Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Thirty-Five
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed February 25, 1998

George "Gus" Thow was not considered one the greats of jazz. But the Cleveland native did play a key role in one of the pivotal orchestras of the early years of the big band era.

In 1934, the two brothers from Lansford, Pennsylvania, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, who had played and recorded with Bix Beiderbecke and the orchestras of Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman, decided to form their own band.

Clevelander George "Gus" Throw (kneeling at left) with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in 1934. Others in the front row (L-R) are Roc Hillman, Don Matteson, Skeets Herfurt and Ray McKinley. Standing are Bobby Van Epps, Delmar Kaplan, Tommy Dorsey, Kay Weber, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Jack Stacey

They broke with the pattern of most white bands of the period, which performed mostly straight dance arrangements. The Dorsey brothers, borrowing from their experience with small jazz groups and some of the swinging black big bands, combined elements of small group jazz and big band dance music. They did it with only eleven players, and unusual instrumentation: three reeds (Jimmy Dorsey, Skeets Herfurt and Jack Stacey), three trombones (Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Don Matteson), piano (Bobby Van Epps), drums (Ray McKinley), bass (Delmar Kaplan), guitar (Roc Hilman) and only one trumpet!

When the Dorsey brothers formed their band, they quickly went through a succession of trumpeters: Bunny Berigan, Charlie Spivak, Jerry Neary, and finally settled on the young musician from Cleveland, George "Gus" Thow.

Born in Cleveland July 8, 1908, Thow lived at 1314 West 95th Street when he attended old West High School. He sang in the school glee club and played in the school orchestra. Records obtained from the Cleveland school system show that he had a 90.5 average when he graduated in 1925. He was awarded a scholarship to Harvard University.

At Harvard, Thow played trumpet in a band led by Johnny Green and graduated in 1929 with a bachelor of arts degree in French literature, a rarity for musicians.

After graduation, he joined the Isham Jones Orchestra, which included such future stars as Jack Jenney, Pee Wee Erwin, Gordon Jenkins, and Woody Herman. Thow recorded in 1934 with the Benny Goodman Orchestra which included Jack Teagarden and Teddy Wilson.

Then the 26 year old Clevelander joined the revolutionary new Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. With Tommy leading the band and playing trombone, Jimmy co-leading from the sax section, and Thow playing the band's only trumpet, they spent most of the summer of 1934 playing at the Sands Point Casino on Long Island and recorded for a new record company named Decca. Thow's trumpet solo was featured on the band's recording of "Weary Blues," which was arranged by Glenn Miller.

They had a female singer named Kay Weber, but no male vocalist until the booking agent demanded that Tommy and Jimmy hire Bing Crosby's younger brother. The temperamental Tommy Dorsey was not happy about being forced to add Bob Crosby to his band and kept needling him, asking if he could sing this song or that song. After Bob said "no" a number of times, it was Thow who broke who broke the tension by joking from the back of the bandstand, "Can you sing?" Even the temperamental Tommy Dorsey laughed.

Thow played a muted trumpet solo on Crosby's recording of "Basin Street Blues" with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.

The night the band was scheduled to make its first radio network broadcast, a storm knocked out the electricity. Tommy had to run around taking candles off patrons' tables so the band members could read their parts in the dark hall during the broadcast.

In the spring of 1935, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra began what Kay Weber called "a murderous schedule," a tour of one-nighters that began in Toronto April 12. They played in Erie the 13th, and then Cleveland the 14th. Thow played with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in his hometown at the Trianon Ballroom at East 97th and Euclid. From Cleveland, the band went to New York, Pottstown, New London, Waltham, Bristol, Troy, Dearfield, Scranton, Mahanoy City, Schenectady, Hanover, Passaic, Harrisburg, Pittsfield, Waterbury, Providence, Baltimore, and Allentown all in less than a month!

It was at the Glen Island Casino, May 30, 1935, that Thow had an indirect role in the famous break-up of the Dorsey brothers. Tommy and Jimmy had been getting on each other's nerves for months. One night, Tommy called for the song "I'll Never Say Never Again Again," and counted off the tempo. Thow was getting ready to play a complicated chorus. Jimmy didn't like the beat and looked up at Tommy and said, "Mac, that's a little fast isn't it?" While the Clevelander was playing, Tommy simply walked off the bandstand and never came back.

Tommy Dorsey, of course, formed his own band which became one of the most popular in the world in the late 1930s and early '40s, playing some very commercial dance music as well as some swinging jazz. Jimmy Dorsey continued with the band he had started with his brother. It became "The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra." Thow continued playing with Jimmy for another year. Jimmy's band also became very popular, mainly because of singers Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell and their hit records of such songs as "Green Eyes" and "Amapola."

After the break-up of the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller joined Ray Noble's Orchestra and two years later formed his own band which became the most popular band of the swing era. When Miller joined the army and formed a wartime military orchestra, his drummer was his old buddy from the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, Ray McKinley. After Miller disappeared aboard a small plane flying to France, McKinley became the leader of the Miller Orchestra.

Thow played for a while with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and went to California where he became a member of the NBC staff orchestra and played trumpet for a number of movies including a film called "Syncopation." In 1956 Thow joined the popular Lawrence Welk Orchestra and later served as part of the Welk TV show's production staff. He also wrote several songs.

CLICK HERE for the last installment of "Jazzed in Cleveland"

Copyright 1998 Joe Mosbrook

You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).