“A Fine Romance” (1936) Billie Holiday with Bunny Berigan

“A Fine Romance”

Music by Jerome Kern; lyric by Dorothy Fields. Head arrangement prepared in recording studio, probably by Berigan in consultation with Billie Holiday.

Recorded by Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra for Vocalion on September 29, 1936 in New York.

Billie Holiday, vocal, accompanied by: Bunny Berigan, trumpet; Irving (Prestopnik) Fazola, clarinet; Clyde Hart, piano; Dick McDonough, guitar; Arthur Bernstein, bass; William “Cozy” Cole, drums.

The story: As the autumn of 1936 began, Bunny Berigan, as usual, was a very busy musician. Since the previous June, he had been featured on the weekly CBS radio network show Saturday Night Swing Club. In addition, he had kept up a heavy schedule of free-lance recording work, and had begun to rehearse and make recordings with an ad hoc big band.(1) As if this were not enough, he also appeared in a musical short-subject film (2), and soon would be going into rehearsals with a Broadway show. (At left: Berigan working in the Decca studios in Manhattan – 1936.)

Then Bunny’s apparent progression toward becoming the leader of his own big band seemingly veered off course temporarily because of the Broadway show project. This item appeared in the October 1936 issue of Tempo: “Bunny Berigan, who rocked radio these past three months with music a la jam on the CBS Saturday Night Swing sessions, is taking time out for lessons in make-up and footlights technique. Bunny will head a swing combo in the forthcoming Vincente Minnelli (3) Broadway musical comedy “The Show Is On,” which will star Beatrice Lillie and Bert Lahr. Gordon Jenkins may direct (the orchestra).”(4)  Trombonist Sonny Lee, who would soon be joining Bunny’s big band, recalled: “We began rehearsals for “The Show Is On” at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City a couple of months before the Boston opening. Those rehearsals, which were called practically every day, were preceded by much discussion and planning. Gordon Jenkins was the musical director, and it was he who rounded up the musicians.”(4)

There is speculation in the White materials as to whether Berigan left the CBS Saturday Night Swing Club during the time of the rehearsals for The Show Is On. He did not. There were no Swing Club shows broadcast on September 12 and 19, and then again on November 14. On those dates, Bunny obviously was free to do other work. Bunny missed only three Swing Club shows from June 13, 1936, to February 27, 1937, and he had valid reasons for each of those absences. One of those absences, the one occurring on November 7, 1936, was because of his appearance in Boston in the production The Show Is On. Nevertheless, there was an item in the October issue of Down Beat that had him “divorced from the Saturday Night Swing Club” in order to participate in The Show Is On.(5) Although press reports from the time in question are very valuable in providing details of what was happening then, they are sometimes incorrect.

What actually took place was that Berigan was very much a part of the New York rehearsal process for The Show Is On, then traveled with the cast to Boston for its tryout run. He appeared in the show there for a few nights, but then the scene in which he was featured was cut from the production. Arranger/conductor Gordon Jenkins explained:

“The pit orchestra included Milt Yaner on lead alto, Phil Napoleon on trumpet and Sonny Lee on trombone. We had intended to present the first jazz band in a Broadway show. Vincente Minnelli, the producer, had a giant mirror erected to project Bunny’s silhouette on to a large screen while he played. Unfortunately, it failed to work satisfactorily, so it was taken out of the show. The stage band consisted of Bunny, Sonny Lee on trombone, Cozy Cole on drums, Milt Yaner on clarinet and Red McKenzie blue-blowing. But after their specialty number was axed, Bunny, Cozy and Red all went back to New York. I can’t recall the tune they played, other than it wasn’t a jazz standard.” (6)

Bunny did return to New York, but not before sitting in with cornetist Bobby Hackett’s band at the Theatrical Club in Boston.

Bunny and Billie: It is uncertain when Bunny Berigan met Billie Holiday. But what is certain is that Billie appeared at one of the Sunday afternoon jam sessions that were held at the Famous Door, a jazz club on Manhattan’s West 52nd Street, where Berigan was working in the early months of 1936. Berigan also appeared at most if not all of those jam sessions. They were staged by the United Hot Clubs of America at the Famous Door from mid-February into the spring, and drew about 250 fans into the Door for each session. Those jam sessions led to two network radio specials about swing, one which was broadcast on March 12 over WOR/Mutual, on which Berigan appeared, and one over NBC on March 29, on which he did not appear. These two radio specials were forerunners to the legendary CBS network radio show, Saturday Night Swing Club, which was built around Bunny Berigan’s trumpet playing, and which premiered in June of 1936.

Bunny Berigan, like all jazz musicians who heard Billie perform, was greatly impressed by her singing. (Above, Billie Holiday in 1936.) Likewise, Billie was taken by Bunny’s trumpet artistry, and they agreed to work together in some fashion in the near future. They were kindred spirits musically. Berigan first appeared on records with Billie on July 10, 1936. That session, which was produced by Bernie Hanighen, was Billie’s first as a leader, with her name printed on the label of the records that were produced.(7) The next evening, through Bunny’s direct intervention, Billie appeared on CBS’s Saturday Night Swing Club radio show.

The recording session that produced “A Fine Romance,” on September 29, 1936, was the last time Bunny and Billie worked together. Each of them was building a career in 1936, and those careers took them in different directions.

The music: Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields wrote “A Fine Romance” for the 1936 RKO film Swing Time, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (Another tune from this film, “The Way You Look Tonight,” won the Academy Award for best song in a Hollywood film for 1936.) Kern and Fields were definitely on their mettle with the songs the wrote for Swing Time.

Ms. Fields’s lyric for “A Fine Romance” has a sardonic humor (with a wistful edge) that compares favorably with the bittersweet lyrics of the two undisputed masters of emotional expression in American Popular Song in the 1930s, Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart. (A bit Later, Johnny Mercer entered that charmed circle.) Here is the part of that lyric that Billie Holiday sings:

A fine romance, with no kisses;
A fine romance, my friend this is.

We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes;
But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.

A fine romance, you won’t nestle;
A fine romance, you won’t wrestle.
I might as well play bridge
With my old maid aunt;
I haven’t got a chance
This is a fine romance!

A fine romance, my good fellow;
You take romance, I’ll take Jello.
You’re calmer than the seals
In the Arctic Ocean;
At least they flap their fins to express emotion.

A fine romance,

With no quarrels;

With no insults and all morals;

I’ve never mussed the crease in your blue serge pants,
I never get the chance, this is a fine romance!

Billie Holiday, even in 1936, knew a thing or two about romance.

This joyous recording starts with Berigan’s open trumpet providing an introduction fashioned out of a part of Jerome Kern’s melody. Clarinetist Irving Fazola, who was then in drummer Ben Pollack’s band, gives Billie a nice set-up for the beginning of her vocal. Ms. Holiday sings Dorothy Fields’s lyric with just the right twist of irony. After Billie’s first vocal, Fazola returns with some juicy clarinet tones in the middle and lower register. Berigan provides a bracing contrast with trumpet high notes and some pungent jazz.

Berigan was an extraordinarily creative accompanist for vocalists. He knew how to enhance the singer’s presentation (with an open trumpet, as here, or muted) without dominating it. Unfortunately, the ARC/Vocalion recording engineer on this session buried the sounds made by Bunny and the other musicians so deeply in the background behind Billie that they can barely be heard. Alas! But what can be heard is choice.

As an aside, the world of swing was evolving in the fall 1936, and as always, younger musicians were present in the wings, waiting for their chance. At about this time, Harry James, then an unknown twenty year-old trumpeter, arrived for the first time in Manhattan as a member of the Ben Pollack band. Singer Carol McKay recalled: “I was with the Ben Pollack band which included Harry James (and Irving Fazola). After we got back to New York City, one night Harry took me to a Fifty-Second Street club where Bunny was playing—or sitting in, and James said: ‘this is the greatest living trumpet player.’ He really loved Bunny’s horn.”(8)

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

Notes and links:

(1) Berigan recorded 20 tunes on July 20, 1936 for the Thesaurus Transcription Service with a twelve-piece pick-up band and a girl singer. This session was apparently produced as a test of Berigan’s skills as a bandleader. He was required to gather and rehearse the musicians, and to facilitate the recordings (one take only on each tune), which he did successfully. The tunes were mostly current pop songs cast in stock or slightly doctored stock arrangements. Aside from Berigan’s trumpet-playing, there is little of distinction on these recordings. The Thesaurus recordings Bunny made in 1938 with his own standing band are a much more accurate representation of what Berigan’s big band of the late 1930s sounded like.

(2) This film was made in mid-August 1936. For a link to another post here at bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com that will give you a glimpse of Berigan on film on that date, click below: https://bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com/2018/04/18/berigan-on-film-1936-take-my-heart-with-jerry-colonna/

(3) Vincente Minnelli (1903–1986) later became famous as a director of Hollywood musical films, and husband of Judy Garland. They were the parents of entertainer Liza Minnelli.

(4)White materials: October 17, 1936.

(5) Ibid. October 31, 1936.[

(6) This quote from Gordon Jenkins appears in the White materials: November 7, 1936, with no citation of its source.

(7) The records Billie made in the period from July of 1937 through November of 1938 with Teddy Wilson were identified as by “Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra.” Billie continued to record with Teddy Wilson after she had inaugurated her career as a leader on records on July 10, 1936, until the end of November 1938. They were produced by John Hammond.

(8) White materials: September 16, 1936.

For two more classic performances by Billie Holiday, click on these links:

One thought on ““A Fine Romance” (1936) Billie Holiday with Bunny Berigan

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  1. It’s a pity that Bunny and Billie didn’t have greater opportunity to record together, as they clearly had tremendous artistic rapport. As it is, the results of their two sessions are highlights in the discography of each. It speaks volumes about Bunny’s overall musicality that he worked so hard in his performances featuring vocalists to serve both the song and the singer, as illustrated in “A Fine Romance.” Too, it’s great to hear Fazola, who I’ve always felt had the most exquisite clarinet tone of all, in company with Bunny — this once, as I recall, in the studio. His ruminative eight bars contrast beautifully with Bunny’s more urgent following statement. Dick McDonough, as usual, adds more than just impeccable rhythm. it’s wonderful to have the background story for this date. How busy these great artists were at this time and yet their work always sparkles and reveals no indications of weariness or lack of enthusiasm!

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