“Sorghum Switch” (1942) Jimmy Dorsey with Allan Reuss, Babe Russin and Nate Kazebier.

“Sorghum Switch” (*)

(Later known as “Cole Slaw”)

Composed by Jesse Stone; probably arranged by Joe Lippman.

Recorded by Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Decca on June 2, 1942 in New York.

Jimmy Dorsey, alto saxophone, directing: Paul McCoy, first trumpet; Shorty Solomson, Billy Oblak and Nate Kazebier, trumpets; Thomas B. “Sonny” Lee, first trombone; Phil Washburne, Billy Pritchard and Andy Russo, trombones; Milt Yaner, first alto saxophone; Frank Langone, alto saxophone; Charlie Frazier and Irving “Babe” Russin, tenor saxophones; Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone; Johnny Guarnieri, piano; Allen Reuss, electric guitar; Jack Ryan, bass; Adolph “Buddy” Schutz, drums.

The story:

As I have spent many years listening to and researching the music and musicians of the swing era, I have arrived at a number of conclusions about many of the musicians who made that era happen. These conclusions are based on what I know, but in no way are they definitive statements. In other words, they are subject to change as more new information becomes available to me. When it comes to Jimmy Dorsey in particular, I have formulated a number of opinions. These include the following: He was a marvelous musician, who was technically gifted on both alto saxophone and clarinet; he was a fine jazz improviser to the end; he was an excellent bandleader who was successful in rehearsing his various bands until they played with unity, precision and spirit; his bands were among the most successful of the swing era, on par with ones that now are considered the greatest commercial successes of that time. In light of all of those qualities and accomplishments, it is ironic that he and the music he made are now so little remembered and celebrated.

In attempting to understand why this is so, we are inevitably drawn to compare him with his younger brother, Tommy Dorsey. In many ways, Jimmy and Tommy were opposites. But in some ways, they were similar. Tommy, like Jimmy, was a superlative musician. The only way in which Jimmy was clearly better is that he was a first-class jazz improviser. Tommy, though extremely capable in that department, was not as creative as Jimmy.(1) Both brothers were superb bandleaders who had the ability to get top-level performances out of any band they led. Nevertheless, the differences between them were significant. Jimmy was not a particularly dynamic bandleader insofar as his interactions with his audiences were concerned. He always seemed guarded; indeed, he was often awkward whenever he was required to behave in a manner that audiences expected of a bandleader. Tommy relished the role of bandleader, and greatly enjoyed interacting with his audiences. He was completely comfortable reading and/or delivering scripted lines for radio, the movies. and television. He was also able to ad-lib quite effectively and amusingly when confronted by a network radio microphone.

Jimmy’s sidemen almost universally liked him as a person, and of course respected his musicianship. Trumpeter Pee Wee Erwin, who was in and out of Tommy’s band through the late 1930s, summarized how Tommy’s sidemen felt about him: “Tommy either liked you and you got along with him, or you didn’t want to be within five hundred miles of him.”(2)

Probably the place where Jimmy and Tommy were most dissimilar was in the area of business interest and acumen. Operating a big band during the swing era was in many respects like operating a business. The operation of any successful business requires deep involvement by the owner of that business in most if not all aspects of the enterprise. Tommy involved himself in every aspect of the business operation of his band. Clarinetist Johnny Mince, who was a member of Tommy’s band for four years, told me that Tommy was obsessive about knowing everything that was going on at all times in the business operation of his band. He constantly checked-up on everyone who was working for him on the business side of his band. If anything was amiss, there would be questions first, then if a resolution satisfactory to Tommy was not reached, threats and possible violence ensued. Tommy once grabbed one of his managers and began banging his head on a wall because of some business miscue. (Above right: Tommy taking care of business.) Jimmy, like many other bandleaders who were less successful than he, hired well-qualified people to manage his business. He trusted them to do what he was paying them to do. For many years, this system worked pretty well. For the years 1936-1946, Jimmy led one of the most successful bands of the swing era. But Jimmy’s involvement in the business operation of his band was always far less than Tommy’s. Consequently, it is impossible to know how many business miscues there were in the operation of his bands, and who paid for them.

In terms of personality, Jimmy Dorsey was an easy-going person who worked with others in a cooperative way. The mood of his bands was generally happy and loose. Nevertheless, Jimmy could and did focus on music with laser-beam concentration, and always presented bands that were well-rehearsed and disciplined. In his spare time, he often played golf, and was an good golfer. Tommy probably never held a golf club, except for promotional purposes. Jimmy was a solicitous son whose parents were very proud of his accomplishments. Tommy was too busy running his band to spend much time with his parents.

The story of how Jimmy Dorsey’s career as a bandleader declined from the late 1940s into the early 1950s is told elsewhere on this blog.(3)

Tommy prospered in the post-war years, and through the 1950s, up to his untimely death in late 1956, while Jimmy’s career as a bandleader essentially stopped in 1953. Fortunately, Jimmy’s dynamic brother (with considerable pressure from their mother), provided Jimmy with a safe harbor while he tried to resume some kind of career in music. Tommy and Jimmy worked together uneasily but very successfully for the period from 1953 through 1956. However, due to Tommy’s premature death in November of 1956, followed by Jimmy’s death in June of 1957 from cancer, two of the major bandleaders of the swing era were removed from the scene within a period of just over six months. (Above right: 1940 – Jimmy Dorsey with his parents, Thomas F. Dorsey, Sr., Tess Dorsey, and his wife Jane.)

The music:

The arrival of guitarist Charlie Christian on the swing music scene in the summer of 1939 sent shock waves through the world of guitar performance then. Christian’s virtuoso use of the electric guitar opened up a host of possibilities as to how that instrument could be used in both big bands and small groups. Many guitarists who had spent their entire professional careers playing the unamplified acoustical guitar suddenly found themselves in a brave new world where they had to transfer their skills to the electrically amplified guitar. For two years, Christian was unquestionably the leader in showing other guitarists what was possible using the electric guitar. Then, unfortunately, he became progressively more ill with tuberculosis, and he was removed from the scene. He died on March 2, 1942.

Among many guitarists who followed on the trail blazed by Charlie Christian was Allan Reuss, who was a master of the acoustical guitar. Reuss, like Christian four years after him, made his initial impact on the world of swing as a member of Benny Goodman’s band from 1935 into 1938. But Reuss played very few solos while a member of the Goodman aggregation. Christian played many, and recorded many. After Reuss left BG, he did quite a bit of free-lancing in New York, then worked steadily with a number of big bands including those led by Les Brown, Paul Whiteman, Glenn Miller and Jack Teagarden. By early 1942, he was a member of Jimmy Dorsey’s band. (Above left: Allan Reuss with Benny Goodman’s band in 1937 before he began playing an electric guitar.)

Allan Reuss purchased a Gibson L-5P guitar along with an EH-185 amplifier serial number 16213 on May 28, 1941. The guitar’s interior label reads: ‘Style L-5E’. Reuss returned the instrument to Gibson a few months after receiving it.(4) Presumably, he acquired another electric guitar before he made the recording of “Sorghum Switch” with Jimmy Dorsey’s band.

The Jimmy Dorsey band touring the Schlitz brewery in Milwaukee while they were playing at the Riverside Theater there, August 7-13, 1942. Among the sidemen from left: Sonny Lee (first), Nate Kazebier (fourth), Allan Reuss (fifth), Johnny Guarnieri (sixth), Charlie Frazier (eighth), JD, Babe Russin (second left from JD), Buddy Schutz (fourth left from JD). In addition to a beer, Jimmy holds an ever present cigarette.

The introduction for “Sorghum Switch” has Allan Reuss playing some attractive chords on his electric guitar while the open trombones play an abstraction of the melody of the swing standard “Christopher Columbus.” Then the saxophone quintet starts the first chorus in unison with a sotto voce exposition of the simple main melody of “Sorghum Switch,” teased along with glistening notes from Johnny Guarnieri’s piano during the first eight bars. For the second eight the cup muted brass add quiet little jabs. The muted brass then play the bridge melody with rhythmic support from the saxophones. The saxophones then complete the first chorus.

The interlude between choruses has the acrid straight-muted trumpets leading the way, supported by the open trombones and sighing saxophones. JD then steps forward to play sixteen bars of fine jazz. He is supported by a shifting background of open brass and low reeds. The bridge spots the open brass, then the saxophones. Tenor saxophonist Babe Russin (5) then plays some tasty jazz next, accompanied only by the whispering rhythm.

The final chorus begins with the robust open trombones, led by Sonny Lee, against a background of straight-muted trumpets and rhythmic low saxophones. The final tract returns the ensemble to the pattern of the opening bars of the first chorus. Nate Kazebier plays a few bars of jazz on his cup-muted trumpet, and Allan Reuss completes the performance in similar fashion as he had begun it.

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

Notes and links.

(*) Doc Wheeler recorded “Sorghum Switch” for Bluebird on November 6, 1941. I have been able to access that recording courtesy of a friend of swingandbeyond.com, Gary Herzenstiel. It appears that the JD arrangement is a revision in part of the arrangement recorded by Wheeler. I suspect that JD arranger Joe Lippman worked from the Wheeler recording to make his arrangement for the Dorsey band.

(1) Paradoxically, Tommy Dorsey, the silken-smooth trombone virtuoso who came to fame as that sentimental gentleman of swing, was a fiercely creative force when he played trumpet. There are many recorded examples of this from the late 1920s into the 1930s.

(2) Lost Chords …White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz -1915-1945 (1999), by Richard M. Sudhalter, 380. Trumpeter Charlie Teagarden, Jack’s younger brother, knew both Dorsey brothers well, but worked only for Jimmy. In the late 1940s when Charlie was a member of JD’s band, he was featured playing “I Can’t Get Started,” as a tribute to Bunny Berigan. He made a few adjustments to the lyric when he sang it, including: I’ve been consulted by Jimmy D.; I’ve been insulted by Tommy D… (Bockemuehl, 31 – see note below – further reading.)

(3) https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/04/21/blue-champagne-1941-jimmy-dorsey-and-bob-eberly/

(4) Here is a link to the information about Allan Reuss’s purchase of an electric guitar and amplifier in May of 1941:  https://prewargibsonl-5.com/serial-number-96978-allan-reuss/

(5) Babe Russin was the featured tenor saxophone soloist in Jimmy Dorsey’s band from April of 1942 until April of 1944. After he left JD, he moved permanently from New York to Los Angeles and began what would be a very successful career as a free-lance studio musician there.

Here are the story and music of another JD favorite, “John Silver”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/01/21/john-silver-grows-up-jimmy-dorsey-19381944/

Further reading about Jimmy Dorsey:

Although there is no biography of Jimmy Dorsey, the book that comes closest is Jimmy Dorsey …A Study in Contrasts (1999), by Robert Stockdale. This book is a bio-discography, and an excellent one. It contains an immense amount of information about JD’s recordings and the activities of his bands. However, it does not contain much narrative about Jimmy Dorsey’s life. Another book focusing on Jimmy Dorsey somewhat is Tommy and Jimmy …the Dorsey Years (1972), by Herb Sanford. This book is an anecdotal account by Mr. Sanford of his interactions with the Dorsey brothers, primarily Tommy, as Sanford worked with TD on his late 1930s radio show. It contains many worthwhile photos of Tommy, Jimmy and the people who were around them in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Finally, there is On the Road with the Jimmy Dorsey Aggravation 1947-1949 (1996), by Eugene D. Bockemuehl (Gene Bockey). This slender volume (135 pages) is another anecdotal memoir, but one that is well-written and filled with unique pictures. Mr. Bockey was a sideman in the postwar Jimmy Dorsey band. His perspective as a member of JD’s band during that time period is valuable and highly amusing in that it provides insights concerning how a big band on the road operated, the atmosphere surrounding that particular band, and how JD and many other band members behaved.

Despite the availability of these books, I hope that someone will write a well-researched biography of Jimmy Dorsey. He was a major player during the swing era.

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    • Good detective work Gary! Yes, there are many similarities, mostly in the first chorus melody exposition. But there were also many alterations which I suspect were done by Joe Lippman. Thanks for locating the Wheeler recording.

  1. I was fortunate to go to the Apollo theater in the late 50’s, catching the afternoon shows when in high school. The wonderful house band was led by Reuben Philips and when Jimmy Dorsey died, Rueben played a lovely ballad in tribute to his mentor on the soprano sax.

  2. Many years ago, when I’d just caught swing fever, I was keen, to say the least, to learn everything about this vibrant music, which at the time had first appeared over fifty years earlier; I bought every book I could find on the subject. One of these was the Bruce Crowther-Mike Pinfold THE BIG BAND YEARS, and I believe it was in this volume that I encountered a Jimmy Dorsey profile that contained a somewhat snarky comment: The authors asserted that the huge success of the now famous three-in-one Toots Camarata arrangements, sandwiching a swinging JD solo between a ballad chorus from Bob Eberly and a rhythm chorus from Helen O’Connell, enabled Jimmy finally to breath the same “rarified air” that his younger brother, a fellow bandleader, had been enjoying. In my then very limited knowledge, I was amused, but I learned later, despite the comparative paucity of material on the elder brother, that Jimmy had Number One hits prior to the celebrated Amapola-Green Eyes-Yours-Tangerine, etc. cycle — just like Tommy. I recall eagerly asking my mother, a teenager in the heart of the Swing Era, about which Dorsey brother’s orchestra she favoured back in their heyday; she acknowledged her youthful fickleness in saying that she went back and forth, based on the current releases of each. Though I’ve always preferred Tommy’s band, I’m a great admirer of Jimmy’s outfit, throughout its history. Having been listening to and studying swing for decades now, I’m inclined to see the Eberly-O’Connell hits as well as simply the heavy recording emphasis placed on the talents of each of those two vocalists as both something of a factor in the decline of the Big Band Era and anticipatory of the Singer’s Era of the early, pre-rock & roll, ’50s. Bob and Helen were excellent, and charismatic, singers. TD’s Sinatra was more versatile, but JD’s Eberly had the more magnificent baritone, in my opinion. Helen, whom I’ve always regarded as a song stylist, had vocal power that belied her slender frame.

    No less terrific than their vocal records were the JD orchestra’s dynamic, swinging instrumentals, which in general seem not to get nearly the attention they deserve; “Sorghum Switch” easily ranks among my favourites — in no small part for the meaty contribution of my favourite guitarist, Allan Reuss. Though the side contains what I consider to be some of the finest electric guitar work of the Swing Era, I do suspect that Reuss, by the time of this recording date, had mixed feelings about the instrument. I’m sure he had been curious about its potential, both for the practical purpose of volume enhancement and as a new sonic texture. As early as ’39, he was experimenting with the sound (probably on a Gibson ES-150) on the road with the Teagarden band, but I’m not aware of any pre-Dorsey studio recordings in which he employed a pickup-equipped model — which means that such notables as Barnet’s Bus Etri; Shaw’s Al Hendrickson; Herman’s Hy White; Erskine Hawkins’ William McLemore; Krupa’s Ray Biondi and Kirk’s Floyd Smith (in addition to Charlie Christian, of course, among others) all had the jump on him, despite his eminence among Swing Era guitarists. While he surely would have welcomed the opportunity to have his meagerly allotted solos better heard on location by both audiences and himself, I tend to feel that he was not entirely satisfied with the sound he was getting with the pickup and amplifier for either rhythm or his chordal style of soloing. As we find on this side, more control over the balance with the rest of the orchestra was possible in the studio, and we hear the electrified Reuss with greater clarity than on the earlier live Teagarden band recordings as well as subsequent live James band material. Some later guitarists, such as Bob Wills’ Junior Barnard, actually sought the distortion that results from overdriving an amp (these were, after all, the pre-Marshall stack days), but I’m sure that Reuss sought nothing more than increased volume and was not pleased when he got something else besides. I believe his relationship with electric guitar, as a member of various touring orchestras, to have been one of near necessity, as the bands grew larger, rather than of tone preference. As we find, for example, in the modern environment of the Coleman Hawkins-Howard McGhee small group recordings of ’45, Reuss is playing acoustic archtop, in his familiar manner, because this was the sound he favoured — even at a time by which guitar soloing had significantly changed from the Van Eps-Kress (and Reuss) chordal approach, in which the instrument to some degree mimics a horn section in playing harmonized melodies, to the Christian mode, utilising the horn soloist approach, and four-to-the-bar rhythm was no longer to be taken for granted. “Sorghum Switch” stands as the electric Reuss at his best.

    Though Tommy’s pure trombone tone seems to be universally admired, I’ve observed that opinions on Jimmy’s alto and clarinet tones vary. (I, for one, love his pungent, poignant sound on both horns). Still, jazz and swing enthusiasts appear unanimous in the view that Jimmy was the superior improvisor of the two. While both musicians had staggering technical ability that allowed them to execute anything their minds dreamed up, Jimmy was far more creative — as well as modern. Tommy, as an improvisor, seems not really to have moved stylistically beyond his youthful idolisation of Miff Mole (who was, of course, great).

    Heralded by the bright open trumpets, Jimmy comes in swinging on “Sorghum Switch,” notching up the temperature. The contrapuntal writing of Joe Lippman (presumably), laid-back musings from Babe Russin and Nate Kazebier and tinkly piano from Johnny Guarnieri make this one slick side. The bookending Reuss statements are the highlight, though, for guitar-playing listeners.

    In a final couple of thoughts, I must say that the Wheeler band reminds me a bit of the contemporaneous Erskine Hawkins crew on Doc’s version — although not as good. This original take is groovy enough, but it lacks the punch of the JD treatment: In yet another brotherly parallel, Jimmy’s band improved upon Wheeler here, just as Tommy did on “Marie.” … As to the younger Dorsey and golf, I recall a comment from Sinatra on the small amount of sleep on which Tommy functioned: Frank claimed that on the road, after a typically late night, the trombonist would wake him early, so the two could hit the links. The vocalist, it seems, participated dutifully but wasn’t fresh as a daisy like his boss. Who knows about Tommy’s game, however.

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