“I Can’t Get Started”
(Small group version.)
Composed by Vernon Duke (music) and Ira Gershwin (lyric).
Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Boys for Vocalion on April 13, 1936 in New York City.
Bunny Berigan, trumpet and singing, directing: Artie Shaw, clarinet; Forrest Crawford, tenor sax; Joe Bushkin, piano; Morty Stulmaker, bass; Stan King, drums.
The story: On approximately February 10, 1936 a small jazz band led by singer Red McKenzie[i] (with considerable help from guitarist Eddie Condon),[ii] opened at the Famous Door, located at 35 West Fifty-second Street. The Famous Door was one of many clubs on West Fifty-second Street in the two long blocks between Fifth and Seventh Avenues then featuring live music. The “concept” that led to the creation of the Famous Door was to have a small club where musicians could come and jam, in the mode of Plunkett’s, the popular musicians-only bar that existed nearby a few years earlier. The originators of this concept were musicians who worked in the nearby radio and recording studios, mainly under pianist/arranger Lennie Hayton, who was then the conductor on the Ipana Troubadors and Fred Allen network radio shows. The original investors in the project were: violinist Harry Bluestone; trombonist Jack Jenney; trumpeter Mannie Klein; bassist Artie Bernstein; trombonist Jerry Colonna; arranger Gordon Jenkins; saxophonist/clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey; and trombonist/arranger Glenn Miller. They each put up $100. The major investors however, were Hayton and Jack Colt, who was not a musician, but who had experience in the club business. They each put up $1,000.[iii]
The name of the club came from a door that trumpeter/singer Wingy Manone said he bought at a lumberyard, had the original investors sign, then shellacked. It was also signed later by the musicians who played in the club, and celebrities who visited. Sam Weiss (not the drummer), who was a host at the Famous Door, explained how the club looked and how the door was displayed: “You went down a few steps to enter the building. Then you would go down a dark, narrow hallway that took you to the club entrance on your left. The bandstand was to your right and the bar to your left. The ‘famous door’ itself rested on a small platform near the bar.” [iv]
The Famous Door had opened on March 1, 1935, with a small group (which included clarinetist Pee Wee Russell) led by a then unknown trumpeter Louis Prima, who also sang, on the bandstand. Prima’s dynamic showmanship, which later made him a fixture in the lounges of Las Vegas, soon had nonmusicians lining up to come into the Famous Door, and the club became a commercial success with the general public, something its organizers had never intended. By the summer, Prima had moved on and trombonist George Brunies replaced him. At about the same time, trombonist Mike Riley and trumpeter Eddie Farley were packing them in at the nearby Onyx Club, with a show that had more to do with comedy and hokum, typified by their smash recording “The Music Goes Round and Around,” than music. The management of the Famous Door then made the decision to return to their original concept. Red Norvo’s Swing Sextet opened a stand there on September 29, 1935. Norvo was followed by Wingy Manone, and then the small group co-led by singer Red McKenzie and guitarist Eddie Condon, that featured Bunny Berigan.[v] Also in the McKenzie-Condon band with Berigan were: Paul Ricci, clarinet and tenor sax; Joe Bushkin, piano, trumpet, and singing; Morty Stulmaker, bass. There was no drummer.
Here is how Metronome reported this engagement some weeks later, after Forrest Crawford replaced Ricci: “This is one of the best, if not the best strictly jam band to be heard around town. It’s purely a case of the boys getting together, sitting down (or standing up), deciding on a tune and doing what they feel with it. Fortunately for all concerned, the individuals at the Famous Door are ace jam men. There are few hot trumpeters in the country today who can touch Bunny Berigan, when he’s right. He of the high squeezes, the individual and free style, the phenomenal, but not often heard, lower register and the oft misspelled name, is a grand hornman, grand to listen to, not only because of his acts of execution, but, even more so because of his refreshingly different style. The one danger, though, is catching Bunny on an ‘off’ night. There’s no doubt that this man, doing all the house work at Decca studios, broadcasting regularly over CBS and putting in his 42 hours a week at the ‘Door,’ is doing too much. Either overwork or staleness can account for the occasional disappearance of the Berigan trumpet vitality. The other melodist, tenorman Forrest Crawford, a recent importation from St. Louis, displays an equal amount of vitality in attack, ideas and execution. Possessor of a really ‘dirty’ tone, typified by growls that are bound to send you, this man has already won himself a host of swing admirers. The three rhythm-masters stick it at you plenty. Little Joe Bushkin has become a much improved pianist, Eddie Condon still remains the greatest tenor guitarist in the business today, while left-handed Morton Stulmaker is a fine bassist with a big tone, at times much too big for the room into which it zooms. Leader McKenzie has been a favorite with this department for years. The man has an entirely distinctive low-slow vibrato that either gets you or leaves you cold. If it gets you, you’re lucky and you’ll get much kick from Red’s few offerings, wisely done in extremely slow tempos as contrasts for the more wild jamming that precedes. All in all, the six men swing well. Swing fans should have an evening of much fun.”[vi]
As was noted by the writer of the above-cited Metronome article (probably George T. Simon), Berigan, who was noted for taking every gig possible, especially if it would allow him to play jazz, was once again overworking, this time to a preposterous degree. If one adds to the forty-two hours a week he was working weekly at the Famous Door, even a low estimate of the time he spent each week at CBS, say thirty-five hours, he was working seventy-seven hours a week. And then there were the hours he was working at Decca. What drove this man to work ninety to one hundred hours a week? (Answer: he wanted to lead his own big band and needed all the money he could earn, and more, to start that enterprise.) [vii]
The meeting of nineteen-year-old Joe Bushkin with Berigan in this band was fortuitous for Bushkin, and began a professional association between the two men that would last, with interruptions, for the following four and a half years. Joe Bushkin recalled: “I wound up at the Famous Door in 1936, playing piano. I was living at home with my parents. George Zack started the gig on piano. Sometimes Dave Tough would sit in, along with a good tenor player named Forrest Crawford. One night, (pianist) George Zack passed out and they asked me to fill in. I played all the bridges wrong, which disturbed Berigan, and I guess what made me nervous was the beauty of Bunny’s playing and being exposed to the clarity of the guitar bass. Condon had a marvelous chord sense. I learned from him how to keep chord patterns simple and colorful. In fact, Condon sketched out the chords for the opening and middle section of Berigan’s ‘I Can’t Get Started.’ The Famous Door was in the bottom of a narrow town-house. It had a bar and about 14 tables and the piano was near a window that looked out on Fifty-second Street. It got its name from a fake door with signatures of famous people, which was set up on a little stage near the bar. I guess the place had some trouble, because the sheriff shut it (later in) 1936. Berigan used to play behind me when I sang and he let me do duets with him on trumpet. It was beautiful.” [viii] (From the early 1940s until his death on November 3, 2004, Joe Bushkin was a fount of stories about Bunny Berigan.)
The music: On April 13, at what otherwise was another strictly ordinary (that is commercial) recording session, Bunny Berigan was given the opportunity to record the version of “I Can’t Get Started” he had been working on with the small band at the Famous Door. In the ten days between an April 3 Decca recording session (where Berigan was a part of a small band that backed Red McKenzie in a rather ordinary performance of “I Can’t Get Started”), and this session at ARC-Brunswick, guitarist Eddie Condon suffered an attack of pancreatitis, and had to be hospitalized. The little band that accompanied Berigan on this recording, billed as: “Bunny Berigan and His Boys,” consisted of Artie Shaw, clarinet; Forrest Crawford, tenor sax; Joe Bushkin, piano; Tommy Felline, guitar; Morty Stulmaker, bass; and Stan King, drums. (Also on the session was vocalist Chick Bullock, then an ARC mainstay (American Record Corporation, parent of the Vocalion and Brunswick labels), who sang the other three tunes recorded that day.) [ia]
It is in this recording of “I Can’t Get Started,” issued initially on Vocalion 3225, later on Brunswick 7949, and backed by “Rhythm Saved the World,” that we begin to hear the outline of what eventually became the definitive performance of this song, recorded by Bunny some sixteen months later with his big band for Victor. The “arrangement” that we hear in this performance was largely devised by Berigan himself, except for the succession of chord changes after the vocal and tenor sax solo over which Berigan plays, and which serve as a modulation from concert C to D flat, springing Bunny into the stunning solo trumpet passage which closes the record. That part was worked out by Eddie Condon.
This performance starts out with Berigan stating the melody on open trumpet, the clarinet and tenor sax noodling quietly behind him for eight bars. Bunny wisely slowed the tempo down, knowing that would highlight what he had in store for later in the piece. Then he sings for an entire chorus. On the main strain of the song, the quality of his voice is pleasant and unaffected, with a fast vibrato. On the bridge, he attempts to croon, in the manner of der Bingle (Bing Crosby), which I’m sure sounded more musical in the mid-1930s than it does today. In his last eight bars he returns to a more genuine mode of singing. Morty Stulmaker uses his bow to provide an arco bass foundation behind the vocal that is different, but it unfortunately imparts a rather lugubrious feeling to what is otherwise a peaceful and gentle rendering of the lyric. Thankfully, Stulmaker sets down his bow after the vocal chorus and resumes plucking the strings of his bass so as not to weigh down in any way the musical fireworks that are about to begin. Forrest Crawford then plays a softly melodic eight bars that lead into the Condon-fashioned series of chord changes. Jazz historian (and trumpeter) Richard M. Sudhalter best described what happens next:
“A drum tap brings (Berigan) on for the piece de resistance. He begins it with four self-contained episodes, announced by single rhythm section chords but all, in effect, part of one great cadenza. The first establishes mood and expectancy. The second changes the key and moves effortlessly through the entire range of the horn in developing the idea. The third is delivered sotto voce and intimately. The fourth takes him deep into his low register for some final thoughts. Now he is ready. Leaping nearly two octaves, Berigan chimes out a cluster of clear, ringing high Cs and takes flight, avidly supported by the band. Working in the taxing range above high C, he tosses off E flats and one titanic high F, turning Vernon Duke’s enchanting melody into an anthem. Totally in charge of his instrument and material, he lowers the intensity level to a hush for a reprise of the melody, contemplative and soothing, then parades it home, as Shaw fills in the spaces, crowning his performance with a high B flat and a glorious, resounding E flat above that. It is all fresh and new, the apotheosis of Berigan’s art as trumpet soloist in the bravura tradition established a decade earlier by Armstrong—romantic, rhapsodic, emotionally unrestrained “. [iia]
This recording began to garner critical plaudits soon after its release in May, and it began to sell in numbers higher that the run-of-the-mill pop tune vocal records that were being churned out by the dozens by ARC, Decca, and other labels.
Years later, Eddie Condon provided a bit more background about how Bunny Berigan and “I Can’t Get Started” got started together: “Johnny DeVries (a New York advertising executive who liked jazz and helped jazz musicians), is really responsible for Bunny having made the tune in the first place. Johnny heard the song in the 1936 Vernon Duke show and thought it had a little exposure. After insisting for a couple of months that Bunny play the song,he went to the publisher himself and got an orchestration of it. He hummed the tune to Joe Bushkin who in turn played it for Bunny. Bunny and ‘I Can’t Get Started’ have been inseparable ever since.” [iiia]
Today, West 52nd Street betweeen Fifth and Seventh Avenues looks nothing like it did in the mid-1930s. (**) The development of the Rockefeller Center complex between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and 49th and 51st Streets in the 1930s caused the gradual demolition of the three or four story residential structures on the east-west numbered streets nearby. (If you want to get some idea what 52nd Street looked like when it was swing street, walk a few blocks west on the numbered streets in Hell’s Kitchen, between West 51st on the north, West 45th on the south, and Eighth and Tenth Avenues. Incredibly, Manhattan real estate developers have not (yet) demolished the quaint old residential buildings on those streets.) By the 1970s, the area on West 52nd where the jazz clubs stood was filled with glass and steel skyscrapers. The only reminder of the musical history that was played out on 52nd Street in the 1930s and 1940s are a few street signs that say “swing street” along that two-block stretch of high-rises. Most people today, alas, have no idea what that means. I hope that this post raises new awareness about Manhattan’s fabled 52nd Street.
(**) Only one building from the glory days of 52nd Street remains. The 21 Club Restaurant, sleekly preserved and updated, at 21 West 52nd, is wedged incongruously between the skyscrapers now on 52nd. (NOTE: December 15, 2020: Word has come in the form of many news stories that “21” has now closed, presumably permanently, a victim of the COVID-19 epidemic.)
[i] Vocalist William “Red” McKenzie was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 14, 1899. He was raised in Washington, D.C., until the deaths of his parents, after which he returned to St. Louis, working at a variety of jobs including as a professional jockey. McKenzie began singing, as well as playing the kazoo and the comb, in the early 1920s. With two others, he formed a novelty act called the Mound City Blue Blowers, and began recording in February 1924. The group’s initial release, “Arkansas Traveler,” became a hit, and they toured extensively in the United States then went to London. Upon returning to the United States, McKenzie led the group over the next several years. He spent a year with Paul Whiteman, 1932–1933, then reorganized the Mound City Blue Blowers, and began to appear at clubs on Fifty-second Street as well as on record both with and without the group. He returned to St. Louis in 1937, and was seldom seen in New York thereafter. The years prior to his death were spent in ill health owing to the progression of cirrhosis of the liver. McKenzie died in New York City on February 7, 1948.
[ii] Guitarist, bandleader, and impresario Albert Edwin Condon was born in Goodland, Indiana, on November 16, 1905. He moved to Chicago in 1921, and spent most of the next decade there playing with many of the young white musicians who were then embracing jazz. He went to New York in 1928 and began musical associations with an ever-widening group of performers both on and off record, including Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Red Nichols. He continued an earlier association with Red McKenzie while in New York in the 1930s, and also began long but intermittent associations with Joe Marsala, Bobby Hackett, and Bud Freeman. During World War II, Condon began to lead bands for various concerts in Manhattan, and for residencies at Nick’s in Greenwich Village. At the end of 1945, he opened the first of his own jazz clubs, which would remain on the scene for many years, though most of the time without Condon on their bandstands. Condon was successful on TV in the 1950s, and was a master of the bon mot, often delivered with just the right mixture of sarcasm and irony. He toured widely throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and died in New York City on August 4, 1973.
[iii] 52nd Street…The Street of Jazz: by Arnold Shaw, Da Capo Press (1977) page 106.
[v] Ibid., 106–112.
[vi] Metronome: April 1936, cited in White materials: February 10, 1936.
[vii] It is certainly possible that by this time, Berigan was in discussions with personal manager Arthur Michaud about forming his own band. Michaud may well have told Bunny that in order to form a band, a lot of money would be needed. That could explain Bunny’s incredibly heavy workload in the early months of 1936.
[viii] White materials: February 10, 1936. The White materials quote Bushkin from the recollections he shared with Whitney Balliett for an article about Bushkin that appeared in The New Yorker. Unfortunately, they do not give any citation to The New Yorker or the date of the article which was November 18, 1985. Balliett later included this article in a compendium of articles he had written over the years about jazz musicians for The New Yorker entitled: American Musicians—56 Portraits in Jazz, Oxford University Press (1986), 216–223. A slightly more detailed account of how Joe Bushkin came to meet Bunny Berigan at the Famous Door can be found in Robert Dupuis’s Berigan biography, Bunny Berigan…Elusive Legend of Jazz, at pages 121–122.
[ia] White materials: April 13, 1936.
[iia] Giants of Jazz Bunny Berigan, Time-Life Books (1982) pages 38–39.
[iiia] Eddie Condon’s Scrapbook of Jazz: Galahad Books (1973). Curiously, this book has no page numbers.
The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.