In 1937, Berigan assembled a band to tour under his name, using as his “theme” song the then little-known composition “I Can’t Get Started”
by Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke. Berigan’s exceptional trumpet work and engaging vocals made the performance of this song one of the biggest hits of his career (Victor Records).
In addition to the role of bandleader, Berigan played trumpet in nearly every number that his group performed. Hf Of the three attempts to create a full-time band between 1937 and 1942, the last one was the most successful.
A number of the records made under the Bunny Berigan band name are considered equal in quality to tracks he cut with Goodman and Dorsey. Unfortunately, due to a series of misfortunes, his alcoholism and lack of business acumen, he was unable to financially maintain his bands.
Aside from the financial problems, musicians considered him an excellent bandleader – as evidenced by the notable players on the various Berigan band rosters. Interestingly, a significant number of these individuals went on to form their own bands.
Alto saxophonists/clarinetists: Gus Bivona, Joe Dixon and Andy Fitzgerald
Bassists: Hank Wayland and Morty Stulmaker
Drummers: Buddy Rich, Dave Tough, George Wettling, Johnny Blowers and Jack Sperling
Pianist/arranger: Joe Lippman
Tenor saxophonists: Georgie Auld and Don Lodice
Trombonist: Sonny Lee
Trombonist/arranger: Ray Conniff
Trumpeters:Carl “Bama” Warwick, Steve Lipkins, and Les Elgart
Vocalists: Danny Richards, Ruth Bradley and Kathleen “Kitty” Lane
Berigan’s final years
In the fall of 1940, Berigan reorganized a small group into a touring big band. By early 1942, the moderately successful group was on the comeback trail when Berigan was hospitalized with pneumonia in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While in the hospital, doctors discovered that cirrhosis had severely damaged his liver. He was advised to stop drinking and stop playing the trumpet for an undetermined length of time.
Unable to stop both “addictions”, Berigan returned to his band on tour and played for a few weeks before suffering a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. He died two days later on June 2, 1942 at Polyclinic Hospital in New York at the age of 33. His wife, Donna McArthur Berigan, and two young daughters, Pasty and Joyce, survived him.
The legacy, honors
Berigan’s 1937 recording of “I Can’t Get Started” has been featured in a number of films, including: Save the Tiger (1973), Chinatown (1974), and The Big Shave (1967). Woody Allen has used Berigan’s music in his films, as well.
In 1975, Bunny Berigan’s 1937 recording of “I Can’t Get Started” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In 2008, Berigan was inducted into the ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame.
In 2010, Levi’s featured Berigan’s recording of “Heigh-Ho! (The Dwarfs' Marching Song)” in a television commercial. The song was originally recorded in January 1938 for use in Disney’s first full-length animated feature film entitled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
A tragic story of a life cut short due to excess, Bunny Berigan’s undeniable talent as a jazz-trumpeting virtuoso, along with his contributions to the emergence of the “swing era” can still be heard today – over 70 years after his death.
Ballroom in Los Angeles (August 1936), the band made unexpected headlines when they were credited with the “formal” launch of the Swing Era. Undoubtedly, Berigan’s exposure from the Goodman relationship helped to propel his career. While with Goodman, Berigan recorded a number of classic solos: “King Porter Stomp”, “Sometimes I’m Happy”, and “Blue Skies”.
In late 1935, Berigan left Goodman to return to freelancing as a recording and radio musician in Manhattan. However, this time was different from
his earlier freelancing “gigs” – not only was he in demand as a studio musician for vocalists Bing Crosby, Mildred Bailey, and Billie Holiday, he began to record under his own name. In late 1936 through early 1937, he joined Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra where he performed as a jazz soloist on Dorsey’s radio program and on a number of his records. Berigan’s solo on Dorsey’s recording of “Marie” is considered one of his signature performances.
From 1936 and into 1937, Berigan was regularly featured on CBS Radio’s Saturday Night Swing Club broadcasts; in later years, he would appear on this program as a guest performer.
Roland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan
Born: November 2, 1908
Died: June 2, 1942
Shortly after Roland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan’s birth in Hilbert, Wisconsin, his family relocated sixty-some miles southwest to the small farm community of Fox Lake. Since that time, Fox Lake has regarded itself as the hometown of this amazing musical talent.
Identified as one of the most prominent jazz trumpeters of all time, Berigan modeled his trumpet styling, in part, after his idol, the great Louis Armstrong – however, he was not an Armstrong clone.
A unique sound featuring very individualized jazz components, Berigan’s trumpet playing included intricate embellishments and lip vibrato. Described as a full and gorgeous tone with wide range, Berigan’s open horn produced a burnished quality that added texture to his interpretations of the more melodic, yet soulful tunes, that he preferred to play.
Bunny’s beginnings ...
A musical child prodigy, Berigan learned the violin and trumpet at an early age. By his mid-teens, he was playing in local orchestras; then, in 1930 at the age of 21, he joined the popular Hal Kemp Band in New York. Berigan’s first recorded trumpet solos occurred while playing with Kemp’s band. Later that year, he left with the group on an overseas tour of England and a number of European countries. One of the most compelling trumpet players in the history of music, Berigan brought an unmistakable electricity to the various bands he played with, including: Rudy Vallée (1932), Tommy Dorsey (1936-37 and 1940), Abe Lyman (1934), Paul Whiteman (1932-34), and Benny Goodman (1935). In addition to his big-band performances, Berigan was in the elite company of fellow trumpeters Manny Klein, the Dorsey Brothers and Artie Shaw who were sought after for studio work in New York City. His freelancing also included playing
in the “pit orchestras” on Broadway.
In 1931, he became part of CBS Radio Network’s house band where he recorded his first vocal, “At Your Command” with conductor, Fred Rich. He left CBS Radio for a couple of years to tour as a featured trumpet soloist with a number of prominent orchestras, then in 1934 returnedto freelancing in New York and once again working on staff at CBS Radio. Hired as a “sideman*”, Berigan performed on hundreds of commercial recordings including material for the Dorsey Brothers, as well as Bandleader Glenn Miller’s earliest recording date, playing on “Solo Hop” (1935).
During this time, fortune smiled on Berigan – he joined Benny Goodman’s Swing Band, whose membership included drummer Gene Krupa. Based on their performance at the Palomar
Additional reference books, articles, and information available with on-line searches and at your local library.
*Sideman: a professional musician who is hired to perform or record with a group of which he or she is not a regular
member. They often tour with solo acts as well as bands and jazz ensembles. Sidemen are generally required to be adaptable to many different styles of music, and so able to fit smoothly into the group in which they are currently playing. Often aspiring musicians start out as sidemen, and then move on to develop their own sound, a name, and fans of their own, or go on to form their own groups.
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