“Cheek to Cheek” (1953) Tommy Dorsey/Bill Finegan

“Cheek to Cheek”

Composed by Irving Berlin; arranged by Bill Finegan.

Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Decca on August 14, 1953 in Hollywood, California.

Tommy Dorsey, first trombone, directing: Paul Cohen, first trumpet; Aniello “Lee” Castle, Daryl “Flea” Campbell, Johnny Amoroso, trumpets; Jimmy Henderson, Vahey “Tak” Takvorian, Sam Hyster, trombones; Rafaele “Skip” Galluccio, first alto saxophone and clarinet; Cliff Hoff, alto saxophone, flute and clarinet; Joe Pamelia and Stanley “Buzzy” Brauner, tenor saxophones, clarinets and flutes; Teddy Lee, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet; Bob Carter, piano; Sam Herman, guitar; Billy Cronk, bass; Jackie Mills, drums.

The story: People familiar with what goes on here at swingandbeyond.com often ask me: “Where do you get ideas for what you are going to post”? The answer almost always is that each post starts with the music. Over time, I have heard a lot of music, and if a particular recording caught my fancy at any point over the last fifty years, I usually remember it, and often go back to it. I am not ashamed to say that some of the recordings I thought were great decades ago have not aged as well as I think they should. Consequently, they remain in my library, and although I still may listen to them from time to time, I would never think of developing a post around them.

Then there are the recordings that seem to have gotten better with the passing years. Tommy Dorsey’s recording of Irving Berlin’s classic song “Cheek to Cheek” is one of them. It achieved the golden trifecta of: a great song, a great arrangement and a great performance. And as a bonus, the sound quality of this recording is superb.

The story of what was going on in Tommy Dorsey’s world in the early 1950s is told in the post about Bill Finegan’s great arrangement of “The Keel Row,” a link to which can be found at the bottom of this post. We can pick up that story in August of 1953, when Tommy’s three-year contract to make recordings for Decca Records was coming to an end. Although that relationship was modestly successful, it was still somewhat disappointing for both Tommy Dorsey and Decca. For his part, TD had maintained an absolutely first-rate band through that three year period, and had conformed to the various demands Decca made on him to try different things in an effort to make records that had wide market appeal. These attempts were largely unsuccessful for a variety of reasons, paramount of which was that the American pop music market in the early 1950s was dominated by vocalists, not by big bands. The arrival of early rock-and-roll, presaged by rhythm and blues, was about to take place. None of these developments were abrupt – but the pop music landscape was shifting slowly under the feet of Tommy Dorsey. (Shown at left in 1954.)

TD was most certainly aware of these developments because he was himself immersed in the pop music scene as it then existed on a daily basis, and he saw firsthand how opportunities for him to present his music in the most optimal settings were slowly disappearing. An even more stark reminder of the shrinking market for big band music was the recent disbanding of his brother Jimmy’s band, which occurred in early 1953.

Jimmy had achieved great success with his band in the early 1940s. But his decision to continue to lead a band through the late 1940s and into the early 1950s resulted in a slow process of him dissipating whatever money he had been able to save in the early forties. By the end of 1952, he was bankrupt, alcoholic, and in the process of killing himself by smoking several packs of cigarettes a day. Tommy was well aware of his older brother’s faults and problems. But he was reluctant to have anything to do with Jimmy in business matters because JD was notoriously casual about such things. That, in part, was why Jimmy had gone bankrupt.

In addition, JD who was still playing very well and whose band was quite good, found it difficult to understand why he was now failing for the first time in what had been a very successful career. He wanted to continue doing what he had done for the previous eighteen years: lead a good musical band, and perform on his instruments. He just couldn’t find enough audiences who wanted to listen. He reluctantly gave up his band in April of 1953. Jimmy withdrew into himself at this time, saw few people, did not shave or maintain his hair, and drank and smoked more. Tommy was alarmed, but did not know what to do to bring Jimmy back to some sense of reality.

Jimmy was always closer to his parents than Tommy had been. They were enormously proud of Jimmy’s success in the music business, which started in the mid-1920s before Tommy’s, and continued unabated until the mid-1940s. Jimmy was always very generous in assisting his parents financially, and after his father, Thomas F. Dorsey, Sr. died on July 14 1942, Jimmy continued to support his mother, Tess Dorsey, though Tommy also contributed to her support by then. Tess moved from Lansford, Pennsylvania to Manahttan after this, and lived comfortably there. Jimmy visited her more often than Tommy, but Tommy certainly maintained cordial relations with his mother, and he respected her.

It was Tess Dorsey who convinced Tommy that he had to do something to help his brother in this dark time. Gradually through the spring of 1953, the people involved Tommy Dorsey’s management began having discussions with Jimmy’s manager. These discussions ultimately resulted in Jimmy being featured with Tommy’s band, and being paid a fixed salary. There was no doubt that Tommy was the boss. Jimmy, who after having been a bandleader himself for many years, had very definite ideas about how music should be made, had to sublimate his ideas to those of his brother. Very often, trumpeter Lee Castle acted as the go-between, carrying Jimmy’s requests to Tommy, and vice-versa. It was an uncomfortable role, and Castle chafed in it. Nevertheless, from mid-1953 until Tommy’s untimely death in November of 1956, the musical and business relationship between Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey worked successfully. (Above right – Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey visit bandleader Ray Anthony at a gig at Duke University in April of 1953.)

As fate would have it, in the midst of these challenges, a golden opportunity presented itself, and Tommy Dorsey, being who he was, recognized that opportunity and positioned himself to take full advantage of it. Tommy and Jimmy, along with Tommy’s band, guested on comedian Jackie Gleason’s CBS network television show on Saturday evening May 23, 1953. The “reunion” between the brothers angle was played up quite big. Gleason’s TV audience, which was comprised of millions of people who had danced to the music of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s bands in the 1930s and 1940s, but who were now at home raising children, was delighted to see the brothers back together again, making fine music. The producers of Gleason’s show took note. Starting in June of 1954, the Dorseys would be featured as a summer replacement on the Gleason show. They also replaced him over the Christmas holidays at the end of 1954. By the autumn of 1954, Tommy and Jimmy had their own sponsored television show on CBS TV. (Above left: a very blowing Jackie Gleason in the mid-1950s. He loved swing music.)

Although Jimmy Dorsey had gone through quite a depression in early 1953, he still maintained his playing on alto saxophone and clarinet very well. He was very much a part of the TD band presentation through May, June, July and August of that year. However, since Tommy’s contract with Decca did not include Jimmy (who was still contracted to Columbia), JD did not appear on the numerous recordings Tommy made for that label from the spring of 1953 until the final Decca recording session for TD, which took place on August 14, 1953. So the band we hear in this marvelous performance of “Cheek to Cheek” is Tommy’s, without Jimmy.

The music:  I mentioned above that “Cheek to Cheek” is a brilliant song. Here is some explanation, by Alec Wilder, himself a gifted composer of pop songs, of why that is so:

“In Top Hat, a film of 1935 starring Fred Astaire, (Irving Berlin) certainly tossed all of his (composing) habits aside with the song ‘Cheek to Cheek.’ It is a highly extended song having the structure A (sixteen measures) -A (16), -B (16), -C (8), -A (16). It’s the added C element which amazes me. With Astaire however, anything could happen, and maybe he had a need for this extra phrase. Berlin was a very practical writer and if a production number could be enhanced by an unusual adjustment, he undoubtedly would have made it.

I’d like to point out something here that has greatly impressed me – that every song written for Fred Astaire seems to bear his mark. Every writer in my opinion was vitalized by Astaire and wrote in a manner that they had never quite written before: he brought out in them something a little better than their best – a little more subtlety, flair, sophistication, wit and style, qualities he himself possessed in generous measure.

…I am particularly impressed by the daring implicit in opening a song with the word ‘heaven’ without any pickup notes to provide room for the words ‘I’m in.’ It may be an over-subtle point, but any song without pickup notes is more immediate and attention-getting than one with them. The development of this seed, two notes a step apart, is very ingenious.(Berlin) develops it first by adding two pickup notes in the second phrase, which is a repetition of the first, then he truly develops it by walking up for two measures in a series of imitations. Then instead of writing an imitative descending phrase, he writes a phrase of the same number of notes, but unlike the first in its sinuosity and lyricism. And then, instead of keeping his cadential phrase in straight eighth notes, he makes them all syncopated. This, I believe, is definitely a result of Astaire’s presence.” (1) (Dancing legend Fred Astaire is shown below left in the late 1930s.)

Here is a part (one chorus) of Irving Berlin’s lyric for “Cheek to Cheek”:

Heaven, I’m in Heaven
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek
Heaven, I’m in Heaven
And the cares that hung around me through the week
Seem to vanish like a gambler’s lucky streak
When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek
Oh, I love to climb a mountain and to reach the highest peak
But it doesn’t thrill me half as much as dancing, cheek to cheek
Oh, I love to go out fishing in a river or a creek
But I don’t enjoy it half as much as dancing, cheek to cheek
Dance with me
I want my arm about you
The charm about you
Will carry me through to Heaven
I’m in Heaven
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek.

It is readily apparent that at the time Tommy Dorsey made this recording, he was still leading a superb band. TD and his musicians perform Bill Finegan’s colorful, intricate and subtly humorous arrangement with panache.

When Finegan wrote for Tommy Dorsey, he featured Tommy’s trombone either in a solo, or as leader of the four-man trombone section. Here, Tommy leads the trombones, who play their horns both with and without mutes. I am sometimes baffled by the various sounds created by muted trumpets and trombones. When I am particularly baffled, as I was with this recording, I contact trombone master Dan Barrett with my questions. I recently asked Dan about the muted trombones we hear on “Cheek to Cheek.” Here is his answer:

“On “Cheek to Cheek,” the trombone section is in cup mutes. Sometimes, there’s a marking on the parts: tight cup mute. This means, you push the mute in a little further than normal. It mutes the volume more, of course, but also gives the horn a slightly different sound than with the “cup” part of the mute further out of the bell. My guess is, dedicated studio guys, and the guys in the top big bands, might have carried two cup mutes–at least, to sessions–each “corked” for the different cup mute sound. Nowadays, a cup mute is a cup mute. In those days, though, leaders like Dorsey and Herman, et al. would have their brass sections outfitted with identical mutes made by the same company. (Humes and Berg in Chicago was by far the most popular, and is still somehow in business, last I checked).”

Bill Finegan’s arrangement opens ironically with a brief introduction that has the entire ensemble blasting out the opening three notes of the 1934 song “I Won’t Dance” by  Jerome Kern, Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein,II. (Finegan playfully uses this melodic snippet as a recurring, and effective musical motive throughout this arrangement, which of course is all about dancing.) It is here that Finegan introduces the cup-muted trombone sonority that will appear and re-appear throughout this performance. Then he moves into the (A) melody (Heaven! I’m in Heaven!) of the first chorus of “Cheek to Cheek,” with the unison saxophones carrying Berlin’s melody and the cup-muted trombones providing the rhythmic underpinning. The cup-muted trumpets then come in with the secondary melody, being followed by the open trombones. (Bill Finegan shown above right.)

A transitional sequence follows with the unison saxophones again playing melodically (the A melody), and the cup-muted trumpets playing rhythmically. Then those cup-muted trombones return to the melodic spotlight, with the saxophones and cup-muted trumpets behind them.

The next sequence has the saxophones plus one clarinet and one flute playing yet another Berlin melody (the C melody), with the open trombones popping in a couple of well-placed Bronx cheer pedal tones. (Finegan must have been in a very happy mood when he wrote this arrangement.) The sonority then becomes denser as Finegan mixes more musical sounds, including a flute, a B-flat clarinet and a bass clarinet, with the cup-muted trombones.

The piano, and a bass clarinet (one of Tommy Dorsey’s favorite sounds), play the quiet transition into the brief ensemble explosion. There follows a quieter sequence with the trumpets and trombones being played open, but softly, creating a velvety sound. This leads to a brief ensemble crescendo. Out of this emerges  yet another sound: a Harmon-muted trumpet, played with the cup-muted trombones.

The finale contains a bright conclusion to this kaleidoscopic arrangement, another allusion to “I Won’t Dance,” and a quiet coda chord made up of cleverly harmonized woodwinds and Harmon-muted trumpets. (At left: Bill Finegan with what appear to be xylophone or vibraphone mallets in his left hand, and the ever-present cigarette in his right hand – mid-1950s.)

In addition to being a nonpareil dancer, Fred Astaire’s personality as a performer exuded wit, sophistication, grace and utter musicality. All of that is projected superbly in this arrangement by Bill Finegan, and performance by Tommy Dorsey and his band.

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

Notes and links:

(1) American Popular Song …The Great Innovators 1900-1950, by Alec Wilder (1972), 109-110.

Here is a link to a couple of Bill Finegan’s arrangements employing counterpoint, one played by Glenn Miller, the other by Tommy Dorsey.


And here is a link to Bill Finegan’s marvelous arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Soon,” played beautifully by Larry Elgart and his band:


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