Deep in the subterranean bowels of the History Center, Brad Reeves of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound works in a fascinating laboratory. His non-profit collects and preserves home home movies, audio tapes, and records across a century of Knoxville-area history. Many of his music recordings have to do with the history of country music, but a collection of reel-to-reel tapes he’s acquired recently is a distinct exception.
It’s a multi-tape recording, from March, 1953, of a dance at West Knoxville’s long-gone Deane Hill Country Club, by the Tommy Dorsey Band. The suave, bespectacled Sentimental Gentleman himself had been one of the biggest pop stars in America a decade or so earlier. He gave Frank Sinatra his start, and his 1935 breakup with his brother, the equally famous saxophonist and bandleader Jimmy Dorsey, who’d played Deane Hill the previous summer, was legendary. The two were rumored to resent each other, but both were friendly with Deane Hill owner Jack Comer, and played in Knoxville regularly. Deane Hill, a lovely place atop a hill that no longer fully exists, wasn’t the most exclusive club in town, but had a reputation as the fun one.
The two hours of tape include dozens of songs, both instrumentals and those sung by either of the band’s two singers, brother and sister Gordon and Lucy Ann Polk. The audience, a formal dinner crowd of at least 400, was obviously enjoying the show, talking and laughing through much of it, as was customary even with top stars.
Right after “Sleepy Lagoon” and a swinging version of “Sunny Side of the Street,” the crowd got quiet as Tommy Dorsey stepped up to the microphone without his trombone.
“Thank you,” he said, as the applause subsided. “We have a bit of a surprise for you, a lot of you fellas know about it already.” The room’s now even quieter. “There’s a gentleman here I’ve know for many, many years. We’ve had many a bout together for the last—many years. We’ll be associated again on May 13; it was right around that time in 1935 that we split up. So let’s give a nice big round of applause, ladies and gentlemen, for my brother Jimmy Dorsey!”
There followed about 30 seconds of wild applause. Then another, similar voice: “Ladies and gentlemen, great to see you again. I played here about eight months ago, a very enjoyable dance. Yes, I remember slightly. As Brother said, we’re going to do a little merging, about May 13.”
He added, “I’m very happy to be joining this aggravation.”
There were several shouts of “John Silver!” an old Jimmy Dorsey hit. Instead, he said, “We’re gonna do a little Dixieland,” and launched into “Muskrat Ramble.”
Marjorie Comer, Jack Comer’s widow, still lives near the site of the country club. She remembers the evening well. “No one knew Jimmy was coming in,” she says, not even Tommy, at first. “Jack went to the airport to pick him up, and kept Jimmy in hiding until that evening,” probably in the apartments upstairs, she thinks. “Tommy was totally surprised, as was everybody else in the building. It was a very touching moment.”
Besides working together on a major motion picture, The Fabulous Dorseys, in 1947, the two had rarely played together in the 18 years since their split. Ms. Comer says taking that opportunity to announce their permanent reunion was Jimmy’s idea. “He just decided it would be a good time,” she says.
She liked both Dorseys, but knew Jimmy better. “He was more fun-loving, more outgoing, than Tommy. People could relate to him more than to Tommy.” She liked all the members of the band, she says, with one exception. “I did not like him, personally,” she say of drummer Buddy Rich. “All the other guys in the band were super-nice, but he was always into himself, had the attitude he was the top gun. But he was a good drummer.
“The evening was quite successful,” she says, unnecessarily. The recording, made by her husband on a variety of different Scotch-brand tapes, is in surprisingly good shape, though Reeves says some will need work before they can be safely listened to. He hopes to make it available on CD, though his tiny non-profit has no budget for such endeavors; he wonders if anyone out there would like to help invest in such a project.
Despite the years, the band sounds crisp and tight as they swing through classics like “Marie,” “Stranger in Paradise,” and “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” with the possible exception of the male singer, Gordon Polk, an eccentric performer with a reputation as a prankster, who’s frequently out of key. A well-known pro and Dorsey veteran, he may have been in an altered state that night.
Their announcement made national wire-service headlines, without explanation of the “Knoxville, Tenn.” dateline. The Dorseys’ surprise reunion would be a hit, albeit a short-lived one. In 1954, they got their own prime-time TV show, though it’s remembered in part for some non-jazz: the Dorseys introduced Elvis Presley to national television.
In November, 1956, Tommy Dorsey died, an apparently accidental result of sleeping pills. His brother Jimmy took over the band and achieved the unlikely feat, for a saxman of 53, of a hit record, with the song “So Rare.”
In the summer of 1957, it jockeyed with former Knoxvillians the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” on the American charts, eventually hitting #4 that July, but Jimmy didn’t hear about it; he had died of throat cancer just a few weeks before.
Their off-key vocalist, Gordon Polk, moonlighted as an actor, and had a bit part in the Spencer Tracy classic, Inherit the Wind. Polk died, too, at age 37, during heart surgery. Lucy Ann Polk tried to launch a solo career in the mid-’50s, with a couple of moderately successful albums, but faded in the rock ’n’ roll era. She was, at least recently, still alive on the west coast; she would turn 80 in May. I wonder if she remembers.