Young (and not so) Old Blue Eyes

“Everything Happens to Me”

Composed by Matt Dennis and Tom Adair; arranged by Axel Stordahl.

Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Victor on February 7, 1941 in New York.

Thomas Francis Dorsey, Jr., first trombone, directing: Ziggy Elman, Chuck Peterson, Ray Linn and Jimmy Blake, trumpets; George Arus, Les Jenkins, Lowell Martin, trombones; Freddie Stulce, Johnny Mince, alto saxophones and clarinets; Paul Mason and Don Lodice, tenor saxophones and clarinets; Heinie Beau, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet; Joe Bushkin, piano; Clark Yokum, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Buddy Rich, drums; Frank Sinatra, vocal.

The Story: Frank Sinatra was without a doubt an entertainment phenomenon.He was seemingly born to be in show business. From his earliest days learning to be a singer, he had the belief that he could and would become a star. He had no doubts about that. His first big-time gig was with trumpeter Harry James’s band in 1939. Harry, after two years of high-exposure sideman work with Benny Goodman’s band (which had a sponsored weekly network radio show, The Camel Caravan), was paying his dues on the road with his new band. Most gigs for the James band then were one-night dance dates, often widely spread apart in distance.Consequently,much of their time was spent on the band bus. James sidemen noticed that no matter how much time Sinatra spent on the bus, sleeping, lounging or doing anything else, whenever he exited the bus, he and his clothes looked unrumpled. Sinatra was fastidious about his appearance and hygiene. (In the Dorsey band, he was known as Lady Macbeth because of his frequent hand-washing and clothes changing, not to mention his ambition.) Even though he was painfully thin in those days, Sinatra had an air about him, that he was somebody special. In conversation, Sinatra made it clear that he was headed for stardom. James himself often heard these remarks, and was amused by them. In 1939 he said: “He considers himself the greatest vocalist in the business. Get that! No one’s ever heard of him. He’s never had a hit record. He looks like a wet rag. But he says he’s the greatest!”(*)

By January of 1940, Sinatra had moved on to Tommy Dorsey’s more established and successful band. The Dorsey band received far more media exposure than the James band did then. They appeared on network radio often, both on sustaining (unsponsored) remote broadcasts from places where they were playing (like the Meadowbrook, a major dance spot in Cedar Grove, New Jersey), and on a sponsored network radio show. They recorded frequently for Victor records. They appeared for weeks at a time at the 4,000+ seat Paramount Theater on Times Square in New York, the number one big band showcase in the country. In 1940, Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra were definitely big-time.

Frank Sinatra sings with Tommy Dorsey’s band – 1940. Behind Sinatra, L-R: TD band members Johnny Mince, Hymie Shertzer, Don Lodice (front); Les Jenkins (back).

The performers in the Dorsey band were all talented professionals who knew what was good in the idiom of swing music. On the first night Sinatra appeared with the TD band, a one-night dance date in Rockford, Illinois, Jo Stafford, lead singer in the vocal group called the Pied Pipers who were then being featured in the Dorsey band, was skeptical about Sinatra. “The Pipers were…well, we thought we were pretty good. We were a little clique unto ourselves. Frank was very thin in those days, almost fragile looking. When he stepped up to the microphone, we all smirked and looked at each other, waiting to see what he could do. I know it sounds like something out of a B movie, but it’s true: before he’d sung four bars, we knew. We knew he was going to be a great star.”(**)  So Sinatra proved immediately to his TD band colleagues that he was a talented performer, and earned their professional respect.He maintained that respect during his two and a half years with the Dorsey band by working conscientiously on his singing both as a soloist, and on the special occasions when he sang with the Pipers.

There were other facets to to the Sinatra persona then.Tommy Dorsey observed many years later how Sinatra affected audiences: “I used to stand there on the bandstand so amazed that I’d almost forget to take my solos. You could almost feel the excitement coming up out of the crowds when Frank stood up to sing. Remember, he was no matinee idol. He was a skinny kid with big ears.And yet what he did to women was something awful. And he did it every night, everywhere we went.”(***)

As one might suspect, the egos of Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey might have been on a collision course. They usually were. It must be said that in Tommy Dorsey’s band no one would ever usurp his authority as leader, or as its most featured performer. TD was an extraordinary trombone virtuoso who made what had often been been a crude, blatting instrument in less skilled hands into a silky-toned, singing, melodic musical voice. He also always worked as hard as was possible to make his band as successful as it could be. His relationship with his booking agency, Music Corporation of America (MCA), was usually rocky because Dorsey wanted his band to get the best work available, and he and his various personal managers maintained constant pressure on MCA to make that happen. Tommy was not a psychologist who reasoned with people. He was a high-pressure guy. Although he could when he wished be very charming, if crossed he could be violent, verbally and physically. As Johnny Mince, his long-time featured clarinetist once told me: “Tommy managed his business affairs…by intimidation.”

Tommy Dorsey’s house in Bernardsville, New Jersey.

In addition, TD was a most colorful personality. He lived lavishly on an estate in Bernardsville, New Jersey. He would invite dozens of people to come there for week-ends of swimming, barbecues, and rest and relaxation. He was a generous host. He wore the best clothes, drove the best cars. Even though he was married, women flocked to him. At the time of their meeting in 1940, Tommy Dorsey was 34 years old; Frank Sinatra was 24. Sinatra took note of the Dorsey style. He got as close to Tommy as anyone in the TD band could. He wore the same cologne that Tommy did, and the same elevator shoes. When Sinatra’s first child, Nancy, was born in 1940, he asked Tommy to be godfather for her, and TD was. Sinatra had found a role model. The imprint of Tommy Dorsey’s personality on Frank Sinatra would last for the rest of Sinatra’s life.

In order to keep Sinatra’s ego in check, TD fired him from time to time. Sinatra would after a few nervous days away from the band be invited back, and he would come–usually with new demands. Sinatra was constantly angling for more songs to sing, and better material. Early in his tenure as Tommy Dorsey’s boy singer, Sinatra decided that TD arranger Axel Stordahl wrote arrangements that he thought suited him best. Stordahl wrote many of the arrangements Sinatra sang and recorded while he was a TD singer.Their professional relationship would eventually last for over a decade, long after they both left Tommy Dorsey’s employ.

Drummer Buddy Rich with his very demanding boss – 1940.

In addition, there was at least one more very healthy ego in the Dorsey band then: that belonging to drummer Buddy Rich. Rich, who was 22 years old in mid-1940 when Sinatra began to attract a lot of attention, was a veteran show-business performer. He had first appeared onstage drumming at 18 months of age, being featured as a part of his parents’ vaudeville act. Then he had a successful career as a child performer, dazzling audiences with his astonishing drumming technique. He came to jazz in the late 1930s with the bands of Bunny Berigan and Artie Shaw, and joined the Dorsey band, reluctantly, toward the end of 1939. He thought Tommy’s band then was “square.” But TD wanted Rich’s explosive drumming as a part of his effort to reorganize his band along more swinging lines. A deal was made, a contract signed, and Rich joined Tommy. Then Sinatra appeared on the Dorsey scene.

Rich viewed his interests as the Dorsey band’s featured drummer as being antithetical to Sinatra’s. Rich wanted to play loud, romping jazz. Every time he had to tone down his drumming to accommodate a Sinatra ballad, he seethed. TD’s lead alto saxist Hymie Shertzer remembered an incident that finally brought out into the open the lingering animosity between Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich: “One night, backstage at the Astor Hotel during an intermission, Frank accused Buddy of messing up one of his vocals with a misplaced paradiddle. He picked up a glass pitcher full of iced-water, threw it straight at Buddy, who ducked, and almost felled me! Fortunately, it missed and struck the wall, shattering into a thousand pieces. Buddy really hated playing ballads and sometimes he’d just stop playing altogether or give a sly, most inappropriate thud on his bass drum, just when Frank reached the most sentimental part of the song!”[i]  Sinatra followed up on this by having some thugs accost Rich on a Manhattan street and beat him up. Down Beat’s September 1, 1940, issue contained this headline: “Buddy Rich Gets Face Bashed In,” followed by a story detailing the assault. While Rich recuperated, Nick Pelico, the drummer with Sande Williams’s house band at the Astor, filled in for him.

Dorsey, who had been amused by the sparring egos of Sinatra and Rich before this incident, now warned both of them to “cool it, or you are out of the band.” An uneasy truce between the two competitors slowly took hold.(***)

The Brill Building today. TD’s music publishing offices occupied the entire penthouse floor.

As 1940 was winding down, the simmering dispute between the nation’s then powerful radio networks and the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) boiled over. The Dorsey band, like most major bands pre-1941, played music that mostly had been composed by ASCAP member composers, whose music was licensed for radio performance through ASCAP. That organization decreed that radio networks could not play any ASCAP music, starting on January 1, 1941. (This was a dispute over what else…money.) For any major band then, radio exposure was essential. The ASCAP prohibition loomed as a large potential problem for Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra. With his usual flair for coming up with solutions to vexing problems, Tommy decided to get into the music publishing business, and use it to support non-ASCAP composers, whose music he could broadcast. 

Consequently,Tommy Dorsey formed Sun and Embassy Music Corporations in 1940, and took a lease on the entire penthouse floor of the Brill Building on 49th and Broadway in Manhattan where he housed their offices. The parties given by Dorsey in his penthouse suite throughout the 1940s could accurately be described as bacchanal brawls where the punch was definitely spiked, and many punches were thrown.

The Pied Pipers and Sinatra – 1940.

Tommy Dorsey got into the music publishing business very successfully with one of the first tunes he published through Sun Music, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” which he recorded in May of 1940 with a vocal by Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers. It quickly became a runaway hit. It was composed by Ruth Lowe, a woman who played piano, but definitely was not a professional song composer. Nevertheless, Tommy signed her to a publishing contract with Sun Music. Soon, TD was signing other talented musicians who were not necessarily composers of popular songs to publishing agreements. TD pianist Joe Bushkin was one such musician, and he scored a hit in 1941 with the TD/Sinatra/Pipers/Connie Haines collaboration on his song “Oh, Look at Me Now.”

When TD was in Los Angeles in the fall of 1940 to open the newly built Palladium Ballroom, Jo Stafford introduced him to Matt Dennis, a young pianist/singer and composer of quality pop tunes. Stafford was a native Californian, and she was very active in the LA music scene before she and the Pipers joined Tommy Dorsey toward the end of 1939. She had known Dennis since about 1937. Dennis had recently been working with a young lyricist, Tom Adair, and they had a number of new songs to demonstrate for TD. After hearing the songs of the Dennis-Adair songwriting team, Tommy immediately bought all of the songs they demonstrated, and signed them to a publishing contract. In addition, he put them on the payroll to compose new (non-ASCAP) songs that he could play on the radio after January 1, 1941. “Everything Happens to Me” was in that first batch of songs. Tommy Dorsey loved wheeling and dealing almost as much as he loved music.

Sinatra sings with Tommy Dorsey’s band – 1941.

The music: The first thing one notices about this great early recording by Frank Sinatra is its languid tempo. And then there is the the gentle background arranger Axel Stordahl fashioned for Sinatra: cup muted brass and clarinets, including one bass clarinet, a Stordahl trademark in his TD years, played here by Heinie Beau. And of course, there is Frank’s masterful singing. Although what Sinatra does here musically is absolutely compelling, he understates almost every syllable of the lyric. The only time he adds a scintilla of pathos is when he sings “…your answer was goodbye…” Emotional gradations this small were beyond the ability of most singers during the swing era.

Lyrics like this (“Everything Happens to Me,” as one might expect, is a “poor me” song), were perfect vehicles for Sinatra to gently evoke vulnerability. The distaff side of his audience reacted very strongly to this. If we are to judge based on the screams this kind of performance elicited from the female members of Frank’s audiences, he was hitting an emotional bull’s-eye. The golden age of Sinatra was soon to begin.

*********

As a bonus, I am presenting one of the greatest of all of the mature Sinatra’s recordings, “Summer Wind.” This recording was made on May 16, 1966 for Reprise, Sinatra’s own record label. The brilliant arrangement is by Nelson Riddle, who was arguably Sinatra’s most effective arranger. The orchestra probably included: Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt, lead alto saxophone, and Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone; Dick Nash, lead trombone, Milt Bernhart, trombone; Al Porcino, lead trumpet; Walter “Pete” Candoli, and Clarence “Shorty” Sherock, trumpets; Al Viola, guitar; Bill Miller, piano; Alvin Stoller, drums; and Artie Kane on Hammond organ. There is also a string section which Riddle uses subtly but tellingly.

The music for this song was composed by German composer Heinz Meier, and it was published in West Germany in 1965 with a German lyric by Hans Bradtke. The English lyric, a phantasmagoria of evocative summer images, was written by the great Johnny Mercer. It is one of his most poetic, and most effective lyrics.

“Summer Wind”

 

[i] White materials: June 1, 1940.

(*) The Frank Sinatra Reader edited by Steve Petkov and Leonard Mustazza, page 15, citing Henry Pleasants’ 1974 article from The Great American Popular Singers.

(**) Singers & the Song by Gene Lees, Oxford University Press (1987), page 104

(***) Liner notes from the RCA/BMG set of CDs Tommy Dorsey–Frank Sinatra…The Song is You (1994), page 7.

(****) Indeed, Sinatra and Rich became lifelong friends. Sinatra provided financial assistance for Rich when he (Rich) started his own band in 1946. That was surely an idealistic move on Sinatra’s part because Rich was more profligate with money than probably anyone in the Dorsey band.

The recordings presented here were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Leave a Reply