jimmy Dorsey must be the worst sax player that ever lived." I was a little too young to have an informed opinion about it at the time. But I will say this: It may have been true at that moment in time, but career wise, it was anything but true.

Jimmy Dorsey does not get enough credit for being one of the greatest jazz sidemen that ever lived.

Both Dorseys, after their 1935 break up, had solid money-making careers with swing era big bands. Of the two, Tommy's career seems to have been the more distinguished in that period. It's not really my favorite period, but some undeniably fine things came out of the Tommy Dorsey band.

But really, for me, I think most of their finest hours can be heard on earlier sides—even earlier, in most cases, than the official Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Where they tend to really knock me out are on sides you can hear almost any Sunday night on WFUV's Big Broadcast. Sessions from the late '20s and early '30s, sometimes for singers like Seeger Ellis, Lee Morse, Annette Hanshaw, Chick Bullock, the Boswells, and in various other instrumental combos. The personnel on these sides varies but there is usually the solid nucleus of Tommy, Jimmy, and guitarist, Eddie Lang. On the Hanshaws Tommy also plays some really nice trumpet.

Anyway, that's about it except to say, what careers! Neither one made it to age 60 and yet they lived long enough to both record for Thomas Edison and introduce Elvis to a national TV audience. That IS kind of fabulous.

Mad About Music: My Life In Records, Part One.

Gosh. When mentioning the Dorsey's clients in those early days, I completely forgot to mention the great Bing Crosby. Such was his power and influence that he actually got the Dorseys to come together in 1935, the same year of their split, for one more session together with him.

Early in 1956, when I was 12, I was going through a box of budget records in a variety store. These were newly pressed as they were made of vinyl plastic and were about 8 inches in diameter. They looked more like some odd new 45rpm record than what they really were: strange, last gasp, microgroove 78s that came in two color paper covers and sold for 39 cents a piece. The brand name was Bell Records, and it must have been pure idle curiosity that had me flicking through this box, since these records were generally pretty generic in subject matter. Today only a hardcore misanthropic record collector would even remember this line of records and then probably with no particular fondness. The particular record that caught my eye that day was by The Dorsey Brothers doing two mambo tunes. This meant the tunes couldn't have been too new, as the Mambo craze was pretty well kaput in 1956. 1953 would really have been your peak mambo craze year and this was probably the most likely year that this material had been recorded. It was also the official year that the Dorsey Brothers officially got together in a band again. Even in their heyday they were always known as truculent characters, a pair of battling Irish Americans breaking out into fist fights with each other with very little provocation.

The final fight that ended their professional association as the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra occurred in 1935. The bad blood between them must have ended sooner than that though because this famous split was documented in the 1947 film The Fabulous Dorseys, in which they played themselves. In it Tommy walks during the band's rehearsal of the song, "I'll Never Say Never Again". I've always wondered how much of that scene was really true, as there was so much about that film that seems really bogus. It is a film of some fascination but it leaves you wishing it was a better movie than it actually is.

Well, for reasons I can no longer explain, I decided I wanted to buy the Dorsey Brothers' mambo record. However, I did not have the required 39 cents. It was Saturday and I went back to our house, at this time in Hastings on Hudson, New York, and found my father upstairs reclining on my parents' bed, reading a book. I asked him if I could borrow 39 cents.

When I told him it was so I could buy a record by The Dorsey Brothers doing two mambo tunes he got a very pained expression on his face. "What in the World do you want a thing like that for?" he said. Then he told me to come down to the basement with him.

There were a lot of cool things in our basement and I already spent a lot of time down there. For instance, there was a truly massive pile of science fiction pulp magazines that my mother kept down there dating from 1939, when, still in her teens, she hitch hiked with my grandmother from Denver, Colorado to Los Angeles. I didn't ever read any of these, but I loved to look at their lurid covers. More to my actual tastes was a fairly big pile of old Life magazines that covered every issue of that king of magazines from 1949 to 1956. I was down in the basement reading those often.

 But on this particular day my father led me to another interesting pile of cast off material. These were boxes of old 78 records. If I knew they were there I certainly hadn't paid them much note. My father still wasn't saying much as he started flicking through these records, but every now and then he'd pull one out. One of the first ones was a 78 on the red Good Time Jazz label. It was "Tiger Rag" by The Firehouse Five Plus Two.

Good Time Jazz was a label that started up in the 1940s, devoted to the New Orleans Jazz revival that started as a sort of negative reaction to the swing era. A yearning by some, including my parents, to see jazz get back to its black New Orleans roots. The most celebrated band of this sort was the Lu Waters Yerba Buena Jazz band, a rather good and hard-driving combination that started recording around 1940, '41, and patterned itself after the line up and sound of King Oliver's Creole Jazz band as it sounded on its first 1923 records.

Well, The Firehouse Five did not really have the same kind of reputation. This was a band made up of guys that worked at Walt Disney.

Best known of them was trombonist Ward Kimball, a legendary Disney animator/director.

My father knew these guys because they, like him, were moldy figs.

This is what jazz writer Leonard Feather called the New Orleans Jazz revival fans. Of course Feather was extolling the new Bebop sound at that time. If the New Orleans revivalists frowned on swing, you can just imagine what they thought of Bop! Consequently they took the moldy fig term that Feather had laid on them as a badge of honor.

The next record my father pulled was an acetate disk he had recorded himself. Acetate records were metal disks coated with vinyl, one-of-a-kinds that my father made on his own home recorder. This one was of a group called The San Gabrielle Blue Blowers. He explained to me that this was what the Firehouse Five originally called themselves and this disk was one of their first experimental records.

Another acetate he pulled was a dub he'd made of a 1926 Jelly Roll Morton record called "Steamboat Stomp", a good one.

Then he pulled out a pretty ancient looking record on a maroon-colored Okeh label. "You'll like this," he said.

It was called "The Laughing Record". I couldn't imagine what that could be and couldn't wait to find out. He pulled out a few other things. The only other one I can remember was a home acetate he'd made of the Henry Morgan show in 1946, and which was recorded at 33 1/3 RPM. Henry Morgan was a caustic post war comedian, almost a precursor of guys like Mort Sahl and Shelly Berman who came later. He never caught on in a big way. An interesting fact concerning that, according to my father, is that he was the only comedian whose radio show was sponsored by another comedian, Fred Allen.

Finally, my father solemnly handed me the pile of records and said, "These will do you more good than a mambo record by the Dorsey Brothers." And I have to admit, much as I have come to love the Dorsey Brothers, I think he had that one right.

Well, I don't know how many of you are familiar with the Okeh "Laughing Record", but it's the damndest thing! It must have been recorded some time in the early 1920s, but I am not sure except to say it happened no later than that. No artist credit was given on the label. It starts out with a solemn sounding trumpet solo, and gets maybe fifteen seconds into that when somebody starts to laugh. The poor trumpeter starts in again and pretty soon he's interrupted by two people laughing. He keeps trying to play and he keeps getting interrupted by loud, rude laughing. This goes on for about three minutes. Pretty amazing. This was a very popular record for Okeh and it stayed in print for a very long time. The last sighting of it I experienced was at Rye Playland in the early '60s, where I upgraded to a large hole 45 RPM copy of same record, still on the Okeh label. The other side had a hillbilly record, made much later, that ended up as a crying jag. Ah, the wonders of this world!


But, for all the fascination of the Okeh "Laughing Record", by far the record in the pile that grabbed me most was that record of "Tiger Rag" by the Firehouse Five. "Tiger Rag". Now that really is your basic Jazz 101 tune. The earliest record of it I know of is the 1918 record of it by a white group known as The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. It is said that young Bix Beiderbecke taught himself to play jazz cornet by playing this record on the family talking machine at a very slow speed and playing along with it again and again. In the Library of Congress records that Allen Lomax made of Jelly Roll Morton in 1937, there is a fascinating passage where Morton demonstrates how this tune had been adapted from an old French Quadrille. So it really went way back.

I guess I was ready for it because the Firehouse Five record really worked for me. I couldn't stop playing it! I even brought it into my 6th grade class one time when we were having some sort of show and tell deal. The strange thing about that was my schoolmates, among whom I was not overly popular, were as crazy for it as I was! And this was the first big year of Rock and Roll. What was going on with that record? One kid in the class offered to pay me a dollar for it right then and there but I wouldn't do it.


Over time, "Tiger Rag" went the way of most childish things. I had gained an appreciation of jazz but don't really care much for "Tiger Rag" any more. (Well, there is Jimmy Grier's nice arrangement of it in that 1929 Gus Arnheim short, but I digress.)

Anyway a few years ago I was plowing through a pile of old LPs in a Goodwill store. Now is the time to be looking for old LPs. Nobody wants them. But that WILL change.

Well, in this batch was a ten-inch Good Time Jazz LP of old Firehouse Five sides, including "Tiger Rag". I couldn't resist. I had low expectations but I bought it and brought it home. Amazingly, when I put the needle on the "Tiger Rag" cut, it sounded as good to me as ever! I don't claim that it is any kind of masterpiece, but it is a record of real freshness, joy, and vitality.

So, that's how I started collecting records way back in 1956.

One other of the Firehouse Five alumni later directed the very underrated Haley Mills movie, Pollyanna. In fact, the Firehouse Five make a cameo appearance in that film.

The few LPs of the Dorsey Brothers that I have from that era are surprisingly bad. In their prime those guys were as good as anybody and better than most but, sadly, their prime ended. In my humble opinion, popular American culture took a big hit in the 1940s that it never really recovered from. The same thing might even be true for the United States of America.

According to Rich Conaty's notes (in the latest Big Broadcast CD where I heard "Fate"), it was not generally issued, but a limited pressing that the guys in the Sirens band sold at gigs.

"Tiger Rag" as arranged by Jimmy Grier. Watch for Russ Columbo playing some hot violin in this one.