“Honeysuckle Rose” (1937) Jam Session at Victor

“Honeysuckle Rose”

Composed by Fats Waller.
Jam Session at Victor, recorded March 31, 1937 in New York.
Thomas “Fats” Waller, piano; Bunny Berigan, trumpet; Tommy Dorsey, trombone; Dick McDonough, guitar; George Wettling, drums.

The story: Through the early weeks of 1937, Bunny Berigan, as usual, was very busy. His main occupation then was the ongoing development of his own big band. He had organized that band through the first weeks of January, and had begun rehearsing and playing a few break-in jobs with it. In addition, he continued to be featured on the CBS network radio show Saturday Night Swing Club, and continued making records as a featured soloist with Tommy Dorsey’s band. He also appeared on occasion with Tommy’s band at various jobs in and around New York.

The big break that enabled Berigan to move ahead with his own band full-time was when he landed a spot on the sponsored Mutual Radio network show Fun in Swingtime. The money Bunny made from that job, which would last into the fall of 1937, enabled him to strengthen his band. This process of strengthening went on for many months.

There was considerable excitement in the music business over the appearance on the scene of a new big band led by Bunny Berigan. Berigan was well-know among musicians as a superlative trumpeter and jazz soloist. Through most of 1936 and into 1937, his ongoing association with the Saturday Night Swing Club radio show, which was very popular, had built his name to the point where he was beginning to establish a national reputation. Now, being featured with his own band on another network radio show would continue that process.

Berigan and manager Arthur Michaud – 1937.

On the business side of his band, he was being represented by an aggressive personal manager, Arthur Michaud. Michaud had been involved in the process of developing other bands prior to his involvement with Berigan, most notably with Tommy Dorsey. Berigan was also being represented by the Rockwell-O’Keefe band booking agency. Michaud worked with Bunny through early 1937 to get his band on records (initially on Brunswick, slightly later, on Victor), and was instrumental in securing the Fun in Swingtime radio show.

Then in March, for various reasons, Michaud moved Berigan from Rockwell-O’Keefe to Music Corporation of America (MCA), the largest and most powerful band booking agency in the country. MCA represented many of the top dance bands in America including sweet bands like Guy Lombardo and Kay Kyser, and swing bands like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Bunny’s signing with Victor Records was a direct result of his new association with MCA. In early 1937, and indeed through that entire year, Berigan’s management team made the right moves to advance Bunny’s career.

Bunny and George Wettling on the sidewalks of New York – 1937.

Bunny conscientiously applied himself to the tasks of being a bandleader. Most important in this, was that he did everything he could, including cutting down on his drinking, to keep his level of performance as a virtuoso trumpeter very high. His playing was always a source of great inspiration for the musicians who worked with him. He was also a remarkably patient and effective leader of the musicians in his band. His benign method of leadership, which was similar to those used by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman and Jimmy Dorsey, involved directing his musicians with kindness and enthusiasm. Berigan never browbeat or micromanaged his sidemen. The esprit de corps of this first Berigan band was very high.

Victor’s iconic logo featuring Nipper listening to a Victrola.

The story – part two: Victor was the leading record company of the 1930s for many reasons, paramount of which is that it had a head-start in the business over its 1930s competitors American Record Corporation (ARC), and Decca. (Columbia had gone broke, but would re-emerge in the late 1930s from the wreckage of the moribund ARC labels. American Decca had begun operations only in 1934.) Victor’s beginning, in the early years of the Twentieth Century, was marked by slow, steady growth, spurred in great measure by the success of its first star, opera singer Enrico Caruso. By the mid-1930s, Victor was a very conservative record company that had done very little recently to burnish its prestige, especially since the onset of the Great Depression at the very beginning of that decade. (1)

The inimitable Fats Waller.

The story of how Fats Waller came to Victor Records in the late 1920s is an interesting one which I will not delve into in this post, but will at a later time on this blog’s sister blog swingandbeyond.com. For purposes of this post, Waller was one of Victor’s top selling artists by the time this recording was made. Tommy Dorsey, who had been recording for Victor since September of 1935, would soon become one of Victor’s top-selling artists. Bunny Berigan would have his first recording session for Victor as a bandleader the day after this recording was made. The purpose of this recording session was to mix and match various Victor artists, something, alas, that Victor rarely did. (Decca, in contrast, did it a lot.) So the music that was made on this session is to be savored.

Waller was definitely the alpha guy on this session at this time. He was not only a successful recording artist, he was also a successful composer of popular melodies, had been featured on his own radio shows, and would go on to greater success, including in Hollywood films, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, before his premature death in 1943. And last but far from least, he was a superlative pianist. The exuberant Mr. Waller was a complete entertainer. In addition to his other assets, Fats could sing, and was a marvelous comedian. Beyond that, he had unending charisma. The camera loved Fats; the microphone loved Fats; his fellow musicians loved him, and most important of all, his audiences loved him.

The music: “Honeysuckle Rose” in one of Fats Waller’s most popular melodies. He composed it in 1929 for the revue Load of Coal (with a lyric by Andy Razaf), as a part of a dance routine. It was embraced immediately by jazz musicians, and was one of the most recorded tunes of the 1930s.

Tommy Dorsey (left) and Bunny Berigan.

Bunny Berigan joined with friends and kindred spirits in a “Jam Session at Victor,” which occurred on March 31 in the RCA Victor studios on East 24th Street in Manhattan. With him there were: Fats Waller, piano; Tommy Dorsey, trombone; Dick McDonough, guitar; and George Wettling, drums. The two finished recordings that resulted, an exuberant performance of Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” and a moving “Blues,” have been a part of the classic jazz landscape ever since.

Dick McDonough – mid 1930s.

George Wettling provided some background: “It was supposed to be a four-side date with little planned, just the instrumentation. Tommy and Bunny weren’t on speaking terms at that time. They’d had a row over something or other, but that didn’t stop them talking to each other with their horns! (Note: Tommy was undoubtedly unhappy about some of his former sidemen going to the new Berigan band.) Bunny and I came along to the studio together, the others by themselves. Everybody was feeling fairly high, as I remember. Berigan had a pint in each pocket and doubtless Fats, as usual, had his. We just went in there and cut loose! We never did get more than two numbers finished. On one of the takes, we just went on and on. Nobody wanted to stop. It was too long to use though. When it was all over, we all took off on our own separate ways, just like that. (2)

The performance we hear from these heavyweights on this recording suggests that everyone was at ease with each other, and that whatever spirits were drunk in the studio that day did not cause any negative effects. Berigan plays sparkling lead through the various ensemble passages. Tommy Dorsey, whose name has long been synonymous with lyric, ballad trombone solos, was also a remarkably capable jazz soloist, as his playing here shows. Dick McDonough unfurls some tasty chords and single string lines on his guitar, which provide a nice contrast. Wettling plays a tasty solo that is typically restrained, but colorful, this being before Gene Krupa’s pyrotechnics changed jazz drumming. (Wettling, and Waller’s left hand, along with McDonough’s strong chording, carry the music rhythmically without a bass.) Waller follows, and plays a sweepingly authoritative piano solo which shows that he owned this tune – literally. Then hear how he provides a beautiful pathway for Berigan to begin his solo, and how he comps Bunny. Berigan plays a joyous, swinging almost compositional sixteen bar improvisation, very much on the same level of excitement as Fats had established in his solo (not an easy task!), before leading the ensemble out.

Why Victor would not have had a photographer on hand in the studio to capture these musicians in action could be attributed to either miserliness, and/or a lack of understanding that the music being made that day would still be listened to over eight decades later.

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

(1) It must be noted that Victor, under great pressure from Music Corporation of America (MCA), booking agent for Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, carefully entered the swing market in 1935. Goodman was signed to the Victor label in April of 1935, Dorsey in September of that year. MCA’s objective was to dethrone the highly successful Casa Loma band, which was represented by Rockwell-O’Keefe, and recording for Decca. By 1936, they had succeeded. In the middle of that year, Benny Goodman and his band replaced Casa Loma on the very popular Camel Caravan radio show.

(2) White materials: March 31, 1937. This quote by George Wettling appears without any indication of when or where it originated.

One thought on ““Honeysuckle Rose” (1937) Jam Session at Victor

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  1. Much as I hate to inject a somber note, I must say that hearing this joyous side, fairly bursting with vitality and artistic brilliance, it’s difficult to imagine that in less than seven years, three of these young virtuosi would be gone. I consider this session, a favorite of mine of long standing, to be much more successful than if not all, certainly the vast majority of the special studio-recorded all-star gatherings, in which chemistry is not always present and the participants seem more concerned with wowing those present and the record-buying public than making good music. Bunny, Fats, TD and McDonough all display not just their mastery of their instruments but also a keen compositional sense and an esprit de corps, and Wettling is with them all the way, providing a spark.

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