“Polka Dots and Moonbeams”
Composed by Jimmy Van Heusen (music) and Johnny Burke (lyric); arranged by Axel Stordahl.
Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra for RCA- Bluebird on March 4, 1940 in New York.
Tommy Dorsey, trombone, directing: Rubin “Zeke” Zarchy, first trumpet; Ray Linn, Jimmy Blake, Bunny Berigan, trumpets; George Arus, Lowell Martin and Dave Jacobs, trombones; Hymie Shertzer, first alto saxophone; Freddie Stulce, alto saxophone; Johnny Mince, clarinet; Irving “Babe” Russin and Paul Mason, tenor saxophones; (Shertzer and Stulce double B flat clarinet; Mason, bass clarinet.) Bob Kitsis, piano; Al Avola, guitar; Ray Leatherwood, bass; Buddy Rich, drums. Frank Sinatra, vocal.
The story: The title to this song, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” is a lovely reminder of the rather large, warm current of romanticism that ran through the music of the swing era. The music of Tommy Dorsey through the late 1930s certainly had about it a romantic quality. This was especially true of the ballads that always made up a good proportion of Tommy’s offerings, especially on dance dates. Three performers were key to TD’s romantic presentations: the sultry Edythe Wright, and the tall and handsome Jack Leonard. Both sang the songs of love and longing warmly and well. (Above right: Jack Leonard, Edythe Wright and TD, late 1930s.) The third key performer in this area was Tommy himself. His playing of melodies then was superb. He was a pioneer in developing golden toned legato trombone performance throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s. Before Tommy Dorsey, the trombone was an ungainly blatting instrument that was often used to create crude bursts of harsh sound. In Tommy’s hands, the trombone became a delicate, magical instrument that delivered flowing, silken melodies.
The story of the arrival in the TD band of Jack Leonard’s successor, Frank Sinatra, in early 1940 is told elsewhere on this blog. At about the same time as Sinatra became a part of the romantic side of the TD musical presentation, two other performers also arrived, and both were masters of the more aggressive aspects of swing: first drummer Buddy Rich, and a bit later, trumpeter Ziggy Elman. What is remarkable is that these three younger men had personalities that reflected to a large degree, the personality of Tommy Dorsey. That is to say they all were dynamic performers who invested all they had in their music, and were canny judges of how whatever they were doing was being received by their audiences. These three also absorbed many of Tommy’s other personality traits during the time they were in his employ. All of this was well understood by TD himself, who sometimes manipulated these young lions in a way so that they were in conflict with each other. Tommy felt that a little rivalry would add zest to their performances. Eventually Sinatra, Rich and Elman figured out what their boss was up to, forgot about any rivalries, and just did what they did on their own terms, which is to say, very well. And they became friends – lifelong friends. (Above right: Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich.)
By the time this happened, it was 1941, and like the upper-classmen at a college, these three helped to create the subculture that defined the great Tommy Dorsey band of the early 1940s. But however confident or aggressive they may have been, they were still minor-leaguers when compared with their flamboyant leader. The term “living large” did not exist in 1940, but if it had, it could not have been exemplified more perfectly than by how Tommy Dorsey comported himself. He had an estate in rural New Jersey, with staff, where he entertained lavishly. He pursued (and was pursued by) some of the most beautiful women then on the scene. He wore the finest clothes, had the best cars, ate at the best restaurants. He immersed himself in all aspects of the band business, and in show business in general. He relished being in the entertainment business. In short, everything TD did, he did to the hilt. To say that Tommy was colorful would be an understatement.(Above left: Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey meet their public, 1941.)
Tommy Dorsey’s home in Bernardsville, New Jersey, the site of many lavish parties and summer cookouts.
This included various promotional activities for his band, which Tommy particularly enjoyed. In one such activity in the late 1930s,TD and his public relations man Jack Egan invited a number of writers from student newspapers in the greater New York area to a luncheon at Hotel New Yorker in Manhattan, at which Tommy and his band played. After the luncheon, TD and Egan went into an adjacent smaller room where they talked with the young people about ways and means of promoting Tommy’s band with students. Many ideas were discussed. One, which was suggested by a tall young man from Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx named Morris I. Diamond, was to organize a TD fan club of high school and college newspaper reporters, which both Dorsey and Egan liked. This idea started as a fan club called “The Scribes of Sentimental Swing.” (Tommy was billed by MCA, his booking agency, as “That Sentimental Gentleman of Swing.” This billing played off TD’s theme song, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.”) It morphed into a weekly newspaper called The Bandstand, which was produced by a staff of young people employed by Dorsey, which included articles of all kinds, some even written by TD sidemen. This series of promotional activities eventually cost TD over $50,000.00. (1) (Above right: Tommy Dorsey and young school newspaper writers – 1939. The tall young man to TD’s left is Morris I. Diamond.)
Jack Egan kept in touch with young Mr. Diamond. Eventually, in early 1941, Diamond was hired as a go-for while the Dorsey band played a three-week stand at the Paramount Theater on Broadway in Times Square. His job was temporary, as the regular go-for, Frank Shaw, was driving the band’s equipment truck back to New York from Los Angeles, where the Dorsey band had just completed the film Las Vegas Nights at Paramount. Diamond’s salary was $15 a week, plus tips from the TD sidemen, which were usually quite generous. Diamond was personable, bright and energetic. The sidemen liked him. Ziggy Elman took Diamond under his wing, and gave him an additional gig, to handle his (Ziggy’s) fan mail, for which he was paid $5 a week.
After a show at the Paramount Theater, when the curtain came down and the band was exiting into the wings where Diamond had been standing watching, Elman, who knew his Yiddish as well or better than anyone else in the Dorsey band, shouted to Diamond, “hey Moishe, will you go out and get me a pastrami on rye”? From that moment, Morris Diamond was known as “Moishe” to everyone in the band, including Tommy of course, who loved the name.
Moishe Diamond, though a lowly member of the Tommy Dorsey organization, was treated with the same respect as members of the band. He was invited to summer Sunday afternoon barbecue and swimming gatherings at Tommy’s palatial home in New Jersey, and to the parties Tommy had in his penthouse office/party room on the 11th floor of the Brill Building, located on Broadway and 49th in Manhattan. Few if any other offices in the Brill Building had a built-in bar. Dorsey’s office did – a large one. It was well-stocked and well used. (Above left: Ziggy Elman, Frank Sinatra and Morris Diamond at a pool party/cookout at Tommy Dorsey’s New Jersey home – summer 1941.)
The music: The song “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” was composed by Jimmy Van Heusen (music) and Johnny Burke (lyric) in 1940. It was Frank Sinatra’s first hit record with Tommy Dorsey’s band. This song also marked the beginning of a musical and personal relationship between Sinatra and Van Heusen that would last for decades. The song is a perfect wedding of music and words, and it evokes a romantic interlude on the dance floor that led to “a few things more.”
This arrangement, by Axel Stordahl, is straightforward and utilitarian: the first chorus spots Tommy stating the melody with his trombone (using a solotone mute), tenor saxophonist Babe Russin playing the bridge melody warmly, and then Tommy returning to finish the first chorus. A brief instrumental modulation brings Sinatra to the microphone for the vocal chorus.
I am struck by how understated Sinatra’s singing is here, yet paradoxically, how emotionally powerful it is. Audiences, especially women, definitely noticed, and so did TD. This marks the beginning of Sinatra’s ascendancy as one of the major attractions of Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra.
The story continues: Moishe Diamond quickly moved up in the Dorsey organization. After Frank Shaw returned with the Dorsey equipment truck, Diamond became his assistant. That means he helped Shaw move the band’s equipment from venue to venue, and set it up and tear it down. He also continued to run errands for everyone in the band. At some point in 1941, Tommy fired his long-time personal manager Bobby Burns, and hired Leonard Vannerson, who had been working with Benny Goodman (and was married to BG’s former singer, Martha Tilton). Vannerson soon reviewed the TD support organization, and called Diamond in to discuss his conclusions. Moishe expected to be fired, as the band really didn’t need two equipment managers. Instead, Vannerson made Diamond his assistant, and he was tasked with doing the accounting and payroll for the band. (Below left: on the road with the Tommy Dorsey band – 1941: L-R: Joe Bushkin, Morris Diamond, Leonard Vannerson and Frank Sinatra.)
Diamond later recalled a story that says a lot about how Frank Sinatra viewed his role in the band vis-a-vis one of its its other stars, drummer Buddy Rich.“One day I was doing the payroll on the road and Frank Sinatra came into my hotel room while I was writing payroll checks and wanted to know how much Buddy Rich was making. I covered the ledger with my body and said ‘I can’t do that.’ He said ‘C’mon Moishe, I won’t tell anyone.’ I still wouldn’t tell him that he and Rich were both making $125 a week.” (1) (Note: This was the weekly base pay. Sidemen and singers made extra for recordings, commercial broadcasts and work in films. Tommy also paid his band members extra for theater engagements, when they worked multiple shows (sometimes as many as six) a day. Both Rich and Sinatra often made $300.00 a week or more with Tommy Dorsey in the 1940-1941 period. Also, we must remember that the value of a dollar in 1940 was approximately 15 times what it is today.)
Morris Diamond roomed on the road with Buddy Rich. He wondered why it seemed that no one else in the band wanted to room with Rich. He soon found out. “He never carried any money with him. (Rich borrowed money from Diamond constantly. After the first road trip, he was worried that he might not get paid back.) “But at the end of every road trip, whether we were on a train, bus or plane, Buddy’s father Robert would be at the gate, and the first thing he would do is reimburse me. He never asked for an accounting. He just asked ‘what do I owe you'”? (2) (Below right; L-R: drummer Buddy Rich – looking like he was still a teenager – Pied Piper Chuck Lowery, Morris Diamond, outside of Shea’s Theater in Buffalo, NY in 1941.)
Diamond also recalled how he related with Tommy, person-to-person: “Tommy treated me like his son. He would yell at me when he saw me at a bar with (as TD characterized them) ‘the likes of Frank Sinatra and Don Lodice.’ He offered to buy me books on management so that I could study and some day be capable of managing artists.” (3) I don’t know if TD bought those books for Moishe, but after World War II, Diamond did enter the ranks of personal managers (he was also a free-lance booking agent) in the entertainment industry, and had a long and successful career doing those things.
For a comparison of how Frank Sinatra’s approach to singing evolved between 1940 and 1961, here is his recording of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” made in 1961, in an arrangement by his former TD band associate Sy Oliver.
“Polka Dots and Moonbeams”
Arranged by Sy Oliver.
Recorded by Frank Sinatra for Reprise Records on May 2, 1961 in Los Angeles.
Sy Oliver, conducting a studio orchestra likely comprised of these musicians, along with string players who are unknown: Conrad Gozzo, first trumpet; Pete Candoli, Shorty Sherock and Uan Rasey, trumpets; Dick Nash, first trombone; Lloyd Ulyate, Francis Howard, trombones; George Roberts, bass trombone; Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt, first alto saxophone; Willie Schwartz, alto saxophone; Irving “Babe” Russin and Buddy Colette, tenor saxophones; Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone; (Herfurt, Schwartz and Colette double B-flat clarinets; Gentry doubles bass clarinet.) Bill Miller, piano; Al Viola, guitar; Morty Corb, bass; Johnny Markham, drums.
The story and music: In 1961, Frank Sinatra recorded an LP album on his Reprise record label called I Remember Tommy. The original Reprise LP issue was in a gatefold dust jacket with substantial liner notes (by George T. Simon, including the comments of Sy Oliver), and vintage photos of the early 1940s TD band. Sinatra’s relationship with TD after Frank left Tommy’s band in 1942 was not ideal, but there was something of a reconciliation in 1956, when Sinatra appeared for one last time with Tommy Dorsey’s band at the Paramount Theater in New York. Within a few months of that, TD was dead, the victim of a bizarre choking incident while he slept. As time passed, Sinatra reassessed his relationship with TD, and eventually recognized that Tommy gave him a marvelous showcase for his talent near the beginning of his career, when he was virtually unknown, and that led to his first widespread popularity. I Remember Tommy was Sinatra’s first tribute to Tommy Dorsey. In order to recapture much of the spirit of Tommy’s music in the early 1940s, Frank enlisted the services of arranger Sy Oliver, a major source of music for the TD band then.
This performance is characteristic of Sinatra’s singing from the mid-1950s through the late 1960s, when he was at the zenith of his powers as a master interpreter of American Popular Song. Oliver’s arrangement nods in the direction of Axel Stordahl, who created the classic 1930s TD reed blend, which included B-flat clarinets, a tenor saxophone and most notably, a bass clarinet. Oliver also includes some bright brass in this arrangement, and some warm open trombones, and a few bars of solo trombone (by Dick Nash), designed to evoke TD’s memorable ballad playing.
The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) The information in this post about Morris I. “Moishe” Diamond was taken from the book The Name Dropper, or …People I Have Schlepped With, by Morris I. Diamond, (2018). Mr. Diamond (1921- April 7, 2019), also recorded a video interview in 2018 wherein he recalled other stories about his involvement with Tommy Dorsey and members of his band.
Links: Here is a link to another TD/FS gem:
Here are links to other great performances by Tommy Dorsey’s early 1940s band:
https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/03/25/76/ (“Loose Lid Special”)