“Blue Champagne” (1941) Jimmy Dorsey and Bob Eberly

“Blue Champagne”

Composed by Grady Watts and Frank Ryerson; arranged by Toots Camarata.

Recorded by Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Decca on April 29, 1941 in New York.

Jimmy Dorsey, alto saxophone; directing: Jimmy Campbell, first trumpet; Shorty Solomson, Nate Kazebier, trumpets; Sonny Lee, first trombone; Nat Lobovsky, Phil Washburne, trombones; Milt Yaner, first alto saxophone; Sam Rubinowich, alto saxophone; Charlie Frazier and Herbie Haymer, tenor saxophones; Joe Lippman, piano; Guy Smith, guitar;Jack Ryan, bass; Buddy Schutz, drums; Bob Eberly, vocal.

The story:

Jimmy Dorsey – early 1940s

Clarinetist-alto saxophonist Jimmy Dorsey (1904-1957), the older of the two Dorsey brothers, came to success as a professional musician and as a bandleader before his brother Tommy did. Jimmy led a successful band throughout the late 1930s. Tommy also was very successful then, though his success came about two years later than Jimmy’s had. By 1940, both Dorsey brothers were top-echelon bandleaders in terms of popular success. Both brothers then navigated the murky, swirling waters of the big band business very successfully through the booming entertainment years of World War II. (Neither served in the military: Jimmy, who was almost 38 years old as 1942 began, was past draft age; Tommy, aged 36, but with severe myopia, also was not called into the military. The Dorsey brothers served their country during World War II by playing lots of bond drives.) Both Dorseys essentially laid off or greatly reduced their work for awhile at the end of 1946 and into 1947. In fact, both of them could have retired completely at that time, and lived very comfortable lives. But that didn’t happen.

Tommy returned to bandleading, increasingly making business moves that would establish him as a successful independent pop music/entertainment business entrepeneur in the postwar period. Jimmy, like Tommy, severed a number of his old business connections at this time, probably trying to follow his brother’s lead to strike out in a new direction business-wise. But instead of independently pursuing the wide-ranging scope of opportunities Tommy pursued, which included overseas tours, and ultimately, television, Jimmy made what turned out to be a massive blunder, by reversing course and signing a five year management contract with Tom Rockwell-General Artists Corporation. (Rockwell and GAC had represented Jimmy through all of his successes in the period 1936-1946.)

Jimmy Dorsey – early 1950s: the road, alcohol and cigarettes took a heavy toll on his health.

GAC’s business plan in 1948 was pretty much the same as it had been in 1938. But the market for big band entertainment was vastly different in 1948 than it had been previously. Although Jimmy led bands that were very good musically from 1948 to 1953, he saw his ability to earn money with these bands go downhill steadily. Musically and in a business sense, he and GAC were going in one direction, typified by endless one-nighter tours through the U.S., while the market for the music he was selling steadily accelerated its movement in the opposite direction. By 1953, Jimmy was an alcoholic whose drinking was out of control; he was smoking incessantly; he was physically and mentally exhausted; and he was bankrupt. In addition, his marriage had ended in divorce, and the lovely home he had in Southern California burned down. In essence, everything Jimmy Dorsey had worked very hard to accumulate in the years 1925-1947 was wiped out by 1953.

Today, Tommy is the better known Dorsey brother because he successfully made the transition from the pre-war and wartime big band business model to a somewhat different post war business model. In addition, Tommy enjoyed the wheeling and dealing of business generally, was a canny businessman who recognized opportunity when he saw it, then seized it. Also, Tommy was a jovial media personality who relished appearing on radio, in movies, and on television. Tommy also made sure that starting in 1950, after he was finally able to extricate himself from what he considered a suffocating business relationship with his booking agency, Music Corporation of America (MCA), he, not a booking agency, would set the course he was to follow in the entertainment business. In the 1950s, Tommy was regarded as a heavyweight show-business operator. In these critical matters, he was totally different from Jimmy. As a result,Tommy prospered in the post-war years, and through the 1950s, up to his untimely death in late 1956, while Jimmy’s career as a bandleader essentially stopped in 1953. Fortunately, Jimmy’s dynamic brother (with considerable pressure from their mother), provided Jimmy with a safe harbor while he tried to resume some kind of career in music.

Helen O’Connell, JD and Bob Eberly – they were a potent box office draw in 1941.

But all of this was in the future in the spring of 1941, when Jimmy Dorsey recorded “Blue Champagne.” At that time, Jimmy was riding high. He and his band were being featured on a sponsored NBC Blue network radio show, Your Happy Birthday, which aired on Friday nights from 9:35 to 10:00 p.m. The show’s “concept” was that celebrities who were observing their birthdays that week were invited to appear. The show’s format limited the amount of time the JD band had to play, so Jimmy’s arranger, Toots Camarata, devised the idea of featuring Jimmy’s boy singer, Bob Eberly, and girl singer, Helen O’Connell, on the same song using contrasting tempos, with a spot somewhere in between for Jimmy’s saxophone or clarinet. This formula was successful not only on the radio show, but in a series of Jimmy’s Decca recordings, including “Amapola,” “Green Eyes,” and “Tangerine.” By the end of April, they had just completed a very successful run at the Cafe’ Rouge of Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan (which included many all-important NBC radio broadcasts). The band was also racking up strong grosses at the Strand Theater in New York. By the time Jimmy and the band took to the road for a summer tour, they were all but guaranteed turn-away business.(1)

Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra at the Cafe’ Rouge of Hotel Pennsylvania – early 1941. L-R:front: Herbie Haymer, Sam Rubinowich, Milt Yaner, Charlie Frazier, JD, Don Matteson, Bob Eberly in front at microphone, Nat Lobovsky; hidden behind JD is trombonist Sonny Lee; back: Joe Lippman, Jack Ryan, Buddy Schutz, Guy Smith, Nate Kazebier, Jimmy Campbell. Hidden behind JD is trumpeter Shorty Solomson.

The Music:

“Blue Champagne” was written by two musicians who worked with Glen Gray and His Casa Loma Orchestra: trumpeters Grady Watts and Frank Ryerson. This song was not recorded by the Casa Loma band, probably because it was placed with Jimmy Dorsey, recorded by him with a vocal by Bob Eberly, and almost immediately became a big hit. Both Casa Loma and Jimmy Dorsey recorded for Decca, so Decca executives likely told Glen Gray that he could not record “Blue Champagne” and compete with the hot-selling JD version.

Bob Eberly – 1941.

The arrangement done for the Dorsey band by Toots Camarata is a good example of middle-of-the-road big band swing, played at a perfect tempo for dancing. After a brief introduction by the cup-muted brass, the saxophone section, under Milt Yaner’s singing lead, set out the melody twice in a space of 16 bars. JD plays the bridge on his alto saxophone, staying close to the melody. The reeds return with the main melody for the last eight bars of the first chorus. Although the saxophones play immaculately, with their vibratos matched, those vibratos are a bit wavy for 1940, when swing bands were moving away from so much vibrato. (Curiously, the brass use much less vibrato.) The band then modulates into Bob Eberly’s key, and he immediately demonstrates why he was one of the best and most popular singers of the swing era: He sang with utter relaxation, and gentle swing, using his robust tenor/baritone voice subtly (and skillfully) to invest the lyric with great warmth. 

A photo of Bob Eberly that was included in the GAC publicity book for Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra – 1941.

Young Frank Sinatra always kept his eyes on Bob Eberly, whose national popularity as Jimmy Dorsey’s boy singer started several years before Sinatra’s rise to popularity as Tommy Dorsey’s boy singer. In addition to being an excellent singer, Eberly was an extremely handsome young man, stood about 5’10” tall, and had the build of a college football player. He was an easy-going person who was well-liked by everyone in the JD band. Audiences, especially females, reacted very positively to him. People in the entertainment business long expected Bob to leave the Dorsey band and head to Hollywood to become a movie actor. But it never happened, much to Sinatra’s relief. Eberly remained happily employed (and well-paid) as Jimmy Dorsey’s singer until late 1943, when he was called into the U.S. Army. Sinatra meanwhile, had launched his career as a singer independent of any big band, was declared 4-F and not called into the military, and had started his rise to the top of the entertainment world. After his military service, Bob Eberly, despite his excellence as a singer, never seemed to move into the top ranks of postwar pop vocalists. Timing is especially important in careers in entertainment, and it seems that Bob Eberly’s prime time was the span of years he spent as Jimmy Dorsey’s star vocalist.

(1) Many of the details cited in this post come from the excellent bio-discography of Jimmy Dorsey entitled: Jimmy Dorsey…A Study in Contrasts by Robert L. Stockdale (1999).

The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

3 comments on ““Blue Champagne” (1941) Jimmy Dorsey and Bob Eberly”

  1. Lawrence Glickman says:

    You have once again “filled in the blanks” of an era that I had only known in a superficial way. The transitory nature of the public’s musical tastes spotlights Tommy Dorsey’s smart moves to adjust to the rise of television and shrinking market and rising expenses of touring a Big Band. Recently, a rap performer has won the Pulitzer Prize. That is a long way from the music of Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey.

  2. David Fletcher says:

    Mom had SUCH a crush on Bob! She had as many JD Deccas as she did TD Victors and GM Bluebirds (she was a college gal between ’40 and ’44). Bob’s brother Ray was shorter and a bit stockier. She liked Ray’s singing, but…

    One of my treasures is her 2-page set list and tune descriptions from a VA Beach Cavalier Beach Club “tea dance” appearance in the Summer of ’41. Jimmy would feature Bob and Helen in little skit-setups before the duet tunes–they had wonderful on-stage chemistry, and both were easy on the eyes!

  3. Michael House says:

    I think the wide saxophone vibrato on this record is explained by the distinction between “swing” bands and “sweet” bands. As you know, but some of your readers may not know, there were 3 types of big bands during the Swing Era. “Sweet” bands, such as Sammy Kaye, targeted a generally older audience. Those bands, which were derisively referred to “Mickey Mouse” outfits by jazz musicians, featured “corny” arrangements that utilized saxophones sections playing with wide vibratos. On the other hand, “Swing” bands, such as Charlie Barnet, played a high percentage of jazz-oriented arrangements that targeted a generally younger audience. The difference between swing and sweet bands is aptly illustrated by Barnet’s Bluebird recordings of Billy May’s “The Right Idea” and the hilarious “The Wrong Idea.” Finally, there were bandleaders, such as Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Larry Clinton, and Kay Kyser who tried to appeal to both older and younger audiences. In fact, those bandleaders often appeared in both the swing band and sweet band categories in annual polls of magazines such as Downbeat and Metronome. “Blue Champagne” is clearly an example of Jimmy Dorsey trying to appeal to sweet band fans, however, I don’t mean to imply that Toots Camarata’s excellent arrangement is corny.

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