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Tommy Dorsey: Livin’ in a Great Big Way by Peter Levinson

Time hasn’t been kind to Tommy Dorsey. The Senti-mental Gentleman of Swing, in his day as powerful and popular as Sinatra (whose career he ignited), Elvis or even the Beatles, is now all but unknown to anyone under 50 (like pretty much every other major figure of the big-band era). Nor, among critics and music historians, have his sizeable contributions been given near the attention or praise heaped upon such peers as Goodman, Miller or Shaw. Hopefully, Peter Levinson’s thoroughly enlightening and entertaining biography will help push the deserving Dorsey back into the spotlight.

As fun and lively as it is exhaustive, the aptly subtitled portrait (Dorsey liked to do pretty much everything in a great big way) follows the bespoke trombonist from his humble beginnings as the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner (turned music teacher) to his premature death, in 1956, at age 51. Along the way, Levinson paints a marvelous portrait of both man and era–including his volatile love-hate personal and professional relationships with big brother Jimmy, his nurturing of Sinatra (and the brouhaha surrounding young blue eyes’ departure from the Dorsey orchestra), his outsized ego, his hair-trigger temper, his intense perfectionism and, ultimately, his and other bandleaders’ resistance to musical evolution that, by the end of the 1940s, rendered them dinosaurs.

Originally Published