November 24, 2005


Tommy Dorsey: Livin’ in a Great Big Way—A Biography. By Peter Levinson. Da Capo. $27.50.

     This is a thorough, carefully researched biography of a man virtually unknown to many people today, though he was a musical giant in his time and something of an icon to people of a certain age – including those, such as Peter Levinson, who chronicle Dorsey’s time.  This is Levinson’s third book about important figures in the Big Band era, after Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James and September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle.  The names of James, Riddle and Dorsey will be instantly familiar to those who, like Levinson, attended college in the early 1950s (Levinson started at the University of Virginia in 1952).  Those who are not in or close to their 60s and 70s will probably have little interest in this book, but those who remember Dorsey’s music with fondness will likely cherish it.

     Dorsey himself was far harder to cherish.  The jazz-trombone style of Dorsey (1905-1956) sustained many soldiers through World War II after they had danced to his music in the years leading up to war.  Dorsey was a famous perfectionist, a highly demanding band leader, an alcoholic – or at least a heavy drinker – and an inveterate pursuer of women.  Levinson traces Dorsey’s self-destructive lifestyle, which helped bring on his early death by suffocation, back to his childhood in the coal-mining towns of eastern Pennsylvania.  If “life on the Dorsey band bus was always freewheeling and full of humorous moments,” as Levinson says, Dorsey’s own emotional life was more seriously troubled.  A man with a volcanic temper, he split up with his one-year-older brother Jimmy despite the fact that the brothers’ band was one of the most popular of their era.  After starting his own band, Tommy Dorsey launched the career of a young singer named Frank Sinatra – a bit of history for which he is remembered even by people who may not recall Dorsey’s own music.  The complex Dorsey-Sinatra relationship – Sinatra idolized Dorsey but hated him at the same time – is well explored here.

     Levinson’s thorough biography is stronger in its exploration of Dorsey the man than of Dorsey the musician.  This is the first Dorsey biography in three decades, and Levinson clearly wants it to be exhaustive as well as revelatory.  It is more the former than the latter, perhaps because tales of self-destructive celebrities with troubled upbringings are now so common as to seem ordinary.  Tommy Dorsey was not ordinary: whatever his failings as a man, he had a highly personal and highly effective musical style that, Levinson argues with feeling, was not only unmatched in his own time but also remains so in the present.  Fans of Dorsey and the era he represents will find the ins and outs of the man, his career and his music fascinating.  But Levinson’s book will be of little or no interest to people who are not already fans of Dorsey’s music and the times in which he made it.  This biography is, in the final analysis, a period piece.

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