Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra
live over the NBC radio network, June 1, 1940 Astor (Hotel) Roof, New York City.
Composed by Vincent Youmans; Arranged by Sy Oliver.
Tommy Dorsey, first and solo trombone; directing: Bunny Berigan, Ray Linn, Jimmy Blake, Leon Debrow, trumpets; George Arus, Les Jenkins, Lowell Martin, trombones; Hymie Shertzer, Freddie Stulce, Johnny Mince, alto saxophones; Don Lodice and Paul Mason, tenor saxophones; Joe Bushkin, piano; Clark Yokum, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Buddy Rich, drums. Sy Oliver, arranger.
On Tuesday May 21, 1940, Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra opened at the Roof Garden of the Astor Hotel in New York City. Here is the information in the advertisement for this opening that was in the New York Times: “Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra– Astor Roof– Astor Hotel–OPENING TONIGHT–with Sande Williams and His Orchestra- The Callahan Sisters–Hibbert, Bird & Laurie–The Top Hatters. Dinner and dancing nightly, except Sunday. Comfort is assured on the Astor Roof. Cooled by nature on suitable evenings; on other nights air conditioned. Dinner and supper dancing nightly, except Sunday. Deluxe dinners from 2 dollars; supper couvert (after 10 p.m.) 75 cents, except Saturdays and holidays, then 1 dollar.” [i] More information was contained in Billboard: “The Astor show has the Tommy Dorsey band, Connie Haines, Frank Sinatra, the Pied Pipers, the Top Hatters, the Callahan Sisters, and the Hibbert-Bird- Larue trio.The band has five reeds, three trombones, not counting Dorsey, four trumpets, piano, bass and drums, no guitar. The Pied Pipers are three men and a girl, Jo Stafford; the Top Hatters are a whirlwind roller skating duo and the Callahan Sisters are a tap dance team. Buddy Rich is featured on a portable drum set down front on ‘Quiet Please’. Tommy has asked ringsiders to bear with him if the blasting gets too loud during the broadcasts. Sande Williams has the house band.” [ii] It seems that vaudeville, even in a hotel ballroom, was still very much alive in 1940.
The broadcasts referred to occurred almost nightly, alternating between NBC’s Blue Network (over WJZ-New York), and Red Network (over WEAF-New York). Many recordings were taken off of the air during Tommy Dorsey’s 1940 engagement at the Astor Roof. They show the development of the powerhouse band Tommy was to lead from then well into the years of World War II, and document the emergence of Frank Sinatra (not on this recording) as a singing star. They also show how important an asset drummer Buddy Rich had become, both as a very colorful ensemble player, and as a nonpareil soloist. Other valuable commercial assets were the Pied Pipers singing group, and increasingly, their lead singer Jo Stafford, and Tommy’s smooth trombone. Arranger Sy Oliver had by this time become a constant source of swinging originals for the band’s jazz contingent, which then included, in addition to Rich, clarinetist Johnny Mince, tenor saxist Don Lodice, (pictured above left on the TD band bus, 1940), pianist Joe Bushkin, and trumpeter Bunny Berigan. Berigan was spending a few months in the TD band trying to recover from the financial problems he encountered as a result leading his own band. Oliver also wrote arrangements on pop tunes and standards for TD’s band.
This super-charged Sy Oliver arrangement dresses up in swing finery “Hallelujah!’ by Vincent Youmans from the 1927 Broadway musical Hit the Deck. Here we get the full atmosphere and glamour of network radio in 1940. NBC announcer Lyle Van introduces the tune with TD. The Dorsey band vaults into this performance, driven with every beat by the exuberant drumming of 22-year-old Buddy Rich. (Shown at left with TD, 1940.) The Dorsey ensemble is tight in this performance, yet also paradoxically, very relaxed. The first jazz solo is played by clarinetist Johnny Mince. (Pictured above right in an ad for Conn instruments, 1940.) Mince was one of the very few clarinetists who could stand toe-to-toe with the greatest clarinetists of the swing era, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and not be blown off the stage. His exciting solo here is first-rate jazz.
He is followed by big-toned tenor saxophonist Don Lodice, who also plays fluently and imaginatively. A Rich drum fusillade springs trumpeter Bunny Berigan (at right, clowning with a derby, spring, 1940), into what is the climactic solo of the performance. Berigan’s playing here is spectacular, by design: he had one of the best high-registers in the business in 1940, along with a huge ringing trumpet sound. Those qualities are put to good use by Oliver in this high-note finale.
The playing by TD of his theme song “Getting Sentimental Over You,” Lyle Van’s closing announcements, and the NBC chimes bring this exciting bit of vintage network radio history to a close.
[i] New York Times, May 21, 1940.
[ii] Variety, May 29, 1940.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
As a sort of epilogue to this post, I offer this look back to the summer of 1940, provided by various members of Tommy Dorsey’s band. These recollections relate to trumpeter Bunny Berigan:
Life off of the bandstand was fairly pleasant for Bunny during this period. Since the band had Sundays and much of every other weekday off, they began playing softball games in Central Park. Trumpeter Ray Linn, then a member of the Dorsey band, recalled that Bunny participated in these games enthusiastically:
“We all began to feel human again, playing that summer at the Astor Roof, a lovely job. Our first softball game with (Tommy’s) brother Jimmy’s team was a memorable one. I was third baseman and went 3 for 5 and I think that everybody in the band, and especially those of us on the team, would have been too scared of Tommy to show up for work that night if we’d lost. Actually, we won 12 to 10 and we won the return match a week or so later which had been arranged as a publicity stunt for Pic magazine, by 7 to 5. Bunny really loved to play softball. He always played catcher and would keep up a stream of patter, none too complimentary, with all the opposing hitters. I guess you could say he had an ‘Irish mouth,’ but he was a better-than-average player, always good for a couple of hits. Of course he could be a little slow-footed, but surprisingly capable, generally, for a guy in his advanced state of alcoholism. It was really amazing that he was able to walk rapidly, let alone run. He had a good strong arm for throwing out base runners. He really loved the game, though. He’d have me call his room at the Piccadilly Hotel on Forty-fifth Street[i] every Wednesday morning when we had a game. Most of the guys in the band, the single ones anyway, stayed at the Piccadilly, and I seem to recall that Bunny was either living apart from his wife, or he and Donna were fighting a lot at that time. Anyway, whenever I would pick up the house phone to wake him for the ball game, he would reply, sleepily, ‘Ray, Pootie, what time is it?’ ‘It’s ten o’clock, Bunny,’ and we’re leaving for the park in ten minutes,’ I’d reply. ‘Aw, Pootie, I don’t feel like it, I gotta get some more sleep.’ And so it would go on, with me pleading with him to get up, and him demurring and yawning, ‘Naw, Pootie, gimme a bit longer.’ Bunny called everybody ‘Pootie,’ except Tommy, who was always ‘Tom,’ and who never called Bunny anything but ‘Shanty’ to his face, a name of true endearment that only one Irishman can call another. Otherwise, it’s a fighting name! Bunny even called Connie Haines and Jo Stafford, ‘Pootie’! In fact, even the bus-driver on our one nighters was ‘Pootie’ to Bunny. Anyway, to get back to my story, I would finally succeed in cajoling him into getting dressed, pour a couple of stiff jolts down his throat and join us in piling into two or three taxicabs and heading for Central Park.”[ii]
A couple of other musicians from Tommy’s band also recalled these games: Chuck Lowry, one of the Pied Pipers recalled: “Jimmy Dorsey was at the Pennsylvania Hotel and he issued a challenge to Tommy, not knowing that we had been playing regularly in Central Park every Wednesday while we were at the Astor. I was the pitcher and Bunny was the catcher, but sometimes he would fold up after a few innings, because he was out of condition. Of course, we all knew he was broke, but he was always making bets on whether he’d get a hit and which team would win.”[iii]
Trumpeter Clyde Hurley, whom Tommy hired in mid-June after he fired Leon Debrow, also played on the TD softball team: “Actually, Bunny was really a pretty good softball player. He could hit quite well and was a catcher of no mean ability. But, unfortunately, frequent refreshment would usually catch up with him before the 9th inning!” [iv]
The softball fields where these games were played still exist near the Columbus Circle entrance into Central Park, and are well used by co-ed teams of players who work in various capacities at many different Broadway theaters.These folks take their softball seriously: they have team shirts (Wicked!, Hamilton), and employ an umpire! Whenever I go to Manhattan in warm weather, I walk by those fields, and often sit on a bench overlooking them and read. It is always a delightful experience. (At left above is a photo I took of those fields in late September 2016.)
[i] Berigan probably actually lived at the Forrest Hotel during the Dorsey interlude.
[ii] Bozy White’s Berigan discography materials: July 10, 1940.