“I Poured My Heart Into a Song” (1939)

“I Poured My Heart Into a Song”

Composed by Irving Berlin; arranged by Andy Phillips.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra live at Manhattan Center, New York City, September 26, 1939.

Bunny Berigan, Jake Koven,Truman Quigley, Carl “Bama” Warwick, trumpets; Mark Pasco, Al Jennings, trombones; Charlie DiMaggio (as/cl) Joe DiMaggio (as/cl); Larry Walsh (ts/bs); Stuart Anderson (ts/cl), reeds; Edwin “Buddy” Koss, piano; Tommy Moore, guitar; Morty Stulmaker, bass; Paul Collins, drums; Danny Richards, vocal.

The story: As a change of pace, I am going to post parts of  a recent review of “Mr. Trumpet” that I think says something that Berigan fans will benefit from. Authors always are grateful for reviews because reviews indicate that: a) someone read your book; and b) they cared enough about what they read to write about it. Reviews come in all sizes and levels of seriousness. I prefer reading reviews that are thoughtful, which this one is. However, even the most even-handed review may not be 100% accurate in terms of the historical record. That is beside the point. The point is that the reviewer thought that the book he read merited some expression of his opinion, and he took the time and effort to write a review. For that, I say many thanks.

This review, by Roger A. Baylor, was posted on July 20, 2017. The full text of the review appears at this link:      http://cityofnewalbany.blogspot.com/2017/07/on-avenues-doubleheader-2-book-about.html

I am posting only the parts of the review that directly discuss Bunny Berigan and/or “Mr. Trumpet.”

“One bedrock requirement for a musician seeking such a secure and well-paid job (at CBS Radio as a staff musician, which Berigan was) was the ability to sight-read sheet music, quickly and accurately. Another was stringent professionalism, as there was no way of correcting mistakes. It was one take, and gone into the irreparable ether.

It was into this dynamic milieu that a young man named Bunny Berigan landed with noticeable fanfare. As with so many others, Berigan at first accepted the corporate paycheck. It brought him to the big city, but he yearned for something more.

The jazz bug had bitten him, and now jazz itself was morphing into something else beyond small groups in dingy speakeasies. The backroom combo became the ballroom big band, fusing the spirit of improvisation with the crowd-pleasing predictability of increasingly sophisticated arrangements, both at the point of origin and for a far wider audience of nightly radio listeners.

Berigan was perfectly suited for the advent of swing, quickly forsaking the remunerative safety of studio employment in the Big Apple to play in constantly touring big bands, first as a featured sideman, and later as leader of his own aggregations.

Berigan’s high water mark as a big band leader came during the late 1930s, when the swing era still was in its ascendancy. By the standards of the day, he had it all: professional respect, personal popularity, a wife, children, house and car. But by 1942 Berigan was dead, his liver ravaged by cirrhosis, the victim of stunningly heavy drinking. Three-quarters of a century later, very few Americans remember Bunny Berigan, but for a while before most of us were born, he could do no wrong. Even Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong thought as much.

Berigan at age 21.

Long after the big bands provided America’s WWII soundtrack, a Canadian named Neil Young suggested it was better to burn out than fade away. Roland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan provided a case study in how to do it, with nary an electric guitar in sight. Berigan began as a fair-haired, corn-fed lad from Wisconsin, preternaturally talented and instinctively musical. He lived the normal Midwestern life of the time, made it through high school and dabbled at college. He was quiet and generally affable, and always regarded warmly by his friends and associates.

Seemingly destined for great musical achievements, his trumpeting skills took him to New York City, where his studio prowess can be heard, usually uncredited, briefly salvaging numerous pop songs with no redeeming qualities whatever, save Berigan’s inspired soloing. Berigan’s trumpeting style still stands out from the era’s norm. He had the rare technical ability to play well in the instrument’s lowest and highest registers, with an amazingly burnished, broad clarity of tone. His was not the agitated attack of a Harry James. Berigan’s improvised solos were thoughtfully calculated, lyrical and “risky,” as trumpet players liked to describe them.

In fact, Berigan’s solos were as iconic in their time as Eddie Van Halen’s were a half century later, whether for Benny Goodman (“King Porter Stomp,” “Sometimes I’m Happy”); Tommy Dorsey (“Marie,” “Song of India”); or in the trumpeter’s own bands, as with his greatest hit, “I Can’t Get Started.”

At Metronome All-Star recording session January 12, 1939. L-R: Tommy Dorsey, Dorsey’s manager Bobby Burns, Berigan, George T. Simon of Metronome magazine, and Benny Goodman. For whatever reason, Simon’s relationship with Berigan was strained.

Earlier in the year, I read a biography of Berigan: Mr. Trumpet: The Trials, Tribulations, and Triumph of Bunny Berigan, by Michael P. Zirpolo. It is one of two major biographies written about the musician; the other is Bunny Berigan: Elusive Legend of Jazz, by Robert Dupuis. Zirpolo’s book isn’t perfect, but it’s as definitive a survey as any writer is likely to produce at this late date, when none of Berigan’s contemporaries are alive to tell the tale. Granted, the author is far from a disinterested party, and on occasion seems happy to reprise ancient blood feuds and eager to pick a side in them, as with the big band journalist George T. Simon’s purported indifference, perhaps even antipathy, to Berigan. Simon began as fanboy swing enthusiast, started young as a writer, and perhaps most unforgivably to his enemies, outlived just about everyone else who’d been there at the time, thereby achieving a cult status through sheer longevity.

Zirpolo also isn’t always kind to Berigan’s long-suffering wife, who wasn’t prepared for the jazz lifestyle or her husband’s infidelities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she had a drinking problem of her own, and probably deserves greater benefit of the doubt.

Far more informatively, Zirpolo amply describes the entertainment industry milieu in which Berigan and so many other musicians struggled to stay afloat amid the machinations of resident charlatans, piranhas and cutthroats. Indeed, these are constants throughout showbiz history, and perhaps Zirpolo’s greatest single contribution in writing his biography of Berigan is to settle accounts with those (like Simon) who continued to insist that the trumpeter was an indifferent businessman and a poor bandleader.

Berigan leads his band at the Loew’s-State Theater in New York, August 24-30 1939. L-R front row: Don Lodice, Gus Bivona, Charlie DiMaggio, Larry Walsh; middle row: Joe Bauer, Johnny Napton, Jake Koven, Al Jennings, Mark Pasco; back: drummer Paul Collins.

At least some of Berigan’s circumstances were extenuating. It’s true that as a bandleader during two separate stints, he was beset by simple bad luck, seemingly unable to catch a break. We know he drank too much. At the same time, he was badly served by monopolistic booking agencies, conniving managers and uncooperative record company executives. More importantly, far from being detached, Berigan exhibited considerable skill in recruiting and drilling his musicians, constantly receiving positive reviews from the public even when cash-poor and operating at a loss, which seems inevitable given the challenging economics of one-night stands and a paucity of recording opportunities in the latter stages of Berigan’s short career.

Berigan – December 1941. Cirrhosis was ravaging his liver by then, and he knew it.

Ultimately, the story of Bunny Berigan’s life is inseparable from the tragedy of his early death. Zirpolo cites a former Berigan sideman’s testimony that near the end, his boss was drinking two bottles of rye whiskey per day; his cirrhosis, for which the author posits a genetic predisposition, steadily worsened, and the trumpeter was broke and living out of a suitcase. Without intervention, it was only a matter of time. Still, numerous accounts confirm that Berigan’s embouchure, chops and ability to perform remained largely intact amid this onslaught, until just before his liver finally disintegrated. We now understand that alcoholism is a disease, and while Berigan certainly refrained from treating it, the support mechanism for sobriety had not yet come into its own. Taking time away for treatment subsequently became a rite of passage for rock stars, but societal attitudes hardly supported this approach at the time. Berigan was left to his own devices, stuck in a moment like a hamster on a treadmill, unable to stop trying to make money even as the pace of his efforts left him increasingly indebted, with a break-even point that arrived only when he died. It’s useless, sad and infuriating, but in the end, it just is.

Zirpolo documents Berigan’s life more than capably, and I recommend the book.

The music of the big band era has survived the departure of its creators and consumers, albeit as tribute rather than preference, according to the half-life that follows the demise of cultural relevance.

In retrospect, the era of peak big band in America was remarkably short-lived – ten, maybe twelve years at most. The music rose out of the Depression, reached a crescendo during World War II, and receded just as quickly at war’s end.

We can listen to Berigan’s recorded output; ponder his many might-have-beens, and imagine the musical scene long since passed. All of it, a society and culture, have been consigned to the history books. At times it is a melancholy remembrance, though a necessary one, at least for me.”

*********

The music: In the late summer of 1939, after a series of financial reversals, Berigan became ensnared in a tangled business situation involving MCA (Music Corporation of America), his booking agent, Arthur Michaud his former personal agent, and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the union he and all of the musicians in his band were members of. The net result was that Bunny almost lost the band he had so carefully built over the previous two and a half years. (Among those who left at the end of a successful week at Manhattan’s Loew’s State Theater in late August were: tenor saxophonist Don Lodice, alto saxophonist/clarinetist Gus Bivona, pianist Joe Bushkin, and lead trumpeter Johnny Napton.) He was forced to file a bankruptcy petition (which inexplicably did not discharge his debts), and made several other business decisions that left him utterly without money. His method of dealing with these setbacks was to leave it to others to attempt to work out a financial solution, while he continued touring, with a largely reorganized band which he whipped into shape in a short time.

Arranger Andy Phillips – 1939.

After a six week engagement at Hotel Sherman in Chicago in July and August, and then the stay at the Loew’s-State Theater, Berigan hired a number of new musicians, and began a long string of one-night stands through most of September 1939. He returned to New York for a short time at the end of that month, appearing at Manhattan Center on September 29, from where a radio broadcast of the band was scheduled. This engagement held a pleasant surprise for Bunny. Paul Collins, who was the drummer in the Berigan band then, recalled: “That broadcast was Martin Block’s Swing Session program and Glen Gray’s Casa Loma orchestra played opposite us. They played ‘I Can’t Get Started’ as a tribute to Bunny, using his famous arrangement and featuring Murray McEachern on trombone. He played it extremely well, except for very last high note on the coda, when he stopped playing, turned and bowed towards Bunny.” Berigan, who was not a man given to demonstrations of emotion, on this occasion was moved to tears.

Vocalist Danny Richards – 1939.

On “I Poured My Heart into a Song,” we hear Bunny’s capacious, velvety low register before the vocal; then after it the perfectly lip-trilled high C followed by the huge, ringing high F at the end. This is a classic example of many of Berigan’s  stylistic devices, all delivered with dramatic authority. This song was composed by Irving Berlin for the 1939 Fox film Second Fiddle, and the arrangement we hear was written by Andy Phillips. Note how effectively he deploys the open Berigan trumpet in the first chorus melody statement and transition into the vocal chorus.

Danny Richards sings here, and we hear what a fine vocalist he was. His robust voice quality, sense of pitch and range were excellent, and he could put a song over subtly but persuasively. In the two-plus years (with interruptions) he was Berigan’s boy vocalist, he was consistently popular with audiences, and much appreciated by Bunny himself. (Listen after Richards sings the word “apart” toward the end of the vocal chorus; Berigan can be heard in the background saying …“Yyyess, Danny!”) Unfortunately, circumstances conspired against Richards making many commercial records with Bunny. Andy Phillips went on to considerable success writing arrangements for Claude Thornhill.

Despite all of Bunny’s problems at the time this recording was made, the revamped Berigan band on this broadcast is loose and swinging, and his own playing is magnificent.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

2 thoughts on ““I Poured My Heart Into a Song” (1939)”

  1. My uncle Milton Schatz was a saxophone player and I knew him well as he often visited our home in his later years. I studied trombone and later taught myself trumpet and learned that Milton had once played in the Bunny Berigan orchestra. He recorded on at least 2 or 3 of the most well known Berigan albums and late in life was chief musician on one of the Isbrandtsen Cruise Line ships. It was only years after he passed away that I ran his discography and learned that he had also recorded with both Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. In all the times Milton sat in our living room he never once spoke about his early music career playing with the top musicians in the world of music.

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  2. Mark, your recollection is unusual, perhaps, but not unique. Since I wrote the Berigan biography, I have had interactions with a number of children of musicians who worked with Bunny Berigan. One of them, Phyllis Ger, is the daughter of Morty Stulmaker, the bassist on “I Poured My Heart Into a Song,” and many other Berigan recordings. Morty worked with Bunny before he was a bandleader at the Famous Door, a jazz club on Manhattan’s 52nd St., and then again a number of times in the period 1939-1941. Phyllis has often told me that her father said nothing about working with Bunny. The last time I saw Phyllis, which was this past May, in Fox Lake, Wisconsin, Bunny’s home town for a Berigan music fest, I made a presentation that included a photo of the Berigan band on the stage of the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. The bassist in that band was her father. She was astonished that he never spoke of playing at the Apollo Theater. Go figure.

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