“Tin Roof Blues” (1938) Tommy Dorsey/Deane Kincaide – with Yank Lawson, Johnny Mince and Babe Russin

“Tin Roof Blues”

Composed by Paul Mares, Ben Pollack, Mel Stitzel, George Brunies and Leon Roppolo; arranged by Deane Kincaide.

Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Victor on October 31, 1938 in New York.

Tommy Dorsey, lead and solo trombone, directing: Sammy Shapiro (Sammy Spear), first trumpet; Aniello Castaldo (Lee Castle), John H. Lausen (“Yank” Lawson), trumpets; Les Jenkins, Muni Zudekoff (Buddy Morrow), Elmer Smithers, trombones; John H. Muenzenberger (Johnny Mince), first and solo clarinet; Hymie Shertzer, Freddie Stulce, and Deane Kincaide, clarinets; Irving “Babe” Russin, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Howard Smith, piano; Carmine N. Mastrandrea (Carmen Mastren), guitar; Gene Traxler, bass; Maurice “Moe” Purtill, drums.

Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra in Studio 8G in the RCA Building in Radio City – autumn 1937. L-R front: Edythe Wright, Jack Leonard, Axel Stordahl, Tommy Dorsey; NBC announcers Paul Stewart, Dwight Weist, John Holbrook; middle row: Les Jenkins, Earle Hagen, Johnny Mince, Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt, Freddie Stulce, Lawrence “Bud” Freeman; back row: Lee Castle, Andy Ferretti, George “Pee Wee” Erwin, Maurice “Moe” Purtill, Carmen Mastren, Gene Traxler, Howard Smith.

The story:

Tommy Dorsey, unlike most bandleaders in the swing era, liked to shake up the personnel in his band from time to time. This inclination, along with the seeming restlessness of many musicians in swing bands, usually ensured that the lineup in Tommy’s band changed fairly frequently. At the same time, there were always a few musicians who remained stalwart TD sidemen for a period of years. Examples of this were Freddie Stulce, who played every chair in TD’s saxophone section from 1936 well into the 1940s, and bassist Gene Traxler, who worked for Tommy steadily from 1935 to 1940. Star clarinet soloist Johnny Mince was featured by TD from 1937 to 1941. Others came and went and came back again, many times. Lead trumpeter Andy Ferretti was an example of this. Bud Freeman, Tommy’s star tenor saxophone soloist used to say that he was fired twice and quit three times in the years 1936-1938 when he worked for TD. (Above right: Tommy Dorsey somewhere on the road. Note the shirt and tie.)

Tommy could be hard on trombone players. He often attempted to give them pointers on trombone technique, whether they asked for them or not. He liked the way Earle Hagen played, but couldn’t resist telling Hagen how to more effectively play his horn. Hagen quit and went to work for Ray Noble, who never told him how to play. Journeyman trombonist Walter Mercurio functioned perfectly well in TD’s trombone section. Still, Tommy could not resist telling Mercurio how he could play better. Murcurio responded to this musical tutelage by flicking the first two fingers of his right hand off his thumb toward Tommy. Confronted by this mysterious Italian gesture, Tommy initially became enraged, then settled down and laughed at Mercurio, as everyone else in the band did. Mercurio soon quit, to pursue less confrontational musical employment.

Tommy Dorsey’s brass rehearse, autumn 1937. L-R: Lee Castaldo, Earle Hagen, Andy Ferretti, and Pee Wee Erwin.

Although by the late 1930s, Tommy Dorsey looked upon most musicians who played in his band as fungible cogs in his musical machine who could be easily replaced, he sometimes detected something in a young musician’s playing that he thought indicated that that musician had promise. One such musician was Aniello Castaldo, a 22 year-old trumpeter (shown at left), who was later known as Lee Castle. Castaldo joined TD in the autumn of 1937. His section mates were two exceptionally talented players, lead man Andy Ferretti and jazz soloist George “Pee Wee” Erwin. Both of these men gave pointers to Castaldo if he asked for them, and listened carefully to Castaldo as he played. He was a very good trumpet player who could play jazz, but for whatever reason, Tommy gave Castaldo very few solos, even though Erwin and Ferretti were lobbying on his behalf. After about a year, Tommy finally called Castaldo aside and explained to him that he detected “problems with intonation in his playing, and an inability to play well in the upper register.”(1) Normally, Dorsey would have fired anyone who had these problems without a second thought. But instead he suggested to Castaldo that he go to a specific teacher, his (Tommy’s) father, Thomas F. Dorsey, Sr., who was an excellent music teacher. (He had taught both Tommy and his brother Jimmy.) Castaldo agreed, and Tommy paid him $50 a week while he was away from the band. Within a couple of months, Pop Dorsey corrected Castaldo’s problems.

Castaldo actually lived with Tommy’s parents in their home in Lansford, Pennsylvania while this was going on. Mr. and Mrs. Dorsey became fond of the dashing young man with the heavy Bronx accent, and limitless fund of humorous stories about his upbringing in an Italian-American home.(2) Tess Dorsey referred to Castaldo as her Italian son for the rest of her life. Castaldo returned to Tommy’s band and his playing pleased the very critical TD. (Above right: Aniello “Lee” Castaldo, late 1930s.)

Years later, in the early 1950s, Lee Castle would rejoin Tommy Dorsey, and remain a very important member of Tommy’s final band.

In addition to this seeming need of TD to shake things up periodically, he was an incredibly demanding leader. If a new musician came into Tommy’s band, he was given a fair opportunity to prove that he had the musical skills necessary to stay there. But if in Tommy’s judgment the musician didn’t measure up, he was summarily fired. It seemed like Tommy was either firing someone of giving someone his two-weeks notice constantly. He liked to keep his band members on edge. He thought they performed better that way.

Curiously, TD did not pressure the musicians who worked for him who could play jazz. At least, he didn’t pressure them as much as he pressured the non-jazz guys. He also seemed to be relatively patient with singers, and arrangers, many of whom blossomed while in his band.

The year 1937 was the first complete year Tommy Dorsey’s band was presented on a sponsored network radio show. Although the TD band at first shared the show with other entertainers, by mid-1937, Tommy had the show to himself. He was very successful in assisting the show’s producers with various ideas to keep the overall content of the show fresh. The show was popular, and indeed became more popular through 1938. Tommy saw his contract renewed for the radio show again and again, with more money coming to him with each renewal. Radio money provided the financial base for Tommy Dorsey to operate his band in the manner he liked. Between the money Tommy was making from his radio show, the money he was earning from the sale of his Victor records, money earned by appearances at theaters (3), and the money he made playing some one-night jobs, he was making a lot of money in 1938.

One of the ways in which Tommy Dorsey chose to run his band was to steal sidemen, sometimes as a group, whose playing he liked, from other bands. This happened in 1938. TD was always plugged into the swing band personnel grapevine. He also had a network of others associated with his band in some way who assisted him in constantly monitoring what was going on in other top-level bands. He noticed the upward movement in 1938 of the popularity of Bob Crosby’s band. That band had a classic jazz orientation, and played many tunes from the early days of the development of jazz, arranged for the sensibilities of swing era audiences. Tommy liked that kind of music, though he would never have limited his band’s presentations to playing just that one kind of music, or indeed any one kind of music. He liked to present his audiences a wide variety of music.

As the Dorsey band took to the road in the spring of 1938 on a tour that would end in Los Angeles, where they were to open at the Palomar Ballroom on June 28, Tommy began to execute his latest gambit of piracy. The tour included one-week stands at theaters in major cities, and of course had to accommodate his weekly radio show, which would be broadcast live from the stages of those theaters (to the delight of audiences). The band was playing beautifully, but not so beautifully that it couldn’t be improved, in Tommy’s opinion. (Above right: trumpeter Ziggy Elman and lead alto saxophonist Hymie Shertzer – summer 1937 on a cross-country tour with Benny Goodman’s band. Eventually, both would work for Tommy Dorsey.)

Just before the band left New York in mid-May, Benny Goodman had engaged in a bit of piracy himself, luring Tommy’s tenor saxophone star Bud Freeman away. Tommy responded by taking Benny’s star first alto saxophonist, Hymie Shertzer, who was disenchanted by Benny’s tinkering with his first alto parts, and trying out other first alto players. (First, Dave Matthews, then Milt Yaner, and finally Noni Bernardi.) So this exchange of musicians was something of a draw, even though TD missed the imaginative solos of Bud Freeman. But this was just the practice round for TD.

As the Dorsey band reached Chicago in early June, Tommy, as usual, was very busy working with his band in a theater and on his radio show. On his off night, he visited the Crosby band, which was then playing at the Blackhawk Restaurant. But instead of spending a couple of hours at the Blackhawk visiting with the members of the Crosby band, he spoke very briefly with trumpeters Yank Lawson and Charlie Spivak. Previously, he learned from saxophonist/arranger Deane Kincaide, who had been a member of the Crosby band, but who recently had been selling arrangements to TD, that both Lawson and Spivak were unhappy with how the Crosby band corporation was operating. After Tommy spoke with them, he left. Gil Rodin, the leader of the Crosby band, undoubtedly knew what TD was up to. But nothing happened immediately, so the incident may well have been forgotten by Rodin. (Above left: trumpeter Yank Lawson plays a solo with Bob Crosby’s band. Young Billy Butterfield listens.)

When the Dorsey band was about to leave Los Angeles and travel east, Tommy sent telegrams containing the following language to both Lawson and Spivak: “Must know immediately your plans. How soon can you act? Please advise by Western Union.”  Here is the delivery instruction that appeared on the Western Union envelopes: “Personal delivery only. Identification of adressee must be assured for delivery. Must show union card or drivers license.”(4) Both Lawson and Spivak agreed to join Tommy’s band. Dorsey told both Andy Ferretti and Pee Wee Erwin that they were working too hard and should take a break from his band. They worked out their notice and then took long vacations before returning to New York. The Dorsey band headed for Chicago, and there Lawson and Spivak joined, in mid-August, along with Deane Kincaide, who would play utility saxophone in the section, and arrange. The game of musical chairs, Dorsey-style, was on, full-tilt.

The music:

Tin Roof Blues” is a jazz composition by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings first recorded in 1923. It was written by NORK band members Paul Mares, Ben Pollack, Mel Stitzel, George Brunies and Leon Roppolo. The tune was a traditional jazz standard long before 1938, and is one of the most recorded and often played New Orleans jazz compositions. This is the kind of jazz that Tommy Dorsey grew up with in the 1920s, and he continued to enjoy and play music like this throughout his career. In 1938, he decided to add more music like this to his band’s book of arrangements, and in essence poach on the musical territory the Bob Crosby band had staked out in the middle 1930s. There was nothing malicious in this: Tommy was simply enlarging his band’s musical scope.

Felicities abound in Deane Kincaide’s great arrangement of “Tin Roof Blues.” It begins with a four bar introduction that features the straight-muted brass playing melodically backed by two oscillating clarinets (Johnny Mince and Freddy Stulce, shown at left). This rests on a sustained low tone created by an open trombone and Babe Russin’s tenor saxophone, playing in unison.

The first chorus consists of Mr. TD playing the secondary melody of this blues with his straight-muted trombone, against a background of straight-muted brass and now one eerily oscillating clarinet, then four clarinets playing organ chords. He is followed in the second chorus by the straight-muted brass playing the main melody, against the four clarinets (with Mince playing lead) playing in antiphonal fashion for eight bars. Then the clarinets finish the 12 bar chorus.

Notice how Kincaide begins the next chorus with a three note upward sequence played softly by the now open brass. Listen to how drummer Moe Purtill subtly underlines those three notes with delicate taps on his floor tom-tom. Trumpeter Yank Lawson, like Cootie Williams in Duke Ellington’s band, was a master at handling the plunger mute. His solo here, though relatively simple in terms of the number of notes played and range covered, is full of feeling. Hear how Kincaide frames Lawson’s playing, using organ chords in the clarinets, and open spaces. This works well to heighten the musical excitement. (Above right: Yank Lawson plays a solo while his boss smiles approvingly.)

Another brief transition leads to Johnny Mince’s clarinet solo. Mince was undoubtedly one of the top jazz clarinetists of the 1930s, and was the initial inspiration for jazz clarinet virtuoso Buddy De Franco to pursue a career in music. His solo here starts out simple, carrying forward the mood Lawson had created, then intensifies to a satisfying conclusion. Mince had a bright, piping sound that was all his own. His playing always swung. Note Purtill’s semi-shuffle back beats in this sequence.

A photo of several musicians in Tommy Dorsey’s band – early 1939. L-R: Back row: Pee Wee Erwin, Andy Ferretti, Yank Lawson; middle: Carmen Mastren and Gene Traxler; front: TD, Deane Kincaide, Johnny Mince, Freddie Stulce, Babe Russin. Notice that Erwin and Ferretti are back in the band. TD and Charlie Spivak had had an acrimonious parting after a few weeks.

Tenor saxophonist Babe Russin plays next. His solo was clearly intended to complete the building series of three jazz solos in terms of intensity. Listen to the muscular open brass backgrounds Kinciade has fashioned for Russin to play against and over. Russin was a very capable musician who not only read music at sight fluently, he fit into any saxophone section seamlessly, and was a excellent jazz improviser. After the swing era, he went on to a very successful career as a Hollywood free-lance studio musician.

The next chorus has the clarinets carrying the melody with the open brass providing a tasty rhythmic background. Then TD returns for one more solo round, playing again with a straight mute in the bell of his trombone. In this sequence, Kincaide uses the bubbly clarinets as a colorful backdrop for Tommy’s bluesy improvisation. One of the great paradoxes about TD’s personality was that despite him being monumentally egotistical, he often denigrated his ability to play jazz (especially if Jack Teagarden was near). He had nothing to be ashamed of in how he played on this recording.

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

Notes and links:

(1) Tommy Dorsey …Livin’ In a Great Big Way, by Peter J. Levinson (2005), 99.

(2) Castaldo’s tale about receiving a hot olive oil enema as an infant was particularly hilarious. See Swing Legacy, by Chip Deffaa (1989) 131. Deffaa interviewed Lee Castle in the 1980s to get this and many other stories.

(3) Tommy Dorsey’s band was presented at the Paramount Theater in Manhattan, probably the premier big band showcase in the nation, many times over the years. Dorsey earned a lot of money each time his band played there. It was not unusual, even in the Depression years of the late 1930s, for him to clear between $5,000.00 and $10,000.00 a week while he was there. Of course, to make that much money, he would have to play as many as six one-hour shows a day, starting at 10:30 in the morning, until midnight.

(4) Tommy and Jimmy …The Dorsey Years, by Herb Sanford (1972), 130.

Here is a link to a great TD romp on another jazz classic arranged by Deane Kincaide: https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/03/04/milenberg-joys-1939-tommy-dorsey/

And here is a bit of musical fun from the 1930s featuring Tommy Dorsey and His Clambake Seven: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/12/27/rhythm-saved-the-world-1936-tommy-dorseys-clambake-seven-with-edythe-wright/

Finally, a link to a pop song from 1939 swung by Tommy and his band, featuring Edythe Wright and the great drumming of Dave Tough.

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/04/17/its-all-yours-1939-tommy-dorsey-with-edythe-wright-and-dave-tough/

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