Feature Articles

June 2002

"I ain't no band leader!"

By John William Tuohy

     In 1939, an unknown but talented crooner named Albert Francis Sinatra left the working, poor, Italian neighborhoods of Hoboken, New Jersey and signed an exclusive performance agreement with the popular Tommy Dorsey Band.

     Under the terms of the contract, which was written by Dorsey himself, the band leader took an incredible 33% of all of Sinatra's earnings. Dorsey's manager, Lenny Vannerson, took an additional 10%, and Sinatra's own agent took another 10%. In all, 53% of the young man's earnings were gone before taxes and expenses. Union memberships took another 30%. It was so bad for Sinatra financially that he was forced to borrow money to buy a suit to make his stage appearances.

     Over the next few months, as his popularity grew, Sinatra spent thousands of dollars on lawyers' fees to find ways to break the deal, but Dorsey had twice Sinatra's money and a legal fight would have dragged on for years. The young singer went to the artist unions for help, but they were useless. Tommy Dorsey was a very powerful man in the entertainment business. The national depression was still lingering and thousands of professional musicians were out of work. The unions had struck profitable deals with Dorsey, and they were not about to jeopardize those agreements for an unknown kid from New Jersey who might end up tomorrow's has been.

     According to Sinatra, after the unions let him down, he took his troubles to Jules Stein, the powerful and very mobbed up Chicagoan who had founded MCA, the world's biggest theatrical agency. Remarkably, Stein was able to secure Sinatra's release for $60,000, in cash, an enormous amount of money in the 1940s, and certainly far more then the $500 that Dorsey was taking out of Sinatra's weekly pay for expenses.

     In later years, Dorsey explained the agreement with Stein, by saying that from a business standpoint, it was a smart deal, because he wasn't sure how long the singer would stay on top of the popularity heap. The way Dorsey saw it, he had been around long enough to know that in the popular music business, one month is an eternity. Two years was an impossibility.

     Furthermore, kids, who were Sinatra's primary fans, were fickle. Loyalties and followings changed overnight. Dorsey was sure Sinatra was a flash in the pan. Dorsey said he wasn't happy with Sinatra anyway. Stories about the married Sinatra's eye for women were starting to show up in small pieces in the press. That sort of thing didn't happen in the forties. At least not in public.

     Nor was Dorsey pleased with Sinatra's ongoing spats with his drummer Buddy Rich. The stage wasn't big enough for both of their egos, and that's what it was all about, really. Ego. Sinatra had taken the spotlight away from Tommy Dorsey. As one of the band members remarked, "It wasn't Tommy's show anymore, it was Frank's." Dorsey thought it was his band that had made Sinatra the sensation that he was, and once Dorsey let him go, Sinatra's star would just fade away.

     That was Dorsey's version of what happened.

     Another version, now part of popular lore, was that for several months Dorsey refused the $60,000 that Jules Stein had offered him to release Sinatra from his contract, simply because Dorsey had grown to despise Sinatra and intended to hold on to his contract and drive the singer's career into the ground, which he could easily do by simply keeping him off stage and radio.

     But, Sinatra's strong willed and politically connected mother went to see New Jersey's Mafia boss, Quarico Moretti, better known as Willie Moretti, who controlled large parts of the East Coast entertainment industry. In fact, by the early 1940s, the national syndicate still held a virtual lock on the entertainment business unions nationwide and Mobsters were always looking to expand their control of the industry by managing the careers of promising entertainers.

     Moretti saw that Sinatra's prospects were good, and agreed to get the young man released from his contract with Dorsey for a cash payment from Sinatra, plus a percentage of his future earnings. Working through Jules Stein, Moretti's first offer to Dorsey was $60,000 cash. When Dorsey turned that down, Moretti, who was considered, in mob circles, to be a madman, decided to take matters into his own hands, and make the band leader an offer he couldn't refuse.

     One night after a show, Moretti pushed his way into Dorsey's dressing room, put a gun in the band leader's mouth and told Dorsey to sell Sinatra's contract. Which he did. For one dollar.

     As for the $60,000 paid by MCA to release Sinatra, supposedly that money, in cash, went directly from Dorsey's bank account into Moretti's greedy little hands, after Dorsey paid the taxes on it.

     Sinatra always denied the story too, and claimed he barely knew Moretti, who lived only a few doors away from him in suburban New Jersey.

     Dorsey spent the rest of his life denying the gun in the mouth story, but in 1951, right after Moretti was killed, Dorsey only added credence to the tale, when he told American Mercury Magazine that he signed the contract releasing Sinatra because one night, three men paid him in his dressing room, placed Sinatra's release in front of him and said, "Sign it or else!"

Mr. Tuohy can be reached by writing to

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