November 01, 1982 12:00 PM

The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra

Frank Sinatra was 23 when he joined the Dorsey band in 1940 as a $100-a-week vocalist. He had already begun to build a reputation singing with Harry James (his All or Nothing at All with James remains one of his best records). But he was nowhere near the pop culture phenomenon that he was soon to become. The six LPs in this three-album, $36 set include all 83 tunes Sinatra recorded with Dorsey before he bought his way out of his contract and went solo in late summer 1942. The songs range from the sublime—Stardust, I’ll Never Smile Again, Blue Skies, Violets for Your Furs, Oh, Look at Me Now!—to the worst of Big Band-era pap—April Played the Fiddle, You’re Lonely and I’m Lonely, You’re Breaking My Heart All Over Again, Love Me as I Am. A curiosity is that on occasion Sinatra’s vocals were cover versions of songs introduced by Bing Crosby; they were considered great rivals at the time, though in retrospect they hardly seem similar. Ahead of Sinatra lay the tribulations that came to inform his style, and the refinements of phrasing and deepening of voice that made him, by 1960 or so, a master interpreter of popular songs. What would become bittersweet in his style was only sweet; what would be emotion was only romance; what would be the voice of experience was still only a voice of relative innocence. (Not that he was anyone’s pussycat even then; Sinatra and Dorsey had a rocky relationship, and so did the singer and drummer Buddy Rich.) Nonetheless, many of these tracks still have a remarkably contemporary feel to them. Dorsey’s band and arrangers, at times catatonically bland, could rise to occasions. His soloists, while they were too often stifled, included trumpeter Bunny Berigan (notably on East of the Sun), clarinetist Johnny Mince and Rich. Sinatra has acknowledged how much Dorsey’s precise yet relaxed trombone playing influenced his singing. On the dozen or so records when everything meshed, when the talents, egos and circumstances came together, they all produced music that was as good as any of its era.

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