Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 78 - George Thow and the Dorseys
One of the first Cleveland musicians to join a nationally known touring big band was George "Gus" Thow. He replaced Bunny Berigan in the Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra. B orn and raised in Cleveland, Thow was never considered one of the greats of jazz, but he played 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. They broke with the pattern of most of the white bands of the period, which performed mostly stock 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 from the Cleveland school system show that he had a 90.5 average when he graduated in 1925 and 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 jazz musicians.
After graduation, Thow 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 early, but unheralded, 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, the band spent most of the summer of 1934 playing at the Sands Point Casino on Long Island and recorded for a new record company, Decca. Thow’s trumpet solo was featured on the band’s record of "Weary Blues," 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 moody Tommy 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 the tension by joking from the back of the bandstand, "Can you sing?!" Even the temperamental Tommy Dorsey laughed. A short time later, 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 began what Kay Weber called "a murderous schedule" – a tour of one-nighters that began in Toronto April 12th. They played in Erie the 13th and Cleveland the 14th. They played here at the Trianon Ballroom on Euclid Avenue. 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," 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 Thow was playing his solo, 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 both some very hot swing and some very sweet dance music. After the break-up of the Dorsey brothers, Thow remained with Jimmy’s band. 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 Miller’s AEF 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 served as part of the Welk TV show’s production staff. He also wrote several songs.
Copyright 2003 Joe Mosbrook
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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. The greatly-expanded second edition of Mosbrook’s Cleveland Jazz History book is available from the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society, 4614 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44193.