Gary James' Interview With Bill Tole Of
The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra
You want to talk classic bands? Bill Tole is the leader of one of the best known classic bands ever! That band is The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra.
Bill's background is just incredible! Some of the Big Band leaders he's performed with include Louis Bellson, Les Brown, Bob Crosby and Harry James. He's worked with singers Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones and Pearl Bailey. In the mid-1960s, he played for many of the top Broadway shows. Bill Tole provided us with a fascinating look at Big Bands, as well as Pop music.
Q - Bill, how hard is it today to get musicians to join The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra?
A - It's not as hard as I would have thought. I mean, there's still a lot of seasoned players, 40, 50, 60 years old, that are still good players. They've either worked with the bands over the years, bands like Ray Anthony or Tex Beneke or Si Zentner. Those are bands that kind of came along after the Big Band era basically. So, there's still a lot of really good musicians around that do play Swing. Of course a lot of 'em have ended up in the studios in either New York or Nashville or L.A. or Las Vegas, playing in show bands and doing the recording industry. But there are on the other side of the coin, a lot of young players that have gone through Jazz programs in high schools and in colleges like North Texas State in Denton, Texas and Berkeley School Of Music in Boston, where they teach Jazz. They teach Swing. There are a lot of young players in their early 20s and late teens that are good Swing players.
A - Yeah. It's gotten smaller and smaller, that era of recording. I moved to L.A. in 1967. I'd been in New York for a few years in the '60s and moved to L.A. and really just became a studio player for 30, 40 years, that's what I did.
Q - How many sessions a day were you doing?
A - Well, in the '60s, '70s and '80s I was really busy. NBC, ABC and CBS had a lot of variety shows on like Phyllis Diller, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis. Tom Jones had a series for two years, a variety series. So there was a lot of that recording. There was a lot of recording of backing up groups. One day I would be working with Walter Murphy with "A Fifth Of Beethoven" and the next day maybe The Lettermen and maybe another day I'd be working with Louis Bellson of the Swing band. So, there was a lot of recording in either Rock, Jazz or the Big Band scene. And then there was also the movies, films that were done, especially in L.A. So, at that time there was a lot of recording.
Q - What was it like to be in the studio with Tom Jones and with Frank Sinatra?
A - Well, they're two different people, yet they both sang great music. Obviously Tom Jones was more towards the Rock field. It wasn't Hard Rock. His way of singing was more like a Swing version of Rock. He was very popular. Frank Sinatra was right out of the '40s with the Tommy Dorsey Band. He never really changed his style. He just got better and better. I don't think there was a song that Frank didn't record. I'd be surprised if there were anyhow.
Q - Do you remember what songs you recorded with Sinatra?
A - I did a lot of TV shows with him. TV specials where he did mostly his hits. There was one album I was on with Don Costa writing the music. The album was called "Cycles". I think the concept of that particular album was, he was doing his interpretation of more '70s and '80s type tunes.
Q - You were in New York City in the early '60s.
A - Right. After I got out of college in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I moved to New York City and worked in the studios in New York City.
Q - You also did club dates, didn't you?
A - Yeah, and a couple of Broadway shows. One that made it and one that didn't. (laughs) It was a show called Breakfast At Tiffany's. I think we only did a few weeks. That was with Mary Tyler Moore. But then I did another show that lasted for several years with Sammy Davis Jr. called Golden Boy.
Q - What clubs were you playing in New York?
A - Mostly The Copacabana and The Persian Room and The Plaza Hotel. They had stars that would come in for a week or two weeks like Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett. Every week or so it was somebody different. And then I also worked at The Waldorf Astoria. I believe it was The Astor Room. I'm not positive about that. I worked there with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé. I think Don Rickles was there. A lot of great stars came through there and would do a week or two weeks. I worked for Bobby Darin at the Copacabana.
Bobby Vinton came in and did a week, Jimmy Robelli, who was more of an East Coast singer, in fact I worked quite a few different places with Jimmy.
Q - Did you work at The 500 Club in Atlantic City?
A - Never did.
Q - Did you ever go down to see Dick Clark's American Bandstand when you were growing up?
A - I never did. And we'd get into Philadelphia quite often. Once I moved to Los Angeles, I got to know Dick Clark and got to work with him quite a bit on his TV show and the specials he would do. I moved to L.A. like I said, in '67. I started my band in 1970. It was a Swing band. We used to do shows, dances at The Palladium and different venues around California. But we were basically a California band. There was one year I played his (Dick Clark's) birthday party. They put a tent on the beach in Malibu. They had a bandstand. We played about a four hour dance for his birthday party. All of the stars from his era that he had in Philadelphia on American Bandstand were all there. I went to college, Drake University, with Bobby Vinton. Bobby was there, so we caught up on some old times. Also during that period of time I was working at NBC in the studio and we were doing Midnight Special. All of these same stars that were at his birthday party, surprise birthday party, I had worked with or was going to be working with on the Midnight Special with
Wolfman Jack. It was kind of fun.
Q - Of all the singers and musicians you worked with, were there ever someone you were in awe of?
A - Oh, boy. A lot of them I guess. You mean with the Midnight Special or just in general?
Q - In general. It can be anybody you worked with.
A - Frank Sinatra definitely was one.
Q - When he came into the room, you thought "Oh, my God! There's Frank Sinatra"?
A - Yeah.
Q - Did you ever work with Elvis?
A - Never did.
Q - Any of The Beatles?
A - Never did.
Q - How about Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin?
A - Yeah. Basically when I did work with any of them, it would be on one of the TV shows where I was like in the band and they would be in for a guest shot. In a situation like that, we hardly ever had the time or they hardly ever had the time to sit down and talk with the musicians or talk with them. It was usually rehearse the music and then show time.
Q - That's too bad. There were some very good singers in that era.
A - Oh, boy. I'll say.
Q - You're the Musical Director for The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra.
A - Yes.
Q - How many people did you have to compete with for that position?
A - Probably none. My background has basically been Big Band. After four years of college, within a week or two weeks I went out with The Tommy Dorsey Band and traveled with them for about two years. From that point, shortly after, I was in The Airmen Of Note in Washington, D.C., the Air force Jazz band. So I kind of grew up in Big Band. My Dad was always a Big Band player, although he was a high school band director for many years. This kind of music always played at home. That's kind of what I was exposed to. So, over the years I think I've worked with just about every Big Band leader there had been, from once I started, probably in the '50s, late '50s. So, I kind of just fell into it. Having worked with The Tommy Dorsey Band and of course when Jimmy passed away, Lee Castle had the band. Of course Lee was the leader of the Jimmy Dorsey Band for close to thirty-eight years. I used to work with him when he'd come through Los Angeles. Then after he passed away, there was a man named Jim Miller who was the leader of the band for about eleven or twelve years, I guess. When Jim retired, like I said, I worked with the band when Jim would come into the West Coast, he asked me if I would take over the band.
Q - And so you did!
A - Yeah, I did. I've been the leader now for a little over ten years.
Q - Where is the audience today for Jimmy Dorsey's music? Is it theatres? Festivals? Cruises?
A - I would say it's ninety-nine percent Performing Arts Centers. Beautiful theatres. It could anywhere from four or five hundred seats up to two or three thousand seats. The audience is definitely older, the main audience. We do play for some younger people in some areas. And again, I think those are people that have come up through the high school and college Jazz programs and / or are fans of Michael Buble or Harry Connick Jr. or just kind of learned to like the Big Band Swing from the artists that have recorded the American Songbook.
Q - How busy do they keep your band?
A - Well, I'd say in the last three or four years, we've actually slowed down a lot I think, and I know it's directly associated with the economy. We play mostly Performing Arts Centers. A lot of the corporate money is not there for Performing Arts Centers as donations or backing money. Their seasons have gotten shorter and shorter. So we're feeling that crunch now.
Q - What does that mean for you personally? Do you have to go out and try to get studio work?
A - I still get calls, I guess from reputation, calls to work studio jobs even though I'm in Arizona. There is some studio work here in the Phoenix area. But every now and then I'll get a call to go into Los Angeles and work for a couple of days. It's so close, I can drive back and forth pretty easily. It's not a problem.
Q - How does the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra travel?
A - Pretty much fly everywhere.
Q - How does that work? How do the instruments travel?
A - OK. Since 9-11 that's been a problem. So, what we do is, I've rehearsed twelve bands around the United States. When we book a job in Long Island, New York and we were there three or four weeks ago, I'll use the band in New York that has already rehearsed the show. If we're down in Miami, Florida or anywhere in Florida, there's a band down there that has worked with us. Basically we won't book a job unless we know those musicians are available or we can have a rehearsal, which usually we don't do because I just check and make sure that the musicians that have worked with us are available to do the job and then we confirm the job.
Q - This marks the second time I've heard this type of business plan used.
A - There are two main problems with traveling with a band. The first is the finances because with the airlines it costs so much to move a band around. And of course if we're in a bus we can't go from here in Arizona to do a date in Utica, New York. There's just no way. There's no time. There's no way to get there without flying. The other problem which I was directly mentioning in 9-11, it's very difficult to get an airline that will allow us to take that many musicians and instruments on the plane.
Q - Because they're afraid something might be in the drum cases or horn cases?
A - It's not that so much. It's just that every musician wants to carry his horn on the plane, so there's a limited space on the overheads to do that. It's a hassle to check that many instruments in with the under carriage. And what if we get to the job and the plane was over loaded and the instruments don't get there? That's the problem. The string bass is a huge problem getting onto a plane. Of course drums we have to rent everywhere we go and the piano is always provided at every venue. Then we'd have to think about the music stands and the lights and electrical and all that. It really becomes a difficult problem.
Q - How many guys are there in the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra?
A - Sixteen all together, fifteen plus a vocalist.
Q - Do you travel outside the U.S.?
A - Oh, yeah. We do cruises. We were in England a couple of years ago, went down to Costa Rica a year and a half ago. So yeah, we do travel more than just in the States. Of course I've been to Japan ten times with different bands, various bands. Tex Beneke, Benny Goodman Salute, Harry James Band. The Jimmy Dorsey Band has not been hired over in Japan. I've flown to Australia and done several jobs on my own before I took over the Jimmy Dorsey Band as The Bill Tole Band.
Q - How big of a band was that?
A - Sixteen.
Q - And that was before 9-11?
A - Yes.
Q - You grew up listening to Swing and Big Bands. When popular music became Rock 'n' Roll, what did you think of it? Did you like it?
A - No. At first I think I rejected it. I figured this will never replace Swing bands. (laughs) Eventually I started getting involved with it. Of course I think the more I played in the studios, backing up the different groups like The Temptations and The Supremes, you just say "Wow! Some of those songs are really good." I guess I just grew with it.