It all started, or rather ended, with a tempo change. The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra broke up when Tommy Dorsey abruptly walked off the stage during an engagement at the Glen Island Casino after an argument over the tempo of a tune. However, the seeds of discord had been planted long ago. The Dorsey Brothers, Jimmy and Tommy, were legendary scrappers who, despite their love for one another, constantly found themselves in heated arguments. After this final blow-up, Jimmy continued to lead the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra under his own name. For his part, Tommy took over the band of Joe Haymes and formed the first Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
Before the Swing Era Tommy, along with his brother, were highly respected musicians in Dixieland circles. Tommy always claimed that he stole his playing style from Miff Mole, but nevertheless is regarded as one of the greatest trombone players ever. His singing tone and effortless slide technique combined with his flawless command of air flow to culminate in a light and airy tone that has rarely been duplicated. Although Dorsey was a terrific hot trumpet player, his trombone playing was more suited to ballads. These romantic songs, like his theme "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You, became his forte and his most memorable hits from the era.
At first, Dorsey was reluctant to embrace the swing trend. His early bands clung to the two-beat Dixieland feel until well after Benny Goodman turned swing into a national craze. Even then, Dorsey always thought of his outfit as a premier dance band and featured little in the way of jazz. This may be why Dorsey gets little recognition today. Like Paul Whiteman, who also preferred to recruit top-notch jazzmen, there was little room for others to shine through solo breaks. Still, Dorsey's band was always stocked with players such as Bud Freeman and Benny Berigan who were nevertheless able to blow a hot chorus from time to time.
"Marie is one of the best examples of the Tommy Dorsey band at its finest, demonstrating the great gains when pop and art collide. It started out as a waltz written by Irving Berlin for an early sound movie called The Awakening that had music, but no dialogue. Dorsey got the idea for recording the tune while appearing at the Nixon's Grand with the Sunset Royal Serenaders, whose vocalist performed the song while the band chanted phrases behind. Fred Stulce, Dorsey's first alto man, copied the lyrics as they performed. However, when Dorsey sent his manager Bobby Burns and arranger Paul Weston to the Serenaders to trade some arrangements to get "Marie, they were thrown out. Dorsey then told Weston, "Then you write it! and the hit version of "Marie was recorded on January 29, 1937.
Marie starts out with a lightly swinging beat. Dorsey elegantly purrs the main theme while the horn section punches out riffs behind. Jack Leonard follows with the vocal with the band responding vocally, just as the Serenaders had done. (Although Leonard was a fine singer, it's hard not to speculate what Sinatra could have done with this performance). Dorsey for once shows a willingness to swing out a little bit, but up until this point in the song, "Marie has been merely a spectacular dance number. But once Bunny Berigan enters with his solo, the song is suddenly transformed into something special.
Berigan was one of the finest instrumentalists the Swing Era produced. Unfortunately his alcohol addiction cut his career short and robbed the world of several great performances. However, if he had recorded nothing but his solo on "Marie, his reputation as an outstanding soloist would be established for good. Dorsey glided his way through the theme, but Berigan attacks the melody with an opening two-note blast before blowing through several hot choruses, instantly changing the tempo and direction of the tune. The Dorsey Orchestra rarely sounded hotter.
Berigan's solo wasn't developed on the spot, but was a result of time spent working through various choices, flipping phrases around and changing a note here and there. But what emerged in the final recording was a dazzling display that defies that it could be played any better. Dorsey apparent thought so, too; once Berigan left the band, he scored the entire solo (as well as his equally fine moment on "Song Of India ) for the whole trumpet section as a tribute. Other solos follow in "Marie, but after Berigan the highlights are over.
Although he fronted his own outfit for a time, Berigan occasionally returned to the Dorsey bandstand, albeit rarely matching his former glory. Once in 1940 Berigan was set to do a radio show for NBC with Dorsey and had dinner beforehand. When the trumpeter got up to perform his solo on "Marie he fell off the bandstand. Later Dorsey checked his dinner tab and found that Berigan's dinner consisted of 12 scotch and sodas and a ham sandwich. This was the beginning of the end for Berigan, who died shortly thereafter in ill health. He was replaced by Ziggy Elman, who had enjoyed success in the Goodman band.
Dorsey continued to plug on, long after swing became unfashionable. Eventually, just like many other bandleaders, Dorsey was unable to afford to keep a big band on the road. He and his brother managed to put aside their differences to play together from time to time, but never with the success that was reached with "Marie. That song remains one of the great accomplishments of the Swing Era, a record that combines a great song, a perfect arrangement and a spectacular solo.
Dupuis, Robert. Bunny Berigan: Elusive Legend of Jazz. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
Sandford, Herb. Tommy and Jimmy: The Dorsey Years. New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1972.
Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Sudhalter, Richard M. Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution To Jazz 1915-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
The Swing Era: 1936-1937. Jay Gold, ed. New York: Time Life Records, 1970.