Berigan as an Audience of One: “You Leave Me Breathless” (1939) Lee Wiley with Joe Bushkin

“You Leave Me Breathless”

Composed by Frederick Hollander (music) and Ralph Freed (lyric).

Recorded privately on March 16, 1939 in New York with Lee Wiley singing, and Joe Bushkin accompanying her on piano.

Note: This is a previously unreleased and largely unknown recording made by Lee Wiley.

The story: This song was composed by Frederick Hollander and Ralph Freed for the 1938 Paramount film Cocoanut Grove. The film starred Fred MacMurray as a saxophonist (which indeed he really was), and his band (the Yacht Club Boys). They leave a Lake Michigan showboat for a nightclub audition in Los Angeles. The love interest was provided by Harriet Hilliard, who started her show business career as a vocalist with Ozzie Nelson’s band. She and Ozzie married, had two sons, David and Ricky, and had very successful careers with Ozzie’s band, in a few feature films, on radio and finally on television. The film Cocoanut Grove was hardly worth the attention of anyone older than 15, but inexplicably it contained a beautiful love song, “You Leave Me Breathless,” truly a diamond in the rough.

Berigan records: March 15, 1939 – Victor Studios, NYC: L-R: Berigan; trumpeter in back, George Johnston; saxophonist Hank Saltman; drummer Eddie Jenkins; Gus Bivona (standing) on alto saxophone; Allan Reuss on guitar; and Hank Wayland on bass.

In retrospect, we know that 1938 was the turning point in Bunny Berigan’s career and life. It was in 1938 that the business side of his career reached a plateau, and then slowly began its decline. It was in 1938 when the first warning signs of the cirrhosis that would eventually kill Berigan were detected. The waning of Berigan’s career was not precipitous, but it occurred somewhat ahead of the decline in his first big band, which happened as 1939 ended and 1940 began. In fact, Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra were a potent musical force throughout much of 1939. When Bunny and his musicians entered RCA Victor’s New York recording studio on the Ides of March 1939, they were prepared to demonstrate just how well they were then playing. This session commenced at 1:30 p.m. and ran for five and a half hours, to 7:00 p.m. Six masters were made during that time, all of them A-grade swing. (Recordings from this session will be posted on this blog in the near future.)

The next day, March 16, the band was off, but Berigan, workaholic that he was, participated in a somewhat unusual project on that date. He recorded a series of short jazz solos accompanied by piano and drums, which were later transcribed and published as part of a series of music booklets under the title All Star Series of Modern Rhythm Choruses. They were published by the Leo Feist Company of New York and the originals sold for fifty cents. Each booklet in the series contained notated transcriptions of the featured musician’s improvisations on each of ten tunes. The Berigan booklet contained ‘“Sleepy Time Gal,” “Linger Awhile,” “My Blue Heaven,” “At Sundown,” “Swingin’ Down the Lane,” “China Boy,” “In a Little Spanish Town,” “Sunday,” “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” and “Ja-Da.” The first series of these booklets was advertised for sale in May 1939, and included interpretations by Jack Teagarden, Chu Berry, Bobby Hackett, Harry James, Toots Mondello, Glenn Miller, Bud Freeman, and others. The Berigan booklet was part of a second series, first advertised for sale in August of 1939, which included versions by Pee Wee Russell, Woody Herman, Red Norvo, Charlie Barnet, Charlie Shavers and others. Later, other booklets were added, and most all were still available for purchase as late as the 1970s.

The date of this recording session is not known to a certainty, but based on a review of Berigan’s schedule of work contained in the White materials, and using the process of elimination, it likely happened on March 16, 1939. (1) The copies of the actual recordings Berigan made then seem to be the only ones made by any of the musicians who cut similar recordings for this series to have been preserved. Berigan’s copies, which were made on ten-inch acetate disks, are now housed in the Bunny Berigan Archive in the Mills Music Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

All ten of those recordings have Bunny playing open trumpet, accompanied by piano and drums. Three of the titles have a second or even a third shorter attempt. The disks containing these titles, which were in the Berigan family collection (2), have been well played and have substantial surface noise. The first parts of some are very worn.  A man’s voice is heard on some recordings. (That voice is not heard on an LP of some of those same recordings that was issued in the 1970s by Berigan researcher supreme Bozy White.) My informed speculation is that the voice on the Berigan family acetates is actually the voice of the producer of the original Modern Rhythm Choruses recordings, as heard in the recording studio over the in-studio intercom.

Joe Bushkin – 1939.

It appears that on the ten Rhythm Choruses recordings, and the few others that were made at the same session, probably as mementos (see below), both pianists Joe Lippman and Joe Bushkin were on hand, possibly at different times.  At least some of the piano on the Rhythm Choruses recordings is almost certainly played by Bushkin, as for example on “At Sundown” and “Sunday.”

Also, vocalist Lee Wiley, who sings on one tune, the sublime “You Leave Me Breathless,” that is presented here, was in the studio  This was clearly an informal recording session: on one title (“My Blue Heaven”), there is in-studio talking, including a female voice (presumably Ms. Wiley’s).

Some of the non-Rhythm Choruses titles have full chorus piano solos all of which are not  Bushkin, and may be Joe Lippman.  In fact, on the label of one of the acetate disks, the note  “Lippman plus B” appears.  (The “B” of course, is Bunny Berigan.  Bunny plays trumpet on a couple of the memento sides, and declaims humorously on one.) Once again, I will speculate that one or the other of these two pianists started the session, and was relieved at some point during the session by the other. Or they could have switched off throughout the entire session.

Mid-1930s Tower Radio Guide, with Lee Wiley pictured on its cover.

The memento disks in the Berigan Archive from this recording session also include two untitled Bushkin originals. (One has an introduction much like that on the Muggsy Spanier recording of “Relaxing at the Touro,” a tune that Bushkin co-composed with Spanier.)

On March 16, 1939, Joe Lippman was still connected to the Berigan band as an arranger. Bushkin was a regular member of the Berigan band. (2)

The music:  Fans of Lee Wiley will undoubtedly be fascinated by this previously unissued and largely unknown recording of her singing. Although there is no extant historical commentary by anyone who was present when this recording was made, based on the known facts, Bunny Berigan appeared at a recording studio in Manhattan sometime during the day of March 16, 1939 to record the trumpet solos referred to above. He completed the required recording with a pianist (or pianists) and a drummer, probably over a period of an hour or two.

Lee Wiley – late 1930s.

At some point, Lee Wiley joined Berigan in the studio, though it is certainly possible that they arrived there together. When the scheduled recordings had been completed, Bunny, Wiley and pianist Joe Bushkin (and probably also Joe Lippman), began making several informal recordings as personal mementos. I have copies of three or four of those unique recordings. Lee Wiley’s performance of “You Leave Me Breathless” is the most finished of them. It appears that, with Bushkin accompanying her on piano, she sang this song to Bunny Berigan.

Lee Wiley and Joe Bushkin.

This recording, informal as it is, provides a good example of Lee Wiley’s artistry. The quality of her voice, her phrasing, which is the essence of swing, and the smoldering sensuousness in her singing are all on display here. The impressionistic, rubato piano accompaniment that Joe Bushkin provides for Ms. Wiley, is also superb.  This is an intimate, affecting performance that has been hidden away since it was recorded in 1939.

There are a couple of surprises toward the end of this recording that serve as a reminders that the artists who made it, talented though they were, were human.

For a bit more insight into the star-crossed relationship between Lee Wiley and Bunny Berigan, go to this post:  http://swingandbeyond.com/2018/05/13/caravan-bunny-berigan-1937/

(1) Some sources have claimed that these recordings were made in the fall of 1940, and that the accompanists are Buddy Koss (piano) and Jack Maisel (drums), but these are erroneous. Although Koss thought he recalled the titles, he did not join the Berigan band until much later in 1939 and then returned in the fall of 1940. Also, the Berigan-Wiley relationship ended in the summer of 1940.

It is possible that the pianist and drummer on the Modern Rhythm Chorus recordings were provided by the series producer and had no direct connection with Berigan. The drummer’s role on these recordings was strictly to be a timekeeper, so any drummer would have sufficed. Eddie Jenkins, who was Bunny’s drummer in March of 1939 when in all likelihood these recordings were made, did not take note of this recording session in his diary which survives as a historical record; and Paul Collins, who replaced him, could recall nothing about this session. On the other hand, Berigan, like all jazz improvisers, liked to work with pianists who could provide him with stimulating accompaniment, and both Lippman and Bushkin, who worked with Bunny for substantial periods of time, qualified. So they could have split this assignment.

(2) The numerous acetate disk and other recordings Bunny Berigan accumulated in his lifetime were, some years after his death, divided equally by his daughters, Patricia and Joyce. After their deaths, those recordings made their way into the Bunny Berigan Archive in the Mills Music Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

(2) Much of the commentary above regarding the Modern Rhythm Choruses recordings is based on what is contained in the White Materials at the date March 16, 1939. Most of my comments/conclusions/speculation are based on my careful listening to the recordings that were made on that date.

The acetate disk containing the recording of “You Leave Me Breathless” (as well as the others mentioned above), were discovered by me in 2012 in the Bunny Berigan Archive. Subsequently, those disks and a couple dozen others that contain aircheck recordings of Bunny Berigan that I also found there, were shipped from Madison, Wisconsin to Brooklyn, New York, where they were digitally transferred by Doug Pomeroy at his studio. I received a copy of all of the transfers made by Mr. Pomeroy, and the original, unique acetate disks were returned to the Berigan Archive. I then (in 2018) digitally mastered the copy of Lee Wiley singing “You Leave Me Breathless,” and that is what I have presented in this post.

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