“The Prisoner’s Song” – live (1938)

Composed by Guy Massey; arranged by Dave Rose, revised in performance by Bunny Berigan and his band.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra from a broadcast over the NBC Radio network program RCA’s Magic Key of Radio on June 26, 1938 in New York.

Bunny Berigan, first and solo trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Nat Lobovsky and Ray Conniff, trombones; Mike Doty, first alto saxophone; Joe Dixon, alto saxophone and clarinet; Georgie Auld, tenor saxophone; Clyde Rounds, tenor and baritone saxophones; Joe Bushkin, piano; Dick Wharton, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; Johnny Blowers, drums.

The story: In the days just before this recording was made, Bunny Berigan led his band through a series of one-night stands in Ohio, Pennsylvania and points east of those two states. They played in Baltimore on June 9, followed by an engagement the next day at the Windberry Forrest School for Boys, in Culpeper, Virginia. They were scheduled to play an after­noon “tea dance” there, followed in the evening by a regular dance. On the way to this gig, the band’s equipment truck containing all of its instruments and music, driven by Robert “Little Gate” Walker, the equipment manager for the Berigan band, skidded off a rain-soaked country road and into a ditch. In those days long before civil rights and cell phones, Lit­tle Gate, who was black, found himself in the unenviable position of being stranded in segregated rural Virginia. He had to call upon all of his resourceful­ness simply to get the truck out of the ditch and on the road again, without coming to harm himself. The Berigan band was forced to play the tea dance without its instruments. Berigan’s drummer, Johnny Blowers, later recalled this incident to historian Albert McCarthy:

Berigan band at the Paradise Restaurant, NYC,spring 1938. Back row, L-R: Johnny Blowers, Hank Wayland, Irving Goodman, Steve Lipkins, Al George and Sonny Lee; front: Joe Bushkin, Gail Reese, Tom Morgan, Georgie Auld, Berigan Mike Doty, Clyde Rounds. Joe Dixon is hidden behind Berigan.

“The band was due to play a tea-dance and an evening dance at a military academy in Virginia, but en route became parted from its instruments, when the truck, dri­ven by the band’s equipment manager, ‘Little Gate,’ slithered into a ditch. For the tea-dance, a variety of instruments were exhumed from the academy band stock. Berigan fronted the band on a cornet with a fiber mouthpiece. Hank Wayland played tuba, and I made do with a field drum and a huge bass drum, the latter ‘emitting a noise like a cannon every time I struck it!’ Blowers recalled. ‘Fortu­nately, the errant ‘Little Gate’ arrived with the regular instruments in time for the evening dance.”(1)

The band forged on. They played at Moonlight Gardens, Meyer’s Lake Park, Canton, Ohio, on Thursday, June 16. Billboard reported on this engagement in its June 25, 1938, issue: ‘With Glen Gray the attraction less than twenty miles away at Summit Beach, Akron, Ohio, Bunny Berigan drew almost 1,000 dancers here last Thurs­day at Moonlight Gardens in Meyer’s Lake Park. Harry Sinclair, Moonlight Gardens manager, was pleased with the $460 take.‘”(2) Note: Multiply dollar amount by 10-15 times to get value in money today.

Moonlight Gardens at Meyers Lake Park, Canton, Ohio. Photo by Bill Haldi.

The next night, Bunny’s band was broadcast over WABC–New York, probably from somewhere in Pennsylvania. Johnny Blowers kept a diary of places he played with the Berigan band, but sometimes did not place a date with the location. Here are some of the venues the band played for the period June 17 to June 25: Tyrone, Pennsylvania (west of State College); Hershey, Pennsylvania, at Starlight Ballroom, Hershey Park, (15 miles east of Harrisburg); Shamokin, Pennsylvania, at Edgewood Park; on June 23, at the Crystal Ballroom, Cumberland, Maryland; Ithaca, New York, at Cornell University; Middletown State Armory, Kingston, New York, and on Saturday, June 25, at Greenwich, Connecticut. At some point in this eight-day span, a mix-up occurred involving a date at Old Orchard Beach, Maine.

Blowers recalled this venue in his biography Back Beats and Rim Shots—The Johnny Blowers Story: “Wherever we played the crowd loved the band, and there were hundreds of dancers, but we had a peculiar tendency to be in the wrong place, or in the right place at the wrong time. Even sometimes the wrong day. Once we went to Old Orchard Beach a day ahead of schedule, so we spent it enjoying rides and games. We played the following night. I really believe that band could have been very successful if more care had gone into planning and management.”(3)

Berigan and manager Arthur Michaud. This photo was taken at a rehearsal in a studio at MCA’s Manhattan office in early 1938. At the time this photo was taken, Berigan had just cleared over $50,000 in the fall of 1937, and had Michaud’s attention. Regrettably, that soon would change.
Photo courtesy of Loren Schoenberg.

The fact is that in the summer of 1938, the Berigan band was very successful. Its management (Music Corporation of America/MCA and Bunny’s personal manager Arthur Michaud) however were by then fo­cusing most of their attention elsewhere, primarily on the development of Gene Krupa’s new band. Engagements that previously might have gone to Berigan now were going to Krupa. As a result, there seemed to be no real plan as to how to achieve maximum financial return for the Berigan band on the road.

Also, logistical slipups started to occur. These snafus have long been attributed to Bunny’s lackadaisical attitude about business matters. However, he was paying others to attend to these important issues, as all other bandleaders did, and had every reason to expect that they would be handled properly. (The person responsible on a daily basis for the itinerary and logistics of the band was its road manager, yet another person being paid by Berigan.) Increasingly, these issues were not being handled properly, and Bunny’s normally sanguine attitude sometimes turned edgy. He, not MCA or Michaud, had to pay the band while they enjoyed an unplanned (and non-revenue generating) off day, rode amusement rides, and played games at Old Orchard Beach. Nevertheless, he sustained this financial loss, did not complain about it to either MCA or Michaud, and soldiered on.

The Berigan bandsmen got an unexpected day off at Old Orchard Beach, Maine due to an error by someone on the management side of the Berigan band in June of 1938. Nevertheless, Bunny paid everyone.

The Berigan band returned to New York City on June 26 to play on the RCA Magic Key radio show, which was an important top-level variety show. Here are the details: “Magic Key broadcast, WJZ (NBC Blue), 2:00 to 3:00 p.m.; Frank Black and NBC concert orchestra. Guests: Marie and Anneda Ohia, songs; Bob Hope, comedian; Bunny Berigan Orchestra. And from Buenos Aires, Linton Wells, commentator.” This show was recorded. A bit of Bunny’s theme was played, followed by a pop ballad, ‘Somewhere with Somebody Else,’ then ‘The Prisoner’s Song.’”(4) It is apparent that Bunny often used “The Prisoner’s Song” as a closing piece on broadcasts.(5) This live ver­sion shows that there had been some evolution in the band’s performance of it since the Victor recording had been made the previous August.

RCA advertisement image from 1930s depicting the “magic brain” in RCA radio/phonographs.

We must remember that a primary purpose of the Magic Key program was to promote Victor records. (The program’s advertising was also directed toward selling RCA Victor Phonographs and radios. RCA/Radio Corporation of America, owned Victor Records and NBC, the National Broadcasting Company.) Too bad Victor did not take this opportunity to public­ize Bunny’s recent recordings of “Azure,” or “The Wearin’ of the Green.” On the other hand, we should be thankful to have this great live performance of “The Pris­oner’s Song.”(6)

The Magic Key shows were staged at the fabled NBC Studio 8H in the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center, now called 30 Rock.

Comedian Bob Hope appeared on this Magic Key program with Bunny, and I’m sure he was very favorably impressed by the hard-swinging Berigan band. Rumors im­mediately began to circulate (again) that Bunny and his band would soon be headed to Hollywood to be featured on Hope’s soon to be debuted NBC network radio show, and/or in an upcoming Hope movie. Despite the two recent incidents on the road, morale in the Berigan band was high.

Clarinetist Joe Dixon recalled how “The Prisoner’s Song” entered the Berigan repertoire in the summer of 1937:

“Dick Rose came into Nola, or one of those studios on Broadway where we rehearsed, one day with this arrangement. I don’t know if he’d been invited in or just walked in. Anyway, Bunny said ‘Pass it out.’ Bunny would always say ‘Pass it out,’ and then he’d sit there and listen. So Dick Rose kicked it off and when we got through playing the thing Georgie Auld and I went over to Bunny and said, ‘This tune is a pig; we don’t want this.’ And Bunny said, ‘Aah, it isn’t that bad.’ Then Bunny got the idea for the introduction, with the tom-toms and his growling with the plunger. The funniest part of it is, it became a hit. So we were wrong!” (7) 

The Victor recording of “The Prisoner’s Song” hints at what Berigan would do with his band on theater and dance dates—he would extend arrangements to allow everybody plenty of room to blow.

Berigan’s chief arranger in the years 1937 and 1938, Joe Lippman, added more details: “The Prisoner’s Song’ was first spotted by Dick Rose, who used to be a copyist. He thought it would be a natural for the expressive Berigan trumpet. So it started out as his arrangement, but as extra choruses were added during performances on the stand, it went on to become more of a ‘head’ arrangement, incorporating ideas from the guys in the band. It was fashionable for all the bands to have a few so-called ‘killer dillers’ in the book, which would be used to close out broadcasts or sets. They were real rabble-rousers like Benny Goodman’s ‘Roll ‘Em’ and Artie Shaw’s ‘The Chant’ and I guess Bunny used it in the same way. Thus ‘The Prisoner’s Song’ finished up about half Dick Rose and half the rest of the band, but it provided a really jumping finale to many a broadcast!” (8)

The music: The source of the recording I have of this aircheck is a low-budget LP entitled Hot Trumpets, which was issued on the obscure Historical label (HLP-28) in the 1970s, and sold few copies. The sound quality of the recordings on that LP reveals that its producer used an indifferently made transfer of this recording from the original source, which was an acetate disk. The resulting low-fidelity dub is often marred by clicks, pops and other surface noise. I had to do a lot of audio restoration and clean-up to brighten up this recording and get it to the point where it is reasonably listenable. I present it here because of its historical importance.

Visitors to this blog should know that a pristine recording of this performance (I have heard it) was made by the legendary audio guru Bill Savory, and is a part of the Savory Recordings now in the possession of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Unfortunately, because of the absurd U.S. copyright law provisions that apply to classic recordings like this one, this recording has not been cleared for release.

At the time Hot Trumpets (HLP-28) was issued, the information contained in the Bozy White materials was not available, and there was widespread ignorance about the details of Bunny Berigan’s life and career. “The Prisoner’s Song” is listed in the liner notes of HLP-28 incorrectly as having been performed in June of 1937. Consequently, there was confusion about the identity of the two back-to-back trombone soloists.

In listening to this performance since learning when it actually took place, I have been able to arrive at some conclusions about the solos, especially the trombone solos, which for years had baffled me. This scintillating performance (which is ap­proximately five minutes and thirty seconds long) shows the true nature of the 1938 Berigan band far more accurately and fully than most of its Victor recordings.

Bunny’s trumpet solo in the beginning of the performance is similar to the one he recorded for Victor the previous August. By the time of this recording, he had played “The Prisoner’s Song” hundreds of times (and would indeed continue to play it until he died) as a rousing show-closer that allowed almost everyone in the band to take a solo. Audiences expected to hear solos in-person that were similar if not identical to those on record.

The rhythmically intense Georgie Auld.

The soloist who followed Berigan was his featured tenor saxophonist, Georgie Auld. As fans of the early Berigan band know, Auld (who had recently turned nineteen years old at the time of this performance), was almost always a rhythmically intense player who had a superior command of his instrument. He also read music fluently, and provided much youthful enthusiasm and hijinx in the Berigan band. His early training, by saxophone virtuoso and teacher Rudy Wiedoeft, had given him an excellent foundation as an instrumentalist. Unfortunately, it also gave him a vertical, bouncing rhythmic style that was often at odds with swing. Knowing Berigan’s live-and-let-live-approach to most matters, I doubt that he actually told Georgie anything about this issue. What is astonishing is that Auld had, by the time of this performance, been playing alongside Berigan, one of the most swinging musicians in the history of jazz, for some sixteen months, and had not absorbed much from Bunny’s swinging approach to rhythm. What is even more astonishing is that within a few months, Auld would have a rather sudden epiphany regarding his approach to rhythm in improvisation, and change his whole way of playing, finally getting the message of swing. (For those who are interested, compare Auld’s playing in this performance with that in “Gangbuster’s Holiday,” which was recorded three and a half months later. A link is provided to that performance below.)

The spiky clarinet solo is played by Joe Dixon. His playing is excellent in a technical sense, and good but not perticularly inspired jazz. Boredom may have been a factor. Once again, this tune had been performed many times by the Berigan band by the time of this recording, and we must remember that both Auld and Dixon had lobbied Bunny not to put this tune and arrangement into the Berigan band book, so I’m sure that it was not their favorite vehicle for improvisation.

A group of Berigan sidemen outside of the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, August 1938. L-R: Hank Wayland, Clyde Rounds, Ray Conniff, Nat Lobovsky, Joe Dixon and Buddy Rich. Rich replaced Blowers in early July 1938.

The solos by the band’s two relatively newly-arrived trombonists are a bit more interesting. Ray Conniff plays first, 16 bars, then Nat Lobovsky plays. Conniff’s solo is in his rough-and-ready style. Lobovsky’s first eight bars are reminiscent of players who were slightly older than Con­niff. (Ray was twenty-two years old when this recording was made; Nat was thirty-one.) Nat leans into the beat a bit, and his playing is sometimes rhythmically stiff. Still, Lobovsky has complete control of his instrument: he plays sixteen improvised bars, followed by another eight of perfect trilling, which he does in one breath. (Lobovsky was able to do technical things things on trombone that only Tommy Dorsey and the two Jacks, Teagarden and Jenney, could do then.)

Drummer Johnny Blowers – 1990s.

Hank Wayland slaps his bass for a half chorus, surely a unique occurrence on Berigan recordings. Wayland, like all bass players in swing bands before the advent of jazz bass revolutionary Jimmie Blanton, was a foundation and beat guy, and a strong one whose playing was a key component in the Berigan band’s swing. Then drummer Johnny Blowers plays an interesting solo that shows that he too was a complete master of his instrument. His provocative use of cymbals in this performance is noteworthy.

The band returns, led by Berigan’s growling trumpet at first, then just his open horn. The finale has Bunny swooping over the ensemble using a pixie straight mute in the bell of his trumpet, and a plunger over its bell, creating some quintessential Berigan moments.

The recording presented in this post was digitally transferred and remastered, with considerable audio restoration, by Mike Zirpolo.

Links and notes:

The Magic Key of RCA was an American variety radio show that featured an unusually large and broad range of entertainment stars and other noted personalities. It was broadcast on the NBC Blue network from September 29, 1935, until September 18, 1939.

For more about RCAs Magic Key of Radio, check out this link:


Here is a link to the Berigan band’s performance of “Gangbusters’ Holiday”:

(1) This story was published originally in Big Band Jazz, by Albert McCarthy, G.P. Putnam’s Sons (1974), 208, and later appeared in Blowers’s biography, 38. Johnny Blowers kept a diary of dates he played while he was a member of the Berigan band. Much of the detail for the Berigan band’s tour in May and June 1938 comes from Back Beats and Rim Shots, The Biography of Johnny Blowers (1997), by Warren W. Vache’, hereafter Blowers.

(2) Cited in the White materials: June 16, 1938.

(3) Blowers: 40.

(4) White materials: June 25, 1938.

(5) See appendix 1 in Mr. Trumpet …The Trials, Tribulations and Triumph of Bunny Berigan, for a listing of all Berigan broadcast recordings (except for those from the Paradise Restaurant, which are in appendix 2) for the years 1937–1938.

(6) A complete set of Magic Key broadcasts are available for listening at the Library of Congress. Curiously, this performance is missing. Visitors to this blog should know that a pristine recording of this performance was made by the legendary audio guru Bill Savory, and is a now a part of the Savory Recordings in the possession of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Unfortunately, because of the absurd U.S. copyright law provisions that apply to classic recordings like this one, it (and others made by Bunny Berigan) have not been cleared for release.

(7) Bunny Berigan, Elusive Legend of Jazz by Robert Dupuis (1993), 169.

(8) The White Materials: August 7, 1937.

2 thoughts on ““The Prisoner’s Song” – live (1938)

Add yours

  1. Great post & great music! But the Historical LP label was not a low-budget venture. Their discs were full-priced and reasonably produced by the standards of the late 60s. Lots of great and rare recordings made their LP debut on Historical.

  2. There’s nothing more exciting than hearing a “new” Berigan performance! Even without the assumed advantages of the Savory recording, I’m astonished at the sound. As to the rendition itself, I prefer this very energetic live outing to the studio take. The song may not have been the most interesting harmonically or melodically, but I’ve always considered the Victor recording to be one of the band’s best sides — this, though, is still more fantastic. Bunny’s solo in the studio was so well-conceived and structured that it’s easy to forgive his sticking so close here. It’s nice to hear high-note specialist Nat Lobovsky playing jazz. Both Hank Wayland and Johnny Blowers are terrific. … I love the story about the tea-dance that found the band improvising, in both senses of the word, with ancient, cast-off instruments — that would have been something to hear — and see! … All those very unfortunate date/location mix-ups! Heads would have rolled if it had been Tommy Dorsey’s band!

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