“Skylark” (1942) Bunny Berigan with Danny Richards

“Skylark”

Composed by Hoagy Carmichael (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyric); arranged by Gene Kutch.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Elite on March 11, 1942 in New York.

Bunny Berigan, solo trumpet, directing: Kenny Davis (lead), Bob Mansell, Fred Norton, trumpets; Max Smith, Charlie Stout, trombones; George Quinty (lead alto), Walt Mellor (alto and baritone), Red Lange, Neal Smith (tenors), saxophones; Gene Kutch, piano; Tony Espen, bass; Jack Sperling, drums; Danny Richards, vocal.

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Early 1942, somewhere on the road: L-R: Berigan, Don Palmer, his manager; singers Danny Richards and Kay Little. Richards and Little were married.

By early 1942, Bunny Berigan’s personal manager Don Palmer (real name Domenico Ciro Plumeri), who had begun working with Bunny the previous summer, had taken firm grasp of his business affairs and career management. With Palmer’s guidance, and a lot of hard work on Bunny’s part, Berigan had almost cleared the debts that he had accrued in 1941 trying to keep his band on the road while Music Corporation of America (MCA), his booking agent, was providing them with gigs for only about 60% of possible play dates. It seems that one of Palmer’s major job duties was to act as an aggressive liaison between Bunny and MCA to secure more work for the Berigan band. Palmer had also instituted a number of changes on the business side of the band that resulted in Bunny not being swamped by new debts resulting from ongoing personnel costs.

Don Palmer driving the Berigan band bus.

Palmer also traveled with Bunny and the band, and kept the musicians together as a group by constantly reassuring them that better times were just around the corner. Although there were no big jumps in the amounts of money the musicians were making, there had been a constant, albeit small, increase in both work and in money from the summer of 1941 into 1942. Consequently, the personnel of the Berigan band had remained remarkably stable during that time. This relieved Berigan himself of the huge burden of frequently having to train new musicians.

Pay day – late 1941. L-R: Ed Lange, Berigan,vocalist Mickey Irons, Bob Mansell, George Quinty, Don Palmer (counting money), unknown venue owner, Jack Sperling. The venue owner is smiling, with money in his hand. The Berigan band had probably made him a profit.

As a bandleader through 1939, part of 1940 and half of 1941, before Palmer came on the scene, Bunny lived in constant fear that musicians in his band would leave, especially when work was less than plentiful. This was a major problem because Berigan, like all conscientious bandleaders, put a lot of time and effort into shaping and refining the performances of his band. (His operation without a personal manager through most of that period (in addition to MCA starving him for gigs), was largely to blame for this. In the summer of 1941, his band left him en masse, and in a quagmire of debt. Palmer’s various stratagems had minimized the risks of that happening again.) (1)

Berigan on the RKO soundstage, Hollywood, January 1942. L-R: composer/conductor Leith Stevens, a Berigan friend from his CBS days, and trumpeter George Thow.

Another important aspect of Palmer’s management of Bunny’s career was that he was constantly looking for opportunities for Berigan to perform as a soloist, away from his band. Palmer was successful in obtaining quite a few jobs for Bunny as a soloist, including the work Berigan did on the film Syncopation, which had been lucrative. My informed speculation is that Palmer’s long-term plan for Bunny was to steadily increase these solo opportunities for him, with the eventual goal being to get him off the road for substantial periods of time. Unfortunately, because of Berigan’s precipitously declining health in the spring of 1942, Bunny did not reap the benefits of Palmer’s long-term plan.

Also, despite both Palmer’s and Berigan’s efforts to establish Bunny as a solo artist away from his band, it seemed that circumstances (and sometimes insidious gossip along the musicians’ grapevine), undermined them. Several incidents occurred during Bunny’s various brief times away from his band in early 1942. There are conflicting reports as to what actually happened. Here are some examples:


Berigan in early 1942.

Variety reported that “Bunny Berigan was scheduled for a spot on the Eddie Cantor NBC Ipana-Sal Hepatica program last week (March 4), but was canceled during the dress rehearsal when it was found that the material on hand ran far beyond the show’s 30 minutes. Bunny was paid his $250 salary he was to have gotten as a soloist, his band laying off that evening. The trumpeter’s failure to appear on the show brought rumors among musicians that he had been on his bad behavior (code for impaired by alcohol). MCA’s Harry Moss emphatically denied the reports while explaining Bunny’s absence.” (1A)

Saxophonist Artie Manners had this remembrance: “I hadn’t seen Bunny since he worked with us at CBS. Then one day in spring 1942, I went to do the Eddie Cantor show and Bunny was to be a guest star. We were pleased to see each other of course, although it took everything I had not to show my shock and dismay at the way he looked!  He really looked terrible and it made me feel awful. He never showed up for the program anyway.” Other musicians on the scene also had memories of this event. Artie Foster and Larry Tise recalled: “We were working with the Cookie Fairchild orchestra on the Eddie Cantor show. Bunny came to the rehearsal in extra bad shape and played so badly that the program director decided to cut his solo out of the show. We were all upset to see how much he had gone downhill, feeling that he was hurting himself, trying to play in that condition.” (2) Sam Shoobe (bass) commented: “I had worked with Bunny a number of times before and he was a big man, six feet tall or more. When I saw him at the Eddie Cantor rehearsal, I could not believe it! He’d lost so much weight and looked and played so bad.” (3)

In order to perhaps balance these accounts, I will say that although there was no doubt that Bunny Berigan was an alcoholic, and that he unquestionably drank alcohol every day, his record as a performer over the prior half dozen years or more indicated that he was seldom so incapacitated by drink that he could not perform. However, by the early months of 1942, another far more pernicious condition was affecting him physically. His liver was by then severely damaged by cirrhosis and was hardening. This caused him to often be in pain and not feel like eating. The result of this was his accelerating weight loss and weakness. (In a couple of pictures in this post, Berigan’s arms are visible. They reveal the weight loss he was dealing with quite plainly.)

Berigan in December of 1941.

Another supposed witness to at least part of this event was Bunny’s former drummer, Johnny Blowers. Here is his recollection, summoned many decades after the fact, probably in the early 1990s: “I was with CBS in the early 1940s, and was doing a children’s show. During a break, I was sitting in the hall reading the Sunday Times with my legs crossed, and all at once I felt somebody kick my foot. I looked up, and it was Bunny Berigan. It was frightening. The Bunny I knew had always been big and strong. He looked like a football player, and he was a good-looking man. What I was seeing now was enough to make me cry. He was so thin he looked like my little finger, and when he spoke it was as though he could hardly make the effort. We exchanged greetings and then I asked him what he was doing there at nine o’clock in the morning. ‘I’m doing a guest shot on the Major Bowes program,’ he said. ‘How about having a drink with me?’ I reminded him that I did not drink any more, but went with him to the men’s room, where he pulled out a pint of scotch and drank it down. He drained the bottle dry. That was the last time I saw him alive.” (4)

Since March 4, 1942, was a Wednesday, not a Sunday, the Eddie Cantor show was on NBC, not CBS, and there is no evidence that Bunny appeared on the Major Bowes show at this time, one wonders where and when Johnny Blowers encountered Berigan. But I have little doubt that Blowers did see Berigan in early 1942, and was shocked by Bunny’s appearance.


This photo of Bunny Berigan was taken in early 1942 somewhere on the road. Bunny, with gallows humor, is miming a noose around his neck as he poses in front of his band bus.

Whatever happened while Bunny was away from his band, MCA and Palmer had more one-nighters lined up for the Berigan band. They regrouped on March 6, 1942 for a dance date at the NRC Ballroom, Nashua, New Hampshire, and then went to Portland, Maine, for a gig at Picker Gardens on the 7th. The next night, they played at Hamilton Park, Waterbury, Connecticut. Bunny’s tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Red Lange drove him from one gig to another on occasion during that winter: “On one of those long, cold over-night jumps, I was driving and Bunny was asleep in the front seat with his coon-skin cap and his overcoat collar up over his neck. We were stopped by a traffic cop for speeding and he asked, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ I told him it was Bunny Berigan, but he didn’t believe me. So I woke Bunny up—with great difficulty—and the cop, who was ‘hep,’ was so happy at meeting Bunny that he let us go without a ticket!” (5)

Berigan in repose – early 1942, with his coon-skin cap.

The band was off on March 9, but gathered in New York on the 10th for one of Bunny’s customary pre-recording session rehearsals. This one lasted three hours and took place at Haven Studios. The next day, the Berigan band entered the World Recording Studios, 711 Fifth Avenue, and cut four sides for the Elite Label.

The personnel in the studio that day with Bunny were: Kenny Davis (lead), Bob Mansell, Fred Norton, trumpets; Max Smith, Charlie Stout, trombones; George Quinty (lead alto), Walt Mellor (alto and baritone), Red Lange, Neal Smith (tenors), saxophones; Gene Kutch, piano; Tony Espen, bass; Jack Sperling, drums; Danny Richards, Kay Little, vocals.

After waiting for more than three years to record with Bunny Berigan, Danny Richards would finally get his chance. Kay Little would also perform with the band on this recording date, even though vocalist Nita Sharon probably continued working on the road with Berigan temporarily. (6)

The music: The first tune they recorded was Hoagy Carmichael’s fine ballad “Skylark,”with a lyric by Johnny Mercer. (7) Bunny had finally reached the point where he was allowed to record at least some of the “A” material in the current pop song marketplace. Gene Kutch, the pianist in the Berigan band, wrote the arrangement, and it is excellent. This performance starts off with the reeds (Mellor on baritone) laying down rich chords over which the open brass play a simple fanfare. After this dramatic eight-bar introduction, which is really an upward modulation into the first chorus, the brass start the exposition of the melody, but Bunny, on his warm open trumpet, finishes their melody statement, an effective touch.

Vocalist Danny Richards – circumstances conspired against him recording more with Berigan.

Another tasty modulation brings Danny Richards (real name Donato Ricciardi) to the microphone. He was a fine singer, with a silky tenor/baritone voice. Here, he handles Johnny Mercer’s poetic lyric with relaxed aplomb. Richards was popular with audiences and it is easy to understand why; he had a great voice, and he knew how to use it to sell a lyric very subtly, yet very persuasively. Kutch’s use of the saxophones behind Richards’s singing on the main strain of the melody, and then of the tightly muted brass on the bridge, is splendidly colorful and very musical.

“Kutchie,” as he was known in the band, like a number of others before him, had developed into a fine arranger while he was in the employ of Bunny Berigan. (Little has been written about Berigan’s strong mentorship of many young musicians who passed through his bands.) After the vocal chorus, the band plays a bit and then Kutch sets up the dramatic finish perfectly: the open brass move into their upper register, and then Mr. Trumpet arrives.

Berigan solos in front of his band at Bowling Green College in Ohio on March 21, 1942. To his left are saxophonists George Quinty and Walt Mellor.

In spite of all of the stories of Bunny’s shrunken body, and of his drinking, of the grief that laid him low after his father died in November of 1941, and of the exhaustion he must have felt from almost nonstop touring, this man could still play the trumpet superbly well! Like a veteran heavyweight boxer, he does not throw his knockout punch at the opening bell. Instead, he first moves around in his capacious middle register, the golden tones tumbling out of the bell of his trumpet, toying with the listener. And then, lightning strikes. After a dramatic pause, he leaps into his high register playing a coda that no other trumpeter could have ever played more beautifully or passionately, capping it with a ringing high F on his trumpet (concert E flat). It is a thrilling music, and it is quintessential Berigan, meaning it is a goosebumps moment.

Gene Kutch’s arrangement of “Skylark”employed a couple of delightful modulations taking the music from one key to another. Modulations were one of the glories of the music of the great bands of the swing era. All arrangers used them, but some were more creative than others. The modulations written by Jerry Gray, for example, tended to be short and direct, but always very effective and musical. Eddie Sauter’s modulations tended to be longer, with considerably more ambiguity about where he was taking the music, but were equally rewarding. In very many swing era arrangements containing a vocal chorus, there is a modulation from the first chorus, which often was the band’s chorus, to the second or vocalist’s chorus.

I have always appreciated these changes of key, but for a long time did not really understand why they were so valuable a musical device.(8) Then I stumbled upon this startlingly brilliant explanation given by the composer Darius Milhaud to a young pianist who was studying with him named Dave Brubeck. (8A)

“At my lessons with Milhaud, he would play through my compositions and make suggestions. One piece was a sonata. I thought the second theme was fine. But he said, ‘put a flat in front of every note in that theme.’ I did, and it was transformed, so that when the piece returned to the first theme there was a modulation. He always said that modulation was the greatest thing in music—that it could lift your spirit…or bring it down. Then he said something I’ve never forgotten: ‘The reason I don’t like twelve-tone music is that you’re never someplace. Therefore you can never go someplace. Beethoven loved modulation. So did Brahms. They’re always taking us to a new place.’” (9)

(Note: To oversimplify, twelve-tone composition uses all twelve notes in the chromatic scale in such a way as to prevent the emphasis of any one tone, and as a result, the music avoids being in any one key.)

(1) It also helped that many of Berigan’s sidemen (plus Don Palmer) lived in the same town, Trenton, New Jersey. Whenever a small layoff was approaching, Palmer would let the musicians know well in advance so that they could make arrangements to visit their homes and families for a few days.

(1A) Variety: March 11, 1942, cited in the White materials.

(2) White materials: March 4, 1942.

(3) Ibid.


(4) Ibid.

(5) Blowers: 43.

(6) Kay Little and Danny Richards were married, and Kay learned that she was pregnant early in 1942. She had some pregnancy-related illness during this time that kept her away from the band. But she was present more often than not until she finally left the band permenantly in April of 1942. White materials: March 7, 1942.

(7)John Herndon “Johnny” Mercer was born on November 18, 1909, in Savannah, Georgia. Although Mercer had considerable success in his career as a singer and composer of music, it was his great talent as a lyricist that gained him most renown. Mercer was drawn to jazz as a youngster, and he soon absorbed the rhythms and feeling of jazz, and was able to imbue the lyrics he wrote with a strong jazz flavor. He was also a master of vernacular language, and used this in combination with his southern sensibilities and poetic wit, to create dozens of lyrics for some of the best American popular songs. He worked with most of the greatest composers of the golden age of American popular song from the 1930s into the 1960s. Among his most memorable lyrics: “Jeepers Creepers,” “Day In, Day Out,” “Fools Rush In,” “Dearly Beloved,” “Dream,” “Laura,” “Autumn Leaves,” “One For My Baby,” “I Wanna Be Around,” and “Moon River.” Johnny Mercer died on June 25, 1976, in Bel Air, California.

(8) If music remains in any one key too long, it becomes monotonously tedious.

(8A)Pianist David Warren Brubeck was born on December 6, 1920, in Concord, California. Dave Brubeck has had a long and successful career as a jazz pianist and composer.

(9)Take Five—The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, by Doug Ramsey, Parkside Publications Inc. (2005), 89.

The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo. 

One thought on ““Skylark” (1942) Bunny Berigan with Danny Richards

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  1. Many times through the last few decades, I’ve revisited accounts of Bunny’s decline … and still, I find it painful to read about the ’38-’42 period, these final desperate months being, of course, the most difficult to contemplate. “Skylark,” my favorite side by the last band, seems so representative of this time: The song itself, one of the greatest Carmichael-Mercer collaborations, has always seemed ambiguous to me — at once both hopeful and sad. Similarly, just as the young band was gelling, hinting with this excellent record at what might ensue, the now frail Miracle Man was coaxing the last few miracles out of his horn. Though Bunny, as you write, had been a strong, powerful guy and had the benefit of perfect technique, I believe he was able to produce this exquisite performance only because when his body was failing him, his heart, always present in his playing, pulled him through.

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