“It’s Always You” Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra (1941) / Frank Sinatra with Sy Oliver (1961)

“It’s Always You”

Composed by Jimmy Van Heusen (music) and Johnny Burke (lyric); arranged by Axel Stordahl.

Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Victor on January 15, 1941 in New York.

Tommy Dorsey, first and solo trombone, directing: Ray Linn, Lee Castle, Jimmy Blake and Ziggy Elman, trumpets; George Arus, Les Jenkins and Lowell Martin, trombones; Johnny Mince, clarinet; Freddie Stulce and Heinie Beau, alto saxophones (Beau doubled on baritone saxophone); Don Lodice and Paul Mason, tenor saxophones; Joe Bushkin, piano; Clark Yocum, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Buddy Rich, drums; Frank Sinatra, vocal.

The story:

Ah, romance! “Romance” is defined as: “a novel, movie, or genre of popular fiction (or a song’s lyric) in which characters fall in love or begin a romantic relationship.” The word “romantic” is defined as: “characterized by a preoccupation with love or by the idealizing of love or one’s beloved.” Romanticism very much informed many of the lyrics that were a part of the popular songs written during the swing era. When used with skill and sensitivity, romanticism can enhance the lyric of a song. But like so many wonderful things, when romanticism is taken too far in a song’s lyric, the result becomes something else – sentimental. Sentimental lyrics are not necessarily bad. But again, if taken too far, they become mawkish. Mawkish lyrics often evoked this kind of reaction from swing era musicians, usually in rehearsal: Jeez! This is another of those June, moon, swoon tunes… often accompanied by a raised eyebrow, or rolling eyes.

The best swing bands were led by people who knew the difference between romance and mawkish sentimentality. The singers in those bands also knew the difference, and tried to steer a course in their presentations that oriented the romantic lyrics they were required to sing in the direction of romance, not sentimentality. A master of this was the young Frank Sinatra. In his time as the featured singer with Tommy Dorsey’s band (1940-1942), Sinatra developed his abilities as an adroit interpreter of the lyrics of the songs he sang. Sinatra’s singing style was based on good voice quality and range, a fine sense of pitch, and clear enunciation of the words he was singing. But most of the singers of the swing era had those same qualities. What made Sinatra different was his magical ability when he sang to project to audiences, especially women, emotional vulnerability, yet at the same time, strength.

The music:

“It’s Always You” was composed by Jimmy Van Heusen (music) and Johnny Burke (lyric) in 1941 for the Paramount film Road to Zanzibar, a comedic romp that starred Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, and that old hitmaker, Bing Crosby. That film, like its predecessor, Road to Singapore, was a hit with audiences, and ensured that the “Road picture” hook would continue to be used by Paramount to draw people into movie theaters. (There were eventually seven Road pictures.)

In late 1940 and early 1941, Frank Sinatra was in Hollywood with Tommy Dorsey’s band to work on the Paramount film Las Vegas Nights. This film is hardly a cinematic triumph, but it does present Sinatra on the silver screen for the first time, singing “I’ll Never Smile Again,” which was a big hit for TD and Frank at that time. Sinatra took deep drafts of the Hollywood experience then, and became intoxicated by them. On the Paramount lot, he was able to see his idol, Bing Crosby, and meet him. He resolved to become a triple-threat entertainment phenomenon, like Crosby, and achieve widespread success as an independent singer, as a movie star, and as a star on radio. Sinatra’s evolution from band singer to entertainment phenomenon had begun. (Above right – a year after Las Vegas Nights was made, Sinatra was again in Hollywood with Tommy Dorsey’s band, to make the M-G-M film Ship Ahoy. Here he is pictured with his boss (right) and M-G-M star Mickey Rooney.)

But as 1940 ended and 1941 began, Frank Sinatra was still very much a band singer, though no ordinary band singer.

Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra on the set making the Paramount film Las Vegas Nights – early November 1940. Front row, L-R: Heinie Beau, Johnny Mince, Freddie Stulce, Don Lodice, Paul Mason, TD, Joe Bushkin; second row, L-R: Lowell Martin, Les Jenkins, George Arus; third row, L-R: probably Clyde Hurley(1), Ray Linn, Chuck Peterson, Ziggy Elman, Buddy Rich, Sid Weiss; back row, L-R: Chuck Lowery, Jo Stafford, John Huddleston, Connie Haines, Frank Sinatra.

The lyric for “It’s Always You” is redolent with romance, and Sinatra knew exactly how to deliver it:

Whenever it’s early twilightI watch ’til a star breaks through;Funny, it’s not a star I seeIt’s always you.
…Whenever I roam through rosesAnd lately, I often do;Funny, it’s not a rose I touchIt’s always you.
…If a breeze caresses meIt’s really you strolling by;If I hear a melodyIt’s merely the way you sigh.
…Wherever you are, you’re near meYou dare me to be untrue;Funny, each time I fall in loveIt’s always you.


Here is a completely different version of “It’s Always You,” refashioned for Frank Sinatra in 1961 by Sy Oliver, that was included in the tribute album Sinatra produced in 1961 saluting his and Sy Oliver’s former employer, Tommy Dorsey.

It’s Always You”

Composed by Jimmy Van Heusen (music) and Johnny Burke (lyric); arranged by Sy Oliver.

Recorded by Frank Sinatra with Sy Oliver conducting the orchestra for Reprise on May 3, 1961 in Hollywood.

Frank Sinatra, singing; Sy Oliver, conducting a studio orchestra likely comprised of these musicians: 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; 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 Tommy, and eventually recognized that TD 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. Sy Oliver’s arrangement is quite different from the genteel chart Axel Stordahl wrote for Sinatra as Tommy Dorsey’s boy singer.  Here, Oliver’s writing is reminiscent of the work he did for bandleader Jimmie Lunceford in the 1930s: surging saxophones and bursts of brass atop a rocking 2/4 beat. These are the musical devices Sy used to spur Sinatra to deliver a very swinging performance. (At left: Sinatra and Sy Oliver in the early 1960s.)

The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) The photo of Tommy Dorsey’s band from the Paramount film Las Vegas Nights shown above was likely taken in early November of 1940, when production of the film began. The trumpeter identified in the caption for that photo as “probably Clyde Hurley,” looks like Mr. Hurley (shown at left), and definitely not like Jimmy Blake, who apparently replaced Hurley in the Dorsey band while the filming was continuing. Also, guitarist/vocalist Clark Yocum is not shown in the TD band photo in this post. A similar photo taken on the same set but a bit later, with band members wearing snazzy caps, includes both Blake and Yocum.

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  1. I wonder from which movie production the TD/Rooney/Sinatra photo is. „Thrill Of A Romance“ was made in 1945, not a year after „Las Vegas Nights“. Neither Rooney nor Sinatra was in it. The movie TD did after „Las Vegas Nights“ was “Ship Ahoy” (1942), but it did not feature Mickey Rooney.

  2. You are absolutely correct Reinhard. The TD band started work on “Ship Ahoy” at M-G-M on November 11, 1941. Mickey Rooney was not in “Ship Ahoy,” but was working almost constantly on some film at M-G-M then. I suspect that he came onto the “Ship Ahoy” set to visit TD.

  3. Though there were bands that released a higher percentage of vocal records than Tommy’s did, no swing orchestra provided so flattering a showcase for its vocalists as the Dorsey aggregation. He consistently hired very fine singers and had, in the period of “It’ Always You,” the best in the business in Sinatra, Stafford and The Pied Pipers (omission of Connie Haines is intentional). I’ve always liked to imagine that it was Tommy’s studio experience with brilliant artists such as the Boswell Sisters, Mildred Bailey and Ethel Waters that inspired him to place special focus on the vocal department when he became the sole leader of a band … or it could be that vocals went with the ballads that happened to be the area of his greatest expertise. In any case, no band created so sympathetic an environment for singers as Tommy’s. The thing I love about the orchestra’s records such as “It’s Always You,” besides the technical excellence of the performance, is that quiet, reflective, intimate, rainy day (or night) quality, which we simply don’t find with frequency in the output of the other bands of the day. It seems to me that the Dorsey arrangers truly wrote to the strengths of the band’s vocal stable, rather than taking a “one size fits all” approach or expecting the singer simply to do his/her best in the context of the arranger’s vision. Frank, Jo and The Pipers, it just happened, could handle everything in expert fashion.

    In critiquing one artist’s performance, I’ve never liked to build one guy up by knocking another down but, as Sinatra and Ray Eberle recorded so many of the same tunes with their respective bands, comparison is often tempting. There are, in fact, a few instances in which I actually prefer the Miller band arrangement to the Dorsey, but never have I found Ray’s vocals, though sometimes quite good, to be in the same universe as Frank’s. “It’s Always You” is a perfect example: Bill Finegan’s beautiful chart, both romantic and sentimental in character, has some very attractive features — the trombone choir opening melody statement; Trigger Alpert’s prominent bass on Ray’s bridge; the glorious reeds — but it lacks that lonely/alone sound, often fashioned for Sinatra or Stafford sides, that brings to the material itself greater poignancy and depth. Ray’s phrasing is so plodding and stiff, while Frank’s has a natural flow, as if he’s saying what he genuinely feels in the moment. I recall finding someone prominent (don’t remember who) comment on Frank’s ability to make certain words sound pretty — we find this in his “merely” in the bridge; he conveys the word’s meaning simply (or merely!) through the way he sings it.

    Stordahl’s intro sets the bereft atmosphere, which is sustained through Frank’s vocal, Tommy’s melody statement on the A’s is, as always, flawless, and Ziggy’s cup-muted bridge is lovely. Though it seems that many associate Ziggy most closely with his powerhouse “Swingtime in the Rockies,” “Deep River, “Blue Blazes” style, we need look no further than his own sides of ’38-’39, when he was with Goodman, to be reminded that he had a strong sentimental streak. Johnny Mince’s clarinet, which could be piquant or poignant, depending on the setting, is wonderful, too, on the final bridge.

    I have to say, I’ve never been a big fan of Frank’s Reprise years, despite the fact that he was indeed still at the peak of his technical powers. I like the fact that he had softened in his memories of Tommy and wanted to give credit where it was due, but I do remember being somewhat disappointed by the general mood of the album. I realize that an artist’s role is to interpret and that he/she should not feel constrained by, for example, the original vision for the material, but I find the Rat Pack, cool cat swagger, so often present in Frank’s work of this period, not to be an ideal match with the various songs’ mood. Now, yes, Sy — easily my all-time favorite arranger — did a complete reworking of the Isham Jones-Gus Kahn forlorn “The One I Love (Belongs to Somebody Else)”, back in the Dorsey days, that worked magnificently on its own terms, but this sort of trick can’t always be pulled off so successfully, even by an artist of Sinatra’s stature. I do really like Sy’s writing for “It’s Always You,” whose mood was perhaps dictated, at least in part, by Sinatra’s ideas, but I don’t find Frank, despite his artistic maturity, as convincing here and I find the young, still learning Blue Eyes on the original Victor.

  4. I suspect that Mickey Rooney was working on one of the Andy Hardy films, possibly THE COURTSHIP OF ANDY HARDY, at the time of the photo on the SHIP AHOY set. Though I can’t recall any pajamas scenes from the Rooney movie, its filming period seems to fit most closely with that of the Dorsey flick.

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